Some fictional romances feel fictional. Reading them is like watching a badly-performed theatrical performance, where the characters fall in love, sing endlessly about how they would die for their lover, but all the way through you get the sense that the actors don’t like each other. All through the book, you get the sense that as soon as it ends, the characters will drop the act—and their partner.
But how can we write relationships that feel like they’ll last? Can we?
Luckily for us, there are practical ways to create relationships that feel stable. It comes down to how you build your characters, their circumstances, and the plot.
1. Create your characters: people who fit each other
For a while, I struggled to make my main couple, Lucky and Amber fit each other. They felt too much like co-workers, or maybe like friends, but there was no real investment on Amber’s part, and Lucky seemed to like her because she was… there. It was difficult to define why they should be a couple, even though I wanted it to be obvious in how they interacted.
On the other hand, Shinichi and Laura felt perfect for each other. Despite them being about the same age, Laura acts like a twelve year-old, and sometimes Shinichi seems like, at least inside, he’s about sixty-eight. Every interaction between them felt like Laura was flirting and Shinichi wasn’t getting it. It was hilarious and unexpected, but I didn’t want to pair up the couples, especially as Laura was already married to someone else!
The answers were in their personalities, but I just had to draw out certain parts of them.
The meme below revolutionised how I thought about, and wrote my characters:
Have a brainstorm through a few couples from your life… real life.
It’s crazy how true this meme is, isn’t it?
I put my own characters through this “Psycho-Logical test” and found where their unhelpful dynamics came from:
Lucky was kind of psycho, and Amber had elements of both, but leaning toward logical.
Laura was super psycho, and Shinichi was so logical he was tipping back into psycho.
To make Lucky and Amber feel more like a couple, I needed to bring out these aspects of their relationship, especially when they were together. Lucky jokes around, exaggerates and overthinks things, and Amber rationalises and watches quietly from afar while she thinks things through. They’re still not extremes—Lucky has his practical moments, and Amber has a few meltdowns—but by bringing out these aspects of their personalities, I could make them fit each other beyond the scope of the book.
As for Shinichi and Laura, I decided there was nothing stopping them from becoming good friends. Because of Laura’s marriage, romance between them was always off the table, but they could look out for each other, and joke around, just like any good friends would.
If you’re creating characters who are already in a relationship (for example, a character’s parents) or if you need them to fall in love to further the plot, this structure is extremely helpful. These traits can take many forms; your characters can’t all be the same, after all. There are many ways “psycho” and “logical” can be displayed:
· Thinking and feeling
· Rational and emotional
· Serious and joking
· Methodical and chaotic
· Scientific and superstitious
· Down-to-earth and head-in-the-clouds
Have a think about your own couple. Which is psycho, and which is logical? What characteristics can you draw out of them to help them feel like they really fit?
When characters’ personalities fit each other, your readers will root for their relationship, whether you want it to develop or not. We readers can smell romance, explicit or implicit. Now that you understand the theory behind creating characters that fit each other, you have an amazing amount of control over the strength of their relationships.
Use it wisely 😉
2. Create your circumstances: a reason for them to be together
I won’t spend long on this point because it’s a reiteration of what I discussed in this post about K-drama. But I will quote a question that echoes in my mind when I think about my characters: why did my characters choose this person instead of, well, that one?
I’m currently drafting The Mistwaes Home, and throughout I’ve never been sure whether my main characters, Shay and Shalton, should fall in love or not. I decided to leave it up to them, and watch how they interact.
Halfway through the first draft, they’re not being particularly helpful.
Shay’s the psycho one, and Shalton’s logical. My problem I have is that their personalities are such that I can see Shay falling in love with Shalton, but Shalton doesn’t look twice at Shay. He’s friendly, but in a selfish way—he doesn’t see her as a friend so much as someone who can help him.
I have no reason for them to be together, and instead reasons for them not to be together—I want Shalton to have to invest something in the relationship, but I also don’t feel like breaking Shay’s heart.
I’m still figuring it out, but I thought I’d mention them because there are interesting directions this could take:
· Shay could see that Shalton doesn’t care much for her and decide to move on.
· Shalton could suddenly see how much Shay has sacrificed for him and his feelings toward her could change.
It doesn’t have to end in a kiss and they lived together happily ever after. Your characters are allowed to grow and change, and they might fall in love with someone else. I’ve always loved the end to The Horse and His Boy, where Bree and Hwin are described as growing old and getting married… “though not to each other”.
I put the question to you again: why them? Why are those two together?
I know, it’s a very difficult question to answer, and you might need to finish a few drafts before you feel confident about answering it. If you’re still struggling, here are some smaller questions that might help lead up to that one:
· Have your characters been in a relationship in the past? What was it like for them? Who was it with and how did it end?
· What do they look for in a partner? How can the other person fulfill this?
· What do they need from a partner? (Emotional stability, someone to lighten the mood, financial support, etc) What can they provide?
(Remember that these might not be healthy answers either. Maybe they have a history you can’t relate to, or want too much from a partner. They’re allowed to learn and grow.)
I believe that part of writing romances that last is being mature as we write them. In real life, there are people we learn to let go of, and realise that it’s good to do so. There are also times we need to hold on when it doesn’t seem worth it anymore, and that’s good too.
Maybe the romance that lasts in your book isn’t the one you expected to .
3. Create your plot points: timing
This is subjective, but it bugs me when characters go all-in on a relationship when they know nothing about the other person. It’s not wise, it doesn’t set a good example to readers, and it doesn’t feel like it will last. It feels more hormonal than rational and considered.
This is a personal preference, and even despite my bias, I do believe there is a time and place for a fast-developing relationship. Some relationships develop quickly, for good or for ill. Love at first sight can be fun, as can a slower childhood-friends-to-lovers trope.
But when I write romance, I want my characters to feel comfortable in the relationship. Because of this, I don’t plot it. It’s my preference to do this, because it helps the romance to develop naturally, without feeling rushed.
But what if you need two characters to end up together? In An Immutable Past, Lucky needed to have a crush on Amber to set off the events of the book. Sure, he could have been very concerned for his friend’s safety, but he was so persistent in looking for her that even if he said he didn’t like her, none of my readers would have believed him. His crush on Amber was a necessary sub-plot that gave their relationship a natural conclusion.
Having said that, I still didn’t plot how it would turn out. Okay, I didn’t plot that book at all, but my point is that I didn’t decide when they would kiss or what they would be to each other by the end of the book. Amber could have rejected Lucky, or they could have been married by the end.
If you’re an ardent plotter, go ahead and decide how the romance will end before you write your draft, but as you plot, think about the pace of your romance. Some characters will have a backstory that may make them cautious opening up to people. Some may open up too quickly! Think through your characters, their personal boundaries, and walk them through their romance together as you plot the rest of your novel.
If your characters feel relaxed in their relationship, their friendship will feel more genuine. This friendship is what will carry their relationship beyond the last words of your book, and keep your readers feeling satisfied with a happy ending.
Every romance—fictional or not—comes with its own challenges and curve-balls. With these tips and questions, your characters’ romantic arc will begin to feel more natural, confident and genuine. I hope your readers will finish your book feeling like something new and beautiful has only just begun.
So amazing writers, tell me about your fictional couples! Who is “psycho” and who is “logical”?