So you’re writing a nerd romance novel.
I myself am currently reading a “nerd romance novel” to coincide with February’s Valentine’s Day festivities. I appreciate the obscure pop culture references, and the heroine is pretty adorkable. But I guess I find that both in writing my own new adult romance novel and, well, living life in the mid 2010’s as a geeky gal, there’s a little room for improvement in romance novels with nerdy characters.
Here’s my wish list of what writers should know about writing nerdy characters, followed by some recommendations for the best nerd romance novels. Enjoy! (And happy Valentine’s Day.)
Nerdy characters can flirt just as well as anyone else
I really get annoyed at the whole “Smart characters only talk geek-gibberish and can’t flirt like a normal human being” stereotype that’s out there. So many nerds are good at flirting because they’re good with language and dialogue. And many of them have competed in debate club or Hi-Q, defended theses and dissertations, explained complex Boolean search techniques to others, and gotten into all kinds of heated fangirl and fanboy arguments about whether Snape was truly good or very evil and whether the second Spiderman reboot should be forgotten or praised.
Nerds also watch shows that have romance and flirtation in them. We soak up the come-hither dialogue like a sponge. That’s one place where we get our classic wit from (and a lot of us are really into British humor). So nerdy characters need not be prone to word vomit or regurgitating random facts and trivia that stop a flirty moment dead in its track. Yeah, we’re awkward sometimes, but so is everyone else.
Sometimes nerd + nerd = disaster
It’s tempting to want to pair your characters up with other nerds. And hasn’t every nerd wanted to find their other nerdy half? But this can lead to all kinds of deal-breaking arguments—what if your partner actually believes that Steven Moffat has been good for Doctor Who? What if they think Daenerys Targaryen should sit on the Iron Throne, but you feel Jon Snow is the obvious Song of Ice and Fire? That can kill a conversation—and a flirtation—real fast.
Also let’s not forget that “nerd” is a blanket term. Your partner might love Star Wars, but you might have massive amounts of ambivalence towards it. You could speak particle physics but your partner speaks postmodern poetry. We might all be nerds at heart, but we’re not all one and the same. Although we we may like discussing the chemistry of oil and the properties of water, we might actually go together like oil and water. That’s why it’s a great idea to pair a nerdy character with a non-nerd. The (romantic) chemistry could be phenomenal, and they would play off each other really well.
Not all nerdy heroines are repressed ugly ducklings who need to be liberated
Oh boy. As a (freelance) librarian and someone who has worked in libraries before, I know all about this trope: the hypersexed but extremely repressed librarian who is just waiting for someone to tear her glasses off, toss her book aside, and hit the light switch in a secluded corner of the library.
Seriously, librarians, as the archetypal nerds, have balanced lives in the stacks and in the sack. I wish more romance writers, or really any writers who are wondering how to write nerdy characters, would take note that not all geeks are repressed, nor are they ready to get it on with the first person they’re attracted to; in fact, most lie somewhere in between.
Writing nerd characters as one of these two extremes, or worse, as having some frantic and unstable Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde asexual/nymphomaniac personality flip does a disservice to nerds everywhere. It’s time to realize that geeky gals and dweeby dudes are just like everyone else. And we don’t all need to be liberated. For a great podcast series that balances thoughtful romance genre analysis with a librarian POV, check out In the Stacks’ Cardigan Rippers series.
It is my hope that more romances with nerdy characters will reflect the above advice. Now let’s take a look at some great nerd romances.
Great novels featuring nerd romance
- Any novel by Rainbow Rowell
I really couldn’t pick one of Rainbow Rowell’s books to feature over the others. All of her novels, Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Attachments, and Landline, are nerdy in some way. Eleanor & Park is a YA romance about punk music, bullying, comics, poverty, and star-crossed love. It’s a devastating read, but one that you resurface from feeling more alive. Fangirl follows a young woman in her first year of college where she fights off her feelings for her roommate’s best friend and ex-boyfriend all while trying to write her fan fiction magnum opus, Carry On, Simon. Attachments is an epistolary novel about office romance in the 90s and drops references to film, techie things, and board game nights. And Landline references old TV shows and time travel. All of her novels are great and feature nerdy romance—you really can’t go wrong.
- Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid
Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human is an awesome contemporary romance about Janie, a super-smart young woman who loses a lot—her job, her boyfriend, her apartment—and gains even more in her journey of self-exploration. Her hunky counterpart is respectful of her nerdy tendencies and thinks it’s cute that she speaks in obscure facts and trivia because she’s kind of awkward, reflecting one of my points of advice above, to pair nerds with non-nerds. Also, I love that Janie has a thing for shoes and cares about her appearance. She may be nerdy, but she’s not clueless about “girl” things.
- The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
One of the strengths of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project is that the male romantic lead is a nerd, not the female lead. Don Tillman is a handsome genetics professor whose tendency to see everything through and intellectual and scientific lens often gets in the way of dating women. He also struggles with social cues and has Asperger’s. A student and waitress, the titular Rosie, seeks Don’s help with finding her father. He agrees to take on her project while he’s also trying to find a scientifically perfect mate (read: wife). One of the reasons why Don and Rosie hit it off is that they’re so different from each other, but in a way that oddly makes them perfect together (yet another example of why nerd x non-nerd romance is a good option). Ultimately the characters bring out the better side in each other. The Rosie Project is a hit worldwide and is being adapted for film. There’s also a follow-up, The Rosie Effect, which was released in paperback last year.
What are your favorite nerdy characters? What do you want to see in romance novels with nerdy leads? Leave a comment below!