What Do Editors Look for in a Romance Novel?

Believability | Chemistry

The number-one thing editors will say when they edit a romance novel is that the love between the two characters must be believable and there needs to be chemistry. But this is easier said than done.

A strong, seasoned writer will know how to build up the relationship, where to add in tension, flirting, develop the characters, etc. But many writers fail at just the basics: chemistry and believability.

Chemistry and believability mean that two characters have fallen in love and their lives have forever changed. To be dramatic, the readers have to believe that the two characters cannot live without each other.

Their chemistry—how they interact with each other, speak to each other, react, behave, etc.—has to be developed otherwise, it will fall flat.

A character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, and motivations have to be clearly conveyed in order for it to be believable. When I’m editing in any genre, I always look closely at a character and see where the character can be strengthened. This is especially important in a romance novel where so much of the story is driven by one thing: a love interest.

The characters should play off each other.

How can the author show the characters are head-over-heels in love? What do the characters do together, what do they talk about, how do they act around each other, and how does their behavior differ when they are around their friends, family?

The getting-to-know-each-other part of the relationship is the puppy-dog type of love (the flirting, the lingering stare, etc.). But believable chemistry will move past the puppy-dog phase in the story. This is something writers often miss. So many romance stories build up a romance, everything is perfect, and then something MAJOR happens (i.e., they find out a secret, or the character does something bad, or the character gets a job and has to move).

Believable romance is in the little details too. A more believable chemistry is seeing how characters react and deal with the little nuances and realistic situations. I always tell writers, “Don’t be afraid to make your characters annoy each other.”

Character Development | Backstory

People are complicated and have a wide range of emotions and layers. A romance novel will fall completely flat if the character(s) are not developed. I edit too many novels where the characters are not developed and neither is the backstory.

What happens in a character’s past affects the now (the present). This is especially important in a romance novel because it’s one of the key elements of the story: a romantic relationship.

Everyone has baggage! Has the character ever been in love? If so, what happened? What were previous relationships like? How is this new relationship different? What has the character learned from previous relationships? How has the character changed from a previous relationship or breakup?

A good romance will tackle a range of emotions. This is all about character development. Who cares if the characters are in love if the readers don’t care about them, relate to them, or understand them on a deeper level?

Make the characters interesting and engaging, as well as relatable and believable.

There also has to be enough scenes and character interaction for readers to believe that the two characters have gotten past the initial few dates and have finally opened themselves up to fall in love. Create suspense and tension. Maybe they don’t meet in the first chapter, for instance. But the characters will have to go through a transformation or change as a result of their love.

Stray from the Formula

Romance novels tend to follow a specific “formula.” The characters meet, they fall in love, there could be a love-triangle plot point, and then something major happens (the conflict) that results in the relationship being put into question—are the two characters going to make it, or are they going to go their separate ways?

While the editors are not responsible for writing the book (obviously), it’s pretty certain that a romance story will follow this trajectory. As the editor, I always like to look at how to change things up a bit—something unique about the characters and their love for one another that can stand out among all the other romance stories.

Creating strong, developed characters for any story is important, but I like to look for storylines and characters that stray a bit from the typical “formula.” Make the situations more complicated and realistic.

Avoid the typical high-powered businesswoman who lives in Manhattan and goes home to her small hometown and falls in love with the local fix-it guy, and then she needs to decide whether to go back to the big city or slum it in the country with the man of her dreams (and, of course, both characters are insanely gorgeous!). Switch it up a bit!

That doesn’t mean changing the story—it means complicating the characters and the situations that the author has written. It means developing characters on a deeper level.

In every romance novel, the characters are so good-looking! They are described like Greek gods and goddesses. They have the perfect hair, body, clothing, people turn their heads and can’t stop staring, etc. This is one reason Bridget Jones broke the mold—the protagonist was a frumpy, goofy character. This doesn’t mean the characters can’t be insanely gorgeous, but they can’t be perfect! Give them a pimple now and then!

Likeable Characters

This may seem like an obvious thing, but romance stories typically have likeable protagonist(s) and/or the two characters involved in the relationship. Whether the book is written in a first person or third person (single protagonist or multiple protagonists) a romance writer should aim for likeable characters.

I’ve edited many romance books where only the protagonist was likeable and the love interest was less than desirable, and this can be an issue! Especially if the characters wind up together at the end! Especially if there are sex scenes! Readers won’t want to slog through a novel where the protagonist finds her true love, and her partner is egotistical and insensitive. So not only is it important to develop the characters on a deeper level, but the characters should be likeable.

Romance novels have a tendency to be light in tone, but creating likeable characters shouldn’t mean cliché or stereotypical characters either (i.e., city gal and smalltown guy).

Intimate Scenes

There’s a reason why the Outlander and Twilight series are so successful. The authors have made the romance between the two characters passionate and believable. It transports the readers into the arms of Jaime or Edward, respectively. While Outlander is more steamy than Twilight, the romance is still there.

I can always tell a beginning writer from a more seasoned writer. They either (1) write intimate scenes like an instruction manual, or (2) write intimate scenes where it ventures into erotica. So there’s either too much telling and not enough showing, or way too much showing!

Romance, chemistry, and believability don’t necessarily mean graphic or sexual. It can be more sensual, which is about the senses, the getting-swept-off-your-feet types of feelings. The goosebumps, racing hearts, etc.

But if the scene is going to be intimate, it has to be done right to avoid the readers rolling their eyes and tossing the book away. Be descriptive, but avoid cliches or being too graphic (romance vs. erotica). The editor and writer should know the audience to know if certain “buzz words” should be avoided (i.e., graphic words, R-rated descriptions, etc.).

When writing an intimate scene, use all five senses. Avoid repetitive descriptions. If there is more than one sex scene, they have to differ! Switch it up!

Happily Ever After?

I say no! See answers above 😊

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