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.