Not every novel needs a romantic subplot. But given enough time and depth, most characters will develop that side of their lives. If we’re ignoring love, we aren’t writing fully realized characters.
If we as writers can tap into the allure and mystery of romance, we have the opportunity to evoke more powerful and compelling emotions through our stories.
Here are five tips for making this happen:
1. Develop Both Characters Equally
To write a compelling romance, we need two complete characters.
The sane and well-adjusted among us don’t fall in love with beautiful dolls or pinup posters. Instead, we build relationships with other human beings: unique individuals who possess their own characteristics, hopes and experiences. There may be such a thing as love at first sight, but only if first sight is long enough to see the depths of another person’s personality.
In our novels, readers may only see things unfold from one character’s perspective. But as authors, we need to understand both characters fully. Readers will notice if a character is swooning for someone who lacks agency or goals, who doesn’t change, and who’s defined by cliché gender traits and archetypes.
Both our characters and our readers deserve better.
2. Show Both Characters Changing
When we are young, we dream of finding the “right person”. But the “right person” isn’t defined by the qualities that she possesses. Rather, this person is defined as right (or wrong) based on what she brings out in us.
The truth is that we ultimately judge a relationship based on how we are changed by it.
This is the source of love’s mysterious nature. Sometimes wonderful people bring out our worst fears, or miserable people bring out our best qualities. Sometimes a funny person causes us to feel insecure, or a quiet person makes us feel relaxed. How a relationship changes us isn’t always obvious. Love affects people in deep, sometimes indecipherable ways.
Consider how the two characters, with their strengths, goals, experiences, and choices, cause one another to change.
3. Plot a Commitment Arc
Relationships are dynamic and change over time. Each person’s level of commitment can fluctuate over the course of a relationship, and conflicts arise when the commitment is not equal on both sides.
As with a character arc, we can plot the changes in the commitment levels of the characters. A commitment arc will encompass the events that trigger these changes, from the first meeting that sparks interest, to the first fight and beyond.
4. Change the Characters, Again
As a relationship arcs through various levels of commitment, the ways in which the relationship alters the characters also evolves.
After each event in a commitment arc, the characters change in response to the changing relationship. Fear and resentment may build as a partner’s traits, which once were impressive, become intimidating. Or shared experiences might create a closeness that renders previous issues irrelevant.
5. Take Advantage of the Fantasy
In a fantasy setting, we have the opportunity to find unique and even magical ways to test a relationship. We can push people together or tear them apart with unusual, imaginative twists.
We can show the evolution of the relationship in ways that surprise our readers, such as a first meeting on a battlefield, to a date in Hell, to a spell that leaves one character trapped in the form of a dragon. The possibilities are endless.
Epic fantasy sometimes deserves an epic romance.
Can you think of an example of romance done right in a fantasy story? What makes this romance compelling?