Confession: I am a sucker for a good love story. While I understand entirely how overdone they can be, and how inundated readers might be with romance showing up in the majority of media, I cannot seem to help myself. A good romance goes a long way, and my heart and mind will linger on it for days or weeks after that first exciting introduction.
With that said–I mention a good romance. Obvious contrivance has killed many a possible romantic subplot for me. Though I admired a great many aspects of the series Farscape, for example, I could rarely (if ever) make myself interested in any of the romantic relationships portrayed onscreen. They felt forced, as though being two characters of different genders occupying the same space was enough to blossom into something.
Fun fact: I have sat in a room with someone of a different gender than myself more times than I can say. Romantic sparks have flown with much, much greater rarity.
So then–what makes chemistry, and how does one go about writing a relationship for their own story?
I’ll preface by saying: a few solid tips exist on this subject. A simple google search will pull up some excellent how-to’s and step-by-steps for your consideration. There is a veritable cornucopia out there for your perusal, and I highly recommend sifting through those resources to find points that open your mind and resonate with your own style, and way of thinking about writing.
With that said, there were a few points I did not see covered, or were not covered quite to my satisfaction, or in wording that I would use… or that I honestly feel could be said again, louder, for those in the back.
These points, it should be said, are hardly hard-and-fast rules. These are, however, some things I have found which can help make a romantic relationship between characters really believable, and they are things I often try to develop in my own writing.
First things first:
Each of your characters should be able to stand on their own.
That is to say, is your character interesting without the presence of their love interest? Are they compelling? Would you read an entire chapter of just that character, poking about through their life, tackling their individual challenges–and would you still be rooting for them?
In the first book of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank, Amelia is a delightfully dynamic character with a passion for Egyptology and archaeology. She is brusque and no-nonsense, awkward with emotional displays, and always smugly delighted to prove she is not some dainty Victorian woman, but a real force to be reckoned with. Emerson is equally brusque (moreso, in fact), equally passionate about his archaeological digs, somewhat short-tempered, and paradoxically protective of and exasperated by his sweet-tempered brother.
Both characters are well-rounded and compelling. It makes a reader interested to see what they will do together, being, as they are, interesting people in their own right. This avoids Edward Cullen-type situations, in which a character’s defining trait is their passion for their love interest.
Now–your characters should relate to one another romantically, of course. But honestly, I’m much more interested when there’s more to the equation than that. Which brings me to my next point: Your characters can have more going in relation to each other than purely their romance.
Amelia and Emerson meet because they are both passionate archaeologists out to discover Egypt and its rich ancient history. They can address each other on that professional level–more easily, in fact, than they can address each other in a romantic light.
In one of the novels I have written for my fantasy series, the newly-appointed queen of the country finds herself in need of a guard. She hires one who is cautious and wary, specifically chosen to complement the queen’s own spontaneous nature. The guard becomes the queen’s confidante and advisor figure at the same time that they begin to fall in love.
Giving characters a dimension outside of their status as lovers can provide a platform by which the characters can get to know each other, and have reason to talk outside of purely romantic interest. It gives them a chance to get to know what the other person is like, how they approach problems, what is frustrating about them, and what you can really respect about them.
Giving them interests outside of each other can give them opportunities to talk, and give some perspective on why they are growing to like each other in the first place.
To expand off of this, your characters can (and probably should!) have well-developed, important relationships outside of their romantic one.
Again, this is partly about keeping well-rounded individual characters. But it is also about providing a basis for comparison. Who are the important people in your character’s life? What impact do they have on your character’s life? Who are the parents, the sisters, the best friends who need to be impressed by your character’s significant other? How does your character interact differently or similarly with these important people, versus their love interest?
Cimorene in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles series may have fallen in love with Mendanbar, but she has a great many other relationships to navigate–ones that require her attention and her love. She does not abandon them for her romance. Instead she must negotiate how her previous relationships will or will not change, when romance enters into her life. This requires sacrifice, compromise, and communication–all of which develops your character, their priorities, and the impact of their romantic relationship on their life.
You should know, as well, what kind of romance you are aiming to write, so you can decide how to ramp up the romantic tension.
Perhaps it is love-at-first sight, or a sweet and light-hearted kind of romance. (Think Manolo and Maria from The Book of Life.) Those interactions would be very different from an enemies-to-lovers kind of story. A lot of what you pick will depend on your characters, and the story you are hoping to write.
There will be (or should be, perhaps) romantic tension either way. Manolo may have a disposition sweet enough to serenade Maria below her window, but he is still not certain he will have her consent to marry him, and she can still tease him by eluding kisses.
On the other hand, if you are writing a couple that thinks they despise one another, then the tension might be carried out in heated glares that last a moment too long, in the disarming moment when one breaks and decides to be kind.
It’s the moments of surprise and denial (big or little!) that will help add narrative intrigue, and heighten the stakes for the relationship.
With that said, keep in mind: For any romance, there should be chemistry–and it does not have to be pure romantic tension.
That should be obvious, I suppose, but it ties into my previous point. The moments of surprise can do a lot for said chemistry. The handsome person from your fourth period class unexpectedly appears before you, helping scoop up your fallen books–of course, the surprise is enticing. It’s exciting. Moments of surprise add tension and dimension.
But the moments of quiet can give you another kind of chemistry–the kind where each character shows they understand the other’s heart and mind. If you’re usually-quick-to-anger character stays calm through their love interest laughing after they spilled coffee, it shows they understand something about that moment. Perhaps your character knows that their lover is not laughing at them, but laughs whenever accidents happen. Perhaps they know to simply wait through the giggles, because soon enough a helping hand will be there to wipe down the mess.
The fact of the matter is, moments of demonstrated trust reveal just as much about the characters’ chemistry as the moments of surprise do. This is one way to show that their romance is growing, becoming more mature and more grounded. It shows, essentially, how they are becoming comfortable with one another.
Perhaps most importantly, and a piece I often find frustratingly missing, for being so simple: Your characters should have a reason for wanting one another, and ultimately wanting to be together.
Think to your favorite romance story. The characters each gave something to the other that they needed, or craved, or that supported them in their endeavors, didn’t they? It’s not that the two characters complete each other, per se, but they can hold each other up and help support their partner in their own journey.
In my previous example, with the queen and the guard from my own series: the queen finds a confidante, and a cautious voice that she can listen to, and grow to respect. On the other side of the equation, the guard finds herself suddenly listened-to after a life of being dismissed and ignored, and finds herself and her way of thinking suddenly valued. They come to admire each other (for their thoughtfulness, and for their kindness, respectively) and can learn and grow into bigger and better people, for having known one another.
Of course they want to stay together, then: they find pieces of each other to adore. Even when they do wind up disagreeing, they can come back to the core elements of their partner that attracted them to start. And, more importantly, those core traits form mutual trust and respect, upon which they can build open communication and working trust.
I mentioned above that trust can reveal the comfortable and grounded aspect of romance. This point connects back to that: it shows why the characters trust one another, and why they can keep coming back.
There are, of course, many more angles to consider when developing a romance. Your lovers will surely face obstacles, and they each will have flaws and have moments where they challenge the other person, and they will likely be much more interesting to your reader if they do not always get along… but for now, I think, I am satisfied with the points I have discussed.
Feel free to comment if you have any other points you’d like me to cover! Until then, here’s to our romantic subplots, and here’s to the writing, folks.