Writing real romance


09 February 2024
Ahead of Valentine's Day, author Hannah Bonam-Young looks at writing relatable romance rooted in real, messy, everyday lives

While the romance genre has been described as unrealistic, contrived, and fantastical by community outsiders over the years there are many fans of the genre, authors and readers alike, who would strongly disagree. Personally, I find that the most human, down-to-earth, and realistic stories I’ve read as of late have sprung from the romance category. And I’m not just speaking about a newer wave of contemporary novels, either.

In the year of Greta Gerwig (the Barbie movie director), Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour, and Taylor Swift’s Era’s tour, a welcomed and overdue societal shift took place. One that calls the concept of girlhood and feminine nostalgia to the forefront of mainstream media. So, it feels natural to me that romance has continued to be the largest growing genre for the third year in a row. Women are flocking to see, read, watch, and consume media produced for them, though it is still often criticized as low-brow or simplistic. I believe the growing popularity of the genre, alongside these other women-led uprisings, reflects a rebellious attitude being adapted on a broader scale. A search for joy and comfort and fun without seeking out permission from the tastemakers who, for a long time, have typically been men.

The romance category can be broken down into hundreds of subgenres then further segregated into lists of novels containing a certain trope, or several that, to an outsider, may often sound like a foreign language.

Does anyone have a rec for an open-door, hurt/comfort, age-gap, grumpy/sunshine historical romance preferably with a “who did this to you?” scene? … As an example.

But there’s only one rule a book needs to follow to be classified as a romance by most — a happy ending. This doesn’t mean that it all must be sunshine and rainbows throughout, though those books certainly do have their place on the shelf, nor does it mean that they necessarily need to finish with a grand proposal, a wedding, or children. Just as it is in real life, what defines a happy ending is up for individual interpretation. However, this guarantee does provide the reader with a certain sense of comfort that other genres cannot. And let’s be real, an anxiety-free reading experience in this day in age is downright priceless.

So, I ask, what better genre is there to introduce flawed, messy, realistic, hurting, or unlikeable protagonists than one which is required to have characters find their happily ever after? Who are we if not flawed, messy, real, hurting and unlikeable people looking to find ourselves in a story and root for them, knowing they’ll be okay? Don’t we all deserve to see ourselves as the main character in a story with a happy ending?

I think so. And so do many other authors who are writing stories that fall under the romance umbrella.

My first book, Next of Kin, is set to be rereleased this month but originally published it independently in June of 2022. Chloe, our protagonist, is a twenty-four-year-old recent graduate who is trying to jump start her career in graphic design. Readers have affectionately labeled her as “approachable”, “deeply relatable”, and even “reassuringly normal.” Her body type is an average UK size sixteen, she describes herself as having thick brows, strong features indicative of a Polish heritage, and long, unruly, brown hair. She describes her dressing style a tad more unique, as she is an artist after all, but ultimatelym she could be your neighbour. She could be your childhood best friend. She could be you.

We meet Chloe on the day social services gets in touch regarding her estranged birth mother and a sudden, unexpected delivery. She arrives at the hospital to meet her baby sister for the first time and, eventually, she agrees to become the baby’s caregiver. However, due to income requirements, she fails to pass the evaluation necessary to enter guardianship. That is until she’s offered a solution in the form of partnership with another guardian, Warren, looking to get custody of his Deaf fifteen-year-old brother who lacks appropriate housing.

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The two of them are paired up, in an admittedly make-believe program inspired by true life events, and from there unfolds a story of found family, between two young adults who’ve not had the easiest time in life, containing swoon-worthy lines from our male protagonist like, “When did you start making your feelings smaller for other people’s benefit?” or, “Show me the messy parts, okay?”

All of my books contain main characters with disability, chronic illness, or mental health conditions. All of whom get their happily ever after. Because, simply, they’re loveable and capable of loving well. As is the reader who may be struggling with something in a similar vein. As am I, as a disabled woman who struggles with her own mental health.

My most recent release, Out on a Limb, features two characters with limb differences. Win, our kind, courageous, funny, outdoorsy heroine has a less-developed right hand since birth from a condition called symbrachydactyly. Which is the same condition that I was also born with. Bo, our gentle-giant, nerdy, handsome, lovely hero is a below-knee amputee who uses a prosthesis after a battle with bone cancer. And, yet this has been labeled as my “fluffiest”, “sweetest” and “most comforting” book yet. The two meet at a Halloween party where they both decide to make light of their disabilities and dress as pirates. One with a hook for a hand, the other with a peg leg — you get it. And, after sparks fly, they have a one-night-stand that results in an unexpected pregnancy.

Writing a book about two disabled people falling madly, deeply in love after banging it out in chapter three was not only fun, but deeply affirming for myself and a community of disabled readers. Beyond that, it’s my most successful book release to date having been read by over 50,000 people within its first three months of publication. This slow, gentle story of two not stereotypically perfect people has proved that not only are stories about disabled folks necessary, but they’re also wanted as well.

So, if you are looking to write a romance novel with “real” problems and realistic characters, my advice is to look no further than the people surrounding you in your day-to-day life. Shine a light on all those awkward parts we all have. Take inspiration from the sources of unconditional love in your life. And feel free to get vulnerable and share some of yourself on paper too. I promise it will be worth it.

Next of Kin by Hannah Bonam-Young is published by Bedford Square on 15 February


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