Writing a love story is tricky. I’m not talking about romance as a genre. I’m talking about any element of a romantic relationship between characters. Creating that kind of compelling connection is tough work. But when it’s done right? We get something personal, something relatable and impacting.
A lot of times the romance is made up of what should really just be a friendship. Similar priorities, an internal need that the other person can meet, a few traits that challenge the other person– that’s a fantastic recipe for a friendship, but it’s not deep enough for a love story. Even if you add physical attraction to it, it’s not really a love story.
A love story, no matter how big a part of the story it is, needs to go much deeper than friendship plus attraction. When you’re reading, ask yourself why these two characters love each other. Why does he love THIS intelligent, confidant woman with a dark past, and not some other one? Why does she fall for THIS quiet, funny guy, and not any of the other million men who have those traits? When you’re building a love story, it’s key to the whole process that these people have more than just the building blocks for a friendship. Of course, friendship love stories are wonderful things– but they don’t stop with the materials for friendship.
True attraction might look simple. It absolutely may feel simple to your characters: I see her+she’s hot+not a bad personality=I’m attracted. But I’m not convinced by that. Genuine attraction is a thousand tiny, powerful connections being made– perhaps in a single day or maybe over a decade.
Generating these connections is how you get the potential for a love story, and getting them on the page is what makes the love story impacting. It’s what convinces readers they’re watching something real happen. It’s what makes them believe that out of all the people on this planet, these two people want each other and no one else. And most importantly, those connections breaking is what makes the near-misses and fights and failures so painful. Things really are breaking.
So what kind of connections? How many? When? Where? How do we generate these connections and put them on the page?
The connections I’m talking about are most often tiny little points of recognition, challenge, enjoyment, desire, and admiration. Sometimes these things can be huge and obvious– two characters together on quest. But that’s not nearly as impacting because there’s really nothing new about it, and it’s such a big thing we’re not surprised. Maybe they both like cinnamon in their coffee. Okay, that’s much smaller, but it’s also a little contrived. Can you get away with it? Maybe, depending on the reader. But readers don’t want a giant sign on the page that spells out “these people are perfect for each other!” There’s very little reason two people liking cinnamon would result in a lasting, important connection. At best, it’s a mildly interesting parallel.
The connection points we’re looking for are ones that are impacting. Impact is created by weight. It leaves a mark; it has an effect. Connection points should be things that are emotionally important, surprising, thought-provoking, unusual, or endearing. In one of my recent manuscripts, my main character falls for a guy partially because he’s been able to survive both physically and emotionally in some pretty terrible circumstances, and she’s not sure she’ll manage to do either of those things. They have a connection point because of it. One of the reasons he notices her is her competence–she adapts to new circumstances and figures out how to handle herself well enough to get the task done. He likes that because he feels like he failed to do that when it really mattered.
Connections don’t need to be so straightforward, either. My guy likes my girl in part because she’s hell-bent on getting justice, and he has almost never been treated fairly. Her search for justice has nothing to do with him, but he likes her vision of how the world should be. And after a while, she notices his reclusive hobby is getting revenge on the villain in a much more subtle way than she is, almost as a side effect of his own success. So, the connection points don’t have to be exact matches or immediately recognizable. Twist them a bit, turn them over, put them inside something else. Readers will love digging into them and seeing why they matter.
Now, those are emotionally weighty things. They’re not small connections. But by themselves, they wouldn’t be a solid enough foundation for a love story. We need dozens more. And they all need to have emotional impact and a reason for the other person to connect with it. They should be big things, little things, things they find fun, different things they hate for the same reason, things they love for opposite reasons– so many complex, important connections that it becomes a powerful physical attraction, no matter what the characters look like.
The combined effect of so many complex connections gives both the characters and their story uniqueness and individuality. That’s what will convince readers that THIS quiet, funny guy is the one she’ll fall for, even though she’ll come across a lot more quiet, funny guys pretty similar to him. That’s why they’re not just friends. Their pattern of connections is unique, weighty, enjoyable, and key to who they are. It makes them want each other.
Writing a believable attraction on an emotional and physical scale is tough, interesting, rewarding work. You’re creating one of the most powerful, affecting relationships on earth. By its very existence, it has meaning for us and how we live our lives.
Want more on this topic? Below are two TED talks that I found very interesting and useful for writers who are dealing with some element of attraction or a love story in their writing. They’re also very helpful for building characters with charming/sexy/attractive personalities. They’re highly recommended.