I hate romance. But I love it too.
I know that’s contradictory. If I ranked my favorite genres, my list would go something like this: fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, and suspense, with romance so far at the bottom that you’d need binoculars to see it.
At the same time, I recognize that, unless we’re Vulcans like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, emotions influence how we empathize and connect with others. We crave the thrill of opening a tender note, receiving a thoughtful gift, or engaging in flirtatious banter. Romance makes us feel special and desirable. But, in fiction, it serves a broader purpose than moments of passion that set our insides to fluttering.
Everyone has experienced love in one form or another, so including romance lends more believability and relatability to the characters. It can offer readers a reprieve from intense and dark scenes, as well as reinforce the theme through how two flawed human beings interact. Even if romance isn’t central to the plot, a past of unrequited love, heartache, or loss can deepen your protagonist by either positively or negatively impacting how she handles situations in the present.
Romance raises the stakes and makes readers care about the outcome. If you’re skeptical or skittish about entangling two of your characters who seem to belong together, look at how a variety of popular books, TV shows, and films kindle romantic sparks to warm—and change—hearts.
The Romance Factor in Action
In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, Vin’s attraction to Elend adds a twist since she’s street savvy and mingles with the common folk, whereas he’s entrenched in aristocracy. More notably, though, their strained but gradually softening conversations underscore the theme of trust that’s crucial to the first book.
The Matrix: Resurrection positions the relationship between Neo and Trinity as the driving force behind freedom. Alone, they are powerful but inadequate. Together, they balance each other out and become nearly unstoppable. Their separation through most of the movie keeps viewers on edge as they anticipate the reunion.
Tarzan’s tenderness toward Jane in Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic brings humanity to a beastly character and triggers an identity crisis of sorts, allowing the story to explore how inherent and learned behaviors define who we are as humans.
The crush Mike has on Eleven in Stranger Things lightens the underlying creepiness of the setting and ups the ante for all of the characters. Mike’s devotion to Eleven motivates him to take risks that he might have otherwise ducked and, in turn, Eleven pushes herself beyond her physical limits to protect him. Their choices reinforce the concept of believing in yourself.
In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the flirtations between Captain Philip Lombard and Vera Claythorne plant doubts in readers’ minds and complicate the process of identifying the killer. Their relationship also caters to readers’ natural longing for justice, which is one of the novel’s themes.
As all of these examples demonstrate, romance can enhance any genre, but shipping a guy and a girl just to spice up the plot won’t beguile readers for long. To give the relationship meaning, you’ll need to follow three tactics.
Tip #1: Draw from Real Life
True love doesn’t flourish or fizzle on the basis of flowers, chocolates, perfect skin, and a six-pack. However, your personal experiences will determine whether you portray it accurately or too idealistically. Even if you’re happily married or dating, every relationship is different, so study the couples around you too.
How would you describe them? Lighthearted and teasing? So inseparable that they can finish each other’s sentences? Fond of adventure? Ask questions to increase your understanding of how they fell for each other. How did they meet? What’s their favorite gift or memory? What was the proposal like? What did each of them look for in a partner? What keeps them together?
As you listen and observe, you’ll discover that each relationship has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses, interests and fears, needs and abilities that solidifies it. Compare what you learn to the characters in your book—the insights may help you craft a more compelling pairing or inspire you with ideas for how to integrate the romance into your plot.
When you borrow liberally from reality, your characters are bound to resonate. Dialogue will sound authentic, misunderstandings will stem from logical decisions, and the chemistry will be tangible. Not to mention, readers will be smitten.
Tip #2: Leverage Romance to Develop the Characters
Romance for entertainment’s sake will feel contrived. But if the struggle of loving and being loved grows the character, then it’s worth the word investment, like the effect Taylor has on Lorali in my upcoming YA release Inside the Ten-Foot Line. Lorali is obsessed with succeeding at volleyball to the point that she neglects her family and friends. Not until she begins having playful and sometimes thoughtful chats with a star football player does she realize that her passion for the game is a misplaced priority.
Consider how your protagonist’s counterpart can chip at, churn up, or challenge his thinking to reveal lies he believes. Revisit the dynamic between Trinity and Neo in The Matrix. Smart and confident, she storms into his life as a force to be reckoned with. At first, Neo wavers, judging himself unworthy of such a prize. But since Trinity is convinced that he’s “The One,” he strives to match her expectations.
Try staging a discussion or interview between your characters to uncover how they complement each other. You can then sprinkle seeds from that exercise into your story where a critical lesson or transformation needs to occur.
Tip #3: Stir Up Romantic Tension
Human beings often don’t get along, even when they’re head over heels for each other, and fictional relationships should reflect that. Although Hermione and Ron’s lopsided love in the Harry Potter books is not an axis, it adds a backdrop of humor and frustration. Their failed dates and arguments feed readers a taste of real love, which isn’t always butter and cream. The strength of their relationship enables them to remain by Harry’s side, dedicated to each other and the preservation of their friend.
You can generate friction by assigning opposing goals to the guy and girl or introducing a rival. One option doesn’t have to be right while the other is wrong—all you need is a difference in opinion or approach. Returning to Harry Potter, a specific situation comes to mind: the moment when handsome, aggressive, and athletic Vikor Krum unseats the awkward Ron, who hasn’t mustered the courage to make a move on Hermione. Flattered by the unexpected attention, Hermione gushes and puts Ron in a foul mood. Readers, however, don’t trust Vikor, and the uncertainty entices them to continue flipping pages.
To Love or Not to Love
Romance reaches across boundaries, infiltrating every genre and touching readers from all phases of life. Whether you’re inserting a large serving of love or a small sprinkling, it can shape your characters and pull readers in for hours upon hours. Romance infuses heart into scenes, making a story accessible and relatable. And what’s not to love about that?
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?
So much good stuff! I usually hate romance (why can’t we be Vulcans?) because 90% of the time it’s used to keep readers flipping when the story/characters/writing isn’t good enough. It’s a gimmick–and it really sells. “Nay!” I yell, “I shall never fall prey to thy cheap fiction contrivance!” *commences to throw all romantic books across the room* Needless to day, there are books with great romance plots. We all know a few. But when we (at times, kicking and screaming) write romance ourselves, we suddenly see the slippery slope and stand aghast. It’s SO EASY to write bad romance.
But you’ve hit the nail on the head here with your great advice! I love how you show romance shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, which is huge.
Adding to #1, being realistic sometimes means making your characters say dumb things or feel silly. If you want a great example of a realistically written romance, read Les Miserables. Victor Hugo’s portrayal of Marius’ bungling pursuit of Cosette is great. Marius does dumb things, misreads situations, berates himself for nonexistent faults, is high and low and high again, and jumps to ridiculous conclusions. Cosette is flattered, then frightened, then interested. She smiles at him one day, agonizes over it and refuses to look at him the next, (Marius shall die because she despises him!) agonizes again and smiles the next day (Marius shall live, for she loves him!) I love the point when Marius finds a handkerchief (belonging to Cosette’s father) with the initials U.F. and is convinced her name is Ursula. His Ursula! What a lovely name, the most beautiful of names… You get the idea.
Another fabulous romance writer is Booth Tarkington. Embarrassingly realistic. 😬
Thanks for the great article!!
I’m not a huge romance fan either, but I’m hoping to enter an anthology contest for romance stories, so this article was just in time!