Being a Better Writer: Romance

Don’t forget, Unusual Events is out!

Well, this should be a short one. That, or today we’ll be learning from the mentality of “Those who don’t, teach.”

Okay, I kid. But this is a bit of an off topic for me. It comes by way of request, and that makes it more interesting because when it comes to writing, there’s several ways to interpret “romance.”

The most modern interpretation, as evidence by a vast swath of the book market (last I heard it was somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the total book market, but I have not Googled that, so I may be off, suffice to say it’s a large, large portion), is the “romance” genre.

Yes, I just put that in quotes. And most of you probably know why. But if not, you’ll know why in a moment. It’s the modern romance market. Technically, I should write it without quotes, but it needed something to make a distinguishing mark between it and other types of romance.

See, the modern romance book isn’t really about about romance. Not specifically. They’re more about titillating their audience. Most of them fall right into the “erotica” category (and it isn’t so much fall as dive off a cliff), leading to a number of joke names for the genre.

So, what’s this genre like? Well, I’ll admit I’m not really a reader of it, but I have some knowledge of it just to keep abreast (lol) of the genre. Lots of physical descriptions, really, shored up by some emotional, melodramatic underpinnings such as “unbridled passion” or “yearnings” (this is because studies and experience have shown that erotica for women sells better if it has an emotional angle).

Anyway, I’m afraid if you want tips for this genre I’m not going to be any help. The most “advice” I can offer is that this genre, ultimately, is about the physical act described in detail, and not about the emotional component. Flesh is front and center, other aspects are secondary. And I think anyone who goes into that genre is going to expect that already.

Anyway, “romance” is something I have no interest in writing. Why? It’s basically the deep-fried drug of the writing world: A short, ultimately empty but mentally-addicting experience that comes with questions about the long-term effects. You could say I don’t agree with it on a personal, moral level, and that answer’s just fine, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not a genre you’ll ever see me write. If you want to write it, well fine. That’s your call. But I have no interest in writing it. So advice for that genre? Sorry, I don’t have much.

However, I will write about romance. And that’s what instead I’ll be offering tips for today. Not the popularized “romance” genre, butactual romance. A living, breathing relationship between two beings (you may scoff there, but when you’re writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy …) on an emotional, mental, and physical level.

If that sounds both hard and complicated, then you’re thinking along the right lines. Real romance is hard. Writing out a romantic relationship between two characters is a complicated, difficult dance of keeping track of both their lines of thought, emotions, reactions, and flaws. Mistakes are make. Apologies are given. Both parties learn. Where a “romance” book is more concerned about getting both characters in the same room (and then the same bed, in lurid detail), a romance is a story or subplot wherein two characters are discovering and building a love between them, one that’s far more than just a bedroom.

Basically, if you want to write a romance, not a “romance,” there’s a mindset you’re going to have to shake, that of the American “free love” movement from the 70s that’s still with us today. Remember that? It was this big push that love (read, 99% physical) was just something anyone could give anyone else without reservations.

So why doesn’t that mesh with romance? Think of the old line from The Incredibles: When everyone’s super … No one will be. You want two characters to have something special between them? Then it has to be something they have with no one else. Otherwise it’s no longer special.

So if you’re going to write a romance of some kind between two characters, it needs to be that kind of special. Something those two characters have between them that no other two characters have.

Now, that doesn’t mean that other characters aren’t going to have their own romances, but this is an important point about relationships that needs to be brought up: Each one is different. No two relationships are the same, a truism you’ll see in life that should be reflected in your writing. Granted, this is also part of why some people find relationships so daunting to write: Each really is unique, and it requires both an in-depth knowledge of your characters as well as what is going to spark between them and how. And it’ll switch from character to character. Some characters may not realize how compatible they are together until they’ve been friends for years. Others may see one another and immediately feel a mutual interest.

My absolute best advice for how you can get a feel for this? Talk to real people, real couples with relationships that have lasted for decades, as well as those that are freshly married. Listen to their stories of how they met and try and figure out what sparked, what the moment was that took them from “people who know each other” to the realization of “I love this person!” Writing is a reflection of life, and if you talk with other couples about what clicked, about when they first made the connection, you’ll get more ideas concerning what might “click” for your characters.

Of course, you can observe as well. Watch couples of all kinds and see how they treat one another. How do they back up their words? What little things do they do for their significant other?

All of these things are part of the romance that you’ll want your characters to capture. Couples in a relationship, a real relationship, care about one another, deeply. You’re going to want to recreate that element.

Now, this doesn’t mean things are going to be perfect. Just as with your characters, the relationships you write them into are going to have flaws. Flaws that they’ll either overcome, learn to live with, or fall apart over. These flaws can be anything from a misunderstanding, a communication issue (Cappy and Steel’s relationship in Rise, for example, was nearly ended before it began over the simple problem that neither of the two was willing to outright say what really needed to be said, for various reasons), to a full-on disagreement or even death (which does tend to technically end the relationship, but it’s hard to let go).

Whatever flaws are there, how your characters overcome them will say a lot about their relationship with one another. Want a powerful romance? Have two characters face a titanic struggle together that could quite realistically tear them apart, a struggle where most if not everyone around them would tell them “You’d be better off alone” and have them stick together … even if that means things are somewhat worse off at the end than they could of been … but they don’t mind because they’ve got each other to lean on.

Now I’ll be fair here, I don’t write romantic stories. What I write are stories about characters, usually action or adventure, where romantic relationships appear. I don’t have the foggiest idea how I would sit down and write a 300,000 word Epic Fantasy where the core, primary plot is two beings who find one another and fall in love. Not without wrapping it up in a whole lot of other things like action, adventure, and intrigue. So my advice is definitely not the end-all on writing a romantic relationship because that’s never theprimary focus of my stories. My experience is all secondary, subplot-stuff, though I do enjoy writing them.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that what you’ve just read is my experience with writing a romantic interaction between characters. While I think it’s good, solid advice, that doesn’t mean that it’s complete. I’m sure there are other authors who would point out other important aspects of a romantic relationship, and their advice would be just as valid.

But to get that, you’ll have to go to them. For me, I keep things simple. First, it’s a romance, not a “romance.” It needs to be something special, between those two characters that’s based off of who they are and what they’re like. I look at the relationships of those around me to see how they interact, for better or ill, to get an idea of what my characters might act like. And I don’t make them perfect: I give them challenges, flaws, or rough moments that may crop up from time to time. And then I just let them be them. Flaws, high points, and all.

And for me? That works. It’s enough.

Well … almost. There’s one last thing I want to mention here, and I’ll do it by way of a bit of a spoiler for Dead Silver and a review from the selfsame. Here’s an excerpt:

I do, however, have to tell you about one of the other characters. We don’t get NEARLY enough detail on her looks, but her name is Ellera Akinyemi, and she’s a nurse, and she is DEFINITELY interested in Unusuals, with a particular interest in Hawke. In fact, she asks him out, and he doesn’t even realize it until later … The only sign of affection that takes place is a single kiss on Hawke’s cheek, but that just tells you how interested she is. Why? Because the cheek of a man 6’7″ tall is over 6 ‘ from the ground, and unless she is exceptionally tall, a fact not in evidence, she had to exert herself to implement the contact. I am all in favor of this. In fact, it is a sign of Hawke’s friendship with Jacob, and his devotion to the mission, that he does not simply forget all about pursuit of chupacabras and commence a pursuit of a nurse.

Quick show of hands here, have you ever heard the phrase “Romantic Plot Tumor?” No? Well, the name is pretty explanatory. Basically it’s what you call it when an out-of-place romance flat-out hijacks a narrative for a while in order to fulfill some terrible checklist and thereby give the story more broad appeal.

Except for a critical or serious reader it’s about as jarring as seeing ice sink. If you’re going to write a romantic relationship into a story, recognize that in the real world they’re delicate, odd things, and that if your characters are engaged in a battle for life and death, relationships, not to mention sex, might just be taking a backseat to other more important things like staying alive.

It’s pandering, basically. Mindless, inexplicable pandering. I had a book I purchased once that had such a frustrating moment of “What the what?” inexplicable sex that I actually tore the page out. It worked, because the start and end literally fell on the start and end of the page, so nothing was lost. Better yet, it saved the pacing, because who stops running from an oncoming alien horde that they feared might reach them before they escaped to have sex?

I’ll tell you who. Characters with no sense of survival instinct. It only counted as a “romantic” plot tumor (rather than a romantic plot tumor) but it killed that story. Happened right at the end too (there’s a joke there about the book’s climax, but that’d be stooping to the low-hanging fruit), with no prior indication of any kind of relationship between the two characters.

Look, if you want to write a romance plot into your book (or your characters do), that’s great! Go for it. But don’t let it become the romantic plot tumor. Don’t make your characters do stupid stuff they wouldn’t normally do without a good reason. It’s jarring, erroneous, and can introduce an ugly snarl to an otherwise clean plot.

Hawke Decroux, in Dead Silver? Ellera is definitely interested in him, and he in her. But very little comes of it during the story, as one would expect when your friend has almost been murdered, people are disappearing, and there’s a pack of bloodsucking creatures running around. Hawke has bigger fish to fry at the moment.

The best part? Ellera is a character that understands this, and Hawke’s preoccupation is something she outright acknowledges. Which is realistic (and a good indicator of her maturity and intelligence). In the real world, while running from an exploding bomb or a pack of ravenous wolves, your highest priority is not going to be romancing the closest person you know and also just met. It’s going to beliving.

Now, if Ellera and Hawke were in a relationship already at the start of the story? Things would be different. The romance wouldn’t be a tumor, but something that was there from the start, by design, and then it would make sense for Hawke to be spending more time thinking about Ellera and vice-versa.

So then, my last bit of advice, in addition to everything above? Don’t let your romance become a romantic plot tumor. Keep it focused, keep it centered on the characters, and in relation to what’s going on in your story.

Remember, as I said earlier, romance is hard. Some of the most difficult, frustrating scenes I’ve ever written in my life have been private, caring, complicated discussions between two characters who care deeply about one another, and trying to convey that through both show and tell. And in this manner, I guess life imitates art. Romance, real romance, is hard. Brutal. Difficult. Tough.

But when it happens, and you pull it off, it’s one of the most rewarding things you can create.

Good luck.

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