I’ve got to be honest: romance doesn’t come easy for me. Nothing makes me squirm more than writing an intimate scene between two characters. I found this out the hard way when I took my first stab at writing a book way back in high school (by hand, of course, in one of those little spiral notebooks). You’d think it would have been easy to write a romantic moment between two teenage characters given that I was a teenager myself, but shockingly my relative inexperience with such things proved a liability in fashioning a believable moment. Needless to say, I never finished the book and I haven’t read that scene in at least twenty years, but I’m pretty sure it’s every bit as terrible as I remember.
But that’s not the point. What mattered was that those characters needed to have that moment. It made sense for them to be together at that point in the narrative, so I had to write the damned scene whether I felt comfortable doing it or not. The experience taught me two things. First and foremost, fictional relationships are far more than simple matchmaking exercises in which the main character is assigned a love interest just for the sake of having one. Second, and far more important for my purposes, the relationship doesn’t have to be the central element of the plot for it to have a meaningful impact on the characters.
That second lesson was a big one for me because it helped me to understand how a romantic connection can open up entirely new dimensions to a character’s personality. From a conflict standpoint, intimate relationships provide the author with one more narrative lever to pull, which can help to steer characters in interesting, and often unexpected, directions. Sometimes that conflict can be external, but it’s often even more interesting when it drives internal struggles. I’ve always liked it when characters “surprise” me in the middle of writing a story, disregarding whatever well laid plans I had for them to stride off and do their own thing. In my most recent writing project, many of the characters had to sort out complicated feelings they had for other characters, which ended up dragging the story into a number of places I never would have imagined exploring had they not insisted on leading me there. The end result was totally worth the awkward experience of actually writing those intimate scenes.
Having said all that, few things annoy me more than relationships that don’t make sense from a character or plot standpoint. Sometimes there’s a tendency to simply put characters together because they’re occupying the same space for a long period of time, as if people just naturally fall madly in love with someone because they’ve been around them long enough. Relationships, ultimately, are about feelings, and feelings have consequences. They drive decisions, create tension in unexpected places, and force people to reevaluate long held beliefs. Maybe I’m biased by my discomfort when it comes to depicting emotional intimacy, but I generally don’t force characters into relationships lightly. If I don’t see the purpose of the relationship, then I’m not going to be able to convincingly breathe life into it (unless, of course, there is no meaning to the relationship, which would itself be an interesting source of conflict).
So as tempting as it might be to begin “shipping” all of your characters as soon as you create them, it’s always worthwhile to take a few minutes and consider why you think those relationships need to exist. If they drive conflict or bring a new and exciting dimension to the characters, then matchmake away. But if you’re simply giving the cover artist and the marketing department something to work with, you might want to step back for a moment and place yourself in the characters’ shoes to see if those feelings you’re trying to give them are genuine.
Or better yet, step into their friends’ shoes and give their aimless love life a healthy dose of reality. After all, everybody needs that one friend who’s willing to tell them when they’re wasting their time in a dead-end relationship that does nothing to drive their story forward, fictional characters most of all.
(Yes, I’m looking at you, Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger.)