Top Ten Turnons In Romance Novels

I recently wrote a post listing the top ten things that totally turn me off about romance novels, but I didn't want to leave anyone with even the possibility of thinking that I don't absolutely love romance novels. Because I do love them - in fact, they've helped me to form a much higher standard in my taste in men, which I'm thrilled with. (Psst - I write them too!)

Which is why I wanted to counter that first post with this one: a list of the top ten things that make me so happy to curl up with a romance novel.

1. Stories That Teach
My favorite romances (and novels in general) are the ones that leave something lasting behind. Like the difference between "fast food" reading and something more "gourmet," stories that teach are the ones I remember for years, the ones I continue to relate to, the ones I love just as much on the 5th read as I did on the 1st. Usually, these stories have some kind of deeper meaning relating to mental health, personal development, self-empowerment, and/or growth in the Christian faith.

The trick is that this doesn't have to be the author's goal - it's really just a matter of me picking up the right book at the right time in my life for the message to strike me in just the right way. Still, when it happens, it's almost magical.

The best, most long-lasting examples of this are A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, both by France Hodgson Burnett. There are others, but these two books in particular have made the deepest and most lasting impressions on me, partly because they're so well-written, but mostly because they had such great impact in teaching me the values of compassion, self-assuredness, creativity, and friendship.

2. Strong Character Development
A story just isn't the same when there isn't a solid effort put into developing characters into people that feel real. They should have quirks and idiosyncrasies - not because the author pointed them out to me, but because I noticed them developing in the story. There should be strengths. There should be weaknesses. There should be emotional expression, facial expression, physical feelings - and not because the author says so, but because when a heroine in love is kissed for the first time by the man she loves, she should have butterflies, a stuttering heart, shaky breaths. They need to feel in ways that make me feel. They need to react in ways that are reasonable and realistic; even when in the midst of a high fantasy novel, the characters should feel real and human to me, a real human reader.

3. Accurate and Sensitive Disability Portrayal
Since I suffer from mental health issues that are frequently disabling, it means a lot to me not only to see realistic portrayals of anxiety, depression, and even PTSD in fiction, but also to see it done well. Depression doesn't mean always sitting in a corner crying and cutting. It doesn't always mean not being able to get out of bed. In the same vein, anxiety isn't all full-blown panic attacks, uncontrollable shaking, crying, or hiding. Mental illness shows up in different ways for different people, and it even shows up differently in response to different situations and triggers.

And while I do believe most authors using character traits like this do have good intentions, stereotypical expression of mental illness and other disabilities doesn't help spread awareness - what it does is help perpetrate an overabundance of misinformation, which actually increases stigma attached to mental illness and other disabilities.

When it's done well, I find characters I can love and relate to on a totally different level - always a good thing.

4. Beautiful Prose
Writing is like art for me - I have often described it as painting or sculpting with words, creating a picture my reader can not only see but also feel. Because of that, I'm particularly in love with solid prose that has lyrical flow and a comfortable, conversational feel. This gives the narration a special value it otherwise wouldn't have, and a quality wordsmith should be able to take even the most mundane things and make them feel beautiful to read.

If you tell me, "the room has red curtains," I won't really care and am frankly not even likely to remember that detail. But if you tell me, "the cavernous space was closed in, surrounded as it was by large windows covered in heavy, velvet curtains in the same deep red as my grandmother's ruby ring" ... well, it's all very different then, isn't it? In the first example, you can imagine a room of any kind, any size, any style. With curtains just as obscure as the room, right on down to the color. But in the second example, the room is large and would perhaps feel a bit more open if only the curtains were lighter - or if they themselves were opened to let in some light.

For some, the second example is too wordy and not nearly as concise as it could be - but for me as a reader, the more flowing read and more realistic scenery makes it worth it, whereas the first example is so stripped as to be easily forgotten because I couldn't feel it.

5. Strong Heroines
I know I mentioned character development already, and I know that this may, at first glance, seem repetitive - but creating a strong heroine is more involved than creating just any strong character. Yes, she's still a character in general, and must fit in with the character cast around her ... but as a female reader, I want heroines that empower me by reminding me of the strength inherent to a woman.

I want more than some simpering fool who follows the big strong man around doing whatever he thinks is best. I want more than a dirt-plain female who exists only to worship the spectacular Adonis she's somehow managed to catch the attention of.

I want to begin with a heroine who is like me, who is real and flawed and vulnerable, and maybe even sometimes a bit annoying - but I want to end with a heroine who has grown enough to inspire me, learned enough to teach me, and become something closer to what I want to be. In this way, she reminds me of my own strength, my own power. And yes, my own worthiness of healthy relationships and lasting romance.

6. Strong Sexual Tension (1st Kisses & 1st ... Other Things)
Especially in romance, I want a long, slow burn. In my own books (with the exception of Fighting For Freedom), there is rarely any sex at all before the second half of the book - and sometimes it's as late as the last third. This is because in order for the romance to feel real to me, the characters need to time to get to know each other; you can't love someone you don't know, and while insta-love is something some people adore, I find it too fake to be believable. Lust and love are not the same, and yet ...

Physical chemistry does matter. The hero and heroine should want each other physically. They should flirt, they should share heated looks, should have subtle physical reactions to each other. And when they finally kiss, it should be exciting - not because it's overamped in the moment and the author makes a point of telling me to be excited, but because I've been gunning for this pair to get together for ages now. That slow build makes their triumphant beginning as a couple that much richer for me, so when there is one in a book, it's definitely a special thrill.

7. Close Families
Growing up, I didn't really have a close family - and as a result of my childhood experiences, I haven't always been the best at choosing healthy people to fill my inner circle of influence with. I like to think I'm getting better with this, that I'm improving not only with choosing better people in the first place, but also with being able to let go of people once I realize they aren't healthy for me. This is good, but it took me a long time to learn that lesson and gain the ability to really implement it, which is the long way of saying I've spent a lot of time feeling very much without family. Without the sense of community that we all need in order to feel valued and secure with our place in the world.

Which is probably why I so love books with close families, whether it be families of origin like the Kingsleys of my Kingsley Series, or found families like the acceptance of Annie Jacobs into the selkie Clan Killian in my Selkie Trilogy. I love that the sense of family protecting family can be so solid in books, solid in a way I haven't had much opportunity to experience. Because this sense of family closeness is often so idealized in fiction, reading it has helped me choose what I think it should look like in my own life.

8. Best Friend Romances
I truly believe that at it's heart, a solid romance is built on friendship - two people who genuinely like and respect each other, whose strengths make up for each others' weaknesses, who look out for the needs of each other and make a consistent effort to keep being a good friend to their partner. It's relationships built on such a solid foundation that tend to last the longest - because they don't burn out with age, and they don't dissipate when the sexual tension has been assuaged. Instead, the sexual connection borne of romantic love between friends tends to strengthen the bond. And my faith in the couple is strengthened as well, because if they were friends to begin with, they're already probably a good fit. All they have to do is keep fitting.

All the same, the friend-to-lover dynamic is quite different, and changing over is often fraught with self-doubt, misunderstanding, and bits of awkwardness, which tend to mix in a very appealing way with the sense of love and longing that best friend romances tend to convey.

9. Single Parent Romances
My love for this one is pretty simple to explain; I'm a single mom. I've been in love, and I've been brokenhearted. Now I have two kids who don't know what a healthy relationship looks like because they haven't had the chance to see a solid example. I'd love to be able to give them that one day, and single parent romances give me hope - not only because they remind me that what I want is possible, but because they give me lots of different ways to look at blended-family dynamics, which guides me as I think about what would and wouldn't work in my own life outside of books.

10. Opposing Attraction
This concept plays back into the idea that couples work best when they have opposing strengths and weaknesses, couples with mutual respect and admiration. It's nice to have a partner who is strong where you're weak, and it's just as nice to have a partner secure enough in themselves to love and respect your strengths covering their weaknesses. This takes two people of sometimes opposing strengths and personalities and makes them into partners, so long as they don't accidentally end up hating each others' weaknesses and competing over strengths. I also love that the idea of "opposites attract" helps to illustrate the way two people can learn so much from each other by opening up to their differences, thereby enriching each life with the addition of the other. This must be carefully done though, which lends a little suspense to the romance (for me), in the wondering as to whether or not the characters in question have what it takes to use their differences as assets instead of weapons.

And there you have it - the ten things I love the ultimate most about romance novels (and books in general). Did you relate to any of these? Or are any of the things listed here among the things you tend to love reading? Would you like to see me post a list of my top ten turnONs too? Leave a comment below and let's chat!

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