Ahhhh, I’m a romantic at heart. Let’s go with that.
When was the last time you read something that was going along great and suddenly, out of nowhere, two characters started kissing and professing their love for each other? Or maybe a movie where the characters suddenly make dinner plans or randomly fall into bed? It makes people roll their eyes while reading books and it makes movie audiences laugh. Nothing sinks a story faster than a pasted-on love interest.
We all love a good romance. Yeah, even the guys. Because we all love the idea that there’s someone out there who’s an absolute, 100% perfect match for us. Even more so, we love the idea that we could meet this person while disarming warheads set by mad computers, fighting zombie pirates cursed by Aztec gold, or fleeing ninjas. Because, hey... think of the stories you could tell your friends. And that’s what we all want, right? To have a better story to tell.
So, what are some of the ways you can avoid that horrible relationship trap?
Okay, first and most important thing to remember. People get together because they want to get together, not because other people think they should be together. And “other people” includes the writer. If you’ve based your whole story around the computer geek and the cheerleader hooking up at a frat party, then you need a real reason for them to get together. And no, the reason can’t be “because they need to battle the dark overlord as a couple in chapter eleven.” Nor should it be “we want the actress topless in act three.”
This leads nicely into my second point. They’re almost one and the same. You can’t have real emotions without real people. And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways. I’m not saying rational ways, because love is one of the most irrational things most of us will ever encounter in our lives. If your characters are real, they’re going to have needs, desires, plans, and tastes. And it’ll stand out if they’re making choices that go against all those traits. Is that backstabbing, career-minded office bitch really going to see something she likes in the guy who cleans her pool? Will a blue-blood, British noble really find himself fascinated with a toothless hillbilly girl? What the heck are a professional mercenary and a Peace Corps worker going to talk about?
Yeah, opposites attract. They even have a lot of fun together. But if we’re talking about real emotions, the opposites will tend to have a lot in common. The mean-girl cheerleader isn’t going to make a move for the scrawny honor student kid. Unless she needs a book report done.
Or maybe, unless she’s a closet sci-fi/ action fan who desperately wants to talk to someone about last night’s episode of Chuck. Could be that she’s a lot smarter than she lets on, but is scared of not being popular. Or perhaps she was the ugly duckling until her second year of puberty and used to be friends with a lot of the AV club kids.
Even then, how far and how fast they take things should be consistent. Some folks live for the moment. Others like to wait and plan. People can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward. Some relationships are established with a wild half-hour in a hotel room, others when two people hold hands for the first time. If your characters are real, their reactions should be, too.
My third tip would be this-- hard as it may be to believe, there are just times when romance isn’t appropriate. As the man likes to say, there’s a time and a place for everything. Someone could be starving, terrified, or in a blind fury fighting for their life. At moments like these, it’s not terribly realistic they’d be noticing what pretty eyes their new partner has. If you’re writing an action/ sci-fi/ horror story, is there really time for an extensive relationship? It might be better to plant the subtle seeds of one and let your audience fill in the rest, much like James Cameron did between Ripley and Hicks in Aliens.
A quick story...
Late least year a friend of mine let me read the fantasy novel he’d been working on. There was a lot of good stuff, but one part lost me just a few chapters in. The main character, in the midst of looking for his abducted son, starts getting starry-eyed and bashful around a pretty elf he’s just met.
“Wait a minute,” I told my friend. “Jayme’s son has been kidnapped, missing less than a day, and he’s taking a time out to flirt wildly with some elf he’s just met?”
This bothered me far more than the fact Jayme had grown a set of functioning butterfly wings since arriving in the fae realm. It was, as I told my friend, the point I would toss the manuscript on the big pile to my left.
The last point, as silly and motherly as it sounds, is not to confuse sex with love. There are lots of times where it might be completely acceptable for two characters to have sex. It’s fun. It’s a stress-reliever. It lets you not think about other things. Heck, it can even keep you warm.
Sex doesn’t always translate to a relationship, though, in stories any more than in the real world. If two characters fall into bed (or onto a couch, or against a wall, or into the back seat of a car), make sure you’re clear what it means for both of them. Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced.
So go and spread the love among your characters.
Where it’s appropriate, of course.
Next week, some criticism for you.