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January 31, 2019

Aspirational Stories: Do They Reflect Your Hopes and Goals?

Couple wading in water at sunset with text: Do Our Stories Reflect Our Hopes and Goals?

The romance genre is often called aspirational. Readers might aspire to be as confident as the main character or hope to experience such a grand love, etc. The genre is all about happy endings, and we probably all wish for more happiness in our life.

However, many stories outside the genre include aspects we might aspire to as well. According to Google, aspiration is “a hope or ambition of achieving something.” That perspective doesn’t limit us to only the romance genre.

In social media terminology, aspiration is like #SomethingGoals, such as the #RelationshipGoals, #SquadGoals, or #JobGoals tags we might see on posts or tweets. In other words, aspirational ideas are all around us, so obviously, our hopes and goals are sometimes reflected in the stories we write or the books we read.

Aspiration Elements in Stories

We might hope to be liked, have ambitions to be successful, want to be healthy, etc., and it’s likely that everything we hope to be or accomplish in our life exists as an element in a story somewhere. We might aspire to be as brave as our heroine or as talented as our hero, but aspiration is broader than just personal traits.

Do the stories we enjoy reflect our hopes and goals? Click To TweetAll we have to do is look at the popular hope of us Muggles getting our letter to Hogwarts to understand the many ways we might aspire to various elements from stories. We might wish for our world to be more like one from a story, or we might hope for a positive experience like one we’ve read about.

When characters have the guts to say to their bad boss the things we wish we could say to ours, we aspire to have the same gumption. When we cheer a heroine for standing up to the hero for not respecting her, we hope we’d have the same attitude. When a story world shows freedoms or opportunities we wish we had, there’s an element of aspiration to those ambitions well.

Aspiration and Romance

So if the trait of being aspirational can apply to many genres, why do we tend to associate the description of aspirational more with the romance genre?

Character Aspirations

In the past, the standard assumption and explanation was that romance readers aspired to be the heroine, imagining themselves in the story, romanced by the hero. But even if that was accurate in the past, I think the situation is changing—and that’s a good thing.

Why is romance considered an aspirational genre? Click To TweetThat assumption led to a lack of diversity in the heroines of the genre, with the belief that readers wouldn’t aspire to—and thus wouldn’t read about—heroines who didn’t measure up to some “ideal.” Publishers assumed readers wouldn’t want to read about heroines who weren’t white, young, thin, etc.

In other words, the assumption was that if the heroine wasn’t someone readers aspired to be, no one would be interested. (And of course, hidden in that assumption is the implication that non-white and non-cis-hetero-female romance readers didn’t count. *sigh*). Different types of aspirational heroines didn’t exist and weren’t wanted.

Luckily, that assumption is being proven untrue as the variety of romance stories increases with the rise of self-publishing. Stories with characters of all body types, orientations, genders, ages, races, religions, and abilities have found fans in the genre, and the popularity of male/male romances gives evidence that female romance readers don’t need to aspire to be a specific character to enjoy the story.

While there’s still an aspirational connection between readers and characters, we’ve proven readers welcome less direct aspirations. Now, readers might connect through their hopes and goals such as: to be seen as desirable, to experience that level of love and devotion, to be as respected, to be as happy, or to have as fulfilling of a life as the characters.

Relationship Aspirations

As those less direct aspirations imply, the aspirational aspect of the romance genre now focuses more on the relationship. Readers want to see a relationship that feels worthy of their hopes and ambitions within the pages.

They want to see a relationship that’s happy, sexy, healthy, loving, respectful, or whatever. That’s the aspirational aspect in modern romance, and in some ways, that’s part of the definition of the genre, of what makes a romance story a romance story.

In other genres, we talk about wanting to root for the protagonist. In romance, we want to root for the characters getting together—that’s the whole point.

If readers don’t hope for the characters to get together, if they don’t hope for a romance or relationship of any kind, it’s not functioning as a romance story for that reader. Readers have even been known to root against the romance, especially when they think the relationship is a bad idea.

The Opposite of an Aspirational Relationship

Readers want to trust in the relationship of a romance story. They want to feel that it’ll be a safe and good experience for the characters. If the relationship isn’t good, it won’t be a happy ending, and a happy ending is a requirement of the romance genre.

Recently, some authors who write stories that go beyond “dubcon” (dubious consent) to outright non-consensual encounters between characters have tried to claim the genre of romance. No…just no. The genre they’re looking for is erotica. Erotica is different from erotic romance in that a happy ending isn’t required.

On Twitter, the romance community has pushed back against those claims. Stories of adult/underage and/or non-consensual encounters aren’t romance because the characters aren’t ending up in a happy and safe place. Abuse, manipulation, control, rape, etc. aren’t part of a happy ending, so the relationships in the stories aren’t aspirational.

Authors are free to choose what they write, and readers are free to choose what they read. But every choice comes with consequences, especially when an author tries to mis-label their story for higher readership.

Our Story Choices vs. Our Aspirations

Obviously, not every story is aspirational, and that’s okay. Despite the beyond problematic example above (which doesn’t even touch the many rage-inducing issues in the article that had defended the idea), other examples, such as the horror genre and tragedies in general, are often non-aspirational as well.

We don’t have to choose aspirational characters, situations, or story worlds when we read or write. But our hopes and goals might influence our choices when we do choose to read positive stories. Or as authors, our aspirations might influence the types of stories and/or characters we write.

How can understanding the aspirational elements of our genre help us connect to readers? Click To TweetFor example, I love writing about strong, confident women. In real life, I can be assertive in certain situations, but I also don’t do well with confrontation. My characters are often more outspoken and forthright than I am, so yes, there’s an aspirational element to the types of characters I write.

The story worlds I explore are places I wouldn’t mind being part of (once the bad guy is dealt with, obviously *grin*). My romance relationships are happy, healthy partnerships. My characters end up more fulfilled and connected to others around them. Each of those aspects is something I strive to see in my life.

For those who don’t write about or read aspirational stories, I wonder if (or how) their hopes and goals affect their choices. Do they try to find and still relate to a minor aspirational element? Does the negative premise reinforce why their hopes or goals are important?

I don’t know, but as authors, understanding how our readers’ hopes and goals might connect to our stories can help us meet their expectations and deliver a satisfying story. And if you’re a fan of non-aspirational stories, feel free to share your perspective in the comments. *grin*

What aspirational elements in stories have you read or written? Do you read more aspirational or non-aspirational stories? Why do you make that choice? How do your hopes or goals affect your reading or writing choices? Do your characters have traits you wish for yourself?

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E J Randolph

I like aspirational stories whether romance or some other genre. There’s plenty in life to bring me down, so the last thing I need is a story whose very premise is negative. I am one of those who believe we should all try to make the world a little better, and try to improve the lives of those around us with respect and empathy. Not that I always accomplish this worthy goal. Maybe I have too negative a worldview in the first place. It’s easy to be negative. It takes some work to be positive.

I write socio/political science fiction. The goal is to show different ways to achieve peace in dangerous and violent worlds.

Well-done romances are a delight to read because they show people achieving loving relationships in a world where little enough of that exists.

Susan J Anderson

Jami, as always, you are spot-on. Never thought of the genre vs. other fiction this way, but romance (in all its subcategories) certainly is aspirational–I know when I read a legal thriller, I don’t want to live vicariously through the characters, but a romance–sigh…oh yeah!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks! Aspirational can mean someone coming from a lower social class to a higher one.

Sieran

Haha yeah when I read about the assumption that the reader aspires to be like the heroine, romanced by the hero, my reaction was: “Wow, so all readers of romances are straight women?” XD As someone who is neither straight nor female, I guffawed at that. And why must the reader aspire to be like the heroine? Why can’t they aspire to be the hero instead? (Regardless of the reader’s gender. A male reader could aspire to be more like the heroine, and a female reader could aspire to be more like the hero.) So it was good that you pointed out how not all readers of romance are white, cishet, and female. On male-male romances, lol, ever since I started taking testosterone, I find myself relating more and more deeply to the male protagonists of gay romances. (I identify as gay as well.) But because of my gender and sexual orientation, I can relate to either, both, or neither hero, lol. It is so intriguing how self-perception can change so much just by gender transitioning. So on the one hand, I find myself identifying with male protagonists more and more, but on the other hand, I’m feeling increasingly detached from female protagonists. Hmm… So I can still like and respect the main girl (I adore Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs!), but I’m feeling a sort of detachment nowadays, in the “she’s an amazing person and I love her, but we are not the same gender”, and so…  — Read More »

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[…] One of the first things we must determine as writers is what kind of story we are writing, exactly. Zoe M. McCarthy explores the rather elastic definition of speculative fiction, while Jami Gold looks at aspirational stories and if they reflect our hopes and goals. […]

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