Do Romance Novels set Unrealistic Expectations? By Melissa Cutler

I'm super excited to have my friend Melissa Cutler on the blog today! I first met Melissa about a year ago at the San Diego RWA meeting. I was new to the chapter and Melissa was one of the first people to greet me and make sure I felt welcome. I've been smitten with her ever since.

When I asked her to do a guest post for the blog, I had no idea what she'd write about, but since I have loved every book she's written, I knew it would be fabulous ~ and it is! She's talking about love, conflict, and, well why don't you read what she wrote…

Do Romance Novels set Unrealistic Expectations? By Melissa Cutler

After my mom read my debut release, The Trouble with Cowboys, she called me. One of her comments was:

“who would've guessed you knew so much about resolving conflicts?”

I’d never considered that angle before, and it got me thinking about writers and how conflict resolution is a huge part of storytelling. We create characters who are often so at odds with each other that the reader wonders if resolving their differences is even possible, then make them do exactly that by the end of the book.

The trick is making the resolution feel realistic. If a historical heroine has decided she can’t marry the hero because it will leave her younger siblings at the mercy of their evil step-mother, you can’t just insert a random grizzly bear into the story to take out the step-mother while she takes her morning constitutional stroll through the gardens. That’s an extreme example, of course, but my point is that making conflict resolution in a story too easy or fast or unnatural isn’t satisfying to readers.

The irony is that while an author’s job is to make conflict resolution believable and realistic, often times in real life, conflicts don’t get resolved. Last week, one of my editors commented on Twitter:

“I have a feeling most dating complications are misunderstandings, so why can’t they be more like novels and talked through?”

I agree with him to a certain extent about real world complications stemming from a lack of communication, but I would add lack of effort to the list of causes. I see that all the time with people I know—one or both parties don’t fight for the relationship, for whatever reason, so it fizzles (or flames) out.

This would never happen in a romance novel, would it?

In romance, both the hero and heroine, or at least one of them at first, has to care enough to fight. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a book, right? The characters must overcome their conflicts. They must endeavor to talk things through. To make it work in the name of love, come hell or high water. One of the reasons I love reading and writing romance is the pleasure I get from experiencing people fighting passionately for who they want in their lives, what they believe in, and what they want their future to look like. By “fighting”, I mean doing whatever it takes—talking, changing their beliefs or habits, overcoming external obstacles, and evolving into better people.

Does fiction—particularly romance fiction with its happy endings—give us unrealistic expectations in our real life relationships?

No way, at least not for this optimist. In great books, the conflict resolution isn’t easy or pain free; it’s messy and hard won and full of lessons on how to handle relationships in our real lives. Experiencing how fictional characters resolve their conflicts empowers us and encourages us to fight for what and who we want, to evolve into better, more authentic versions of ourselves, and give our all in the name of love. Books remind us to talk to each other and resolve our differences because relationships are worth it—we’re worth it.

Rather than setting up unrealistic expectations, the relationships in romance novels inspire us to overcome our insecurities, be bold in the pursuit of love and happiness, and to not settle for anything less than our best, authentic selves and the best, authentic selves of the people in our lives. Does everyone in the world subscribe to this way of thinking? Not even close. But here’s my advice:

don’t waste your precious time with people who are less than authentic, who don’t try to communicate, or who aren’t bold. Life’s too short to settle.

My thanks to Tameri for having me on her blog today and thanks to you for indulging in my rambling meditation. I wish you an unending well of love, passion, and happiness—both in your real life and in the books you read. You deserve nothing less.

Melissa Cutler Author PhotoBio: Melissa Cutler knows she has the best job in the world, dividing her time between her dual passions for writing sexy contemporary romances for Kensington Books and edge-of-your-seat romantic suspense for Harlequin. She was struck at an early age by an unrelenting travel bug and is probably planning her next vacation as you read this. When she's not globetrotting, she's enjoying Southern California's flip-flop wearing weather and wrangling two rambunctious kids.

Tempted into Danger coverHer current release, Tempted into Danger, is in stores now.






Thank YOU Melissa for stopping by the blog! I love, absolutely love your advice. Don't settle. Ever. Being a fan of happily-ever-afters I share your enthusiasm for people fighting for what they believe in and love.

What do you readers think? Do romance novels set unrealistic expectations? Do you prefer happy-ever-afters or are you more into gritty endings?

38 thoughts on “Do Romance Novels set Unrealistic Expectations? By Melissa Cutler”

  1. Melissa CutlerMelissa Cutler

    Thanks for hosting me, Tameri. I love your blog and was so honored to be asked to guest post with you. It was your positive, optimistic energy that drew me to you the first time we met. I make a policy of surrounding myself with happy people such as yourself.

    Thanks again!


  2. Gayle CarlineGayle Carline

    I’d be totally okay if the grizzly bear showed up at the wedding. Just saying. But yes, we do resolve conflicts in our stories that would probably go on in real life for years. It’s fiction, folks! Plus, I like to think it gives readers the hope that they, too, can muddle through things and talk it out with their loved ones, etc.

  3. F.J. ThomasF.J. Thomas

    To a certain extent, I do think they can set unrealistic expectations — we can’t all be married to a wealthy billionaire or a gorgeous twenty five year old cowboy when we’re 40! But I think when you dig a little deeper, you find yourself longing for more than just the physical aspect of the story and that is achievable. Romance novels are about unconditional love — and unconditional love exists!

    • Melissa CutlerMelissa Cutler

      Thanks for stopping by the blog. I totally agree that unconditional love exists and is worth fighting for, though I must respectfully disagree about another point. I’d wager that the vast majority of people who read romance novels don’t “expect” to marry wealthy, gorgeous partners just because they enjoy that fantasy aspect in books any more than people who enjoy action-adventure spy movies expect to have the opportunity to save the world from evil villains.

  4. RachaelRachael

    Melissa- I was just having this conversation last night. Creating that level of conflict is the hardest part of writing for me. I don’t want to hurt my characters that way. But why else would they need to change and evolve into better people and partners? Almost every real life relationship I know that works now, went through some pretty tough growing pains in the beginning. Mine included. In Romance, those growing pains are romanticized but aren’t usually unrealistic. I love the happy endings, that’s why I read Romance.

    Tameri- I, too, love your energy and verve! Glad I found your blog. Gonna go read through it and catch up. 🙂

  5. EmmaEmma

    They do when you’re young, I think. I remember reading L.J. Smith’s Night World series when I was a teenager and wondering why all the boys my own age in real life were such idiots. 🙂

    • Melissa CutlerMelissa Cutler

      And now that you’re grown up, you realize that they really are! I’m just kidding 🙂 Thanks for visiting the blog, Emma. So nice to *meet* you!

  6. MarciaMarcia

    I do think everyone wants a happy ending, whether in a romance novel or real life. A novel’s happy ending gives us hope for our own life. If the conflict resolution is realistic, though maybe faster paced than real life, it can give the reader ideas on how to work at her own relationship issues. Excellent post, Melissa! Thanks, Tameri for inviting Melissa to post.
    This post and a couple of others I’ve read this week have served as a guideline to keep in mind as I write. Thanks for adding to my list of things to remember for my characters!

    • Melissa CutlerMelissa Cutler

      Glad I could help, Marcia. Thanks for stopping by and best of luck to you with your writing!

  7. Kitt CrescendoKitt Crescendo

    Great post! For me, I think the part that may have initially set unrealistic expectations was thinking that being in love always felt like it did in the beginning. Anyone who’s been in a long term relationship knows that those initial pangs ebb and flow, but hard work, friendship and communication help maintain the love. Lust/infatuation burns very hot, but has a tendency to peter out without a solid base.

  8. Kimberly FKimberly F

    Excellent Blog. I prefer books that have the HEA, but I like them to be realistic in what happens to get them there. Love your books Melissa!

    • Melissa CutlerMelissa Cutler

      Thanks for stopping by, Kimberly. I definitely prefer books with HEA endings, and I was an English major in college so I’ve read A LOT of books with bummer endings.

  9. Lisa KesslerLisa Kessler

    Great post Melissa!

    I read to escape and it certainly doesn’t lead me to expect a hard body vampire…. Do I fantasize about one? You betcha! LOL

    But that doesn’t make me sad that real life doesn’t parallel that immortal dream! LOL I’m actually really happy with a man who loves me for who I am and supports and believes in me even more than I do at times… That’s my version of a superhero! 🙂


    • Melissa CutlerMelissa Cutler

      I agree with your definition of a superhero, Lisa! Thanks for stopping by the blog, Lisa.

  10. Gloria Richard AuthorGloria Richard Author

    Great and thought-provoking post, Melissa.

    My challenge is to suspend my own belief when I’m writing about conflict. I hate making my heroine experience emotional trauma, or take action that’s ill-advised, dangerous, or in the how-could-she-do-that-horrid-thing category. Paraphrasing Donald Maass’ advice to “think of the worst thing that could happen to (or be done by) your protagonist, and make that happen; then make it even worse.”

    If I’m in the proper mindset for writing — that is to say — writing through my character’s eyes, I’m riddled with angst over how in the heck she/he is going to get out of this mess.

    But, that’s what creates spit-lick-page-flip novels.

    Off now to scratch the scene with the bear attacking my villain. Hey! It’s a mountain setting. It could happen. 😉

    • Gloria Richard AuthorGloria Richard Author

      Oh! Tameri?

      KUDOS on one line in your comment response.

      “Books allow us to escape, not to expect.”

    • Melissa CutlerMelissa Cutler

      Hi Gloria,

      It’s so damn hard to hurt our characters, isn’t it? I’m a huge Donal Maass fan and am glad you referenced that quote because it revolutionized the way I write. When I set out to write a new book, I first have to figure out who my characters are on a deep level, then I figure out what their worse fears are, then I figure out how to make those fears come true in an unexpected way that involves the other main character. When I figure that out, the basic structure for my book is done.

      Best of luck with your writing! Watch out for those bears 🙂


  11. Kristy K. James...Where Romance and Fantasy CollideKristy K. James...Where Romance and Fantasy Collide

    Love the article. Do I think romance novels set unrealistic expectations. I think they can, yes. We look at the sensitive, tender, romantic, passionate, mostly perfect man in a story…and then we look at what we have – or had…and he is/was nothing like the man we just spent hours drooling over.

    Mostly I think they make readers wish. I think they highlight what’s missing in our lives, which is why romance novels are probably so popular. We wish we had what the heroine has, so we escape into her life for a day or two because it fills needs that aren’t being met in real life.

    I also believe that they can be a carrot though – motivation to go after what it is we need and want. Well, as long as what we think we need isn’t a buff, handsome, sexy, romantic, billionaire…who would also qualify as the world’s best lover/husband/friend/father rolled into one. If that’s our goal when we finish the story then yeah, our expectations might be a little unrealistic. 🙂

  12. sheridegrom - From the literary and legislative trenches.sheridegrom - From the literary and legislative trenches.

    There’s a great discussion going on here. I believe all that’s being said about the romance genre can be applied to almost any genre. Most of us read fiction to escape and move into ‘that other world for a bit of time.’ The other world might not be much better than the one we find ourselves living in at the moment, but at least, we escape our own problems. We also know within the genre of romance we’ll see a HEA and often the same is true in women’s fiction, especially if the growth arch has been completed successfully. I additionally like what I see in all genres I read. In about 95% of the novels, the cast of characters are becoming more mature and with real world experience. For me, this has led to more believable conflict resolution.

    Now, if someone would only insist that our congress and supreme court have real world experience before they are elected or appointed to the bench. They haven’t a clue when it comes to conflict resolution.

  13. Karen McFarlandKaren McFarland

    I feel like one of the Monkees when I say that I’m a believer! I believe in happily-ever-afters! I know. I’m a sap, but I’m a girl, so I love romance. I ditto Gloria’s comment about your comment Melissa, “books allow us to escape, not to expect.” So glad I had a chance to meet you here on Tameri’s blog. I really did enjoy your post. And thank you Tameri for sharing Melissa with us! 🙂

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