Romance Authors Should Never Describe Characters This Way

We live in an age of body positivity and inclusion. For good reason, people are becoming more aware of the harmful standards of beauty that society and advertising have inflicted upon us. Across the globe, people are seeing the value in ditching the airbrushing and Photoshop in favor of a more realistic approach. Models with skin “blemishes,” stretch marks, and larger sizes are getting fair representation. The reality of beauty coming in all shapes and sizes is (thankfully) starting to emerge.

And for the most part, romance is ahead of the curve on this.

The genre has by and large ditched the one-size-fits-all approach that haunted its pulpy, mass-market paperback history. It used to be that only muscle-bound alpha males would be featured as the masculine love interest in romance novels. But not anymore! And no longer are all the female protagonists dainty, sweet, and size zero.

In fact, you can make a case for romance writers being ahead of the curve in these topics.

Except when they’re not.

I was recently reading a contemporary romance novel which has incredibly wide appeal. The book is smart, well-paced, and overall an enjoyable read. 

But there was a specific way the author described multiple characters that rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve seen this same aspect of character description in several other books by other popular romance authors, as well. So much so, in fact, that I thought I’d share my one, easy tip that would solve the problem for all involved:

Tip: Never describe a person’s looks by disparaging someone else’s.

It seems so obvious, right? Why compare your new love interest to your old? But yet, in the novel I reference above, the character repeatedly tears down certain body types in order to make her Main Characters look more attractive.

For instance, the man in the story is interested in the woman because she’s short, unlike the “tall blondes” he’s always dated in the past. He was happy for the change in pace, presumptively.

And the woman in said story couldn’t stop commenting on the body of the man in question, saying that her last boyfriends have all “looked like jockeys” (implying they were short.) At one point, she goes so far as to say that her last love interest was 5’6” and looked like he “probably couldn’t lift her if he tried.”

In another book I read recently, the man compliments our heroine on being full-figured, unlike the “stick-thin” girls he’s dated in the past.

So why is writing physical attraction by way of contrast bad?

Well, three reasons:

1.       It’s lazy writing. A competent writer uses physical description in a way that entices you and fills out the picture in your head. Writing physical description through the use of negative description is about as lazy as saying “She looked exactly like Nicole Kidman.” Sure, we get the picture, but it doesn’t exactly make for powerful prose.

2.       It enforces the notion that there are “bad” body types. Any “stick thin” or “blond” or “5’6” or “non-muscular” readers who have picked up a romance novel are likely to find that their very body types are being described as unfavorable or worse than the current hero or heroine.

3.       If you constantly compared your love interest’s looks to your former partners in real life, your love interest would be totally weirded out. (And rightfully so.) It’s unnatural to compare your significant other to your exes as often as these characters did.

On the one hand, I get it. Preferences exist. And that’s okay! But for the sake of readers and society writ large, can we just retire the trend of comparing people’s physical features to exes?

When is a Romance Novel not a Romance Novel?

*Spoiler Alerts for “Anywhere for You” by Abby Greaves*

I recently posed this group to a romance community, and I’m curious, Dear Reader, what your thoughts are.

I recently picked up “Anywhere For You” by Abby Greaves after reading it was a “poignant love story” and “a romance that spans a decade.” While the story was well told, I found myself a little disappointed in the book, simply because it doesn’t quite fit my definition of a “romance.”

The seller I bought the book from had listed it under the “romance” section, and it was touted as a book about the enduring power of love, so it piqued my interest.

I totally get that not every book will have a HEA or even a HFN ending. I also don’t mind books that challenge, subvert, or ignore certain tropes. But this one had me at a loss.

For one, Mary and Jim do not end up together. Their love is portrayed as earth-shatteringly real to Mary, but as a result of Jim’s personal demons, he decides to run out on her without warning and go no-contact for seven years. When Mary’s friends attempt to persuade him to come home, he refuses, but tells them to let Mary know it’s not her fault.

So, again, not a HEA. Fine. Mary is more or less okay with the way things shake out in the end, even though she’s single and Jim chooses to live alone under an assumed name for the foreseeable future. I think it succeeds as a psychological book, or a mystery, but not as a romance.

I suspect that the issue lies in how the book was marketed, not how it was written. But this made me start to wonder about a broader question: what are the bare minimum requirements for a book to truly be a “romance?” Or is it subjective? Have you guys ever picked up a book and been disappointed because it seemed to be labeled under the incorrect genre, and wasn’t a romance at all?

5 Things the Romance Genre Does Best

(by Ethan Cobalt)

Romance readers catch a lot of flack. Romance writers, doubly so. The stereotypes abound: the authors are hackneyed. They just use sex to sell books. The books are emotional fluff. The stories are formulaic. But what Romance critics fail to realize is that the genre’s community is both vibrant and intelligent. I’d even argue there are a plethora of aspects Romance excels in. 

Toward that end, I’ve outlined just a short list of things I believe the Romance Genre does better than anyone else:

1.) Inclusiveness/Diversity

This one should come as no surprise to anyone who has cracked open a kissing book. The stories are filled with main characters from every walk of life. This fact was accentuated to me, recently, when I read The Kissing Quotient by Helen Hoang. The book stars a woman named Stella, a brilliant protagonist who also happens to have Autism.

This divergence from the neurotypical is just one example in a genre that celebrates diversity. Gone are the days of Romance’s infancy, when all the men were muscle-bound hunks north of 6 feet tall. Nowadays, the MCs (men and women alike) are as eclectic as their authors, and that’s so refreshing to see!

2.) Relationship Dynamics and Nuance

Long before I started reading Romance novels, I had some unfair assumptions. I expected them to revolve around a singular love story between a man and a woman, and not much else. In reality, Romance novels explore the human heart from all angles, and are as likely to dive into platonic or familial relationships as they are a romantic one. The brotherly love expressed in The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary is one excellent example of this. 

In all the best Romance novels, there are layers upon layers of relationship dynamics that inform the decisions of every character. The genre has a rich history of this: from Jane Eyre to Pride and Prejudice, the genre has shown time and again that it is capable of transcending labels and sitting comfortably on the shelf as “true literature.”

3.) Inviting Outsiders with Open-Arms

I think there’s an “underdog” mentality that has allowed romance-readers to be especially welcoming. Genre-fiction as a whole tends to be looked down upon by those with a little intellectual snobbery. Many critics will unfairly assume that anything that can be classified by genre isn’t “literature.” Undoubtedly, romance faces this unfair criticism at a higher clip than any other genre. 

Perhaps because they’re so used to being looked down upon, the romance community has developed a thick-skin and a willingness to welcome new-comers. To tell you the truth, I was nervous to enter the community. As a man in a woman-dominated industry, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I could be seen as an “outsider” to many. To my gleeful surprise, the genre as a whole has been incredibly welcoming and supportive. I feel at home, and I owe it all to this wonderful community.  

4.) A Critical Eye for Injustices/Power Imbalances

This is a converse point to number three. As open as the community is, Romance readers are also quick to level criticism against those who violate their moral-compass. I’ve partook in many great conversations about problematic Romance novels and which aspects of a book might be improved. Pleasantly, these conversations were always solution-oriented and used as learning experiences for all involved. I’ve had the chance to bear witness to authors learning to do better, and committing to doing so. That’s a magical thing to behold.

5.) Eternal Optimism

Romance writers craft stories with a happy ending. Whether it’s a HEA (Happy Ever After) or a HFN (Happy For Now) the community as a whole is committed to the glass-half-full attitude. This is a breath of fresh air in the gloom-and-doom society we’ve found ourselves mired in.

And it’s not just rose-tinted glasses, either. In Romance novels, some heavy stuff happens. Within the pages of a Romance novel, you can find problems as raw and gritty as the world can offer. But more often than not, there’s a relentless pursuit of happiness. Hope triumphs over despair.


So there you have it. In my opinion, Romance has the edge on all other writing and reading communities in those five aspects. Do you agree with me? Any you disagree with? What would you add to this list?