What makes a good romance? A Reader’s Persective from Ann Etter

So I got to vacation in beautiful (mostly) sunny southern California last weekend. It was awesome. Part of the awesomeness was having a couple of conversations with friends- one with lesfic author Catherine Lane and her wife, and the other with my hosts- a sitcom writer/comedian and a visual artist. In both of these conversations we discussed a variation on the theme “What makes a good romance?” Here are my thoughts on this. I feel like I should put in tiny print: these opinions are those of the author of this post and do not necessarily represent the opinions of those with whom she discussed nor the editors of this blog.

  • A good romance has relatable, fully developed characters. I want to know the characters so well that I could meet them on the street and start up an appropriate conversation with them. (After the inappropriate fangirling, of course). Reading a romance novel is investing several hours in the story of two people coming together. In order to be invested in those people, they need to be real and rounded, like my friends and family in the real world.
  • The protagonists have to actually be in love. They need to feel all the things that come with that, not just the sunshine and roses and the HEA, but the frustration, the anticipation, the imperfections, and the thrill that comes from finding their way together. If the characters don’t spend enough time together, it’s really hard to see the chemistry. I prefer a novel where the characters meet by chapter three or four. Otherwise, it’s a story about a couple of women who happen to fall in love toward the end of the book, not the story of their romance.
  • The characters need to sound real. There should be banter, humor, anger, seriousness. Rarely should it sound formal. When was the last time anyone you know was formal with a date past the first two minutes? Unless of course it’s a date through which you are suffering until you can get home and harangue your best friend for setting you up with Ms. Inappropriate.


I’m not adding “Plot” or “Setting” to my list. I do enjoy a good plot and a gorgeous setting is definitely a plus, but, really, a good romance, where two characters meet and figure out their way together, can be set completely in a simple room over a series of meetings as long as the above three elements are there. Of course, there are some excellent romantic subplots in books of other genres- Requiem for Immortals by Lee Winter and the Alsea series by Fletcher DeLancey come to mind.


Then I got to thinking about why I will read and re-read certain books over and over again, just to spend some time wrapped up in a familiar book. Those books all have characters I either want to be or to hang out with. They are relatable and real and make me wish for the book hopping Jasper Fforde envisioned.  If you have not read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, I recommend it.

Many of the books I re-read have a heavy real-life fantasy aspect to them: I wish I had time and a place and my own horse to ride so reading D. Jackson Leigh’s and Karis Walsh’s horse-filled books take me there; I’m an amateur actress and dancer and Jae’s Hollywood series and Melissa Brayden’s First Position and Waiting in the Wings put me in a performance world.

Some of my favorites not mentioned above and in no particular order: Zero Visibility by Georgia Beers, Close to Home by Rachel Spangler, Too Late I Love You by Kiki Archer, Under a Falling Star by Jae, Pelican’s Landing by Gerri Hill, Welcome to the Wallops by Gill McKnight, Painted Moon by Karin Kallmaker, The Set Piece by Catherine Lane… and really my list goes on and on and on…

What about you all? Do you agree or disagree? What makes a good romance novel in your world? Do you re-read? Why?


  1. Great article. I agree that the romances I am drawn to take me places I probably will not get to go. And D. Jackson Leigh’s horse related stories have introduced me to the love of horses. There must be at least the hope of a happy ever after for the main characters.


  2. I agree with what you written- I want to relate, and if I cannot see myself in it completely (I am not an actor or ballet dancer) I want to see what it would be like and believe it). I want a little believable tension. That feeling of relief that it finally worked is important. I am reading Under a Falling Sky, which is offering that up wonderfully. And I think about Radclyffe’s Against Doctor’s Orders as an example of some believable tension, and overcoming odds.

    Good post!


  3. I am a rereader and I agree for me it is because the characters are relatable, that I can envision myself hanging out with in real life.


  4. Dialogue. What each character hides/reveals about themselves in the way they speak–how they want to present themselves vs how the other character sees them. Books that acknowledge this inherent disconnect are often a lot more fun to read. Also, the amount of time that passes within the book has to match what happens romantically. It’s much harder to fit a believable romantic arc into a mystery, for instance, as the mystery may wrap up fairly quickly. So many interesting ways to answer this question!


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