Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope those of you with significant others are having a wonderful day celebrating your love. I hope those of you without significant others are having a wonderful day with family, friends or your own fabulous selves. My fiancé is working, so we had our celebrations yesterday – a meal deal (because we were both too tired to bother with cooking) and watching The Martian. Which was excellent, highly recommend it.
In keeping with the day, I’m going to talk about one of my favourite things in writing/reading – romance! People who’ve followed this blog a while, or who have delved into the archives know I’m something of a romance fan. I don’t generally read straight romance books (except I sometimes do) but I love romantic subplots, at least when they are done well.
How to write Effective Romance
1. Don’t rush into it
If there’s a complaint I see levelled at books with romantic subplots more than any other, it’s that the book has ‘insta-love’. You know the kind – where two characters see each other once, usually a longing glance across a school cafeteria, and BAM. The characters are suddenly prepared to change everything about themselves in order to be together.
You get this sort of thing all the time in books, but particularly in YA. I think readers object so much for two reasons – one it’s not very satisfying. We just don’t believe in a love that is founded only on a first glance, that has no apparent rooting in mutual admiration, compatibility or respect. Two, it’s really lazy. The characters don’t have to work for it. They don’t have to struggle with their feelings, wonder about how the other person feels about them. Which not only eliminates tension in the story, but takes out these things that all normal people do. As readers we can’t relate to the insta-love, because it’s just not normal human experience.
You can kind of get away with it in a paranormal romance setting. Creatures not bound by human norms we can accept will behave in non-human ways. But if your human characters don’t have some issue with the intense, all consuming, and apparently out of nowhere love, then you’ve probably got a bit of an insta-love problem.
I think the reason this happens is because the author is in love with their character. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this – as writers we spend a great deal of time with our characters before they ever make it anywhere near a page. We care about them deeply, and know about them in great depth. Why shouldn’t readers love this amazing character we’ve created?
We have to remember, though, that the readers need time to get to know the character as well as we do, before they can share in our love for them. It’s a show vs. tell issue. Show us the character is worth loving over time, don’t tell us they are by having another character fall for them instantly.
Get It Right: Romance should build up over time. Yeah, instant attraction is a thing, and we should acknowledge that in our writing where appropriate. But a long term attraction, building up over time is much more satisfying. Have the characters notice each other, be drawn to each other, early. But spend some time with coy looks, racing hearts, and sweating palms before characters are declaring their love for each other.
2. Put hurdles in the way
This can go two ways – on the one hand, having no hurdles standing between your romantic pair makes things boring. On the other, having too many can make it frustrating. Especially if those hurdles are things like the two characters not talking to each other for no reason other than it prolongs their arrival at a happy ending.
I see that not talking thing all the time. It’s a short cut to creating tension and delays. There are plenty of valid reasons why characters don’t talk to each other about the stuff that would clear up all their issues, and done well it can work. But I’ve been driven to shouting at the television, and putting books down in frustration when characters have no good reason not to talk to each other, except that it serves the author dragging things out a little longer.
Hurdles are important, and they make the eventual getting together much more satisfying. By putting hurdles in the way of characters, the tension can be raised and this keeps readers on the edge of their seats, turning pages.
Get It Right: Make sure there are things in the way of your characters’ happily ever after, but make sure they aren’t the sort of hurdles that could be circumvented by a conversation. If your characters aren’t talking, they need to have strong reasons, driven by their insecurities, or their situations.
3. Base love on mutual respect
This is the other thing I see all the time. Male characters who dominate and control their female partners. And I’m not talking about a little bit of kink in the bedroom – characters who tell their partners what to do, what to wear, who to talk to, where they can and cannot go. It’s often painted as intense love – look how much he cares, he’s protecting her.
Uh, no. It’s controlling. If someone was doing that and love wasn’t part of the equation, it would be clear abuse. Calling it love blurs the lines, and it really shouldn’t.
But more than that, characters need to have good reasons to fall in love. Even if they aren’t abusive towards each other, if there’s no reason for their love, it’s not going to be satisfying. And the reason can’t simply be ‘s/he’s hot.’ That helps, sure, but it’s not grounds for a lasting relationship. Personalities might change, yes, but looks are definitely going to fade.
When you think about why your characters are in love, it shouldn’t be a struggle. You should be able to list five reasons off the top of your head, more if you think about it. Do they make each other laugh? Do they have a shared passion for running ultra marathons? Do they both think that there’s nothing better than curling up in front of Netflix on a Friday night? And differences are important too – how do they complement each other? Do they balance each other’s flaws?
Get It Right: Think about what makes your character’s ‘meant to be’. If the only reason you can come up with is ‘because I said so’ then you might need to think a little harder about it. Give them complementary flaws, shared passions and make their actions show devotion, not control.
Note: Obviously, these are ways to portray a satisfying healthy relationship. If your aim is to portray an unhealthy relationship, you probably want to be breaking these rules all over the place!