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.