Not a Romance

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TellMeAStory

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My main character is a nursing student and then a nurse in the 1930s. At that time, nurses couldn't marry (and remain in the profession). My character is not by any means a "man hater," and like most young women, she likes to be liked.

My problem is that whenever MC is attracted to a young man, my readers expect romance and are disappointed—read ANGRY—when MC tears herself away to be true to her profession.

What am I doing wrong?
 

lizmonster

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How many readers are we talking about?

It's possible you're not doing anything wrong. Some readers, when presented with a mutual attraction, will be unhappy if that attraction doesn't end up with a couple, no matter how true that is to the story.

It's also possible you've structured your story like a romance novel, leading your readers to expect a romance novel denouement. If that's what you've got, it's worth reworking.

Do you have any crit partners you can ask?
 

ChaseJxyz

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Whenever I see a story and there's a man/woman and they have any sort of mildly-friendly interaction with a woman/man and it then turns into a romance, I want to gag. Heterosexual romance doesn't have to be in every story! Like we get it, your character isn't gay! You don't have to make every story about a straight character about them being straight 🙄

But, of course, there are people who like that, who seek out stories like that. And you can kind of get the idea that a story will go that way based on how these characters interact. If your MC sees a cute guy and thinks "huh he's cute well gotta get to the library to study for my nursing exams!" then your readers are really over-reacting and that's on them (assuming they are your target audience). But if your MC is agonizing over cute guys and wanting to be in a romantic relationship and that is the central conflict of the story, there's going to be people that will be upset that """""""""""""""""true love"""""""""""" didn't win out in the end. But I also imagine you're not writing a Disney movie where everything works out nicely.

Or....you can make your MC a lesbian, so then she can be Gal Pals and no one would suspect a thing, it's just two best friends living together and hanging out and they share a dog named Sappho and it's very wholesome :)
 

lizmonster

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Regarding the marketing question, if your work is categorized as feminist your main character's choices may show strength. In that context, the reader would expect her to act as she does.
"Feminist" isn't a fiction marketing category that I'm aware of.

I'm assuming OP knows better than to market it as a category romance. It sounds like historical fiction to me, and as I said above, as long as the narrative structure doesn't adhere to that of a category romance, it's probably fine.
 
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Roxxsmom

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How you set things up makes a bit difference. What is the focus of the book? Are the romances she ultimately rejects significant parts of the story arc? Whenever an attraction or relationship takes up story real estate, many people expect some kind of arc there, even if a tale isn't a romance.

Also, one way readers tend to be "sexist" in their assumptions (even female readers) is if the protagonist is female, people tend to think finding a way to "have it all" is required for a emotionally satisfying outcome. With more male-centered stories, it seems to be more acceptable for the protagonist to have a fling where they shake hands and part ways, or where he leaves a love interest for "noble" reasons, or he rejects female overtures because whatever he is doing is just too important right now to get involved.

However, it is possible that something about the way the romances are portrayed and emphasized that leads readers to expect a successful relationship. I don't know what stage you are at in the development of your story, but if your beta readers don't expect a romance and they still find it frustrating, you might ask them if there were a way to set things up so readers wouldn't expect a long-term romance to become a major story thread.
 

TellMeAStory

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My angry readers are my critique partners, lizmonster, so no help there.

I'm still writing/revising, so, Paul Lamb, marketing isn't an issue, but I do intend to present the work as historical fiction.

ChaseJxyz, we're talking heterosexual interactions. When the first heterosexual interaction is introduced, my MC--who was raised among women--is puzzled by the strange sensations she feels when near that certain young man. He's horribly shy, so no romance comes of that, and my critique partners grind their teeth.

Roxxsmom, rejected romances ARE a big part of the story arc. I'm setting them up as temptations my MC must and will ultimately overcome. She's tempted, so shouldn't my readers be tempted as well?

No?
 

lizmonster

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My angry readers are my critique partners, lizmonster, so no help there.

I'm still writing/revising, so, Paul Lamb, marketing isn't an issue, but I do intend to present the work as historical fiction.

ChaseJxyz, we're talking heterosexual interactions. When the first heterosexual interaction is introduced, my MC--who was raised among women--is puzzled by the strange sensations she feels when near that certain young man. He's horribly shy, so no romance comes of that, and my critique partners grind their teeth.

Roxxsmom, rejected romances ARE a big part of the story arc. I'm setting them up as temptations my MC must and will ultimately overcome. She's tempted, so shouldn't my readers be tempted as well?

No?

Based on this I don't think there's anything wrong with your story. It's realistic, given your historic framework, that she'd have to choose. It's also realistic that she'd choose her career. I don't even think this is an unusual trope in fiction.

Have your crit partners been more detailed than "But we want the HEA"? It might be worth interrogating them to see if they can be more clear about their investment in that particular plot point.

I love reading romance, but there is absolutely no reason that a piece of fiction, even with a romantic subplot, must end with a couple.

Disclaimer: My first SF book had a romantic subplot that didn't end in an HEA, and I've been hammered in reviews for that, but the publisher - for some unfathomable reason - decided to market it at romance readers, so the reaction wasn't a surprise.
 
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CMBright

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My angry readers are my critique partners, lizmonster, so no help there.

I'm still writing/revising, so, Paul Lamb, marketing isn't an issue, but I do intend to present the work as historical fiction.

ChaseJxyz, we're talking heterosexual interactions. When the first heterosexual interaction is introduced, my MC--who was raised among women--is puzzled by the strange sensations she feels when near that certain young man. He's horribly shy, so no romance comes of that, and my critique partners grind their teeth.

Roxxsmom, rejected romances ARE a big part of the story arc. I'm setting them up as temptations my MC must and will ultimately overcome. She's tempted, so shouldn't my readers be tempted as well?

No?

If you have set this up as an either/or situation, in my opinion, you've done your job as a writer.

I would suggest going back and looking for foreshadowing and setting this up as an either/or choice on your next pass through the manuscript. Look for places where you can reinforce the stakes and her motivation to chose career over relationships.

I forget where I saw it, but one writer on a blog used colored text for different things, maybe use one color for foreshadowing, one for the conflict, one for motivation, one for stakes, and so on if you think that would help better see what is going in.
 

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I would imagine signposting the attraction is the issue. It feels like a Chekhov's Date, where a mutual attraction usually signals a romantic subplot (whether or not they wind up together). However, if they're both attracted to each other, they partly act on that attraction, and then she tears herself from it, I feel like you've already fulfilled on the narrative arc, even if it's not the outcome people necessarily want.

The other part of the problem is career-woman-who-doesn't-have-time-for-or-want-romance is such a widely used trope in various romance genres where signposting that somebody doesn't want a romance creates the expectation within readers' minds that a subversion is going to happen because a subversion so often happens. I feel like this is a lot harder to avoid, because the more you establish the stakes, the more some people might think, "Wow, this romance is going to be so much more meaningful!" and there probably isn't anything you can do in those cases.
 

llyralen

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Of course they are angry if there was set up and no pay off.

WHY does she let herself get attracted? How far do you take these relationships? Is she on the fence about wanting to stay a nurse or be in a relationship? If not, then is she teasing these men? AND as a writer are you teasing your readers? If she wants to have sex but no relationships then she is cruising for a bruising but she needs a non-romance story line to satisfy your reader with since the romance story line is not going to happen— are you sure you don’t want romance to happen? If no, then consider making her too busy or too old to notice guys at all or already married.

If there will be no romance for her then a brief “the doctor was young and attractive and liked talking to me about home. I would have to watch my heart” followed by medical stuff having to do with the main plot of the book, then okay. What is she trying to accomplish? Where is the tension? If the tension is only about these flirtations and it’s never resolved then that’s teasing and disappointing your reader— unless you’re writing a heartbreaker on purpose and her learning compassion or social climbing to a certain position is the character arc. For a non-heart breaker the tension could be about her trying to become charge nurse or trying to get permission to hang blood for patients, or her creating a campaign for more cleanliness or a new medical method or trying to advocate for patients who doctors have given up on, etc. Otherwise your audience will expect her to be swept off of her feet at some point to resolve the tension that you’ve set up.

It’s all about using a set up that you didn’t intend to pay off. It’s like you’re saying “Knock knock” and your audience obligingly does their part and says “Who’s there?” And you say “Hmm? I was just talking out loud about the sound that door just made”. Your audience is going to be ticked off.

Edit: I read your later explanation post and I think you’re flogging your character everyone on purpose. Why go through such pain? There would have to be a huge pay-off for this kind of pain and self-sacrifice. I couldn’t even think of what it would be that would make me go through that, maybe if she thinks she will go to hell otherwise? Or is making up spiritually for something horrible she did? But I would still want that healed through the course of the story.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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The other part of the problem is career-woman-who-doesn't-have-time-for-or-want-romance is such a widely used trope in various romance genres where signposting that somebody doesn't want a romance creates the expectation within readers' minds that a subversion is going to happen because a subversion so often happens.
If a subversion is expected to happen, is it really a subversion anymore? Woman who spends all her time working on her career and doesn't have time for love but meets a nice handsome Christmas tree farmer and then she learns the true meaning of Christmas and also love is a whole genre of movies.

Also writing that out, it sure does feel shitty that it's "expected" for a woman to throw away her career so she can be with a man (who will presumably now provide for her). So honestly it is very nice that OP has a story where that doesn't happen.
 

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My problem is that whenever MC is attracted to a young man, my readers expect romance and are disappointed—read ANGRY—when MC tears herself away to be true to her profession.

What am I doing wrong?

Another possibility, for what it's worth, is to signpost that this character is attracted to lots of people, or has been in the past, that these things go awry in her life, that if she's learned one thing it's to not go all swoony over so-and-so or else to have her go all swoony over lots of folks...

Basically, monogamous attraction is a promise to the reader, but there are various ways around the 'promise' to let readers know that that isn't a real gun on the mantel but instead a pop gun.
 

lizmonster

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Basically, monogamous attraction is a promise to the reader, but there are various ways around the 'promise' to let readers know that that isn't a real gun on the mantel but instead a pop gun.

Monogamous attraction is only a promise to the reader in a genre romance. I daresay there are a lot of books in a lot of genres with monogamous relationships that don't work out.

It is, though, all in the execution.
 

Woollybear

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Eh. All the readers in my first crit group read/write spec fic, and they all expected my male lead and my female leads to meet and fall in love.

It was so annoying, since that was nowhere in the cards for these two.

I think tropes run deep across genres.
 
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lizmonster

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Eh. All the readers in my first crit group read/write spec fic, and they all expected my male lead and my female leads to meet and fall in love.

It was so annoying, since that was nowhere in the cards for these two.

I think tropes run deep across genres.
They do. But this trope isn't required for any genre but romance, and there are so many books that don't go there. The OP's setup in particular lends itself perfectly to making the non-romance choice.
 

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In my experience as a reader outside the romance genre (e.g. fantasy, SF, mystery), for pretty much every book I read that has a female protagonist and a male MC, there's a romance subplot and the two of them get together (HEA, HFN, or didn't quite work out endings). For pretty much every book I read that has a male protagonist and a female MC, there's no romance subplot -- they may or may not boink, but romance/love isn't part of the male protagonist's agenda.

So I think maybe yeah, readers are led to expect romance with a female protag because that's what's put in front of them so often.
 

lizmonster

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I understand that it isn't required. In my experience, readers anticipate it anyway.

Which doesn't mean we have to write it that way, if it's not what the story wants.

I don't mean to be ornery here. I think the OP's story, as described, is a perfect example of when reader expectations need to be subverted. There are historical reasons a woman would have to choose between a perfectly viable suitor--even one she loves--and a career. Some women in the real world chose career. I fully believe a book can tell the story of a woman who genuinely loves a man but chooses to leave him behind, and be compelling and publishable.

So I think maybe yeah, readers are led to expect romance with a female protag because that's what's put in front of them so often.

I like writing attraction and relationships, so I do. (In the book I just finished revising, my two MCs fell in love without telling me. Jerks.) But there are hundreds of books out there that don't, and most of them sell better than mine. :)

I just don't think it's an automatic negative if a book doesn't do it, and I'm a little surprised to see people flag it as a problem.
 

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Which doesn't mean we have to write it that way, if it's not what the story wants.

I don't mean to be ornery here. I think the OP's story, as described, is a perfect example of when reader expectations need to be subverted. There are historical reasons a woman would have to choose between a perfectly viable suitor--even one she loves--and a career. Some women in the real world chose career. I fully believe a book can tell the story of a woman who genuinely loves a man but chooses to leave him behind, and be compelling and publishable.
I agree: this story sounds like it ought not be a romance, and is much the better for that choice. It's just a harder slog for the writer if they have to go against reader expectations.
 

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The question I originally responded to was "What am I doing wrong?"

My answer (post 17) remains: Signal to the readers what it is that your story will deliver. Simple as that.

Another possibility, for what it's worth, is to signpost that this character is attracted to lots of people, or has been in the past, that these things go awry in her life, that if she's learned one thing it's to not go all swoony over so-and-so or else to have her go all swoony over lots of folks...

Basically, monogamous attraction is a promise to the reader, but there are various ways around the 'promise' to let readers know that that isn't a real gun on the mantel but instead a pop gun.