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Is Courtship Passe in Romance?


Courtship is traditionally defined as the period of dating before marriage.

One of the things I love about romance books is the courtship. The meet cute (or just the meet), the stirrings of new feelings, and prolonged tension between a couple as their desire for each other mounts are all elements that I love to experience in a romance story. One aspect of chick lit books that spoke to me was the articulation of the courtship: the dating rituals, the awkwardness and uncertainty, the fresh new feel of it.

Jill Monroe’s November Blaze, SEALed and Delivered, featured a sweet romance in which the couple went out on a number of dates to get to know each other, to confirm their feelings for each other. The seeming lack of need for the couple to be sleeping with each other every spare moment helped me buy into the HEA which would require fidelity over long periods of separation given that the hero was a SEAL.

I don’t want to say that sex is not part of courtship. It is and can be a very important role, but sometimes I feel that the need to bring heat to a relationship early in the story can overshadow the actual falling in love aspect.  The word “love” is bandied about too easily and the state of permanency is entered into without much thought.  When love and permanency are easy to come by, those concepts are diminished in power.

So many of the paranormals today feature a soul mate trope. The question that I have is whether the concept of courtship can exist in a soul mate trope. If a couple is destined to be with each other what need is there for courtship? In soul mate tropes, either through magical means or biological imperative, the mates belong together. In some stories, the soul mates recognize and bond instantly.  The soul mate almost always requires external conflict to drive the plot because if the main protagonists are together and cannot be parted and emotionally accept this, what could be left to discuss?

I’m not adverse to the soul mate concept. I love the CL Wilson series which relies heavily on the mate concept, but she really shows you the dark side of the mate bond. I think the mate bond is something that can provide some very poignant romances, but in others, it can create an emotionally insubstantial story and in a romance, more than any genre, an emotionally insubstantial story is a tragedy.

Part of making me believe in the HEA is showing me (versus telling me) why the two characters belong together instead of with someone else.  On the whole, I think romantic suspense is one of the harder areas to pull this off.  So much of the book takes place over a truncated period of time that you get the sense the characters are more in love with surviving than with each other.  (Let it be known that I am a big fan of the romantic suspense sub genre).  Conversely, I think marriages of convenience are well suited to showing why the characters fall in love.  They are forced together, but what keeps them together?

My favorite stories are when I’m shown how the characters’ strengths and weaknesses overlap, where they gain mutual respect and admiration for each other, where their feelings are based on something other than a physical high.  In fact, it is from the deep well of emotion that I presume their physical highs arise. (Or at least that is how I want to see it).  I have told others that the one reason I think BDSM is so popular for erotic romance readers has less to do with erotic romance readers’ fantasies about being tied up and whipped and everything to do with how the BDSM authors tap into the headspace of the characters.  In successful BDSM books, there is a level of trust and understanding that has to be reached before true physical release can be achieved.  The characters tear down barriers to get to that point.  In a way, those negotiations between partners about sexual fantasies are courtships in and of themselves.

I guess I want to be romanced in a book and I’m seeing less of it than I would like.  What do you readers think? Is courtship passe? Are you being emotionally satisfied?  What books do you feel have the best or worst falling in love storylines?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Robin Amery
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 04:17:40

    Just yesterday I jotted down notes for a story where the courtship is essential :-).

    I often find the easy acceptance of the soul bond a bit problematic and would love to see more adversity to that. Maybe along the lines of: “I don’t want to be with you because of some *instinct* or *predestined destiny*. I want to be with you because I chose to be with you.”

    What if the two characters can’t stand each other and yet discover that they are destined for each other? Somehow they have to find a way to get along with each other. What if for example the woman doesn’t want to give up her independence just because someone shows up and proclaims they are her soul mate? I would want to see him showing her why he’s interested in *her*.

    I think part of the attraction of soul bonds might be the idea that there is one perfect, ideal match for us. But I also think it also takes away a bit the thrill of discovering the partner, slowly finding a way to each other, falling deeper and deeper in love, but also working towards making a relationship work. And maybe also the thrill of the hunt :-D.

    Even with couples that just fit together, I want to see them struggle with miscommunication, with different expectations and finding their way together.

    And now I have to go and write down a few more ideas… :-D

  2. Jan
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 05:02:12

    I find this a tough topic. I’m from Belgium, and we just don’t have the whole dating culture thing. Not that we don’t go out on dates, but it’s all more casual and not so bound by rules. The whole kiss by the front door thing, no sex before the third date and all that jazz, we just don’t have that. And I find all the angst these kind of courting rules cause incredibly tiresome because they seem so immensely superficial and contrived to me.

    It’s one of the reasons I mostly avoid Chick-Lit, because most of the time I just want to shout at the heroine to go with the flow.

    I do agree however that often the fated mates thing (or just the mate thing in general, where it’s the animal that decides for the human part), often makes for annoying skips in the relationship. I really liked how Briggs made Charles and Anna work at dealing with their mating after it took place.

    In fact, I really think that the fated mate thing is a bucket filled with untried conflicts and hurdles, and it definitely is something I’d like to see explored more.

  3. heh
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 05:26:36

    I’m in Oz, but I have to say ditto to Jan.
    Though it could be more a me thing, than an Australian thing per se. :D

  4. Merrian
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 06:48:40

    I wonder if the fated mates/soul mate relationship is closest in analogy to arranged marriages? Minimal ‘courtship’ before hand and the love – if it does, coming afterward.

    My personal objection to the fated mates scenario is the issue of personal agency and the loss of choice – of choosing and being chosen. I do understand the attraction of someone who is absolutely there for you though.

    Eileen Wilks deals with mate bonds pretty well I think becuase she tackles the issues implied for the ‘chosen’. In her world of the lupi books, Rule and Lily have to deal with Lily’s sense of being trapped and Benedict has his story of his first chosen being unwilling to accept the bond with serious consequences.

    I few years ago I read another shifter/wolf story (can’t remember who by) where the problems of fated mates were discussed as a chemical biological imperative and that shifters could find themselves damned both ways if they were in a relationship when their mate comes along. Leaving someone they love for the bond or staying with someone they love and doing without the bond – either way unhappiness ensues.

  5. Mary Anne Graham
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 07:00:52

    I love the concept of “soul mates.” One of the reasons I love it is that it poses an “absolute” which is a good cause for rebellion. In my books often one of the partners believes the pair are “soul mates” and the other finds the concept hogwash.

    I think courtship is different in soul mate books. In one of mine, “A Faerie Fated Forever” the hero and the heroine form a deep friendship but he rules her out as his potential soul mate based on her appearance. The courtship occurs, really, before the lightbulb moment.

    In another of mine, “The Duke of Eden,” the hero steps into a marital trap to avoid a soul mate. Then he has to negotiate a courtship that’s not while he extricates himself from a betrothal that is.

    I think the soul mate plot is most interesting because it creates a “fate” that the characters must accept or reject. But if there is a choice, is it really fate at all?

    Great post!

  6. BJ
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 07:19:30

    I think courtship to a romance story is what foreplay is to lovemaking – you miss out on a lot if you leave it out! One of the reasons I love a good series (Mercy Thompson or Kate Daniels, for example) is because there is enough time for the tension to peak. It makes the relationships extremely satisfying when they finally get together.

  7. Laura Florand
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 08:22:21

    @BJ: Yes, let’s hear it for the 5-book Kate-Curran courtship, BJ. :) That really has to be the most enjoyable courtship I have read in a while.

    However, for courtships that are confined to one book, I have really loved Ilona Andrews’ Edger books, too. Declan’s courtship of Rose was just such an incredibly perfect gallant, arrogant noble courtship.

    I honestly don’t think courtship is passé at all; I think it’s what it’s all about. I think you can have sex and courtship simultaneously, of course, or one before the other, and both can be a real pleasure to read. I do know what you mean about the sex-instead-of-relationship-development issue that some books have, but I really do think there are so many fantastic authors that have such beautiful courtships in their books.

    I don’t really read soul-mate books. So far, the idea hasn’t appealed to me much. So I can’t comment on that. But I would definitely say that courtship is not passé. (But I do think you can have sex while courting… :) Although there is a lot to be said for a nice build-up of sexual tension, say, Curran-Kate style.)

  8. Jaclyn
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 09:00:03

    The developing emotional bond between the characters is what draws me to romance novels. I also seek thoughtful emotional depth for each character as an individual, and it’s their relationship, not just their sexual relations, that makes the story mean something to me.

    I read a lot of sf, fantasy, and paranormal and in these stories it’s often the circumstances of the adventure that bring a couple together. The best of these stories offers a courtship of a sort, that is a growing emotional bond despite the fact that the characters may have been brought together by fate.

    Great post–it’s something that’s been on my mind but I hadn’t articulated it so clearly. Thank you!

  9. Liz Fichera
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 09:01:37

    For me, the key in an emotionally satisfying read is the tension. That tension usually occurs within that “courtship” phase, although that word is what might be passe. Courtship implies rules and deadlines, I think. I don’t care whether that courtship/getting-to-know-you phase lasts a day, a week, a year, etc. As long as the emotions and consequences feel believable.

  10. May
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 09:18:15

    Where is the “falling” part of in-love in romance these days?! I really love when a book SHOWS me the growth of the relationship, and why this is just the best love story. When I think about chatting about ‘how I fell in love’ with girlfriends – that is what I’m looking for more of in a romance. I would tell them about a cute incident when we were out to dinner, a tender moment walking to the car… DETAIL, in other words.

    I call it romance! pure and simple, I want to see that development (in ways other than sex) and I am hoping that it’s going to come back into style with writers – especially when we’re talking contemporary settings.

    Love this post – thanks Jane!

  11. Annabel
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 09:37:36

    I love this topic! Hear hear! I probably sound like a stodgy old man but I mourn a lot of things that I feel are disappearing in the romance genre, and courtship/new relationship tension is one of those things, for sure.

    I’m not opposed to characters jumping right into the sack if there’s a reason or believable set up for it, but the whole soul-mate-at-the-drop-of-a-hat is not a good enough reason to me. Even if people jump right into the sack, I still want the courtship afterward when they look at each other and say, “oh my. What was that all about?” I need at least some relationship struggles for them to grapple with and overcome. People who are just instantly in love–and the rest of the book is some external conflict they’re dealing with while they have lovey dovey convo’s and sex each other up in perfect harmony…yawn. It’s a DNF for me.

    I will say that out of the two e-rom publishers I wrote for, one expected sex within the first two or three chapters. If you couldn’t figure out how to make sex happen realistically, then they would suggest you add in a fantasy or masturbation scene, even if it wasn’t called for by the story. It really irritated me. The other had the opposite rule…they wanted tension for AT LEAST the first half of the book before the h/h consummated things. I personally think the second rule results in more satisfying and emotionally real books.

    But keep in mind that when you come across that unrealistically early sex scene or early cementing of a relationship, it could be driven by publisher or editor expectations. :(

  12. DS
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 09:57:39

    I always equated the fated mate thing with “love at first sight” stories. Neither makes the actual romance very interesting– which is why there was always artificial reasons to keep the couple apart– the Big Mis, Dreadful Secrets, and Pirate Kidnappings. Ok, the Pirate Kidnappings could be interesting.

  13. Mary G
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 10:20:50

    Great question! I wonder how much of this is because we marry when we’re older now than we used to. Hubby & I met in our late 20’s – met & married within 6 months (he proposed after 3 weeks). We just knew by then, what we wanted.

    I think another thing that drives this is instant gratification. My fave premises all include the couple already knowing each other: reunited lovers, best friend’s sister/brother/cousin. The interaction is there from the beginning.

    That said, it still has to fit the story. Laura’s comment says it for me:

    I think you can have sex and courtship simultaneously, of course, or one before the other, and both can be a real pleasure to read.

  14. LG
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 10:21:14

    @DS: See, I consider soulmate books to be more “lust at first sight” or “I want your babies at first sight” – in the really good ones, the love comes later. Take Eileen Wilks’ werewolf books. The soulmate bond in those books does not guarantee that the characters will have a happy life together. Then there’s L.J. Smith’s Daughters of Darkness (YA, and maybe technically not a romance, because of how it ends), in which couple that discovers they are soulmates dislike each other intensely at first.

    I don’t think the soulmate trope necessarily rules out courtship, even in cases where there’s some insta-love. There are times when one of the pair experiences insta-love and the other has doubts, so that leaves opportunities for courtship. That doesn’t mean the author won’t take the easy out and use good sex to fake actual relationship development, but that can happen in any book, not just books with the soulmate trope.

    Although, hmm, it also just occurred to me that what popped into my mind as “courtship” may not be considered courtship by some. Do they need to go on dates, give each other flowers, that sort of thing? I’m not big on the “our eyes meet, and we’re both instantly in love with each other” kind of romance (at least, not for a full novel), but I do like it when the characters start to fall in love as they get to know each other, even if there are no activities that might fall into a stricter definition of courtship.

  15. Helen
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 10:31:38

    This was not my favorite ya book series but I thought the handling of the “soul mate” thing was different and interesting particularly in the 2nd book. Tera Lynn Childs Forgive My Fins and Fins are Forever.

  16. SabrinaDarby
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 10:31:53

    I love when the soul mate question is ambiguous, i.e. “are we really fated or are we just delusional?” For me, that really captures the way humans wrap story around their love.

    Of course, I don’t read all that much paranormal, so now I’m mostly talking about straight historical or contemporary.

  17. Moriah Jovan
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 10:32:55

    In my latest book, Magdalene, they date for half the book before Teh Sexx0ring takes place. I wanted to see how far I could ramp up the sexual tension.

    Lemme tell ya. Writing a straightforward courtship with dates that were interesting and worth reading was HARD.

  18. Courtney
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 11:14:45

    I love the courtship aspects of romance books and I agree-it can be more difficult to see this in romantic suspense books. One reason why I read romance is because I love to see the interaction between the hero/heroine from beginning to end and all of the in-between. I love seeing how their relationship develops and how they go from attraction to relationship to commitment. I think Lisa Kleypas is very adept at this in her historicals. I also think Nalini Singh is very gifted at this in the psy/changeling series. I loved how she showed the reader the development of the relationship between Hawke and Sienna in “Kiss of Snow.”

  19. MaryK
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 11:29:29

    OMG, the monkeys! My eyes!

    I like the soul mate concept in moderation; I wouldn’t like it to be in every book. Real life relationships are so uncertain in that we’re always looking for Mr. Right and wondering if so-and-so is The One. Fated mates can be an answer to that uncertainty.

    It’s possible to have soul mates and courtship if one party isn’t convinced s/he’s a fated mate or is conflicted about the particular destined mate or even the whole concept. Patricia Briggs did fated mates well in Alpha and Omega. Charles’ wolf nature recognizes his mate immediately but his human self is reluctant. And that’s not even counting Anna’s issues.

    I remember reading a review of Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince that said you could feel the change in the way the hero said “my Lady” as their relationship progressed, how it changed from proper address to an endearment. I like that.

  20. Anne Calhoun
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 11:34:16

    Very interesting topic. One of the things I try to do in sexier rom or erorom is mark that early sex throws the typical courtship out of balance. The relationship is too intimate, too soon, which changes how the characters interact with each other and makes their continued sexual attraction to each other part of the conflict. I want the characters to acknowledge that discontinuity — feel it, struggle with it — and explicitly note when the emotional intimacy catches up with the sexual intimacy. I think that creates a bigger payoff for the reader in the end.

  21. Chelsea S
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 11:51:40

    Whether or not I find an HEA believable boils down to two questions: 1) What brought them together in the first place? 2)What’s going to keep them together for the rest of their lives? So many authors are good at number 1, but stumble at number 2. Authors can invent all kinds of crazy ways to bring two people together, up to and including mystical magical mate bonding. But when it comes to answering question two, they just say “Well, they’re in love, end of story.” That’s not good enough for me. I want to see what they have in common, and what they don’t. I want communication, affection, and respect. And that certain something that is impossible to describe–chemistry, I guess.

    When it comes to answering that second question, nothing does it quite so well as courtship. It doesn’t have to be traditional dating. It can be little gestures, conversation, arguments, apologies, etc. So yes, I would like to see more courtship and relationship building in my books.

  22. DS
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 12:52:55

    @LG: No need for “traditional” courtship. I was surprised at the idea of Rules for dating. I also have no objection to instant lust. It’s the path from meeting to love that I find interesting.

    I also firmly believe in free will, Fate is not part of my world view– but that’s just my background speaking, I think.

  23. Lindsay Townsend
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 14:40:27

    I love courtship in a romance and in life. I love writing it, too. To me it enhances the love-making when it takes place and adds a delicious tension to the story and the romance.

  24. Liz
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 15:05:17

    I am so hungry for contemporary romance where the relationship grows slowly and the emotions are intense. I’m finding it very hard to find this outside of m/m–I’d love some recommendations for contemporary straight romance that does this. It’s not as hard for me to find in historicals (Kleypas, Quinn, James, and Balogh have all had winners for me). Are the people in contemporaries just too well-adjusted or something? I want some angst!

    I’m not talking about delayed sex, necessarily–although I really do enjoy a buildup of sexual tension–but delayed love. Genuine reasons why this might not work out. A story. Please.

  25. Ridley
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 15:07:57

    I don’t think showing me a long courtship means you have to keep the characters’ clothes on.

    Off the top of my head, Hot Under Pressure, a Blaze title from Kathleen O’Reilly, did a great job of working out a detailed courtship despite throwing them in bed together in the first or second chapter. She did it by using sex properly as a storytelling tool. The first time they hook up it’s all hot, explosive lust…until it’s over, and then they don’t know what to do. Sex with a stranger is fine, but post-coital cuddling? Walking naked to the bathroom? And so on.

    As the story progresses, so does their comfort with each other. You see them add emotional intimacy to the physical intimacy through their long phone calls, dinner dates and nekkid snuggling. They help each other work through some personal and professional issues. In short, she shows us how and why they’re perfect for each other.

    I don’t think it’s passe at all. It’s just really hard to do, and most writers just aren’t equal to the task. Showing instead of telling is, I think, the crucial first step in writing a great book. That’s hard enough to do. To then also do a good job showing a believable courtship scenario? Hard as all get out.

    But, when an author does nail it, and we get to see two people balance each other out and grow together? Those are the books you finish with an audible sigh and then lend to your friends to convert them to romance.

  26. Lilian Darcy
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 18:31:11

    This is where I think category/series romance shines, espcially the more “grounded” lines like Special Edition. Most of the books do deliver on courtship, and on creating characters who will believably stay together, partly because the focus is always so strongly on the central couple. I have to believe I’m giving my characters what they need for a true HEA or the book doesn’t work and the writing doesn’t flow.

  27. Kaetrin
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 20:04:43

    I’m another who wants the courtship as well. I don’t mind whether there’s sex before/during or after the courtship – but as a reader, the courtship is where I learn about the characters and how they fit together – without it, there’s no believable HEA. As for fated mates, well, I’m not a fan of insta-love in general but some of these types of stories have worked well for me – eg the Charles & Anna mating from Patricia Briggs that so many have mentioned above.
    I agree with Jane re marriage of convenience stories – there has to be a courtship for the characters to have their HEA, even though its ass backwards.
    I enjoy romantic suspense but it works best for me where the characters already know each other (childhood sweethearts or ex-wives/husbands etc, so there’s already a believable connection) or where the suspense takes place over a longer period of time – Karen Rose and Pamela Clare both feature the latter, albeit in different ways. There’s a Cindy Gerard EDEN book where the hero has to go and rescue his ex-wife from terrorists in Indonesia – that was great – there was all the emotion of the previous relationship, what went wrong and how to fix it, munched up with the present suspense – those are the kinds of stories that tend to work best for me in RS.

  28. Fiona McGier
    Jul 06, 2011 @ 00:19:59

    If you define courtship as being composed of rules that must be followed, then no, I’m not interested in reading romances like that, or in writing them. But the whole point of courtship was supposed to be the man convincing the woman that she should choose HIM to be with, above all others. Now THAT is something I write over and over. My heroines are all independent, and it takes the heroes time to convince their beloved that it’s not just “hot monkey sex”, but true love that draws them together.

  29. LG
    Jul 06, 2011 @ 06:42:22

    @Fiona McGier: Lol, maybe not a good thing to refer to “hot monkey sex,” considering this post’s image. MaryK’s not the only one going “my eyes!”

  30. Fiona McGier
    Jul 06, 2011 @ 11:35:45

    Actually I did that intentionally. Ever since I read about how Bonobo monkeys, close genetic relatives to us, have sex with everyone all the time, I’ve been jealous! They use sex to say hello, to say goodbye, and everything in-between. Ah, if only…

  31. MaryK
    Jul 06, 2011 @ 12:07:44

    The phrase “hot monkey sex” will never again have quite the same meaning for me. Thank You, Jane.

    @Kaetrin: “I agree with Jane re marriage of convenience stories – there has to be a courtship for the characters to have their HEA, even though its ass backwards.”

    Marriage of convenience is one of my favorite themes, and it does seem like fated mates is a modern, paranormal variation except it’s often used as shorthand for an instant established relationship with plot conflict coming from external elements. The more memorable fated mates stories seem to be the ones that more closely follow the marriage of convenience outline.

    @Ridley: I’m going to have to get Hot Under Pressure. I think I’ve looked at it before and thought it sounded shallow based on the blurb. Your summary makes it sound quite good.

  32. Isobel Carr
    Jul 06, 2011 @ 12:19:10

    Fated mates always brings me back to ELFQUEST (I was a kid when that comic started and was fascinated by all the versions of the syndrome). Most fated mate stories don’t work for me, but occasionally an author pulls it off (mostly when they acknowledge a down/darkside and show that it’s not all roses and babies). There’s just something really unromantic about being compelled. I think the reason ELFQUEST worked for me is that it was a biological thing: they had to reproduce, not fall in love.

  33. Ridley
    Jul 06, 2011 @ 12:28:04

    @MaryK: I really enjoyed it. O’Reilly writes great career women and matches them with heroes who value the heroines’ intelligence, work ethic and successes as much as anything else.

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