Have you ever loved a relationship more than the characters in it?
Sure, Mr. and Mrs. Right were likable on their own, but their dynamic was so compelling that both of them dying would have been less agonizing than one of them surviving. You hope that the pairing in your own story will be equally captivating, but you’re nervous. You’ve gagged when a star-crossed guy and girl spent pages drooling over each other. What if your readers respond negatively too?
The difference between retch-worthy and heartwarming romance is not cute banter or sizzling chemistry. Before a character reaches her happily ever after, she must lay something on the altar and burn it. Romance thrives in tandem with sacrifice, demonstrating a truth that we often fail to express in plain words: everything beautiful has a cost. Swoony relationships, fictional and real, start with suffering.
True Love Is Selfless
No one enjoys setting aside their own desires, but life is a game of exchange: to gain something, you have to give something up. To write a book, you must deprive yourself of time and sanity. To build a healthy relationship, you must prioritize someone else’s needs before your own.
Love closely resembles forgiveness. Jesus left the epitome of comfort to be brutally executed for a mass of ignorant, stubborn traitors. Nothing can compare to His act of compassion, but romance has the unique capacity to mirror it on a smaller scale.
Dearest Josephine portrays unconditional love through Oliver, a jovial English chap smitten with a girl who views him as only a friend. Instead of abandoning her, he decides to help her heal from the rough year she’s had, even if it results in her falling for someone else. His willingness to invest in her without requiring feelings in return leads to the most poignant twist in the book.
Cringe relationships, on the other hand, don’t encompass a cost and a lesson. Character A becomes infatuated with Character B, but the only obstacle she has to overcome is a misunderstanding about his ex-girlfriend. Their happy ending is hollow because neither of them needs to learn the definition of love. But when two people persevere through adversity and emerge with a stronger bond, it’s inspiring.
The most meaningful (and painful) sacrifices flow out of personal flaws.
Every Romantic Relationship Needs a Thorn That Can’t Easily Be Removed
In the popular Disney TV series WandaVision, Wanda is devastated over the destruction of Vision, the android that she had a special connection with. So she recreates him and enslaves Westview with her magic, turning it into the setting for an idyllic suburban housewife fantasy. Although the newlyweds appear blissful at first, panic rises in Vision as he gradually realizes he has no memories of his past. When Wanda refuses to explain all of the strange phenomena, he distrusts her. Until she recognizes that she’s experienced a mental breakdown and dismantles the altered reality she’s controlling, neither of them can escape the emptiness.
In Dearest Josephine, depression weighs down main characters Josie and Elias as they try to recover from the loss of their fathers. To pull themselves out of the gloom, they latch onto the comfort that love offers. Elias can’t stop thinking about a mysterious, vibrant young woman he met only twice, and Josie, who is reading his letters to Josephine a few hundred years later, can’t stop thinking about him and how many traits she shares with the recipient. While their love is legitimate, it’s also a coping mechanism that blinds them to the happiness around them.
With stakes like these, the characters should be eager to address their faults so they can move on, right? Wrong. Josie, Elias, and Wanda are all scared that life won’t hold anything else wonderful if they leave their dreamworlds. Without a buffer between them and their sorrow, they’ll crumble.
Remember the verse in Mark 8? Jesus warns His disciples that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Romance plays off of this principle. Characters must forfeit something they perceive as integral to their well-being so they can pursue something more valuable, similar to how Christians surrender false beliefs and temporal pleasures for peace with God.
Wanda clings to her illusion because, if she releases it, Vision will disintegrate. Elias and Josie each pine after an unattainable “kindred spirit” because they expect to remain alone if they shift their focus back to their immediate spheres. The characters’ flaws satisfy deep longings, making their inner conflict relatable—and transforming them into heroes when they choose to relinquish their source of security for someone else’s sake.
Assigning an alluring flaw to your protagonist is only half the process of crafting a swoony relationship, however. The significant other also needs to be put through the wringer and reveal a weakness.
The Love Interest Can Be an Example without Being Shiny
In many romances, the love interest is the foil. This character knows and embodies the truth that the protagonist needs to embrace. It’s the premise of every Hallmark movie ever produced: a corporate businesswoman gets stranded in a small town during Christmas, where a handsome woodsman shows her that family and friends are more important than career success. Although Hallmark movies aren’t an ideal standard for quality storytelling, people’s tendency to imitate individuals they love and admire is observable in everyday life.
But that doesn’t require the love interest to be perfect. If he reacts to hurt with unlimited patience and pithy sermons, he’ll come across as fake. Readers need to see that he’s human before they can accept that he’s wiser than the protagonist, and both characters need to contribute to each other’s development.
When Vision realizes that Wanda has been lying to him, he confronts her. The argument gets ugly. Then he vanishes the next day to investigate what’s happening. Intrinsically, he senses that Wanda is wrong, but he doesn’t handle the situation calmly because he’s frightened, which allows room for him to grow. During his search, he discovers that, in his other life, Wanda had to kill him herself only to watch him resurrect and die again. He doesn’t change his opinion afterward—he still urges Wanda to free Westview. But he approaches her with more empathy than before.
Side characters can have arcs that progress from outbursts to influential conversations too. A large portion of Dearest Josephine is told through the emails that Josie sends to her best friend, Faith, who she dropped contact with while dating a jerk. When Josie’s attachment to Elias starts disrupting their correspondence, Faith worries that Josie is once again shutting her out and shoots off a harsh message. Though their friendship endures through the arguments, Faith’s struggles to support Josie add more authenticity to their interactions.
The Moment of Sacrifice
Foil characters prepare the protagonist for her most excruciating test, but before she yields, she needs to face the consequences of her mistakes and the reason she couldn’t bring herself to let go sooner.
Near the end of WandaVision, a witch captures Wanda’s kids and exposes her torture of the townspeople. Dearest Josephine takes a similar route, sans the magic. Elias and Josie’s obsession with their imaginary love interests causes them to injure their closest friends. The revelation that they’ve harmed others forces all three of them to examine themselves. Self-awareness is vital because lasting change originates in the heart, not outward behavior. Wanda, Josie, and Elias must weather their grief to repair the damage, and that demands the courage of conviction.
A character’s sacrifice doesn’t guarantee a positive ending, though. Elias and Josie find contentment, but Vision slips away from Wanda again, and enemies and strangers surround her. She achieves a different kind of victory: doing what’s right despite the heart-shattering anguish it brings.
Love Is Gooey, but It’s Also True
Hallmark movies and bulk paperbacks reduce romance to fluff involving lots of drama and grand gestures. In part, that’s accurate. Romance is mushy and angsty and touching.
But it’s also a call to change, to surrender, to place someone else’s needs above your own. Boxes of chocolates and a dozen red roses are merely superficial symbols. Commitment, sacrifice, and a crown of thorns are the indisputable evidence of true love. The Bible uses a bride and groom as an analogy for Christ and the church for a purpose.
Don’t be afraid to immerse your readers in the aches and joys of real romance, because it echoes the greatest love story in all of history.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.