Men, in general, don’t write romance books. If you narrow that down even further, black men, in general, don't write romance books. Now that isn't to say, any brother in the UK isn't drafting the next Pride and Prejudice, or a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in Peckham.
Apart from Shakespeare and Nicholas Sparks, the populist romance genre is the preserve of middle-class, white women – not that there is anything wrong with that, just an observation.
Bearing all the above in mind, you can imagine the looks on my friend’s and family’s faces when I told them my first novel would be a romance novel. “You? You’re going to write a romance?" was what a few people told me, looking bemused as if I told them I wanted to join Nigel Farage's political party.
While everyone was surprised that I was writing a romance book as my first novel, I wasn't surprised. I've always been fond of the romance genre. This fascination probably started when I was in my early teens and would religiously watch Boy Meets World. There is no shame in admitting I loved the romance between the two central characters in that show, Cory and Topanga (played by Danielle Fishel one of my 90s crushes).
When I started writing my debut novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her, a romance, I did some reflection. What made me, a man, read and enjoy romance books so much that I wanted to write one as my debut?
The psychology of falling in love
I'll admit up front that this is a generalisation but, from speaking to women and reading reviews of popular romance books, I get the impression that romance fiction is so popular because women readers love reading about two people's journey falling in love. The romance genre's appeal is the 'will-they-want-they' formulaic story of two people being kept apart by something or their denial to fall in love with each other. The story must end with a nice, happy ending eventually.
The formulaic romance genre does not appeal to me, however.
I love a good romance when it does a deep dive into the psychology of two people falling in love. To put it another way, I am not captivated just by the journey of people falling in love – but why they fell in love with each other in the first place. But also, the challenges that come after getting together.
Recently, I watched two films which describe the types of romance I tend to like. One is Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and the other is Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. If you get time during this miserable lockdown and want an emotionally-moving story, I recommend watching these two movies. Both films deeply explore why two individual people would fall in love and what causes two people to fall out of love with each other and the pain that comes with that.
I call these type of love stories romance realism. They deeply explore the psychology of love and attraction and the powerful moments of connection that bring people together. But they also examine the harrowing experiences of heartbreak and divorce.
The difference between romance and romance realism
Even though I wish I had, I did not coin the term "romantic realism." Literary critics have been using the word since the early 19th century. My idea of romance realism is similar with novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand’s definition. In her book “The Romantic Manifesto”, she described it as:
"The method of romantic realism is to make life more beautiful and interesting than it actually is, yet give it all the reality, and even a more convincing reality than that of our everyday existence.”
The purpose of fiction is to be a form of escapism from our reality, and populist novels exist to entertain us with drama, characterisation and plot. A pure romance novel aims to arouse a cathartic feeling about a beautiful couple who surmount external odds to come together and have their happily ever after. Keeping them apart is always something external – an evil stepfather, warring families, different locations, etc.
With romantic realism, however, it's not only external factors that keep two people apart, but internal ones too and these are often the focus of romantic realism fiction. It’s the character’s internal weaknesses, fears, and misbeliefs that sabotage their relationships or ruin their marriage. Romantic realism can still have a happy ending, but often it’s an ambiguous ending or a ‘happy-for-now’ ending. But a pure happily-ever-after ending is usually reserved for the romance genre and not the romance realism subgenre.
Why I prefer romance realism
As someone who has had two quite intense and dramatic long-term relationships, I would say I know a thing or two about the highest highs and the lowest lows in relationships. It's not only external factors that are the sole reason for volatility in relationships but also our complex personalities.
The most realistic and most exciting stories about romance explore the psychology of lovers. Whenever I am writing about two people falling in love, I like to examine both people’s idea of love and how they place this expectation of love onto their partner to fulfil.
Sometimes, someone can meet their partner's expectation or fall short due to their own shortcomings or the other partner's unrealistic standards. Pure romance novels tend to explore the first stages of love, where they are finding each other and overcoming obstacles to be together finally, but what about afterwards? Romance realism delves into how people's personalities test the foundation of marriages and relationships after they’ve hooked up.
Novelists are psychologists, delving into their characters' mindset while building a plot and story that tests their protagonists. In the same way, the best romance novels are not just about the beauty of falling in love; they examine the psychology of two people falling in love and why they would also fall out of love.
The best romances don’t end after the happily-ever-after. As a writer, that’s when it’s the most interesting.