As you might have noticed if you’re one of those who waits on the morning of, today’s post is a little late. My apologies. I wasn’t quite as quick to arise this morning because I was catching up on sleep. And I was doing that because the injury I gave myself on Saturday didn’t let me sleep that well that same night. Turns out, cracked ribs can be quite the pain. Who knew, aside from those with cracked ribs.
On the plus side, I now have more injury experience I can use for my writing. Which I’ll probably be able to do even more of, since a cracked rib kind of kills some of my summer activity plans. Not all of them, but the last thing I want to do right now is go face-first down a water-slide.
Right, so enough prattle. Onto today’s topic of choice: Romance.
I should probably say right away that this isn’t what most of you are going to think. Nor is it going to be as “complete” as some of my other posts. Why? Because romance—real romance—is a complex issue. Let’s face it, mankind has been writing about love and the ways of the human heart almost since the beginning, and in all those thousands of years we still are, because when you get right down to it, romance is still a mystery all these years later. We can study it, we can write about it, we can try to quantify it, we can even observe it … but in the end, the puzzle of the heart and human attraction is still a mystery to just about everyone—so much so that stories about those who are certain they understand the mysteries discovering that they in fact do not is still a popular topic (seen Hitch?).
What am I saying? Basically that this post is nowhere near a full summary. In fact, we’re likely to not even get close. Romance—real romance—is a topic that humanity has written, studied, and explored for thousands of years, and yet many of us are still very much in the dark. I don’t think it hurts that it’s a little different for everyone, but the end result is that we’re probably still going to be writing about romance thousands of years from now. Or watching movies about it. Or whatever form of entertainment the future happens to hold (new rom-com collection—dozens of media memories from the greatest love stories in history beamed right into your brain!). Romance will always remain a topic that inspires and infuriates our species equally.
So, if the topic is that vast, some of you might be asking exactly what I can provide that would, in any way, help out those who are looking to write romantic stories? And the answer is: If you’re looking for the complete works of how to write about the human heart … you will not find it here, unfortunately. Such a monumental undertaking would lead to either the barest summary of all time, akin to The Guide’s “Mostly Harmless,” or a multi-volume work so lengthy it could double as the construction materials for a large building. Either of those options are a bit outside the scope of this blog, though amusingly enough, I can do the first one right here before moving on: it’s complicated.
That said, what can I offer? Starting points, really. I don’t write romance novels, but I have been known to insert romance into some of the stuff I’ve written. So while this post will absolutely not be an end-all, there are still some tips and tricks I’ve noticed from both other’s works and things I’ve figured out on my own on how to make your romance writing more approachable.
First of all, let’s get something out of the way right now. Observe the following scene (written solely for the purposes of this post, though if it sounds familiar, well ….):
Their eyes met across the bar. He wasn’t that bad looking—far from it, in fact. He had a nice smile, which he was flashing at her, now that she had his attention. His hands looked calloused, slightly weathered from some sort of hard, outdoors work. Which explained the sun-tanned look to his face.
It was hot. She got up and walked over to him, sitting down on the stool next to him.
“Hey,” she said, her voice almost a purr. “You’re attractive.”
“So are you,” he replied.
“Great,” she said, smiling. “Want to go have sex?”
“Absolutely,” he said. And they did (insert sex scene several pages longer than the entire bar-conversation here).
First things first, that is not a romance. Not at any point. That? That was a sex lead-in. There was nothing romantic about it. There were only two things that mattered in that exchange: The physical attraction, and the result of that. There was little knowledge of the other party.
What am I getting at? Well, to a lot of people, romance doesn’t mean romance. Romance, to them, means sex. And while the blame can be spread around, quite a bit of it falls to the “romance” genre of fiction books, who call themselves “Romance” ostensibly because bookstores would have a much harder time (or would have twenty-thirty years ago) labeling the genre something that was a bit more blunt.
Point is, and this is the first thing I want to get to, Romance is not sex. Sex is not romance. While this isn’t a popular view these days, that doesn’t make it any less true. Romance and sex are two different things. Which isn’t to say there isn’t sex in a truly romantic relationship … but it’s an entirely different beast. The whole “lust versus love” scenario which could be an entire post on its own.
But we’re not going to let it be one today. We’re here to talk about romance, not about sex. With that clear, let’s look at some of the points that I’ve found as being key to keep in mind when writing romantic situations.
Know What a Romance Is: Emotion
First, the counterpoint to the topic raised above: If a romance is not sex, then what is it? And here’s where once again I can’t promise a complete answer, because this is the kind of thing we’ve been struggling to explain for thousands of years. But I’ll give it a good shot.
Romance is more than just a physical attraction between two individuals. It’s an attraction on multiple levels—physical, emotional, mental, interests, etc—all those things. There’s a element of selflessness involved, battling with an element of selfishness, and—Gah! Can you see why we’d spend centuries writing stories about this?
Basically, this almost goes back to my throwaway joke line earlier: It’s complicated. But it’s also emotional. And as a writer, we need to acknowledge that. Romance, real romance is a relationship, a gradual understanding between two people that involves emotional vulnerability and respect. Selflessness and interest.
Yeah, it’s complicated. And it’s different for everyone. Which is why …
You Need to Know Your Characters
This is a big one, and one of the reasons writing a romance can be so hard for many people: You need to understand your characters—what makes them tick, how they think, what they’re like, how they’re going to act. Because unlike the dramatized example above, in real life some people just aren’t into others, and despite what Hollywood says, dogged-determination on one side isn’t always going to sway the other party over (in fact, it most often does not).
Point is, if you want to write a relationship, a real, proper, romantic relationship, then everything is going to be flavored by the two characters you’re working with. A relationship may start out hesitant and awkward, or it might begin with a gift from a suave and observational individual. It may begin as a moment of friendship that grows to something deeper during a moment of weakness or support. It may be a relationship in which both members drive the other crazy half the time, but through it all they both have some deep interests and dearly value the positives of the other.
If you want to write a romance, understand that your characters are going to have their own interests and needs. Just as most members of each sex can name something that they find physically appealing about a member of the opposite sex, so too can they often identify things that attract them emotionally. Some characters might even interact for some time before realizing that their respective interests overlap.
Let your characters control the pace and flow of a relationship. Let them figure it out, and follow what makes the characters tick, rather than trying to force your characters into a romance. Ever seen anyone try to “force” two people together in real life and the ensuing fallout? Your characters are the same way. Let them stumble into one another and move the romance as they want to. Let their actions be genuine to who they are, and let the romance grow from that.
Now, that said …
Recognize That Romance Isn’t Rational
I always get a kick out of people who post online that the “whole thing only happened because someone didn’t bother to explain” or that something one of the characters did “wasn’t rational.” People that make these kind of comments single themselves out as having not been in many relationships.
What I said above, about writing the characters being true to themselves? Do that. Make the characters true to themselves. Then (and this is probably much easier to do if you’ve been in a few relationships), realize that a character being true to themselves may not always make the most rational decision, especially in a romantic relationship.
That’s how these things work. People in a relationship do odd, sometimes stupid, sometimes silly things. Things that often don’t seem to make rational sense, but at the time, seem to make perfect sense. They say something. They don’t say something. They make some grand gesture. They hide moments of weakness. Sometimes they share them without thinking about it.
Sometimes they may even do things without knowing why they want to do them.
The point? Romance often isn’t rational. If you throw your characters into a romance, expect them to do odd things from time to time, and make decisions that don’t always make rational sense.
Romance Has an Aura of Selflessness
This is one thing that a lot of “romances” miss: They have an entirely self-interested character. If you want a romance, you can’t have that. Sure, you can at first (after all, this is another common romance story cliche), but by the time the romance really comes into it, both characters need to be thinking of the other along with themselves. Not in the sense of “What can I do for them that will get me what I want?” but in the sense that characters in a romantic relationship care about one another. That’s part of having a romantic relation. They care about the other’s well-being.
Again, sometimes this comes with a lack of rationality. And can depend on the character. But at the core, any romantic relationship you write is going to have this common element to it.
Romance is Hard
As this post is handily demonstrating (both in content and my adoirtness in putting it together), romance is hard. You’re dealing with emotions of two fully-intelligent beings, and no matter how you approach it, that’s going to be difficult. The absolute hardest to write scenes in Rise were, of all things, the ones following the arc between Steel and Cappy. Action? Piece of cake. Mystery? Anytime.
But trying to write two rational beings dancing around one another in a growing romance full of irrational choices and interests? That’s a headache waiting to happen.
My hope in writing this isn’t to lay down any distinct law (well, other than the revisiting of the idea that sex and romance are not the same thing, but most over the age of 18 recognize this), but more to drop a few helpful hints on tackling the massive ocean that is the world of romance. Again, I am by no means an expert on the topic, but am sharing here the lessons I’ve picked up that help romance writing come a little easier.
First, know a little bit about what a romance is. Know that it’s complicated, that it’s messy. Know that it’s an emotional thing that off-times follows its own, character-specific rules.
Second, realize that it’s not going to be the same for different characters. Take three characters, A, B, and C, and then put them in a relationship, first A and B, and then A and C, and you’ll have two different romantic events. You need to know your characters, understand how they will act and react in a relationship.
Third, knowing that, realize that relationships are not always rational things. In fact, quite often irrational decisions and choices are made. This doesn’t mean that characters will just do whatever strikes their fancy in a relationship, but it does mean that sometimes they will make decisions that have a logic to them that’s a little hard to follow an outside party.
Fourth, realize that a romantic relationship is going to have selflessness to it. Genuine, true interest in someone often comes with a caring for that individual, and a romance is not the same (and really isn’t much of a romance) if one part of the party doesn’t care for the other.
Again, what I’ve written here is a just a small couple of drops in the pool that is romance. There are entire histories dedicated to the portrayal of romance in literature. It’s a long a storied one, with a story that isn’t going to end because most of us are still figuring it out ourselves. It’s why stories like Romeo and Juliet or a Romantic-Comedy with Sandra Bullock can still be just as fresh and new now as they were ten, twenty, three hundred years ago.
But if you’re looking for a few steps to start, hopefully what I’ve written here today gives you somewhat of a jumping off point to exploring how to write a romance in your own works.
Good luck. You’ll need it.