Introduction: Why I’m asking this question
Recently when trying to find a book to fulfill a prompt in a readathon, I found myself reading the Goodreads reviews of Seafire. I saw a common theme that several folks were not a fan of the “romance” plotline in the book, and that it felt rushed and unnecessary. When I read the book, I did so with trepidation because I too do not enjoy rushed romance plotlines. I instead discovered that Seafire doesn’t have a romance plotline. It has an attraction built in a moment of danger. It has a kiss. It does not have pledges of love, it does not have discussions of feelings, and it most certainly does not have romance.
I think sometimes we expect a kiss, an attraction, or something of that nature to become romance because there are books out there that equate these things. There are absolutely times where an author says “oh by the way these characters are like In Love and dedicated to one another after that kiss.” There are times where characters forget to discuss actually being together and take for granted that their mutual attraction translates into a relationship. But that doesn’t mean that every single subplot in which two characters kiss is going to lead to that. So let’s dive in to what makes a romance.
Romance versus love story versus attraction
So what’s the difference between all these potential inclusions? Well, let’s start with the simplest: attraction. People can be attracted to one another physically without feelings, naturally, and sometimes a book doesn’t get into emotions and really is just portraying an attraction. Perhaps it’s due to the heightened levels of drama in a book, but it feels to me (and this might be my grey-aro showing) as though every time two characters are attracted to one another people start calling it a relationship or a romance. One night stands, friends with benefits, and plenty of other sex-based relationships exist in the real world and I’m honestly surprised now that I think of it how few examples of them I’ve read in contemporary books.
A romance and a love story are also not necessary the same thing. A romance doesn’t always, in my opinion, end well. Not every love interest a character has is going to work out, statistically speaking. Things come up, people change, and someone you’ve been on a few dates with might not become a long term partner. In a novel, I consider a romance to be a romantic attempt–a love interest who sticks around for a few dates, a few conversations, maybe even a discussion about a relationship. The romance may turn into a love story or a relationship, but it doesn’t have to in order to remain a romance.
Lastly, a love story is a prolonged romantic plot. A love story results in a relationship, preferably a healthy one in which two or more characters genuinely love and respect one another and want to be together in some capacity for a period of time. Not all love stories are created equal, and there are definitely unhealthy love stories portrayed in media for various reasons. A love story and a romance are definitely related to one another, and can often become synonymous so really I just want to emphasize the difference between having a distinct love interest in a novel, or even a clear relationship, and just having characters attracted to one another.
Age plays a role
I definitely believe that the age of the characters–and to a lesser extent the intended audience–matter when considering whether a subplot is a romance or not. Teenagers and adults of different ages approach relationships different ways. A seventeen-year-old may interpret a few interactions and a date or two as a relationship where someone in their late twenties would recognize this as an attraction and know they are not yet exclusively dating. Thus in a YA novel it’s not uncommon for a romantic subplot to be treated as a relationship by the cast of characters, and even to an extent by the readers, where in an adult novel such a subplot would not even jokingly be called a relationship. That doesn’t mean that all romantic subplots concerning teenagers–YA or not–are full blown love stories and romances, though. I do think there are romantic subplots in YA novels that are just attractions, and to treat them as relationships is to do a disservice to what the subplot adds to the novel.
I think that different stories ask for different elements of romance or lack of romance. Fast paced adventure books rarely have the time to focus on a full blown relationship, but an attraction–and acting on one–might make sense for some of the characters. Attraction is often incorporated as a way of setting up future romances and love stories when there’s more time to develop those, so I can understand why many readers see the foundations of those stories and call out the book as including romance. But it’s also important to acknowledge that not every attraction portrayed in a book is leading to a romance. YA novels and readers are especially tricky in this, because YA characters can interpret their moments of attraction as the beginning of a relationship and thus the readers will point this out. But not all romance subplots are created equal, and some of them really aren’t romances or love stories or relationships at all.