Don’t Judge Them By Their Covers: Who Says Romance Novels Aren’t Deep?

This was originally written for and posted by Heroes and Heartbreakers on July 14th, 2015

I recently admitted to being an author of erotic romance during a dinner party I attended with my husband. It was an event where we didn’t know many people, and most of the guests were easily twice our age. In response to my comment, the hostess smiled politely and said, “Oh, I don’t read romance. I like to read characters that have actual depth.”


To be fair, I don’t think she meant to be offensive. She was from a different generation, and her perception of romance might still have been based on the vapid and unintelligent characters from the “bodice-rippers” of the 1970’s. But it made me want to stand up and wave my romance writer freak flag. To jump up and down and yell, “That’s now how it is anymore! Romance characters do have depth!”

That probably wouldn’t have garnered us another invitation to dinner, so I gave her a respectful smile in return and ate my dinner.

The comment stuck with me, though. So much so that it was my response at the Romantic Times Convention this year when a Buzzfeed reporter came around asking if anyone had any comments about misconceptions about romance. Despite how much the genre has changed, a stigma still surrounds it—the idea that simply because the relationship is the focal point of the story, there can be nothing profound or moving about the characters. That their goals and dreams are somehow diminished because they hope to find love and (*gasp!* Heaven forbid) enjoy sex.

The truth is that characters in modern romance are extremely layered and multi-faceted. They are a mirror of us, with careers, friends and family. Histories, and things they want to accomplish beyond the scopes of their relationships. If anything, they let us in more than characters in traditional literary fiction, because we’re getting to see their deepest desires.

Take, for example, Making It Last by Ruthie Knox. The book starts off with the married heroine, Amber, rubbing her son’s back as he throws up. It’s the perfect end to a family vacation in paradise that’s been a total disaster. Money is tight, and she and her husband Tony barely talk about anything other than the kids or his business anymore. She’s lost sight of herself, has forgotten what it’s like to feel wanted, to feel sexy, to feel like she’s anyone else than just ‘Mom.’ And poor Tony knows there’s a problem, but he has no idea how to fix it. The book documents their attempt to make their way back to each other as they pretend to be strangers at an idyllic resort along the Jamaican coast.

In Hold ‘Em by Katie Porter, an old flame that died out years before comes back to life as two former lovers rediscover one another. Fighter pilots in the same squadron, Mike is back in Leah’s life only to turn it upside down. A matching kink neither of them had been aware of when they’d dated six years prior leads to new discoveries and trust, something Leah struggles immensely with. Her feelings for Mike are just as intense as her concern that their fraternization could destroy her career. She’s sure she can’t have both—love, and the job she loves. It’s something so many of us can identify with.

In Tamsen Parker’s Intimate Geography, India Burke is hiding behind the carefully constructed scaffolding she’s put together to keep emotional connections at bay. With a deeply painful relationship in her rearview mirror, India uses a broker to schedule her “lost weekends” with the Dominants he finds for her. However, India is in no way the shy submissive of other BDSM tales. She’s a powerhouse lawyer, a rock star in her field, and she doesn’t want anyone or anything to get in the way of that. We feel for her as she wrestles with her deepening emotions for Crispin, along with her fear of letting anyone in.

In Lover Awakened, J.R. Ward creates one of the most heartbreaking characters with Zsadist. A supernatural vampire, he’d hoped to one day find love, but was taken prisoner at a young age. After spending a century as a blood and sex slave, he’s become violent and aggressive, so much so that his brothers see him as beyond repair. It’s only in finding love with Bella that he’s able to let go of his pain.  It’s a rare thing in romance to have a hero whose first experiences are nothing short of rape, and the story recounts very accurately how a victim of sexual abuse will struggle with intimacy.

In my new release, The Hierarchy of Needs, Jamie and Dean are both stuck in ruts. After hitting a wall with her dream career in fashion design, Jamie has fallen back on being a swim coach—the only talent she thinks she has. Dean’s entire existence revolves around helping run Trescott Auto Body, the third-generation family business that’s barely staying afloat. He’s wanted Jamie since high school, but Dean refuses to chain her future to his. It’s the sexual awakening between them that helps both come to a better understanding of their own self worth.

In all these stories, it’s the characters, not the smut, that make us love them. We relate to their struggles. We want them to succeed, and to find true love. Yes, there’s some fun dirty scenes and romance that makes us swoon, but that’s part of the intimacy that makes these characters so inherently relate-able. After all, what’s more intimate than sex?



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