I could think of nothing more fitting than reading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as the first book of my Year of Romance, the year I finally figure these romance novels out and how I can write one better. But when I did some quick research, I discovered there is something more fitting: January 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication. Like every great love story, it was meant to be.

It wasn’t meant to be when I was in school. We did JANE EYRE in grade 9, but I remember picking up PRIDE AND PREJUDICE off the same classics rack at the library. I didn’t finish it.

In university, it was assigned as a compare/contrast with BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY. We read them concurrently–not the whole books, but specific chapters which highlighted the connection between the two books. I read what was assigned, which means I didn’t finish it.

There’s a lot wrong with doing an English degree. The worst of it is slogging through books because you have to. (The worst of the worst is reading FRANKENSTEIN three semesters in a row because professor don’t talk to each other.) But the same way I couldn’t write a novel until I was ready to write a novel, I couldn’t read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE until I was ready to read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

I was ready this time. It grabbed me, and I wanted to read it. I wanted to know what makes it great. Because I want to make my books great, too.

This year is about figuring out how to write the kinds of books people want to read, not just me. I’ve started to tell people that I write books about normal people with boring lives, and then they fall in love. I don’t write about dragons or wizards, spies or hunters, aliens or pilots. A happy everyday life is about all the fantasy I can handle right now.

Mixed in with my History of Romance Novels syllabus, I’m reading recent contemporary books, too. The ones which look interesting at my local library, which basically means the ones with modern typography and are also often about women who bake. After I finished PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, I tried to read FOOL FOR LOVE by Beth Ciotta. Right away, I didn’t like the heroine. I didn’t like the way she defined herself by the failure of her recent break-up, instead of the victory of her recent graduation from culinary school. She whined about leaving New York for a small town, she whined about the job handed to her, she whined about cupcakes. (Speaking of which, can we be done with cupcakes as trend now?)

But none of this means our heroine deserves to grabbed and kissed against her will in a vulnerable and half-dressed moment. This is the first kiss from the two we know are destined to fall in love by the book’s end. This is where I stopped. Perhaps it was the abrupt change from Austen’s Regency era discretion to Ciotta’s casually explicit language, but there were moments in Fool For Love which made me feel like a prude. I wonder if, like cable television did for network, Fifty Shades has made it OK for romance novels to drop random descriptions of hard cocks into the narrative. When characters are sitting in restaurants and eating dinner.

I want to read the dirty parts as much as the next girl. But there’s a way to write it that doesn’t make me feel like I accidentally changed the channel.

When I put down FOOL FOR LOVE, I picked up HOW SWEET IT IS by Sophie Gunn. Our heroine is a single mother, living in her run-down childhood home and working at the local diner. Our hero, a man passing through town, trying to escape the worst day of his life: a car accident, which killed someone.

There’s a lot going on here, with a missing bag of money, a mysterious white cat, a long-lost father, sibling rivalry, and accidental pregnancies. None of it really went together, but it all carries me along to the happy ending.

But I didn’t care whether our heroine and our hero got their happy ending. I didn’t hate Lizzie and Tay, but I didn’t like them either, and that’s the bigger fault. Characters can lead boring lives, but you have to give the reader something they can hold on to, something in them a reader can love.

Lizzie is a good mom. Tay is a remorseful person. That probably works for someone else, but it didn’t work for me. What I realised, though, is that it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. There are hundreds of romance novels published every year, which means there are hundreds of characters. By the law of large numbers, one of them will be exactly what you want. Every romance novel is another blind date.

This is also why it appears to be so easy to publish in the romance genre. The market demands more stories, more characters, more voices.

It’s my first lesson of my Year of Romance: the reader has to care about these people. It’s not an interesting story with social commentary. It’s a love story. You can throw as many fancy balls, overly-frosted cupcakes, and bags of money at the plot, but romance isn’t built on plot. It’s built on character. Two characters, actually, that a reader can love and root for and want to invite into their lives. So make them good.