The thing I love most about romance is that it’s a complex, diverse world, but it’s also simple to explain. It’s built on one idea—everyone deserves love and a happy ending. Everyone. No exceptions.
It shouldn’t matter who you love, or why, or how, and the romance world proves this every day with an ever-expanding spectrum of books.
Broad representation matters. We know this. Writers reflect and explore it, readers enthusiastically respond to it. It’s part of showing both new and current readers that we are stewards of the concept of love by making it as big and wide as the real world is.
But when we talk about representation, we still haven’t gotten all the way there on the “broad” part. I’m here to talk about one of the commonly excluded areas of representation—age.
Seasoned Characters in Romance
I never thought much about the age of characters in romance until I made the switch from reader to writer. It was shortly after my 40th birthday. I guess you can say I’m a late bloomer. I’d had an idea for a book in my head for 8 years and it was dying to get out. And because I’d just had a monumental birthday, I made that part of the story—my heroine was on the brink of 40. My hero was 45.
I toiled away on the book for a year. I revised and polished. I met other writers. I learned everything I could. I gave it to beta readers. To my delight, and great relief, people loved it.
But when I started to query agents and editors, I quickly ran into a brick wall.
A romance with a forty year-old woman is women’s fiction. There’s no sex in women’s fiction.
Readers don’t want a romance about a heroine that old.
No one wants to read about forty year-olds having sex.
These are real comments I received from editors and agents in rejections and at pitch sessions. Now, I’m all for genre conventions (HEA/HFN or GTFO!), but this one stumped me. I was 40 and looking at my life and nothing the publishing world was saying meshed with my reality. Yes, I was already married, but my husband and I have romance in our lives and there is absolutely sex. I wasn’t feeling old. I felt like I was just getting started.
Now, I wasn’t about to change my book, not even to get published. My heroine was also a single mom with a daughter about to go to college. I would have had to rip out the entire guts of the story to make her the magical age of 29. (M/M author Michael Bailey fed me that kernel of observation…it is true that an awful lot of characters tend to be 29.) Eventually, I found a small press to put out that first book, it did well, but was reverted to me when the small press went under. I indie published it and it does great.
But beyond my own struggles with finding a home for my book, I refused to believe there was an age limit on happiness. Or an age at which it is no longer awesome to find true love. Then the feminist part of my brain started to uncoil the sexist roots of this. Because it has been largely true in society that older men are seen as silver foxes and older women are old gray hags. An older man and a younger woman is seen as a perfectly obvious arrangement, whereas an older woman with a younger man must carry the label of cougar, as if a woman has to be a predator to be with a young man.
My basic point is that society’s ageism starts with sexism. And for some unknown reason, romance publishing buys into it. Which is pretty astounding, considering how many women work in romance publishing.
I could rant about this for a while, but I won’t. I’m hoping you can see how much this bias against aging is really wrapped up in what we value from women. Perfectly smooth skin and pert breasts and fertility are everything. Anything else is dried up, unsexy, and to be forgotten. Romance has managed to push so many perceptions of beauty and love and sexuality, but one we’re lagging on, big time, is age.
I don’t blame authors at all. In fact, authors are the ones leading the charge on changing this. It’s publishers who are clinging to these ideas that people come with expiration dates. They’re telling us, either out loud or in the books they choose not to publish, that anyone beyond 35 must be done with love. But we all know how untrue that is.
I’m not much into bitching about stuff without action (a quality that improves with age!), so I, along with one of my best writer pals, Margaret Ethridge (aka Maggie Wells), started a Facebook group for romance readers who want older characters. It’s called Seasoned Romance, we’re over three years and 3500 members in. For many of our members, their enthusiasm for romance with characters in their 40s, 50s, or 60s comes from wanting to reinforce what they already know: a person’s desire and desirability does not die at a particular age. Older characters resonate with them. Hello, representation.
Running the Facebook group also introduced me to an entire ecosystem of writers who not only write these characters, but who have encountered the same frustrations I have with traditional publishing. If you look closely, most romance with older characters is indie published. Those who gain a traditional deal are often established authors, and it’s never the lead title in a series. It’s Book 3 or 4 or later, when some older characters can sneak their way in. There are always exceptions, but this seems to be largely true.
Writing Seasoned Characters
For writers out there who are interested in writing older characters, but aren’t sure how to go about it, I would say this: older people are exactly like younger people. They just have more road behind them. And as in all writing, I would hope that you’d do your best to avoid stereotypes: cranky, stuck-in-their-ways, complaining about their health, talking about the weather, and wearing orthopedic shoes. In other words, pay attention to what people who are your character’s age are actually like in real life.
I’ve found that most writers in these waters tend to write about characters their own age, but some explore characters many years beyond their current stage of life. As far as I’m concerned, that is a-okay. Just do your research. If you’re going to write about 50 year-olds and you’re in your 20s, be sure you actually spend some time with some 50 year-olds who aren’t your parents.
More than anything, go forth and write characters beyond 29 if you are so inclined. Put a little more love out there. Let’s tear down a few more bad perceptions about who gets to fall in love. As romance proves every day of the week, 365 days a year, that’s what it’s all about.
If you’re interested in reading romances about characters well beyond their 20s, here are a few to get you started:
- Bring on the Blessings by Beverly Jenkins
- At Your Service by Sandra Antonelli
- The July Guy by Natasha Moore
- Love Games by Maggie Wells
- Engaging the Enemy by Reese Ryan
- Gone Country by Lorelei James
- Out of the Dark by Josie Kerr
- Barefoot at Sunset by Roxanne St. Claire
- Talk Me Down by Victoria Dahl
- Dating For Decades by Tracy Krimmer
- The Sweetest Thing by Jill Shalvis
- The Will by Kristen Ashley
- The New Neighbor by Isabelle Peterson
- Ready to Fall by Daisy Prescott
- Of Sunlight and Stardust by Riley Hart and Christina Lee
- This Time is Different by Mae Wood
- Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins
- Reunion by Michael Bailey
- Twice in a Lifetime by Jodie Griffin
- Love in Due Time by LB Dunbar
- Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory
For more, join the Seasoned Romance reader group on Facebook at http://bit.ly/seasonedromance.