As a romance writer, I spend my life watching characters fall in love – it’s a fun way to make a living.
But how do you make those tumultuous romantic relationships believable to the reader? I’m sure we’ve all picked up books where the hero and heroine come together at the end, and our principal response is “huh?” or “they’ll be in a divorce court within a year.”
Not how you want people to feel when they reach the last page of a book you’ve written – whether a romance or a story with romantic elements.
Here are a few thoughts on making those falling in love moments convincing – and irresistibly powerful.
Physical attraction is essential in a romance. That doesn’t mean that all your characters have to be model material with flawless faces and bodies. In fact, often it’s more interesting if they are normal people. But there needs to be a spark. Perhaps your hero notices your heroine’s beautiful eyes or saucy strut or lovely hair, or your heroine thinks the hero has a nice smile or broad shoulders. The attraction needs to be invincible and inescapable, because when your characters clash, this sexual link makes it impossible for them to break away from each other and seek an easier option.
How you write that physical attraction depends on your characters – and your story. Do you want an instant flare-up, or the slow build from interest to love? Or do you want a coup de foudre moment when your characters finally see what’s been under their noses for so long? Do you want to write a transformation story – always a popular theme – where the ugly duckling hero/heroine undergoes some sort of makeover and suddenly appears in all their glory to dazzle their admirer?
Whatever you do, there needs to be a chemical reaction between these two people. If you’re skilled at writing attraction, this chemical reaction will become incendiary, even in a sweet romance without hot and heavy love scenes. Given the other person is set to be the love of their life, your hero/heroine has to be constantly conscious of presence, appearance, responses, actions, words. The other person needs to be special, unforgettable, and impossible to ignore.
But we all know that lasting relationships – in most cases, there will be some commitment to each other by the end of the story – aren’t based on sexual attraction alone. You need to establish that these people have a mental and/or spiritual affinity that will keep them together when the going gets tough, and will make them fight tooth and nail for their happy ending.
That means your characters should move beyond merely thinking their opposite number is hot, to admiring traits like courage or humor or intelligence or kindness. It’s those inner qualities that will make your characters fall in love with each other – and your readers fall in love with your characters. They also help your readers to believe that this relationship will last, even when the taut tummies have started to sag and those fine eyes have a few lines around them.
One way to make this affinity clear is to create a special language for your hero and heroine so they have private jokes or names for each other. You can also create a private world for your characters by making them refer back to incidents they’ve shared.
You want your readers to believe these two are born to be together. Dialogue establishes the relationship between your hero and heroine more vividly than anything else. It’s no accident that banter is a staple of the romantic comedy genre – that back and forth of smart talk is a precursor to more physical exchanges. Dialogue as foreplay is a great way to illustrate the rapport between your hero and heroine.
To give you an example from a classic romance, in Pride and Prejudice, we know Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are destined to marry because they’re the two cleverest people in the room, and they get one another’s sense of humor. When Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy, it’s not his fortune or his looks – both of which she’s scorned previously – but his heroic character that wins her heart when he rescues her family from disgrace with no thought of reward.
Another way to build affinity between your characters is to use mirroring techniques. Even very young characters come onto the page with a world view and a personal history. You can create a powerful link between characters when that world view and personal history have something in common. Showing not telling can work particularly well here – it’s a nice trick if the readers see the similarities while the characters are still trying to make sense of these bewildering new feelings.
The common threads between characters can be identical or offer subtle echoes and variations. To give you an example from my first book, Claiming the Courtesan, on the surface, the nobly born Duke of Kylemore and humble courtesan Verity Ashton have little in common. But if you dig deeper, both are lone wolves who have had to make hard and occasionally destructive decisions to survive. When the book starts, both are hiding their true selves from a hostile world. The book charts their journey to intimacy and to a recognition that, whatever the barriers of class and fortune, they’re soulmates after all.
In a romantic plot, love is an overwhelmingly powerful force. People need to emerge from the experience of falling in love profoundly changed. If you want your readers to respond strongly to a love story, they have to believe that these characters have undergone a momentous and difficult emotional journey. This is true even in a comedy. If your story has a happy ending, your readers also need to believe that your characters are better, more complete people for the experience, like gold purified by fire.
Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface of what is a massive and very complex topic. But research for this can be fun. Pay close attention to what people do when they fall in love. A wealth of resources surrounds you – books, films, TV, songs, and of course your friends and family, not to mention your own romantic experience.
Readers adore participating in the giddy, heartbreaking, ecstatic dance of love with your hero and heroine, so don’t short-change either your audience or your characters when it comes to the emotional heart of your story.
This article originally appeared on the Romance University blog on 7th March, 2016.