Most people think of romances as an enemy to lovers story. The characters start not liking one another, but there is so much sexual attraction and tension between them, they are compelled to stick around one another. Throughout the book, they get to know and love one another. Writing this trope is popular because it is a high-conflict scenario, and in romances, it’s conflict that drives the plot.
What happens if your characters have been together for a long time or are married and they have a reasonably comfortable relationship? How do you write a book when they know each other so well?
It’s a problem I faced in my fantasy series, the 29-book series I keep going on about. The first book has the foundational couple in an enemies to lovers trope. There are other books in the series in which Calanthe and Sanders are the main characters. I used different tropes such as second chance at love and my big messed up family to keep the characters engaged.
Your characters can know each other very well and still have differences. It’s those differences that can be a source of conflict. A couple that’s been married a long time might have differences of opinions on how to raise their children, how to handle their finances, sex (or lack of, or lack of adventure in the bedroom, etc.), career paths (one works too much or not enough), hobbies, and how much time they spend (or not) with family.
Couples grow together as much as they grow apart. Perhaps once the children have left the house, the couple finds themselves with a lot more free time they don’t know how to fill. One takes up an expensive hobby that consumes most of their free time, and the other feels left out or ignored.
People’s bodies change. Perhaps one partner isn’t as attracted to the other after they put on thirty pounds. Perhaps one develops an illness, and one perhaps can’t cycle or hike or engage in the same activities they once did as a couple.
It doesn’t matter what the conflict is, so long as the conflict is deep enough to drive the plot for the entire story. There’s a fundamental formula in romances: internal conflict + interpersonal conflict with romance interest = romance. Each character must face internal conflict that drives personal conflict. In addition, each character must face an interpersonal conflict with the romantic interest which prevents them from having a happy for now or a happily ever after.
Throughout the story, the characters engage in a series of try/fail cycles until they learn and grow as individuals. Once they are in the right headspace, they turn their attention to improving their relationship, and by the end of the book, they’ve found a new equilibrium.
I might have taken the fun out of romances with that analysis. Hmm.
There’s a bonus to writing romances with characters who have been together for a long time. They know each other very well, and it forces the author to deepen the emotional connection between them. When you’ve been with someone for twenty years, there’s a lot of hurt and happiness that can be brought up during an argument. A couple might be arguing over how to parent a child when the child is injured playing in another room. The couple drops the argument and rushes to tend to the child. The matter’s not resolved, but the action shows the reader that both love the child, even if each parent has a different parenting style.
Authors have a lot more history to mine for deep hurts, character flaws, lulls in a long-term relationship, and unresolved personal and relational issues. There’s also the potential for deeper emotional intimacy because the characters know each other so well. There’s knowing a certain slump in his shoulder or look in his eye or her eating triple-chocolate mint ice cream with extra-large chocolate chips, fudge sauce and white chocolate flakes that now is not the time to start an argument. The other person already had a bad day, and while the matter is pressing for the love interest, the fundamental care they have for the other person suspends the discussion.
Exploring the nuances of emotional intimacy enhances character development and enriches the reader’s experience.
Another thing to consider is the three following scales. The first, sexual tension. That is the degree to which the love interests are sexually aware of the other. The number of times they check one another out, the explicitness in which the sexual awareness is described.
The second is heat level. Heat level refers to how sex scenes are described. In a low heat book, sex scenes are non-existent or fade to black. In a medium-heat book, a paragraph or two describe sex. In a high-heat book, sex is explicit, described in detail sometimes over pages, and likely happens multiple times throughout the book.
The third is how much space is given to the non-romance and romance plots. If you play around with the plot ratios, you alter the dynamics between the characters. If a romance arc takes up 90% of a character’s time, it says something about the character. Whereas, if the love interest spends 90% of their time at work or with friends, but their major pain point is the love interest and the struggling romantic relationship, that says something completely different about the character.
How do you keep the spark alive between characters that have been together for a long time?
What do you think of the three scales? You can see the proposed scales here. Would such scales help you select a romance novel? Let me know on Twitter or through this survey. I’d like to thank @BurrisKirk for having brought up the issue of better classifying romances to help readers select an appropriate book.
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron. I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights.
I’d like to thank @merelecroix for the topic suggestion of how to keep the spark going when writing couples who have been together for a long time.
Fluff. It’s the distractions, the pointless subplots, the loose ends, the unnecessary details that distract a reader and diminishes their enjoyment of your work. How can a writer ensure that a book is engaging through the entire story?
Conflict. Make sure there is enough conflict in your story to keep your character busy. Make sure the conflict challenges your MC and forces them to change. If the conflict is quickly resolved, then it’s uninteresting to read. Readers want to see your characters squirm, and they want to see them dig deep and muster the courage to try again.
I’ll focus on external conflict, but the principle works the same for internal conflict. Make sure the conflict requires several try/fail cycles. Each time the character tries to resolve the conflict, they fail but learn something. When the character tries again, make sure to make the problem more complicated, so they aren’t always doing the same thing over and over again.
I struggled with this in A Gift of Stars. It’s my first fantasy romance book and the first in a series of 29 (which are all written but in need of editing). Remember, I aim to write 50% romance and 50% non-romance plots. One of the main problems with the non-romance arc is that the MCs’ problems (attacks from raiders) are predictable and don’t force a change on the part of the MCs. I have 13 raider attacks of various sizes throughout the book, and I’ve been mulling over which to cut, which to reduce, and of those that remain, how to make each attack unique.
This article is as much a service to you as it is to me as I figure out how to sharpen that fantasy arc. Thanks for reading.
All right. Thanks for letting me take that detour. I hope it didn’t cause the plot of this post to sag.
Let’s say your MC has to venture out into space with a platoon of soldiers to deal with an antagonist. During their mission, they are attacked by pirates, and two of the platoon members die. One of those who died was a medic, and now the crew has lost a core survival skill. Along their journey, they go through an asteroid belt, and someone is injured. Under normal circumstances, the injury would be easily treated, but the medic has died, and the simple enough injury isn’t so simple to the non-medic crew. Oh, did I mention the injured crew member is also the pilot?
Such missions usually have a depth of skill to ensure there are a backup medic and pilot, but you can arrange your story so that the back-ups don’t have the same degree of competence or confidence. The difference in skills creates new problems, a new conflict between crew members, and new issues the MC must address to fulfil their mission.
If you wanted to write a longer book, you could add additional conflict between the characters. One character has access to the engine room and has locked everyone out because they are having a personal crisis. The other characters must access the engine to repair it. If they don’t repair it within one day, it will overheat and break down, leaving them stranded. Note that I added a ticking clock (one day). You can add additional complications by having an infestation of the food supply, and several of the crew members can’t eat what remains because of the differences in their biology. That’s another ticking clock, and that will change the interpersonal dynamics of the crew.
A word of caution. Don’t create problems for the sake of creating problems. Make sure that each problem relates to a fear or weakness of the MC. The more problems you throw at a character’s weak spots, the more you force growth or regression. Character development isn’t linear. People regress to bad habits and behaviour when stressed. Stress them out. Have their father call at the worst possible time. Have the boss move up the deadline of a project, which conflicts with a required medical procedure. Have the MC’s child fall ill, and the MC’s car breaks down on the way to the doctor. The MC doesn’t have the money to take a cab, it’s too far to walk, and the child’s just thrown up on the MC’s shoes. Oh, it’s windy and hot, it’s dinner time, but the MC hasn’t eaten since last night. Oh, and the boss texted the MC that they’re fired.
In the sequence outlined above, there’s a reasonable progression of events that make the situation plausible. Even in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, the events need to make sense. The order in which the problems and conflict happen also need to make sense. Usually, it’s a minor problem that snowballs into bigger ones. However, you can structure your story to start with a larger problem the MC is confident they can handle, and a progression of smaller problems drown the MC and the last, tiny, small, easily fixable problem of running out of mint tea, snaps the MC’s patience and they spiral downward. One problem too many.
People want to see that progression and root for the MC who finally stands up for themselves or cry for the MC who sees their lifelong dreams turn to vapour.
A second way of writing longer pieces without adding fluff is to force the character to choose. By the third or fourth chapter, the MC is presented with a difficult choice. The author can dedicate one quarter or half of the book addressing the consequences of the choice and the character’s efforts to get back to where they were at the ¼ mark to resolve the central conflict.
In forcing the character to make a choice, you can also change the outcome of the book. The choice can become the best thing that’s happened to them or the worst. The choice can damage key relationships for the MC, and the MC spends the rest of the book trying to repair trust. The choice can have explosive consequences on an environment or planet.
A choice must be tied closely with stakes. Stakes refer to what is gained and lost. Gains and losses come in many different forms. They can be a personal sacrifice of not having a career. It can be one error that costs them the scholarship and their only chance out of their poverty. Stakes can relate to self-worth, finances, family and friends (loss of), environment, culture, and community. Some characters are motivated by gain, and others are motivated by fear (of loss). Figure out your character’s motivations and play around with them to see how they relate to choices.
Let’s take, for example, Bertram. He’s the lead character in my first western historical romance. He faces a choice of telling the woman he intends to marry who he truly is or carry out hiding for the rest of his life. He’s hidden his true self for 30 years, and the one other person to whom he’s revealed his real identity brutally rejected him. Ruthanna, Bertram’s romantic interest, has the choice of fulfilling her father’s dying wish and securing her mother’s and sister’s financial future or saving Mack, Bertram’s brother.
These choices have an emotional, psychological, financial, and/or moral consequence on the characters. They are not to be taken lightly, and the decisions force character growth and the book’s direction.
How will you alter your try/fail cycle to lengthen your story? How will you sequence your problems (minor to significant, catastrophic to minor, personal problems first followed by work problems, etc.)? How will you manage your stakes? What choice do you force your MC to make?
Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter. Reach out to me @reneegendron
I’d like to thank @_levangelis_ for the topic suggestion.
It’s a long title, I know. I’m used to writing 80,000-100,000-word books, not catchy marketing slogans. Bear with me. I promise the article will be more interesting than its title.
In a previous post, I discussed the importance of conflict to keep the reader engaged. I also mentioned that a conflict evolves until the character learns to address it or fails, and the book ends in a tragedy.
Let’s turn our attention to power. Power can be coercive (use of violence and threats of violence to achieve a goal). Power can be non-coercive (a person held in high esteem in a community may make requests, and a person fulfils them out of their own volition). Power can be in your face (soldiers from an invading army marching down a street). Power can be subtle (your sister has your parents wrapped around her little finger no matter what she does).
Power can be harmful, and it can be empowering. It depends on the wielder of the power and what they do with it. Let’s consider a nine-year-old MC who is bullied. The MC can use coercive power to stop the bullying (punch the bully in the face). They can use non-coercive power (reason with the bully, tell their parents, or inform their school principal). Here’s where power gets interesting. The nine-year-old can ask to arrange circumstances for other, larger children to be present the next day to protect them (subtle use of power). Or the MC can walk home with their two older siblings (obvious use of power).
Power is an essential concept in writing because it’s the consequence of a conflict. Let’s take a look at Star Wars. A group of rebels fight against an oppressive government. The empire exerts power in all four ways mentioned. The obvious ways are violence and coercion. It’s a war, and people fight and die. The empire also has non-coercive means of exerting its influence by paying people to give them information. The loyalty between the emperor and the Sith is also a form of subtle power. The relationship between Qi’ra and Han Solo is another form of non-coercive power that ends in tragedy.
To craft exciting characters and stories, all forms of power need to be applied. Why? Even in cases of evil empires and oppression, the oppressor uses different forms of power. Why? Using in-your-face coercive force uses an incredible amount of energy, time, and effort. I don’t understand the economics of the Star Wars universe. It seems every movie has massive rebel and imperial fleets destroyed without obvious means to replenish them (particularly on the rebel side where they are always running from secret base to secret base).
The more violent the coercion, the more effort it takes. Coercion doesn’t always mean physical force in the form of armies. Coercion can also mean verbal or social pressures. Think of Regency romances where many plots revolve around the ‘ton’ and the ‘ball.’ All eyes follow MC1 around the ballroom, waiting for them to make a mistake—drop a napkin, stain their clothes, speak out of turn, dance with the wrong person (social norms with high personal stakes). There are many backhanded compliments, people looking down their noses at someone, exclusion because they aren’t from the right background, and a lot of effort is put into gossiping and keeping on top of who was invited to which party. These factors combine to create social coercion or, in modern terms, the fear of mission out (FOMO). To assuage this fear, people conform. Often, great characters are the ones who resist social coercion and forge their path.
Remember, power takes energy and effort to exert. If you wonder why certain people were popular in high school, it’s because they worked at it. The popular set spent a lot of time interacting, showing up for each other’s events and activities, communicating, and engaging in each other’s lives. That’s a lot of work, but they get their rewards.
The MC has a conflict with someone or something. The antagonist (sometimes villain, but I’ll use the term antagonist) may be a person, alien, animal, or weather pattern. The antagonist uses different forms of power to realise their goal.
Let’s look at the example of a natural disaster. The first power exerted is violence. The flood or flow of lava forces people to move from a location they didn’t want to leave. Although a natural disaster doesn’t have intelligence or intent, it also exerts subtle forms of power. These forms include changes in temperature, which have consequences on the MC. A natural disaster also has subtle forms of power. A change in the river’s current can have other indirect consequences on the MC, such as introducing a new species in the waterway (perhaps sharks now swim in freshwater).
Power isn’t absolute. The rebels keep fighting against the empire. One spouse has more power when it comes to money, but the other spouse wields more power when it comes to family and friends. Your MC is excellent at work and is at the top of their game, but their personal life is in shambles.
Power is conditional and situational and ebbs and flows with a character’s personal growth (or regression), resources, knowledge, physical environment, and circumstances. Think of any movie in which two characters trade places—usually, a billionaire character trades places with someone poor. Due to the story’s constraints, the rich person no longer has that power and flounders like a fish out of the water until they reassert themselves, redefine how they manifest power, and regain control over their lives).
When you play around with both the MC and the antagonist’s type of power, you create fuller characters and a more nuanced world. Villains who only know how to punch are two-dimensional. MCs who only know how to appeal to authority (their parent, boss, police, etc.) miss growth opportunities.
Take a look at your WIP and sort through the types of power your MC and antagonist use.
- Does your MC rely on only one type of power? Why is that?
- Does your antagonist rely on only one type of power? Why is that?
- What can you do to flesh out different types of power in your WIP?
- What consequences do these new types of power have on character development, plot development and world-building?
Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter with your answers.
I’ll be putting together a series of webinars on conflict. If you’re interested in knowing more, please send me a note that says ‘conflict’. If you sign up to my newsletter, you’ll receive a free writing exercise. Be sure to put ‘conflict’ in the comment box.