I don’t have much of a romantic bone in my body. I will admit to being a bit more the hopeless romantic at one time, and it showed in my writing: the idea of eternal love, the “one.” In many ways, I shared many qualities with Anna from Frozen as she contemplates finding her “one” as her world opens. However, as Anna discovered, life is seldom so neat . . . though she probably still found her “one” before the movie wrapped up (It’s Disney. They love their pairing).
This realization, as a young adult, that in life we are, well, human–it soured me on romance by killing its idealism. I even reworked my fantasy novel to remove a wedding and throw in some romantic roadblocks. Even despite that, I still couldn’t completely kick romance to the curb and kept two really good couples in that book. And now as I get older, my views on romance have morphed to embrace the humanity involved in it, that it is our human flaws and shortcomings that create memorable, enjoyable romances.
Deep down I do enjoy a good romance that weaves itself through a good story — while not dominating or derailing that story. That last part is key to me enjoying a book with romance: There has to be a good plot that is not overly tied to the romance, but shapes the romance and the characters involved in it.
It is easy to write a bad romance: throw in cardboard characters, have the male completely dominate the female lead while giving her no real agency, have a plot that barely exists, throw together mismatched characters that lack any chemistry, etc. But what does it take to have a good romance? Why does it seem harder to craft a really good one? For the latter, the answer is probably easily described as everyone’s mileage varies. Different people want different things in their partners and their romances.
As for the former question, here are some of my personal thoughts on what makes a good romance. Also be sure to come back tomorrow as I dissect my ultimate fictional couple and point out some of the elements that made it, to me, one of the most touching, rewarding relationships.
My Romance Top 10 Musts (In No Particular Order)
- Characters. Like an genre, first build characters that the reader will care about before even really thinking about how the romance is going to work. In real life, we are individuals, even if we are paired with someone; your characters, too, must be individuals as well with their own separate wants, fears, desire, kinks, etc.
- History. Give the couple a history, whether in their past or as you build your book or series. My ultimate couple (coming tomorrow) is a good example of building a relationship/history over the course of a series. History builds depth to not only the romance, but the characters themselves. Utilize it properly to build a memorable romance.
- Abuse is not love. Do not conceal abuse (physical, emotional, verbal, etc.) as love/romance. Isolating ones “beloved” from their friends and family, demeaning how they look, toying with their emotions, etc. is not love so stop treating it like it is, or label it as one party “protecting” their lover. Think about the connotation of your characters’ actions. Taking out a car battery = not sexy. Stalking their love interest while they work = creepy and very scary.
- Mature couples. I’m a sucker for mature people falling in love. There is enough young love/teenage-stupid-love out there. Bring on the adults who can make rational decisions, rather than thinking poison and a “happy” dagger are good solution to their romantic troubles.
- Love shaped by plot. It is easy to shape a plot via the romance you envision; however, allowing a plot to shape your couple’s romance is more compelling and less contrived. To witness a fictional couple weather odds thrown at them, to grow alongside each other over the course of a story is so much more rewarding.
- Everyone gets a say. Both characters should have a say in their relationship. Yes, there will probably be arguments, but that makes for good reading, plus it will make your characters more real. Don’t fall into the pit of developing your main character, only to have her/his love interest be along for the ride, present only to do what the main character wants. It also helps create involvement: If your characters are fully involved in their relationship, the reader will also be involved in it.
- Sacrifice. All great love should come with sacrifice, whether that entails staying home with a sick spouse rather than painting up the town, giving up a dream job to stay with your love, or paying the ultimate price to see that your loved one survives.
- Thinking of the future. Often times, romance is centered on the present moment of new love. I enjoy watching couples, whether married or not, also looking to the future, planning out their dreams, or even bringing those shared dreams to fruition. Unfulfilled dreams can be equally touching, particularly when one is left to carry it out.
- Out of the norm couples. I enjoy diverse, varied characters, and couples that walk to the beat of their own drum. Eating oatmeal every single day gets boring, so have fun creating unique, maybe oddball couples while also digging deep into their relationship to figure out why they work and what brought them together.
- Don’t forget the ordinary. Not every moment has to be explosive. Your couple could just grab a quick cup of coffee and connect on a normal, everyday level. Often time, I think us writers get so wrapped up in big moments that we forget to include little things that build on our work, make it more relateable. Life is not all explosions, dealing with natural disasters, etc., so show your couples at their quiet times, too.
What makes good romance writing for you? Feel free to share your thoughts below. And Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!