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.
The beautiful thing about writing romances is that you can incorporate them into all genres. If you perform a search for your preferred genre and add romance, you’ll find a wide range of choices. Within those choices, you’ll have books marketed as romantic sci-fi and sci-fi romance. It might not seem like a big difference, but the subtle change of words significantly impacts the content and target market.
What’s the difference between romantic fantasy and fantasy romance? In short, the word count dedicated to the romance plot. If it is a romantic fantasy, the main plot is a fantasy plot, and the b plot (secondary plot) is romance. In a fantasy romance, the emphasis is on romance.
If something is marketed as romantic, less than 50% of the plot is geared to the romantic interest. In a romantic fantasy, there are different expectations of character development and interpersonal development. In traditional fantasies, the character’s development is triggered by outside events. The MC rises to the challenge or fails. Most non-romance genres are plot-driven. In a mystery, the MC is compelled to follow the clues and solve the problem. In sci-fi, the character is motivated to attack an alien base or explore the galaxy.
Romances, however, are character-driven. The MCs in a romance must address internal and interpersonal conflict with the love interest to be in the right head and heart space to engage in the romantic relationship. Until those conflicts are addressed, the couple can’t have their happy-for-now or their happily-ever-after ending.
If someone positions their book as fantasy romance, readers expect the romance plot to take precedence over the fantasy element. Some words that would have been dedicated to world-building and backstory will be allocated to the romance arc. When deciding to read a fantasy romance, flip through the pages to get a sense of how much world-building and back story there is. Like in fantasies, some are high fantasies, and others are low fantasies. A high fantasy book is set in a second world which may or may not include magic, orcs, goblins and the like. A low fantasy book is set on Earth and may have magical elements.
One last element to consider when positioning your book or selecting a book to read, and that’s the heat level. There is a tendency for higher heat (explicit sex or higher sexual tension) in fantasy romance. I’m certain there are romantic fantasies and non-romantic fantasies that have explicit sex on-page, however not as much space is dedicated to it. In high-heat romance (regardless of genre), more words are allocated to describe the attraction and sexual encounters. Some audiences will accept high heat, regardless of genres, and others won’t.
Bottom line: know your audience and know which expectations to meet and which ones to break.
What are your expectations when reading a romance arc? What percentage of the book do you like the romance arc to take?
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron to let me know if you prefer romance or romantic and why.
I'd like to thank @SStaatz for the blog topic suggestion.
Romances rely heavily on character development. Each character has at least one internal conflict they must resolve before being in the right head and heart space to be in a romantic relationship. And, both characters need to resolve a conflict between them to earn their happy-for-now or happily-ever-after ending.
I’ll preface my discussion on character needs by saying I don’t write bully romances. I don’t write stories or books in which one character coerces the other into a romantic relationship. I find such relationships abusive and would never present them as an ideal relationship or a type of relationship worth pursuing.
I mentioned this because of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs(1). Abraham Maslow created a template of human needs. At the base of the pyramid where physical needs such as food, water, and shelter. The second tier of the pyramid is safety needs, in which an individual seeks freedom from threats and violence. The third tier pertains to belonging and love. The fourth tier relates to the need to improve one’s self-esteem, and the capstone is self-actualisation, in which an individual pursues their passion, a creative outlet, or something that brings them joy.
In most cases, people need to meet their physical and security needs before having the time and energy to pursue a romantic relationship. Yes, many individuals and characters live in precarious circumstances who dedicate time, effort, and resources to building loving relationships. Hardship does foster solidarity. It can also incite crime, hatred, and violence. The pyramid of needs is a guide, not an absolute progression between ties.
What does your character need from a romantic partner? Space and support to achieve all of the tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’ll tie this back to my second paragraph, in which I stated I don’t write bully romances. There are some tropes in which an extremely rich and powerful character provides their romantic counterpart’s physical and security needs in exchange for a romantic relationship. Often, the one with more money and power coerces the other to stay, belittles the other’s attempts at independence or the pursuit of personal goals, or prevents them from working towards their dreams. There are many other coercive strategies used to ‘keep the other romantic partner in line’, but I won’t explore them here.
Each character has different needs. Needs change according to where they are in their journey and the overall point in the book. For example, Giselle’s story in Memories of a Walk on the Beach in Heartened by Crime. She wakes up on a beach without memory. Her primary need is to figure out who she is. She’s found by Cyprien, who takes her to his house and provides her with shelter, food, and protection from an enemy. As the story progresses, Giselle remembers, and her perception of the threat changes. Fearing for her life, she escapes from Cyprien. She regains more of her memories, and the new information again shifts her needs. The last revelation bumps her up to her need for love and belonging and protecting her love interest, Cyprien.
What did Cyprien need from Giselle throughout the story? His arc remained constant. He needed her to maintain his need for love and belonging.
Let’s consider a riches to rag tropes. Sometimes the character leads an unfulfilled but rich life, and due to a bad wager, an aggrieved parent, or misfortune, the character loses access to money. They end up broke and homeless, and they bump into the romantic lead. The romantic lead may help them on their feet, find a modest place to stay, save them from gangs, or some other act of kindness (remember, I don’t write bully romances). The relationship progresses, and the character learns a trade, gets a minimum wage paying job or uses their skills to build a business, and they work their way back up the hierarchy of needs. Sometimes characters in this trope will work their way up to self-actualisation as they realise how hollow and vacuous their previous life was.
What are the needs of the romantic counterpart? Sometimes, the one who fell from lofty heights recognises the importance of character and helps build up the romantic counterpart’s self-esteem. Sometimes it’s self-actualisation as the formerly rich person may regain access to their fortune or amass a new or use their contacts to open doors for their romantic interest.
In When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare, the FMC has safety needs in a pretend relationship. When the MMC arrives, he must have shelter and safety for his men. As the book progresses, the MMC helps the FMC with her esteem and self-actualisation.
There are four ways for a romantic partner to provide for their partner’s needs in a non-coercive manner. They are:
- Doing it for them (be careful not to infantilise or make helpless your character. There must be a logical reason why one character is doing it for another)
- Creating opportunities and space for the character to figure it out on their own. This includes letting the other person fail and being there encourage another try
- Collaborating to reach personal and mutual goals
Take the book you’re reading and see which needs are required for each character and flesh out how they meet their personal needs and how their romantic interest is helping them meet their needs. Let me know on Twitter what their needs were and how they met them. @reneegendron
I want to thank @ericlinuskaplan for the topic suggestion.
Throughout my life, I’ve written a lot. I started writing historical fiction, poems, and fantasy. All of the words were, quite frankly, flat. I turned my attention to romance about seven years ago, and my stories improved. What follows is my opinion and my opinion only and keep in mind that I write 50% romance arcs and 50% non-romance arcs. As someone from my writing club recently mentioned to me, he was surprised that I classify myself as a romance writer because of all of the non-romance things in my books.
I think there’s stronger character development when a romance arc is included. All romance books have two layers of development. The first layer of development occurs at the character level. If there is one POV, then that character must address and overcome personal trauma or internal conflict before they can turn their attention to their romantic counterpart. If there are two POVs, then both characters must have personal insights to address individual problems.
When part of the book focuses on the internal character development, the character seems fuller and more relatable (at least to me). Everyone has been hurt. There’s at least one childhood event that still stings or makes you ashamed or impacts you to this day.
Maybe you were told you had to be perfect and came to the brutal (but liberating) realisation that you aren’t perfect (as all humans aren’t perfect). In trying to be perfect, you overwork, you stress, you surpass expectations to the point where other people don’t want to work with you because you make them look bad.
Maybe you were told something about your appearance and have struggled to accept and love yourself for your inner and outer beauty.
Whatever hurt, you left a mark. It’s the same with characters in romances. They need to work their way through whichever trauma or pain and earn their happily ever after.
The second layer of conflict is what keeps the lovers apart. A difference in politics, socio-economic classes, life goals, etc., must be overcome and reconciled before the couple can have their happily ever after.
This leads me to my next point. I enjoy writing stories with happy endings. A romance can have a happy-for-now ending, but most end with a happily ever after. If the ending is sad (a tragedy), then it is not a romance. Instead, it’s a love story.
There are many options when writing external conflict. There’s the conflict between the lovers that keeps them from their happily ever after. There’s the non-romance conflict. What are the characters doing? Are they going on a quest and have to battle horrible weather and harsh terrain? Are they at a ball where they need to navigate politics and social norms and gossips and competitors for a lover’s attention? Are they marching off to war to face an ancient enemy?
The non-romance arc (even in traditional romances, there is a non-romance arc) is both an independent and dependent opportunity for character and romantic relationship growth. In traditional romances, the non-romance arc has fewer words dedicated to it. Again, I strive for 50/50 romance and non-romance arcs.
By independent opportunity, I mean each character faces unique challenges. They must learn a new skill, adapt to circumstances, or defeat a foe. The characters must also learn to cooperate and grow as a couple. In the non-romance arc, characters test their resolve to help the other, develop the relationship, and cement the fact they are a couple.
I find these textures of conflict interesting to read (well, listen. I listen to 99% of my books) and write. I enjoy writing the nuances of how a similar deep hurt (let’s say low self-esteem caused by body issues as a teenager) manifest differently in adults. Each character is unique in their efforts to overcome.
Romances pair well with every genre. You can have a romantic medical thriller, a romantic fantasy, a romantic dystopian cli-fi. Name the genre you and can always pair it with a romance arc.
I write a lot. A _lot_. More than 2.9 million words, a lot.
I promise my readers a new story (not written to formula) each and every story. With the diversity of romance tropes and the ability to plug it into any genre, I find it stretches my writing scope. Combining different tropes (romance and non-romance) across genres flexes my writing skills and helps me create unique situations.
Romances can speak to the human element. They speak of deep heartaches, misery, overcoming trauma, and finding a way to live a full and enriched life. And, I have to admit, writing the sexual tension between the characters is fun.
What do you like about romances?
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron
Thank you to @DanFitzWrites for the topic of this blog.