I’ve already written a rant on non-bickering, non-love at first sight romances. This one’s different. That one also includes notes about leaving characters single and not turning every sexual relationship into a romantic one. This one does accept that you have characters in love.
And, once again, just like the sex rant, it’s really, really personal. I have my biases (you will see one in my first point). I am a very, very, very picky reader of romances. Most don’t feel real to me, and I read around them and refuse to care about them at all. So whether you’ll find this rant useful or not might depend on a) how much you agree with me, and b) how much you mind some of the things I hate.
1) The time it takes.
If two characters fall in love in a few days, I am going to need a reason why. (My brain immediately offers, “Codependency!”, which is not helpful). Why does it take only that small an amount of time? Why call it love? Why do both characters achieve pure, true love in that small an amount of time, rather than one codependent character doing so and the other not following until later?
I’m trying to remember a book that had characters falling in love at first sight or within a few days where I believed in the romance. I am coming up with exactly one example: Yendi by Steven Brust. And the reason that this counts is because the two characters have enough in common—both assassins, both humans in a nonhuman-dominated society—that it covers up, for a while, their very, very deep differences. I don’t know if I would actually call it love so much as whirlwind passion and infatuation that dumps the same characters in a very different place later. The unusual situation they’ve been through also helps; since sorcerers can revive dead people in this world, Vlad, the male assassin, gets brought back to life after Cawti, the female assassin, kills him. Then they sleep together, long before the declarations of love take place. Multiple times. You can see that this isn’t exactly a conventional romance. Also, it is quite, quite dysfunctional, and Brust merrily rolls the romance through Disagreement City later, with a side-trip to the Lake of Different Political Principles and the Mountain of Lies.
Maybe I would accept more of those really quick romances if the authors showed them collapsing afterwards, and didn’t obviously mean them to last forever. As it is, I can’t. I glance at the questions I gave in the first paragraph of this point, and I don’t think even those are enough. I suppose I’d ask: Why in the world do the characters have to fall in love that fast in the first place?
So, for me, believable romances always favor the slower growth of love. My personal believable timeframe is that it should take months, if not years. I’m sorry, before that point I just don’t believe that these people know each other that well, and that there couldn’t be irreconcilable differences lurking under the surface that will tear them apart sooner or later. It is very opinionated of me, and there it is.
2) Natural chemistry.
I hate using the word chemistry for this, really, because I think it’s too cinematic. I think romantic chemistry in books has to be handled very differently than it is on-screen, and some authors, overly influenced by television, are too likely to forget that and do things that would work in a movie but not with the words.
But I can’t think of any better word for it, since I mean more than just “attraction,” so into the pot this goes.
How do the characters act around each other? How do they act when they’re alone with each other, and when they’re in a group with at least one other person? (And yes, these should be different. Group dynamics are one of those things I think should be basic to characterization. Don’t bring a third character into the scene and then forget about him, or have him be just a mindless listener to the others’ conversation 100% of the time. When he arrives, the dynamic should alter). How do they think of one another? How do they interplay in conversation? How do their actions and gestures influence one another’s?
Now here is a problem coming, so I will head it off at the pass. This is the Banter Problem. There seems to be a perception that if two characters banter well together, they will automatically make a good romantic couple.
I am now strangling this perception. Well, I can strangle it in this essay. It will continue living on elsewhere, stupid bloody thing.
Banter is not the end-all and be-all of conversation. What about other forms of conversation? What about those times when they can’t use conversation at all? (Sex comes to mind. Whenever I read a sex scene where the characters communicate in long, complex, unbroken sentences, I laugh. Loudly). Two characters can play off each other and yet not feel any sexual desire, nor mental attraction. In particular, if you’ve got a character who admires people for something other than wit, why do you have him fall in love with a person whose only redeeming quality is her wit? I don’t understand.
There has to be more than clever one-liners to support a relationship. Think about the ways your characters interact. In particular, focus on levels outside of exchanged words—another way of strangling the Banter Problem in its cradle. What about on the level of gestures, facial expressions, actions, decisions, past behaviors, skills, words to others?
This does not mean that the characters have to be 100% compatible; crossed wires are normal for everyone. But I’d worry about a couple who can banter together, and yet can’t communicate in any other fashion. And I think that, to write a believable romance, so should you.
3) Take the trappings away and see if anything is left.
In this case, I mean “trappings” as something that the author piles on to make the romance believable or justifiable when, in actuality, they are not enough to do so. Here is a short list of them:
- Last-minute apologies for cruel actions (I’m not talking about mistakes or misguided decisions, I’m talking about malice aforethought). My unfavorite example is the one where the hero apologizes for hitting the heroine in the last few pages of the novel, and she happily accepts him, because oh, she understands!
- The words “I love you.” They do not excuse cruelty. Nor does saying them exempt a character from proving his affection. But a lot of characters angst over their romantic partners doing everything but saying them, as if those three little words were the center of the universe. They’re not. Some people simply don’t say them all that often.
- Beauty. This is why I hate love triangles. The character in the middle usually ends up falling for the prettiest love interest. I am sure this is just coincidence. YEAH RIGHT. Looks can serve as the initial reason someone’s attracted, but they should never be the sole justification for the romance. Unless you’re portraying a fucked-up relationship, of course.
- Lack of arguments. Real couples do fight, and not only over small things. If your couple fall in love at the beginning of the book and never have any difference of opinion at all, or only have battles because of innocent mistakes—oh, she thought that he was kissing another woman he was in love with, but he was really kissing his sister!—then it’s boring, bland Dullsville.
- Banter, as noted above.
- Dangerous experience/rescue. If these characters only fall in love because they’re running from danger together, and that’s over the span of two days, please show me why I should expect them to stay together once the danger is removed. (Yes, that was a recent book. And I still have no idea what to say about the romance).
If you find something under the trappings, or if you make an effort to use these trappings in conjunction with other aspects of romance, then I think this relationship is worth a second look. Yes, I told you I was picky.
4) Show the darker things.
But really, why are authors afraid to show their couples making mistakes and having problems that are not based on Big Misunderstandings like the hero-kissing-his-sister situation? They are not going to mesh 100% with each other, no matter how similar they are or how carefully you’ve tried to set up an “opposites attract, every one of her strengths complements one of his weaknesses” thing. And why shouldn’t such conflicts spring from aspects of their personalities? Personally, I like romances with internal conflict—based on the people involved—rather than external—the lovers are only separated because of an evil duke who wants the heroine for himself, for example, or because the hero’s parents refuse to let him marry the daughter of a rival house. In most books, you’ll have to have both, but I think there should always be internal conflict, and I want the balance tilted in favor of that whenever possible.
Why? To avoid that pesky Designated Love Interest problem again (see point 5, or this whole dang rant). To make this a romance of two real, living, breathing people who are not clones of Hero and Heroine. To show that they’re going to have conflicts, and to show them moving closer to each other. Romances where one partner has to do all the work while the other lounges around being perfect disgust me. (Point 5!)
Is there a power differential? Play with that; don’t just assure me that one character is perfectly dominant and the other is perfectly submissive, and they fit perfectly into those roles. (Perfect is boring). Do they have different political beliefs, religious beliefs—now there is something not often handled—different ideas about gender or class or race or magic or nature? Does one have a pet obsession the other doesn’t share? Does one have selfishness they don’t even realize they’re exhibiting, which the other partner may enable without realizing it for a while, either? Does one want children, while the other doesn’t? (I’ve seen that destroy several real-life marriages). Do they have such different styles of communication or anger management that one partner may think their problem has resolved itself while, for the other, it really hasn’t? Do they work very well on a few levels of their relationship and not in others—for example, perhaps they’re good in bed and can put on a polished show in public, but when they’re alone together they have nothing to say to each other and nothing in common?
Yes, these are all “serious” problems, for certain levels of seriousness. And I would like to see more romances tackle them head-on, especially with the acknowledgment that they may not be “fixed.” The problems in the romances I’ve read tend to be “fixed,” because:
- They’re all external (kill the evil duke and everything is fine, or run away from the scheming parents and everything is fine).
- They’re all located in one character (that character just has to have an epiphany, and everything is fine. Point 5, people!)
- They’re all the result of ignorance (characters angst because they think the other person is not in love with them, then they find out that they both are, and everything is fine).
Try more internal conflict. It could really help.
5) Be equally invested in both partners in the relationship—or all three, all four, you get the picture.
I think this kills romance even faster for me than point 1. If it’s obvious that one character is perfect and can do no wrong, or is angst-bait and the Designated Love Interest is being offered as some kind of sop or reward, then I hiss, because the author only cares about one character in that relationship. Only one has to change, only one has to work at the relationship, only one is ever wrong. And on the other side, only one character ever gets fussed over and cooed at and made much of.
Hate. Massive hate. This is me massively hating in the corner.
If you find yourself creating one character solely as a reward for the other, then I don’t think it’s going to be a believable romance. If the heroine hates men because one betrayed her—I’m already out of the book because that heroine sounds so stupid to me, but let’s pretend someone is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to read it—and the author makes up a perfect loyal, loving, trusting, caring man for her so that she can experience love again, that’s desire to indulge the heroine, not desire to write a romance. Why not justgive her a dog? Most of the time, it’d be more honest.
This is where I think “sympathy for all” is a useful position for the author to take again. Even if you never write from one character’s viewpoint, if you can conceive of him/her as having an internal life that does not revolve solely around the other, and legitimate concerns of his or her own, and a past that is just as real and just as important to him/her as the protagonist’s past is to her/him, then I think the romance will work tons better. The same position that destroys villains and makes them into actual people will make your romantic partners into actual people, instead of Angst-Bunny/Poor Abused Angel and Reward/Work-His-Ass-Off-To-Answer-Her-Perfection.
6)Ring the changes.
This was number three on that list of things I could stand to see gone from fantasy novels that I wrote a while ago. Characters who fall in love and immediately cease experiencing any growth whatsoever are occasions for me to take out my throwing knives.
Stop it. They are still alive. Their relationship does not have to freeze into static perfection. (What part of the “Perfect is boring!” memo do these writers not get?) They still can and will experience growth, individually and as a couple. They do not have to agree on everything now. They do not have to act like a twenty-first-century Western middle-class couple to prove they’re in love. Nor do they have to have a house, two children, and a kitten named Spot to be a “real” family, or achieve their own dreams, whatever they are, and have “nothing left to wish for.” I think the “nothing left to wish for” ideal is a horrible one. You do want your characters to seem as if they’re living beyond the end of the story, don’t you?
Know they’re changing, even if you don’t get to show all the consequences. Leave some things about them unmeshed. Don’t settle every argument. Leave a few loose ends so that the audience can trust that, while they love each other, they’re not going to spend the rest of their lives having perfect sex and perfect smiles and perfect communication.
That was very picky, wasn’t it? You can see why I dislike romance novels. And fantasy romances. And science fiction romances. And most movies. And a whole ton of television shows.
Next part will be much more fantasy-oriented, on differing ideals of love and what you might do with them. Stay true.