Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time when a young writer’s fancy turn to thoughts of…
Well, getting published, usually.
But, that aside, there’s romance in the air this weekend. And everyone loves a good romance because, pretty much across the board, we’ve all either been in love, are in love, or want to be in love. It’s a wonderful feeling. Heck those first few months of giddy romance are just fantastic, aren’t they?
Love is great because we can relate to it. We believe in it. For the most part, we enjoy seeing other people in love.
If those three traits sound familiar—relatable, believable, likable—it’s because I’ve mentioned them two or six times as the traits of good characters
. So a good romance can be a powerful tool in a story, because it immediately grounds one or two of my characters.
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where, with no warning, two characters start professing their mad love for each other? No preamble, no chemistry, they just suddenly start flirting and making long-term plans. None of us likes emotional fakery, and few things can sink a story faster than a pasted-on love interest. It makes us roll our eyes while reading books and laugh while we’re watching movie.
So, let’s revisit a few simple rules that can help craft a love story for the ages…
The First Rule
— Okay, like I was just saying, love needs real emotions, and I can’t have real emotions without real people. And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways. Note that I said realistic—not rational. Love is one of the most bizarre, irrational things most of us will ever encounter in our lives.
If my characters are real, though, they’re going to have needs, desires, plans, and tastes. And it’ll stand out if they make choices that go against those traits
. Yes, opposites attract—they even have a lot of fun together—but if we’re talking about real emotions, odds are these two are going to have more in common than not. To put it another way, the career-minded Army officer probably isn’t going to make serious long term plans with the quirky socialist musician. Although… maybe she used to play guitar or violin, and he reminds her of another path she could’ve taken. Having past conflicts and secrets can make a character seem real, too.
Even then, how far and how fast they take things should be consistent. Some folks schedule every hour of every day, others live in the moment. People can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward. For some folks it’s a huge moment to have that first cautious, fleeting kiss on the third date, and other folks are in the parking lot tearing each others clothes off half an hour after they meet.
Simply put, my characters need to be believable if their relationship is going to be believable.
The Second Rule
— Quick show of hands. Who’s ever been in a situation where someone’s been trying to push you into a relationship? Maybe it’s friends or coworkers. Could be the person you’ve been on one date with. Hopefully it’s not relatives, because that’s always kinda… weird.
Regardless, the result is it makes us want to get away from the object of our potential affection. Nobody likes feeling forced into something, and so we don’t enjoy seeing other people forced into things. That’s just human nature.
Now, for the record, “someone” includes me, the writer. Characters need their own motivations to get into a relationship. I can’t just have them do things for the convenience of the plot
. If I’ve based my whole story around the folklorist and the soldier saving the villagers
because of their mutual respect for each other, then I need a real reason for them to get together, because they’re real people (as mentioned in the First Rule).
And no, the reason can’t be something like “because they need to face Demosthenes the Elder-Lich in the third act
.” It also can’t be “I need a sex scene to hold people’s attention.” If this is the basis of Wakko and Phoebe’s relationship… well, they probably won’t be celebrating any major anniversaries. Not with each other, anyway.
People get together because they want to get together, not because other folks think they should be together.
The Third Rule
– This one could actually count as real-world advice. Don’t confuse sex with love
. There are lots of points in a story where it might be completely acceptable for two characters to have sex. We’re all mature adults here (well, most
of us) and I’m willing to bet most of us have had sex with someone we weren’t madly in love with at that moment. Or at any point later. Simple fact—sex is fun. It’s a stress-reliever. It lets us avoid thinking about other things. Heck, it can even keep you warm.
However… sex doesn’t always translate to love. In stories or in the real world. If my two characters fall into bed (or onto a couch, up against a tree, on a kitchen counter, etc), I need to make sure I’m clear what it means for both of them. Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced (refer back to the Second Rule).
So… sex and love are not the same thing. Don’t forget it.
The Fourth Rule
— This is a tough one, because Hollywood keeps trying
to tell us otherwise. How often in movies can you immediately spot “the love interest” as soon as s/he is introduced? It doesn’t matter what kind of film it is or what’s going on, it’s easy to pick out him/ her the first time we see them. You may have heard this moment called the “meet-cute,” usually in screenwriting circles.
Y’see, Timmy, the simple truth is… romance doesn’t always fit in a story. Someone could be fighting for their life, painfully wounded, or so scared they’re a moment away from a heart attack
. Maybe they’re already in a relationship with someone else. Maybe they just have no interest in a relationship—emotional or physical.
Forcing a relationship in these situations also risks making one or both characters seem very unlikable. There was a television show a few years back where a police officer was presumed dead and in hiding, but kept sneaking off (in his new identity) to check on his wife and son. Thing is, he was also spending a lot of time
with this sexy blonde contortionist (no, seriously) and there was a lot of, shall we say, tension between them. And chemistry.
Thing is, this made the officer a very hard-to-like character. Is he cheating on his wife? Or has he moved on and found something new? Is he sympathetic or a heel?
Similarly, I read a screenplay once where the two protagonists start feeling strong urges toward each other while they’re searching for the woman’s abducted daughter. Not years-back abducted, mind you—four hours ago abducted. But, wow, doesn’t this private detective have great arms and his eyes are soblue…
In ten words or less—sometimes it’s just not going to happen.
So there are the rules. Now go forth and spread the love.
Where appropriate. Don’t be that guy. Or woman.
Oh, and before I forget, this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, please swing by and join us as we talk about writing, publishing, and all the different areas they overlap.
Next time we’re back here, I’d like to talk to you about a couple of ideas I’ve had.
Until then, go write.