Any story can be enhanced with a good romantic subplot, but if romance isn’t your genre, you’re probably worried about how you’d pull it off. You want it to be emotional and meaningful, but not sappy and cliché. Sooner or later, it’s a genre you’ll end up having to explore at least briefly in order to create dynamic and varied relationships between characters. But… even if you’re in a happy relationship, you might still be lost on how to convey romance authentically in your stories.
The most difficult part about writing a romantic story is the initial meeting between the love interests and the romantic spark between them. It can be difficult to write characters falling in love, since it’s such a natural experience for people in real life. Too often, romances feel unrealistic, forced, or just downright problematic. It’s easy to mess up, so how should you approach writing characters discovering and developing their feelings for each other? Well, there are a few techniques that you can utilize to create an authentic, emotional romantic plot that will keep your readers hooked.
How to Avoid Romance Clichés
First and foremost: “love at first sight” does not exist. This isn’t a hot take, it just isn’t a real thing that happens. Love is complicated, and you can’t expect such a deep connection to develop on its own. It doesn’t simply manifest after one look. Real love is something that grows over time as people get to know each other and make the effort to foster an intimate connection. Love doesn’t evolve overnight like a Pokémon. In fact, romance stories hardly ever involve realistic depictions of love—most of them don’t even come close.
With that said, “attraction at first sight” does exist. You can meet a person and be physically, emotionally, or intellectually attracted to them. Attraction doesn’t come with any attachments. You don’t need to know someone to know that they’re gorgeous, you just have to look at them. But finding someone attractive does not mean you’re in love with them. Too many times, fiction writers rely on the notion of “love at first sight” to create the basis of their romantic relationships, when all that really is is lust. It just doesn’t feel authentic.
That is probably the most prevalent (and worst) romance cliché that writers litter throughout their stories, but that is by no means the only one. Clichés can kill an otherwise good story, and they are unfortunately abundant in romances. Even if the story you’re writing is primarily some other genre, like comedy or mystery, romantic clichés can work their poison into the storyline.
It’s difficult to describe every type of romantic cliché, since there are just too many to count. The best way to avoid clichés is to be able to spot them yourself, and you just can’t do that if you aren’t familiar with the genre. Although it might seem counterintuitive to read a bunch of romance stories to learn what not to do, that’s the best advice I can give you. Immerse yourself in cheesy romance stories, watch every rom-com you can, and read every sappy romance novel you can get your hands on.
Then, when it comes to writing your own story, you know the types of tropes that work well and what feels wrong to a reader. Never forget that you are a reader as well. If something doesn’t feel right to you in someone else’s story, don’t put it in yours. Your reactions to an incompatible relationship, unrealistic flirty dialogue, or bizarre romantic scenarios are likely going to be in-line with how your readers would react too.
How to Write Attraction
Let’s jump back a few steps and focus on the notion of attraction. Attraction and love aren’t the same thing, clearly, but an initial attraction can inspire people to pursue a conversation, which can lead to feelings of love developing. Being physically attractive, having a good sense of humor, or having similar hobbies can all inspire conversation between two hopeful romantics, but it’s not until after they’ve gotten to know each other can the attraction become something that resembles love.
When it comes to writing attraction, subtlety is your friend. The last thing you should consider doing is having your character see someone else and simply announce “they’re cute.” That is a boring way of really slapping your readers in the face with the fact that the other character is likely to be the story’s love interest. And honestly, in reality, no one looks at someone with wonder when they enter the room, no matter how attractive the other person is. (Remember those clichés we talked about above? Any time you feel tempted to write about “time slowing down” or “nothing else in the room mattering” or something along those lines, you should really stop yourself and consider how creepy it would be if someone just stopped to stare open-mouthed at someone who just entered the room. Yeah… not cute, is it?)
Instead of being obvious about the attraction, you should draw attention to smaller details. Have the main character notice little things, like the way their love interest’s skirt flows when they move, or the way their hair blows around in the wind. Eye contact is a fantastic way of conveying attraction more subtly, so have your character notice the color of the other person’s eyes, or the way they wrinkle when the person smiles. Have your main character think about the other person’s voice, the way they stand, or how they move. These aren’t things you would typically think about—unless you had a crush on someone.
Along that same line, you can also use this technique to show romantic interest budding between two friends. Even if two characters have known each other for a while, throwing in one simple line can be a strong clue to readers that the character is slowly falling in love with their friend. For example: “how had I never noticed before how blue his eyes were?” That not only suggests a peaked interest, but it also tells your readers more subliminally that the two characters shared a moment of eye contact long enough for the main character to notice that detail.
Letting readers notice on their own that the main character likes another character is much more rewarding for them than simply being told. This allows them to become more invested in the relationship, which is important for any love story. However, there are many other ways you can influence readers to make them care more about the characters, the relationships between them, and the story as a whole.
How to Make Your Readers Care About the Romance
You can put a lot of effort into the relationship between two characters, but that doesn’t obligate readers to care about it. In order to make your readers care about the romantic plot, you need to make it interesting, and you need to make it meaningful to the storyline. Romance in a story shouldn’t exist just for the sole purpose of existing. It should create conflict in the story, illustrate a character’s shortcomings or personal development, or just create a fun dynamic that is interesting to read. Ask yourself: “what is the purpose of this relationship?” If you don’t have a good answer, then you need to find a way to make it more integral to the way the story plays out.
In addition to having a purpose in the story, the relationship between the characters should be inherently interesting. In order to achieve that, you should consider a few different factors that would influence your readers’ perceptions of the relationship.
Make the Characters Individually Interesting
Long before you even consider the romantic relationship, you need to make sure the characters are interesting on their own. In addition to that, you need to make sure that your readers have time to get to know the characters before you rush them into a relationship with another character. You don’t want any character’s identity to be tied to their relationship with another person—they need to be complex and unique individuals, both within and outside of their interactions with other characters.
The process of making a compelling character is a little difficult to cover in just one short section, but fundamentally, you should establish several distinct things about each character long before you should consider how to make them fall in love. These things are:
- Likes and Dislikes
Each of those aspects is important, but I don’t have the space here to talk about all of them. So, I will be focusing on what is arguably the most important point: flaws. Characters should have behaviors or fears they need to overcome, warped beliefs, or some sort of bad habit. These traits might make them confrontational, difficult to love, or even a bit dysfunctional—but that’s the whole point. No one in the world is perfect, so your characters shouldn’t be either.
Flaws create conflict, which drives a story forward, and above all else, they make characters more believable and relatable. If a reader can root for a character to achieve something they struggle with, overcome personal obstacles in their life, or find love despite their flaws, then they’re going to be much more attached to that character.
Some great character flaws that work well in romantic stories are:
- Emotional coldness
- Fear of commitment
With that said, it can be difficult to create flawed characters that aren’t over-the-top, annoying, or just generally unlikable. If you want some more guidance on the topic, I have another article that could be helpful: How to Create Complex Flaws for Characters.
Ensure the Characters have Romantic Chemistry
Only after you have unique individual characters should you begin thinking about crafting romantic interactions between them. Your characters should be interesting by themselves, but when your couple comes together, they should have a dynamic that’s interesting too. The pairing needs to have Romantic Chemistry, meaning that they have to be compatible and make sense together. Romantic chemistry between characters cannot be forced, and trying to pair two characters together that aren’t a good fit for each other just isn’t going to work. That kind of relationship isn’t going to resonate with your readers.
There are four main types of romantic chemistry. You don’t need your couple to check all four boxes, but you should at least take the time to consider each one.
- Physical – the characters should be physically attracted to each other, at least a little. This plays into the characters’ sexuality, and a strong sexual bond can help support trust in a good emotional relationship.
- Emotional – the characters should feel emotionally supported by each other, and they should trust in their partner.
- Spiritual – the characters should share similar beliefs or lifestyles, at least in some aspects of their lives. Conflicting cultures, religions, and ideals can still work together, but you should make sure it’s still a realistic dynamic.
- Intellectual – the characters should have similar degrees of intelligence. This is less about particular areas of intelligence, and more about critical thinking abilities. An artist and a scientist could get along fine, since their individual pursuits both require a degree of intelligence, skill, and critical thinking to achieve. However, a scientist may have trouble feeling attracted to a bumbling idiot.
So, how do you create romantic chemistry between two characters? Well, you need to think about them as individuals again. I know that sounds redundant, but bear with me.
In order to make a couple romantically compatible, they need to have character traits that complement each other. That doesn’t mean that they should always be opposites, however. Complimentary doesn’t have to mean they balance each other out. The two characters could share many similar traits and still be compatible. Two characters that are similarly sarcastic could riff off each other’s sarcasm and get along quite well, but that same situation could also end up frustrating everyone involved if the characters’ other traits conflict.
In addition to the pairing working well together, you need to consider what each character wants, and what makes sense for their personality. A character struggling with addiction and depression might benefit most from a relationship with someone patient, caring, and doting, but if that’s not the type of relationship they want, then it would be difficult to justify. You should take into consideration the characters’ sexual preferences, emotional needs, and desires in a relationship. Two characters might be great for each other objectively, but if you can’t make it realistic given the characters’ preferences, then it won’t feel right.
Use Conflict to Keep it Interesting
To get readers really invested in the romance, there needs to be some sort of conflict. You can’t make things too easy for your lovebirds, or you’ll bore your readers. Conflict is the heart of storytelling, so you need to put something in the way of the characters’ relationship to keep it interesting.
The easiest way of creating conflict in a romance is to have an obstacle in the way of the lovers’ relationship. This obstacle can take many different forms, but here are a few example scenarios that you could use to create some difficulty for your couple:
- One character’s family is unsupportive of the relationship between the two characters. That could be because of an arranged marriage, a conflict of beliefs, or just good old fashioned helicopter parenting. This is especially applicable if the other character has bad habits, a general disregard for tradition, or a hard emotional exterior.
- One character has a destructive habit that just can’t continue if they expect the relationship to work. If they smoke, and the other character is against that despite being compatible in all other aspects, then that could be enough to disrupt the relationship. The original character would be forced to choose between their vices and their love for the other character.
- One character is offered a great job that they just can’t reject, but that would mean moving far away from the other character. The other character may be unable or unwilling to move with them, so each character has to decide between their individual futures and their future together.
- One character has had bad luck with love in the past, and they’re having a difficult time opening up to the other character despite their feelings. They could experience significant inner turmoil as they try to find a balance between loving the other character and protecting themself.
- One character has a crush on another character, but can’t or won’t confess for whatever reason. This is especially entertaining if the other character feels the same way.
- Two characters want to be together, but one character’s vengeful ex keeps trying to sabotage them with lies, trickery, or even just digging up their pasts.
There are tons of other options you could choose for establishing conflict in the relationship. Whatever you choose, make sure it makes sense for the story, and doesn’t push the characters or their relationship too far. Too much conflict between the two characters could be perceived as toxic or unhealthy, even if they end up happy together in the end.
Develop the Romance Over Time
Once you’re sure that it’s realistic for the characters to fall in love in the first place, then you need to figure out how to pace the romantic development. Love isn’t something that develops quickly, but rather builds up slowly over time. Sometimes, the onset of romantic feelings can be so discreet and so slow that your readers may notice the attraction between the characters before the characters themselves acknowledge their own feelings.
One of the most irritating tropes in romance stories is the idea of falling “hard and fast” in love. Passion and lust can blossom quickly, but don’t confuse that with true feelings of love. If you want the relationship between your characters to be perceived as true love, then the longer you draw it out, the more authentic it’s going to feel. Additionally, if your readers get to watch the relationship unfold slowly, it will be more rewarding to read once the two characters get together.
Sometimes, however, situations can force two characters together faster out of loneliness, desperation, or mutual fear. Two characters destined to save the world together may end up caring about each other much faster than two characters that meet for coffee on weekends. A night of passion could lead to feelings of confusion and self-reflection, which could end up developing into emotional and romantic attachment. Additionally, near-death experiences could pressure characters to face or admit their feelings earlier than they otherwise would, since they could fear they’d miss their opportunity if the other character died.
You should approach these kinds of situations cautiously, however, especially if you want the readers to perceive the relationship as authentic and not just a product of the characters’ circumstances.
Love in the Little Things: Writing Love Subtly
Love isn’t something that everyone expresses the same way. Everyone has their own ways of expressing and cherishing love, so don’t assume that there’s only one right way to write about it. Some characters may show their love physically, with kisses, hand-holding, and running their fingers through their partner’s hair. Other characters may show their love through their actions, by staying up with their partner even when they’re exhausted, always giving them the best part of things they share, and preferring to do everything together rather than apart. Some characters may go to great lengths to act on their love for another character, such as changing bad habits, learning how to do things their partner enjoys, and showering their partner in gifts.
Characters showing their love for each other doesn’t have to be dramatic. You can illustrate love between two characters in the thousands of little things they do for each other, in the way they look at each other, and the subtle ways they think and talk about each other. Hide hints of their feelings together in every action, every word they say, and your readers will understand their feelings without having to be told.
Remember, when characters really truly love each other, your readers will love them too.