Movies have a voluntary rating system. Books, not so much. We may argue about the way the movie rating scale has changed over time or the usefulness of the MPA’s system, but the ratings provide at least a starting point when choosing what we’ll watch.
Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.
In romance novels, there is a binary, perhaps ternary, system. There are clean or sweet novels and stories (read this as no sex on the page). There are steamy works (read that as sex included and described). And some might include erotica in the genre. (I could argue it belongs somewhere else, depending on your definition of romance, but that’s a discussion for another day). Today we’ll call it three categories, but in each sub-genre, there are endless variations and gradations of the expression of attraction, relationship, romance, and love. Note: Later, I might also need to include the measurement of violence, swearing, use of alcohol, etc. in my rating system. Today, I’m just discussing sensuality.
As a new author of clean/sweet regency romances, I want to create a more nuanced, helpful assessment in my sub-genre for those who read clean romance fiction. I could call it the clean romance affection continuum (CRAC)? Or maybe the sweet romance ardor scale (SRAS)? The physical affection rating system (PARS)? The romance heat spectrum (RHS)? Kissing Quotient (KQ)?
Whatever I call it, my scale would let a reader know how much physical intimacy, as part of the growth of the relationship, they can expect to be present before they pick up a novel, novella, or short story so they can make an informed decision. Join me in a little (and little longer) discussion about “heat” in a clean romantic work.
I’m thinking a 0-10 continuum line, with 0 being absolutely no physical interaction beyond what courtesy demands. There would be no interior dialogue or narrator insertions about attractiveness or physical reaction to the romantic interest. None of the characters’ feelings of attraction or behaviors acting on such would be included. Dialogue between characters would have no overt examples of anything more than a high-minded regard. In a novel or story on the zero end of the line, any warmth would have to be created in the reader’s mind. I call this zero on the scale because I’m not sure it really would qualify as romance, per se. I can think of no examples here because I’m pretty sure I would put such a novel down without finishing it.
At 10 would be a story where, (remember I’m only including novels that fall into the clean/sweet category), there is no sex on the page, but sex might be implied. There might be some descriptions of kissing, even arousal. These descriptions might even be frequent and detailed–a major part of the building of the relationship.
Somewhere in between 1-3, I would place Jane Austin’s novels. (No one does it better than Jane Austin). Though, Austen doesn’t write descriptions of physical interactions between her main characters, the attraction and sexual tension is palpable. The growth of the romance is carried by looks and witty exchanges between the eventual lovers. Hints, and sometimes outright commentary, by minor characters show the growing attraction (Bingley’s sister’s jealous/mocking comments, Maryanne’s family and friends’ concern, etc.). Additionally, the undercurrent of sexuality in society is revealed, especially in the lives and choices of minor characters, ie. Georgina’s innocent and Lydia’s heedless tumble into the clutches of the depraved Wickham or Mr. William Elliot’s final attachment of Mrs. Clay, etc.
At the 2-5 range, I might place the novels of Georgette Heyer. She has the long looks and the heated exchanges and the witty repartee. We love it! However, Georgette Heyer adds a physical element. Her characters are described in terms of physicality and attraction. And almost all kiss at the end, sometimes twice! The range is also wider because some of her novels are thematically more sexual in nature, think Venetia or even Devil’s Cub.
Many contemporary authors’ works would fall in the 4-8 range. I think most of us want to write books that appeal to readers who don’t want to be the fly on the wall of the characters’ bedrooms. At the same time, we (I) want to appeal to a modern audience that expects that part of romance, as we know it, includes thoughts of awareness and attraction, and the growth of those feelings, side by side with a growth of emotional intimacy.
This is true of my Regency romance novels (and novella). I find it difficult to write the growth of a romantic relationship without the interwoven growth of physical awareness. On the one hand, I would love to have the subtlety and skill of Austen or Heyer. On the other hand, I live in this time. I enjoy a little more overt awareness. I like to see the growth of attraction. I think it’s a sweet part of the process of falling in love to tremble at a touch, to sigh, to desire. And yes, to kiss. (I would like to see appreciation for the small, nuanced steps of physical intimacy restored into our modern views of romance–but that’s another post for another day).
In my Illusions series novella, Philip and Maris discover their attraction and want to explore it, even though her brother keeps interrupting. So, add an element of frustration.
While I may not be so subtle as Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, I try not to beat my readers with inappropriate (for clean/sweet romance) sensuality. So, my characters are aware of each other physically. They contemplate, may even question this attraction. In the first novel in my Illusions series, Robert and Liza both have secrets and questions and doubts. But they do kiss. More than once.
After years of reading clean/sweet romances, many of them regency/historical romances, I have found that what I love to read spans a good portion of my, still to be named, scale. And that has informed and guided my writing.
How about you? What level of sensuality are you comfortable with in your clean/sweet romance novels and stories? You can use my new rating system if you want. (And feel free to use examples).