What exactly do readers expect?

If you don’t want readers to throw your book across the room in frustration, it’s important to understand the expectations they bring with them when they choose to read a romance. It’s all about having a particular reading experience, of knowing that—whatever hardships and heartaches intervene—everything will work out in the end.

Below are the basics of those expectations with regard especially to historical romance. These concepts may seem limiting at first, but within the conventions the potential variety is infinite.

Reader expectation 1: A glamorous setting

It goes without saying that readers want to be immersed in a time and place that feels more elegant, in many ways simpler, and where outcomes are clear and logical. What isn’t perhaps as obvious is that creating this setting involves careful curation of a mass of historical and cultural information.

In essence, no matter how deeply you’ve researched your period, no matter how many fascinating tidbits of information are swimming around in your head, you have to focus only on those facts and events that serve your story. This is the subject of the third module in this course.

To put it in balder terms: in Historical Romance, the story comes first. History is the adjective, not the noun. 

Reader Expectation 2: Tropes and literary conventions

Desperate to tell the story of a tragic romance? Want to highlight the evils of encroaching industrialization? Fascinated by a scandal that rocked your historical world? Keen to introduce readers to an exceptional and unknown historical figure? These are all great ideas for historical fiction. 

But not for historical romance.

Your readers want a happy-ever-after (otherwise known as an HEA), or at the very least, a happy for now. That means you can’t kill off a protagonist if you don’t want readers to hurl your book across the room. 

It also means that your entire story must revolve around the principal romance. Most novels include romantic elements. But that doesn’t mean they can be described as romances. 

In other words, and at the risk of being repetitive, it’s romance first, historical second. And as a romance, your novel will likely make use of common tropes, for instance:

  • Enemies to lovers
  • Friends to lovers
  • Fake relationship
  • Opposites attract

There are others, of course. These tropes are in large part what give the romance genre its bad name among the literary minded—but not among readers. Yes, the formulas are there. But the combination of variety of circumstances, characters, and settings provides virtually limitless story possibilities.

And readers have the comfort of knowing that whatever obstacles are thrown in their way, the right two people will end up together.

Reader expectation 3. Protagonists to fall in love with

Think about your favorite historical romance. What do you remember about it? Chances are, you fell in love with one or other members of the protagonist couple. When the story ended in that satisfying embrace, you might have pictured yourself engulfed in the hero’s strong arms, garbed in a round gown of sprigged muslin with a sarsnet scarf draped over your elbows. If not, you at least felt sad about having to leave his broad shoulders (covered in a Weston-tailored superfine coat) and gleaming Hessian boots behind.

Your protagonists have to have character arcs as well. They might start out less than sympathetic, but circumstances eventually reveal something about them that makes a reader forgive and forget whatever missteps or blunders they made along the way. We’ll explore this more in Module 2.