I far prefer character-driven stories over stories that only focus on external problems.
That sounds obvious. Don't most people say, "But I want good characters in my fiction!"
However, there is a perfectly respectable sub-genre to any genre (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, romance, contemporary angst, etc.) where the focus is more on the world than on the characters.
Tolkien, for instance, created "world fantasy." That does not mean his characters aren't solid or that character development doesn't take place in his novels. There is a spectrum: The Hobbit is a more character-driven novel (hence the casting of everyman Martin Freeman) while Lord of the Rings is a more world-driven novel.
In world romance, the story centers on the hero and heroine overcoming obstacles in their personal lives before they can meet. In chick-lit, for instance, the story centers on the heroine's friends, how often she goes shopping, what she does in her church/work/volunteer group, etc. etc. etc. It's Sleepless in Seattle (don't meet until the end) versus You've Got Mail, While You Were Sleeping, and Lakehouse (ongoing relationships, no matter how strange).
I prefer the character-driven romance (You've Got Mail) to "world romance" (Sleepless in Seattle). I have very little interest in "world" genre fiction generally (Tolkien being the huge exception), and so can't comment much on it. Hence, all my comments are directed at the character-driven romance.
Basically, I want to watch the characters talk and fight and tease and discuss and exchange ideas. My interest lies in their ability to work through the relationship problem.
Of course people have all kinds of non-intimate-"world" problems in real life from aging parents to low funds to work issues. But finding those kinds of problems in a romance is rather like finding those kinds of problems in a murder mystery. Okay, now I know all about the character's world, but where's, you know, the dead body?
Likewise, in a romance, I want to learn more about the relationship. If all that other stuff can be worked in smoothly and non-distractingly, fine. Otherwise, the arc should focus on the couple.
Here are some character-driven romances (from all genres):
- Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
- Jane Eyre by Bronte
- Jane Austen's works (world + character with more focus on character)
- Pamela by Samuel Richardson (despite the lectures)
- Beauty by Robin McKinley
- Queen of Attolia by Megan Turner
- Georgette Heyer (in some cases: Devil's Cub and Venetia are more character-driven; These Old Shades and many of her mysteries are comparatively more world-driven)
- Fifteen by Beverly Cleary
- Blood & Chocolate (THE BOOK! NOT THE MOVIE) by Annette Curtis Klause
- Serpent of Time by Eugene Woodbury
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (not one of her best mysteries, but one of her under-appreciated novels--Wimsey's character is better delineated here than anywhere else)
- Glass Mountain by Cynthia Voigt
- "Straw Into Gold" from The Rumplestiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
- Samantha and the Cowboy by Lorraine Heath
- Changeover by Margaret Mahy (and kudos to Mahy for subtitling it "a supernatural romance")
- The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White
- Howl's Moving Castle (the movie) by Diana Wynne Jones (with a strong world component)
- Romances by Lisa Kleypas
- A Seditious Affair by KJ Charles (M/M)--KJ Charles's various supernatural series tend to be more world-romance (and first-class horror) but they also do a good job paying-off the characters.