Recently, Becca who actually went to school for this stuff, wrote a good post about romance novels and how they’re different than other novels. For the full gist, go ahead and read it for yourself. What I took away from it is that in romance novels, unlike most other novels, the main conflict is between the two main characters. There is something keeping them apart, poor communication, denial, secrets, or lies. At the same time, there has to be something pulling them together both personally and socially. An outside force is attracting these two people who normally wouldn’t be together into each others orbit where they have to overcome their difficulties and ‘give in’ to that personal attraction.
Romance is pretty popular as a genre and as a subgenre in books and shows and movies and some are better at it than others. (Most action movies are pretty bad at it.) There are procedural shows like Castle that were built around the entire idea that someday the two main leads would get together and have a happily something or something. There are procedural shows like Bones where they tried to push it, forgot about it and then fell back into it when they were running short on plot ideas for the main characters. Then there are procedural shows like Rizzoli and Isles where the love lives of the main two women are cliff notes in the overall friendship.
I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy where romance is a major subplot and I’ve mentioned some of the tropes I’ve seen in previous blog posts. Tropes like serial dating and love triangles and the type of drama that if two people actually had a conversation like grown adults everything bad could have been avoided. Or peril could have been avoided if the main characters were actually doing their jobs instead of trying to solve crime. A lot of the time, these romances don’t feel successful.
And in order for a romance to feel successful the characters in question need to have and keep or maintain that ‘spark’ or what we generally call chemistry. And let’s face it, there are a lot of characters out there that don’t have a lot of chemistry with each other and we’re supposed to go on faith that they’re good for each other. (I’m looking at you Letty and Dom.) And as writers we have to know where that spark is at its brightest point and if the characters don’t move to the next level then that spark is going to flicker and die. (cough, Castle and Beckett.)
The first thing I’ve discovered about creating chemistry is that you need to get the audience invested. In order to care about your couple, your readers or watchers need to care about them as people. There are a lot of books that I can’t get invested in the main characters because the book is so focused on the plot, the mystery, the not so great adventure, that the writer has either not written about the character in the first place or has been encouraged by an editor to cut all of it out in the interest of word count. (Most highly recommended urban fantasy.) Leaving the characters to the reader to feel like card board cut outs that I just can’t get invested in. In order to care about the character, I need to know about the character.
Problems with his female characters aside, Jim Butcher is actually fairly good at this. In the first book about Dresden I learned that he likes to open doors for women, he enjoys steak sandwiches and warm beer, his alarm clock has Mickey Mouse on it (because no one with a heart can hit Mickey Mouse), he is owned by a big cat and his place is a hodge podge of textures, old paperbacks and yeah, he’s a magic geek. It may not seem like a lot, but that is the type of information and the way it is presented that lets me get to know and get invested in the idea the Harry Dresden is not that bad of a guy and I could like him.
A lot of books that have romance as a subplot especially if they are going the serial dater or the love triangle route, only take the time to flesh out the main character. Sometimes they don’t even do that. If the writer doesn’t flesh out the main character or the other side of the love plot, then why do I care? (I don’t.)
After you flesh out the characters and get the readers invested in their lives, then you can get the characters invested in each other. Sure, they’ve got outside forces working on them to get them into the same orbit. But once these outside forces are removed, what do the characters see in each other that will make them stick together. Yeah, people feel intense emotions under stress. They often feel attraction and investment in the other person just because of those high stress situations. But what about after that?
A good example I feel of this is Kent and Jane from Rizzoli and Isles. Sure, the show got canceled before they really did anything with Kent and Jane and in the last few episodes they threw an entirely out of left field FBI guy for Jane to ‘feel attracted to.’ (Note: This is bad. We didn’t know this guy. We didn’t care. It felt pushed and rushed because it was.) But Kent and Jane had chemistry. They had sparks. And the way it started is that first, given that Kent was such a late comer into the series, they let the watchers get to know Kent a bit first. As we already knew and are invested in Jane and her happiness. He’s an odd ball, but professional, limited social skills with a sense of humor. They ‘revealed’ that Kent had a bit of a crush on Jane after some distraction hi-jinks with Maura (moral and ethical quandary there as a conflict) and started having Jane and Kent bounce sarcasm and jokes off each other. Jane tended to ignore him but his puppy dog eyes were adorable. The question was would Jane ever notice Kent as more than a colleague? (I think they were going for yes… I mean come on, the whole bit with the watermelons in that one case. “But Kent, what did the watermelons do to you?” And the kilt!)
And then the series got cancelled. And we lost this great romantic conflict which drives me crazy. (And I didn’t like Kent at first. I swear. I despised the way they introduced him. Ugh and then he grew on me and yes, see, that is good writing and I fell for it!)
There are different types of attraction. There is physical attraction, usually the first thing a person notices about the other. There is mental attraction, appreciation of their brains and the way they think. There’s verbal attraction, a liking of the way they talk, how they talk and what they talk about. There’s emotional attraction. They like the way that person feels things. What makes these characters compatible that there is chemistry between them?
And what is keeping them apart? Things like other relationships, getting out of bad relationships, not being ready for a relationship, trust issues, moral quandaries (such as not being a person who does casual sex,) and the ever easy, DENIAL. Maybe there is a power imbalance or an age gap or job restrictions (can’t date within the office or superior officers.)
Then as a writer, we have to fine tune the sense of ‘now is the time.’ A romance plot follows the same rules as every other plot. At the highest point of the conflict, the character has to act or the relationship will wither and die. And if the characters don’t act, the opportunity is missed, the readers are disappointed and they start looking for the next two big relationships for those characters to get invested into. If those aren’t presented in a convincing manner, then they might just stop caring about these characters all together.
It can be easy to try and drag a relationship out with them almost getting together and then last minute something interfering. All of this is for the sake of drama or trying to up the ante or push it off or make the tension that much greater. And a lot of times, this fails dramatically. (See Castle and Beckett.) The writers may still try to push the characters together even though they missed that natural point in the conflict where it was the right moment, the right time story wise to do so. And then, they have to find a new conflict to keep the series going.
Because, once that conflict is resolved a lot of writers and writing rooms don’t know what to do next. They have to manufacture another conflict in the place of the ‘will they, won’t they.’ A lot of times it ends up being on the woman’s side of “am I really good enough for him?” (Men in fiction never are as insecure as they are in real life. It’s not “macho” enough.) Even if that woman has been extremely self-confident before then and pushing the guy away because she doesn’t think he’s good enough for her. There are a lot of other conflicts than that, money and child rearing and living arrangements and ‘how do we tell our friends, do we tell our friends?’ come to mind. (But maybe they are just too boring.)
There was a lot of outrage in the fandom of BBC Sherlock when Watson got married and had a baby with Mary. “How is Watson going to go on adventures with Sherlock with a baby?!” Well, you do what normal and rational people do, you hire a sitter? You take the baby with you? (Doyle wasn’t good with female characters to begin with, BBC’s interpretation didn’t help matters.) But these are the adult problems. How do you juggle a job and a family and hobbies and friends and keep your romance alive? Everyone has to do it. But media just tries to ignore it because UST is so much more entertaining. (Supposedly.) Babies have a bad habit of ending up kidnapped or disappearing for the story entirely (Bones.) Women who may be rivals for the main character’s romantic affections are killed.
Or there ends up having to be a conflict in the marriage that may mirror how they got together. Bad communication. Denial of self or the opposite, selfishness. The characters may get involved in a new danger. Maybe there is an affair and trust is lost and has to be regained. Hardships like disease and accidents are all tests of character that really show what people are like on the inside.
There is a reason why most romance series focus on a bunch of couples one right after the other who were introduced in previous books rather than focusing on a single couple. Every time a reader gets a new book there is a new thrill of ‘will they or won’t they?’ And the possibility of a different couple conflict. (Of course most romance novels are happily ever after or happy for now, so it’s more of a how than a real question.)
So, romance is tricky to write because it so depends on the fleshed out personalities of the characters. And how the reader feels about the characters is really going to depend on their own biases and views of romance too. From my observations of fandom is that somewhere out there in the great wide internet, there are going to be people who are going to put the oddest people into relationships and can get behind almost anything. And it may not at all be what the creators intended. But the people who consume the media see chemistry or a spark and decide to view it as romantic rather than filial love.
Just goes to show you can’t predict anything!