There’s a trend right now towards low-angst stories where the greatest hurdle a couple faces is getting out of the way of their own feelings. And these stories are great—I have a number of them on my keeper shelf and sometimes it’s exactly what I’m in the mood to read. It’s one of the cornerstones of what a romance should be—escapism and good feelings. After all, real life, especially these days, is hard and uncertain and filled with tense emotions. And we all know all too well that sometimes horrible things happen to the best people. Why then have negative things happen in our romance books? Why give characters trauma to overcome? Is there any value in having bad things happen to otherwise good characters in a romance novel?
I would argue emphatically that there is a lot of value including trauma in romance novels. And no, it’s not as some have argued a simple plot device. And it’s precisely because how hard and awful real life can be that writers should be willing to include negative events or back story in romance. I recently read Ruthie Knox’s beautiful short story Starting Over in which both characters are in an awful place in their lives—foreclosure is imminent, family has been torn apart, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to cling to.
Except each other. And that’s where hope is born. And romance. It is in our darkest moments that we need each other most, and it is in these moments that we have the most to give each other as well. And as a writer, these moments fascinate me. How can we dig deep? How can we find it in ourselves to trust and hope again when it seems that all has been lost? How can we move on from trauma when it seems moving a mountain pebble by pebble might be easier?
In my latest release, At Attention, the main character is trying to make sense of his life after the death of his husband. He’s not looking for romance or sexy times or anything other than keeping his head above water. And I think it’s important to note that I didn’t give him this tragic backstory. He wandered into my previous book, Off Base, big tough SEAL fingering his wedding ring with sad eyes. And I immediately wanted to know what it would take to make him trust again. I wanted to spend a book with him, making sense of his trauma, and finding that spark of hope for him. I could have asked the muse to recast him, send me someone with less trauma, but that would have been disingenuous to my own process.
And it wouldn’t have been fair to the character either, nor to the people who need these stories. Because really, that’s another part of these questions. For every reader who needs low-angst and no drama, there are other readers struggling to overcome something major in their lives. They’re looking to us, to our books, for that spark of hope, that sense that yes, bad things happen but they don’t have to define us, and they can be dealt with in loving and sensitive ways that don’t minimize the hurt but also allow healing to take place. And sometimes they do define us—the trauma makes us who we are, and we are still worthy of unconditional love and acceptance.
People who have been through the most pain are the most in need of happy endings. And I’m not suggesting that we have a pain Olympics to determine who is the most worthy of a story or to pile on drama for the sake of drama, but I do think it’s important to allow characters and stories to unspool the way they were meant to, traumatic backstories and negative events and all. And then we as readers get to watch the healing process, get to see characters need each other and lift each other up, and give each other hope for the future. It’s this hope that I’m addicted to as a reader—it’s why I’m so passionate in my defense of the romance genre requiring a happy ending or happily-for-now ending. When bad things happen, we need to see that something good has also happened, that the character still gets to experience joy and love and even lust again.
I guess you could say I’m addicted to hope. I’ve dealt with trauma in my own life and loss, and I know that in my times of greatest darkness, that’s when I’ve needed romance novels most. So I try to deliver that for my characters, and ultimately, my readers too. I know that that seeing characters overcome great odds or even trauma similar to my own has helped me immensely to believe in the power of healing, to trust that while today may be hard, maybe tomorrow will be a fraction easier. I want to give that hope to people, and I think it’s important.
Now, how about you? Do you like angst in books? Prefer low drama? Why or why not?
Annabeth Albert grew up sneaking romance novels under the bed covers. Now, she devours all subgenres of romance out in the open—no flashlights required! When she’s not adding to her keeper shelf, she’s a multi-published Pacific Northwest romance writer.
Emotionally complex, sexy, and funny stories are her favorites both to read and to write. Annabeth loves finding happy endings for a variety of pairings and is a passionate gay rights supporter. In between searching out dark heroes to redeem, she works a rewarding day job and wrangles two children.
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Please note: all opinions and statements expressed are those of the author and not of Open Ink Press LLC or its affiliates.