The Pitfalls of Series Romance

June 29, 2011

The ongoing Urban Fantasy series can be a mixed blessing. While it’s often great to revisit familiar settings year after year, each new entry runs the risk of steering a series in a direction I won’t enjoy. A series needs to stay fresh, but changes to character, situation, or style may disappoint me. I like each book to have its own contained story, but sometimes those get swamped by larger story arcs. Something interesting that I’ve learned about my own preferences is that romance plots are the thing most likely to sour me on a series.

Here’s the list of romance elements that bug me.

  • The Eternal Love Triangle
    Nothing makes me want to smack a heroine faster than when she spends six books trying to decide between suitors. No, honey, you can’t have them both, and if you try to then it kind of makes me think you’re a bad person. A love triangle needs to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Sudden Asshole Syndrome
    Don’t you hate it when an established love interest suddenly turns into a total jerk just to provoke a breakup or inject some drama? I hate it. I hate it a lot. Don’t spend a couple of books getting the main character to fall for someone only to have that person go from hero to jerk without warning.
  • Speed Dating
    Heroines who establish a pattern of changing their boyfriend more often than I clean out my fridge bother me. At some point it starts to feel like the author values the sexual tension more than the characters. The need to explode existing relationships also tends to lead to Sudden Asshole Syndrome.
  • Unnecessary Couple Fights
    Once a hero and heroine have settled into a relationship, they don’t need to constantly snipe at each other to keep things exciting. They can work towards different goals or argue over strategy, but conflict for conflict’s sake makes them both seem petty.
  • Supernaturally-Mandated Sex
    If the characters need to get their power-up from getting it on or develop some kind of mating urge, that tends to mean there’s some target number of bangs per book. Predictable, mechanical love scenes aren’t hot, and neither are the disturbing consent issues that often accompany sex magic. Stop making me worry that the protagonist is a rapist.

My final issue with romance in a UF series is trickier than all of those put together: it’s not uncommon that I just don’t like the turns a protagonist’s love life has taken. Maybe he ended a relationship that I wish he’d have continued, or she took back someone who did her wrong far too easily. Maybe the author wrote my favorite suitor out of the plot, or even worse, killed him off. Maybe I think someone involved in a love triangle picked the wrong person to be with.

As a reader, I love surprises. New obstacles, new antagonists, and new challenges are all great things. But there’s something to be said for not throwing a wrench into every romance. My favorite series novels, the ones that keep me eager for every new entry, are the ones that, in addition to exciting plots and compelling characters, also manage a sense of balance among the lives of their protagonists. If a heroine or a hero’s love life is constantly as chaotic as the danger they’re often in, it eventually makes them stressful to hear about, and that makes me less enthusiastic about spending my limited reading time with them.

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9 Responses to “The Pitfalls of Series Romance”

  1. Leslie Says:

    Amen!

    I would add, having the heroine fall for someone who’s been creepy/sinister for practically the entire book. He scares her, he doesn’t respect her boundaries, and she knows she shouldn’t want anything to do with him, but she ends up with him anyway, and somehow (even though his bad behavior isn’t REALLY explained) he’s a “nice” guy at the end.

    Okay, I’ve only actually seen that happen once – in a book I just finished. But it bothered me enough that I will not be reading the sequel.

  2. deety Says:

    Good call, the “why the hell do you like that guy again?” style romance totally sucks. I’ve only read a few of those, and every one has been young adult. Kind of disturbing.

  3. RisaNP Says:

    You know what, I agree with all of these points. I’ve read a lot of UF, I’m always looking for a new author or a new series to try. I really think these make up the majority of the plotfalls that I come across, and these are the type of things that will make me put a book down without even finishing it. Ugh! I thought I was just being overly picky, but I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels this way.

    You should add another though, how about the “fall for the bad boy, even though this is clearly an unhealthy relationship”. It’s taken over the YA urban fantasy books and is seeping into the grown-up ones!!


  4. I love this list. It articulates all the points that I’ve recently discovered turn me off wonderfully plotted urban fantasies that sag under the weight of badly done romances. I prefer a steadiness to the main character in terms of the love interests in her life, and a love triangle is about the fastest way to turn me off a novel. And things like the steadiness brought on by a husband and family, like the Charlie Madigan series interests me because I don’t often see characters in situations like that. It’s so blissfully normal and relatable situation and reading Charlie struggling with her emotions was soooo different.

    Deadtown by Nancy Holzner actually hits two of the points on your list – the main character is in an established relationship and almost immediately starts developing an attraction with another guy, without the development of the established partner, who is written off by the end of the book, without us knowing much about him. I was intrigued enough by the character and writing to go searching out for reviews to see if the second book was worth my time. I’m going to try it, and hope the writer settles down.

  5. deety Says:

    Yes, exactly! It’s not as if giving a character a solid relationship doesn’t provide opportunities for intensity or romance or drama.

    Ping-pong romances, for me, are a lot like the interpersonal version of those overly action-heavy novels where the characters race from crisis to crisis with hardly any time to think or even breathe for a moment. They’re just exhausting, I want characters I can get to know and even occasionally relax with.


    • I find myself thinking of a steady relationship is the exception to the rule in this genre, and I don’t quiet understand why. Or maybe I’m reading all the wrong novels, I dunno.

      That’s a great description of ping-pong romance to mindless action – I don’t mind the mindless action, or insubstantial romances in novels, it’s when it becomes standard in the genre that I find it a problem. And I hadn’t ever thought about it that way – about us as readers not getting to know those characters in situations like that, but you’re right, that’s exactly what it does.

  6. enigmanic Says:

    I love this post! You put it very succintly. That’s how I feel about most series romance. It almost makes me want to give up reading them. I’ve just finished the 11th Sookie Stackhouse novel and the way things seem to be going with Eric is somewhat on a level between torturous and repugnant. Really hoping that she doesn’t end up back with Bill or even with Sam.

    • deety Says:

      I am very, very unhappy with how things seem to be going with Eric, especially after how long their potential as a couple was teased.

      If she goes back to Bill it will probably make me lose a little respect for her as a character, and I’ve always thought her chemistry with Sam was too buddy-buddy to make a go of that.


  7. You nailed it with every one of those. Insta love, jerk-syndrome for no reason, love triangles. I will say that I really don’t like anything that is done merely for dramas sake (and I don’t attribute that solely to romance, but in general). Characters need to do what they would do because they are them and because it makes sense that they would in that given situation. A fight between a couple just to make a story more interesting (or a character doing something stupid for the same reason) might make for an interesting moment, but in the end it just resonates as a ploy. JMO, naturally.

    Thanks for the great post!


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