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I’ve been working on Serpent’s Smile (HH Book 3) as I’ve been editing Rodeo’s Run (HH Book 2). In Serpent’s Smile (out next year), Savannah and Gideon finally share some serious kissing! None of this little pecks on the lips stuff. I’m excited for them. Not that acting on their desires makes them any less idiots. (As a storyteller, I have my reasons.) But the sparks between them are really heating up!
As I’ve progressed in writing this series about romantic chemistry, I’ve gone from generalities to being more and more specific about writing that chemistry and spark between characters who are attracted to each other. So, they’re attracted to each other, know each other exists and respect each other. How do they interact in ways to show, instead of just telling the audience, that they’re either romantically involved or on the way to being so.
First off, the characters need to be comfortable with each other. Comfort indicates a level of trust. Sure, there may be awkward moments of nudity or saying things that they didn’t mean to (because who hasn’t blurted out something every once in a while.) But characters that are comfortable and trust each other, because they respect each other, find ways to get through those awkward moments by talking through it or laughing it off or just giving each other time to get used to the situation.
People who are comfortable with each other tend to talk a lot about every subject. They know they can say things and not be insulted or have to defend their position if the other person disagrees. They are relaxed and don’t stiffen up if the person gets too close to them. Being comfortable means they’re willing to look each other in the eyes.
Because when you respect someone, you earn their trust and they start to feel comfortable around you. (Of course, this is also a great way to betray or manipulate someone and create conflict in your stories.)
Body language is another great way to show attraction. Body language can be subconscious and is easily misinterpreted. (I found this out the difficult way. Though half the time I think it was deliberate misinterpretation.) Characters that are good friends and/or are physically attracted to each other have a tendency to lean towards each other. They smile at each other more and once again, meet each other’s eyes. (Sometimes for long periods of time.)
Body language also translates to physical touch. There are different levels of physical touch that can show how a relationship progresses. A handshake is a greeting touch and after eye contact is the next stage of physical intimacy. (Sounds racy doesn’t it?) From there, physical touch progresses, a touch on the arm, holding hands, touching the shoulder, touching a knee, a hug. Characters that are attracted to each other may sit close together enough that their legs touch or one may sit on the other character’s lap.
Of course, characters that are good friends or family may do the above things. Some of them may even kiss. The fact sadly is that so much of touch has been turned into sexual touch. When touches that are sexual tend to involve more private areas and kissing is more involved. However, characters that are attracted to each other, tend to be comfortable touching each other!
Characters that are attracted to each other communicate with each other. And the way they communicate can be just as important was what they are saying. Characters that are attracted to each other are far more likely to compliment each other and build each other up than insult each other and tear each other down. (The latter just causes lots of hurt feelings, but hey, a cheap source of conflict. Not that I’d be dating anyone who routinely insulted me.) They will be more willing to compromise on things that are important to them if they know the other person in the relationship will compromise on things that they find important. They may tease each other about safe subjects. (Teasing a person about an unsafe subject such as a traumatic event or a phobia irrational or rational may create conflict but will require more conversation and communication to clear things up. And a sincere apology.) Good couples also listen to each other.
(A good rule of thumb in romance and life is if your characters/self aren’t comfortable talking about sex or finances with their significant other, maybe they shouldn’t be having sex or joining finances. See, yet more conflict!)
Of course, there is nothing like having a couple with a cute back and forth code phrase that means “I love you.” Especially, if the code phrase is shown first happening somewhere in the books. But not every couple needs one of these.
Characters who are physically attracted to each other do things for each other without any thought of things being done in return for them. Part of being in love I find is wanting the other person to be happy. Doing things to help make that other person feel happy even for a moment makes me feel good. This is part of emotional labor that often falls more on the women than the men. (Men tend to stop doing this once the initial courtship is over.) Emotional labor are things like baking, doing chores, scheduling family time, child rearing and sending cards. Couples do this by buying coffee for each other or writing cute notes or even having a favorite song. Unequal emotional labor is one of the biggest sources of conflict in a relationship often causing resentment and communication break downs (because people aren’t psychic!)
Of course, every couple is different. I have characters that enjoy verbally sparring and others that are more about compliments, baked goods and cuddles. The key point in writing romance is write what feels natural and feels natural to the characters’ personalities. No two people are exactly the same and won’t romance each other in the exact same manner.
Finding the right combination of what makes characters click and what doesn’t can take effort, work and introspection. There’s no shame in studying the relationships you love in media to determine what about them makes you love them so much and try to mimic that in your own work. Taking from one source is stealing, but taking from many is research!
Good luck and happy romance writing!
I honest to goodness don’t know when Rodeo’s Run is coming out. Sometime next month is my best guess. Last year, I tried to coordinate with the first Tuesday of the month to correspond with Sturgis Bike Week(s). This year, I’m not sure I care as much.
But here it is, the cover of Heaven’s Heathens MC book 2: Rodeo’s Run, complete with the current synopsis so you can get a feel for what it’s about.
Rodeo’s Run takes you out of Jasper and further into the world post the Cascading War. Which for me as a writer is nice, I get to explore along with you what this post apocalyptic world 200 years after the fact is like. Jasper is a nice safe place. Once you leave it, it isn’t so safe anymore.
That and you get to meet Rodeo. (If you haven’t read the short stories and met him as a child that is.)
Be ready for some preview chapters soon. (I might do blog posts and pages.)
I’ve updated the look of my blog to reflect the new book. And I’ve added some free stuff! Free! I say, FREE! Okay, it’s wallpapers in 3 ratio sizes. Check them out with this handy link.
Sadly, the results of my experiment with tumblr didn’t gain me anything. Onto the next thought, I suppose. Whatever that thought is, I’m not sure yet.
Monday, I finished up my (hopefully) last read through of Rodeo’s Run, the second book to my Heaven Heathen’s MC series and passed it off to Becca of In the Corner Editing. And of the two series that I write, werewolf motorcycle adventures and mixed up fairy tales, Heathens is the longer and the more difficult concept of the two to sell.
Sure, I can say it’s Sons of Anarchy meets the Expendables meets the Wolfman with a touch of Dredd and Ultraviolet tech and world wise. Maybe Minority Report for fun. But even that doesn’t really capture to me what Heathens is really about or the world. (Post apocalyptic science fantasy adventure. Dear God, I wish I could make that shorter. You say Urban Fantasy and most people get what that means or Paranormal Romance. But no, not me… I can’t do that. I have to be difficult.)
Heathens is also long. So far the books are running about 170,000 words, that’s 500 pages. I’m spending a lot of words and page time showing things rather than trying to summarize them. And I know that if I wasn’t self-publishing that unless I had an editor or a publisher that really trusted me (like Becca trusts me) that I’d be cutting the books in half. I tried doing that with the Lone Prospect and the book ended up a flat mess of nothing that I cared about anymore.
And as I was editing this one and dealing with the “thank God I’m self publishing because the story really sort of starts at page 204 here,” emotions, I looked back at what a publisher would probably ask me to cut and realized that it would have a chilling effect on further books. If I cut several scenes out of Rodeo’s Run, there went an entire scene in Serpent’s Smile. If I cut out a minor (and controversial) story line that I started in the Lone Prospect, there are huge parts of Rodeo’s Run and why Quinn is in the book at all that wouldn’t make sense.
Every time I try to cut something, I lose something that effects something else later on because of the way the idea family and the pack works in my universe. I care too much about the family aspect of my story to slash things away without discrimination because if I do, it is going to change the way future books can be written. (And I have my reasons for some of these story lines.)
I’m not saying every scene is 100% important. I’m saying those scenes are like a waterfall, you start with one, it hits a rock and creates two more and those two connect to another scene that is creating another two scenes and things multiply. The more things you cut, the more limited things you can do later.
Now, I understand the reasons why traditional publishing is so risk adverse. There are publishing costs and marketing costs (not that many authors get the five star treatment). And while at the same time they want properties that can translate into series, they also don’t want first time authors to be so attached to their books they’ve got a series already written. Just in case the first book doesn’t do well. (But you know, without proper marketing, how can a book do well? We’ve got a conundrum here.) But it makes it difficult on those of us who are trying to take a little risk in our writing and push the edges of the box. If I was a marketing genius, I could probably figure out a better way to market my books myself, but I’m not so here we are.
But, Rodeo’s Run is out of my hands for the moment. (I cheat since Becca is my best friend and she often gets to help me story edit as I’m writing. Granted, she’s really hands off because she trusts me.) I even got to insert an interesting fact about sunflowers into the book and make it relevant! Now, if I could only figure out how to use that fun trivia fact about glitter….
For a very long time in my pre-original writing career, I considered myself a romantic comedy style writer. The idea that I could write adventure stories with romantic comedy elements in them wasn’t an epiphany of sorts but rather something that gradually happened over time and by rejecting the notion that all urban fantasy or dystopia or science fantasy had to be mysteries and solving crime. I don’t really know how to write they solve crime.
I came at writing through an aspect of trial and error and lots and lots of reading other fiction works. I played with other people’s characters for years and had to work out of a really dark place before settling on creating original characters that I loved as much, if not more, than other people’s characters. All those years writing other people’s characters though gave me a good foundation on which to build my original writing. I had a fairly decent following in some very specific places so, I must have been doing something right. (I hope.)
So, here are some of the things I do when I’m writing romantic chemistry.
Both characters need to find the other character attractive! I mentioned in my post last week about Writing Romantic Chemistry that there are many types of attraction and that physical attraction is usually the first thing we notice about each other. (Unless you’re me and I go, oh, that person would make a good werewolf.) Short, tall, skinny, curvy, flat as a board, round, sharp, blue eyes, brown eyes, brunette, blonde, red head, no matter what your two characters are, the other person should hopefully find them attractive one way or the other.
Many times in my stories I try to find a feature that each character likes about the other, a feature that may set them apart from the 101 other generic romantic lead characters out there, freckles, the odd shape of the eyes, a distinctive hair color, the way the other character smells (very important in werewolf stories), in order to give the reader a point of reference and a way to say ‘this character is unique.’
Acknowledgement that the Other Character Exists:
Now, attraction is all well and good and I know there are readers who love the whole unrequited love angst trope. When I’m writing a couple though, each character has to know that the other character exists in the same sphere with them as a man or a woman to be desired and loved. If one character doesn’t acknowledge the other is there and available then the whole relationship is never going to get off the ground.
In fact, that can be a good conflict. One character loves the other. The other sees them as friend, acquaintance, nuisance, surrogate sibling, insert relationship of choice here. One is physically and sexually and romantically attracted to the other and the other is completely oblivious. It may take work and effort before the one who is oblivious can ‘see’ what is right in front of them. Yay conflict! Yay story! After that you can add some denial and bargaining and unresolved sexual tension. Lots of fun.
In some fashion, characters need to be opposites of each other. Usually I go for either habits or personality traits. Neat freak versus mess. Laid back versus perfectionist. Wing it versus plans and lists. Because as people and readers we like opposites, tall versus short, light versus dark, hard versus soft. Compositionally, something has to be big and something has to be small to make a painting or sculpture or drawing feel dynamic. It’s the same way with fictional relationships. There has to be a contrast in their present or pasts to create a foil or compliment for each other.
Of course, like yin and yang, each having a little of the other inside themselves, the two must have something in common. Something that will keep them together after the external conflict is done. Something more than good sex and kids. (You can’t base your relationship around your kids. It’s not healthy.) Whether it’s a shared love of a certain style of music, sailing, horseback riding, hiking or extreme base jumping. There has to be something that our two main characters do together that keeps them together in the long run.
Sure, they should also have separate interests. Maybe she likes sports and he likes reading or he plays in a band and she knits/sews/makes lace. There needs to be a hobby or a love of ren faires or medieval culture or art shows or beach bathing that they do together in order to strengthen their bond outside of cuddling and sex. (I find cuddling to be very important.)
Lastly, the characters need to respect each other for who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and their boundaries. Part of respect is honesty and communication and acknowledgement that you cannot change another person. Unless they want to change, who they are now is who they always will be. I don’t try to feed into this fantasy that a man or woman and really good sex can save another person.
It doesn’t work. Period.
Yes. There are people who like to write unhealthy relationships. I get it. That’s fine. And a lack of respect or boundaries and learning about them and how to communicate can make for a really great conflict in a story. Another person realizing that they are wrong and are willing to change in order to be a better person not only for themselves but for their partner or their kids is a very powerful thing. But personally, for me, to feel that there is true romantic chemistry and that a happy ever after is in the offing, there has to be mutual respect.
As I said. I originally felt like I was a romantic comedy writer. I want laughs. I want things to be funny or silly. I like putting characters into outrageous situations and seeing what they’ll do. Love can’t thrive without a little laughter, without people not taking themselves too seriously. (I mean I can be a very serious person, but I don’t take myself too seriously.)
Human can be in the situations the characters are placed in or the way they interact with each other. To me putting a six foot ex-military laid back male soldier werewolf with a five foot two over planner with lists female motorcycle club VP werewolf is funny. He’s clueless about the motorcycle life. She’s been in it her whole life and forgets to explain! Thus, silly things happen. And Gideon is fortunately laid back enough he takes things well. She picks on him about his lollipops. He picks on her about her lists. She’s simply not used to being teased. They get along.
To be clear, I’m not a fan of the Bridesmaids type of humor where people are trying to one up each other and the writers are trying to get you to laugh at a character’s pain. That type of humor just makes me cringe and feel embarrassed and humiliated for the character. My type of humor is more along the lines of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. “Man, these sliding doors really do come in handy.” Good humor is like a good prank. It doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s easy to clean up. Everybody laughs.
Attraction, Acknowledgement, Opposites, Commonality, Respect and Humor, these are the elements that I use when I write a romantic couple to create a spark between them.
Hopefully, sometime next month I’m going to be releasing Rodeo’s Run, the 2nd Tale of the Heaven’s Heathens MC. And I’ve been thinking about giving away a few copies of my initial e-book, The Lone Prospect. (Just the e-book, not the paperback, sorry, don’t have the funds.)
But before I go about signing up for anything and doing twitter blasts and posting on my tumblr about an awesome bargain of a 500 page werewolf adventure novel for FREE!!! I would sincerely like to know if there is any interest and how you, the readers, would like to receive said e-book.
So handy poll. (Never done a poll here before.)
I have file formats of .mobi, .pdf and .html.
Thank you for any and all feedback. It will greatly help me decide what I’m doing going forward.
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!