A lot of fiction hinges on the chemistry between to love interests, but how do you create a romance that people can believe in?
The thing that always gets me thinking about compatibility is the examination of Harry Potter. There are probably many more essays written about why Harry chose Ginny than I have read. The examination always looks closely at Harry’s relationships with Hermoine and with Cho Chang and cuts to the chase on what makes Ginny a match. Your can find a complete essay at TheLeakyCauldron.Org, Why Harry Picked Ginny
It’s about humour, a thing easy to overlook if you’ve only watched the movies recently and are foggy on the events of the books. Harry’s snarky insights and shared smiles with Ginny are a little lost in the movie theatre. And Ginny could’ve been replaced with a cardboard cut-out.
I digress. Rowling could’ve set Harry up with up with Hermione or Cho and probably no one would’ve questioned it, but Ginny has the dry sense of wit and dark humour that Harry has and that brings them together.
So when I think about compatibility, this is always what I think of first. Harry’s need for humour in his world and Ginny’s ability to give it to him.
So, what is your character need from their partner? Maybe they don’t know, the same way Harry didn’t know that finding Cho Chang pretty wouldn’t be enough to build a relationship on. Maybe their sexual attractions don’t always match up with their core needs, as too often happens in real life.
Satisfying the core need can be the difference between a good relationship and the perfect one. Keep that in mind in the plotting of love triangles. There are plenty of reasons to love someone. Different characters offer different perks, but someone who fills the core need role is a very powerful kind of person.
The best part about it is that it’s not super obvious. There can be a lot of subtlety in it. It’s really great for creating a believable love triangle that isn’t incredibly one-sided. No one’s interested in reading love confusion when there is an obvious winner. The core need is the OTPs secret weapon.
Push and Pull
I like to see characters pushed by their romantic partners, and I don’t mean teaching the virgin about the wide world of creative bedroom endeavors. Characters need people who can call them out on their nonsense. Someone needs to be able to reign them in when they need it or, alternatively, spur them onto greatness.
Play with it. Deceive the reader. Have a daring, charismatic love interest who urges the protagonist to break out of their, shell, do adventurous things, like play hookie from work to drive up the coast to catch some waves. They seem like an intoxicating, beautiful person until the protagonist loses their job and realizes their lover never truly had their best interest at heart.
Or let the lover interest be a passive influence. Let them be so good and wonderful and life-changing that the main character must abandon the lifestyle that has thus far left them lonely, whether it be finally giving up their drinking or revealing the trauma they went through with their last partner.
Give characters the ultimatum of change or lose the love of their life.
The Positive of the Negatives
“Other girls, women, I mean, I was thinking, they’re just fantasies. And they always seem really great because there are never any problems, and if there are, they’re cute problems like, you know, we bought each other the same Christmas present or she wants to go see a movie we’ve already seen and I come home and we have real problems. […] It’s not real. I’m sick of the fantasy.”Rob Gordon in High Fidelity
There is something tantalizing about the grass on the neighbour’s side if the fence, especially if it’s being mowed by the neighbour’s fit, tanned gardener Julio and your boyfriend’s away for a month on business.
My former screenwriting instructor brought this next concept into play. Everyone has bad habits and bad habits are as important for compatibility as all the good qualities. The gorgeous young secretary seems perfect compared to a nagging wife. And that, of course, is because a young gorgeous secretary represents only good things. Gorgeous secretaries don’t nag or expect you to take out the garbage or trim their toenails at unromantic times. The main character yearns for someone who appreciates their talents.
Until the main character is deep into a sordid affair with the secretary and realizes that trimming toe nails unromantically and demanding homelife participation is nothing compared to the secretary’s gambling habit or hobby taxidermy-ing mice into suits of tiny armour.
Tolerating the less glamourous side of a person is important. Even more important is the fact that the MC’s partner tolerates the MC’s bad habit.
Maybe the main character can get used to the secretary’s surprises, but the secretary ditches the main character because of their crippling self-doubt and pessimism. At which point, the MC realizes their wife may have been the one settling, not the other way around.
What bad habits could your protagonist not possibly tolerate? Maybe their father was an alcoholic and they vow never to be with anyone who hits the bottle. Maybe their deal-breaker is betting on horses or being insensitive to children. Show what flaws your character is willing to tolerate and which they aren’t. Make an otherwise great relationship impossible because of one habit the protagonist isn’t willing to overlook. Heartbreaking.
Two Kinds of Interesting Relationships
Unfortunately, in the world of fiction, a calm relationship where everything works out lacks one thing very vital: conflict. So, I categorize, for the sake of argument, relationships into two columns.
Couples Conflicting with Each Other
Couples Facing Conflict As a Unit
The first one is the reason why almost every romance ever is about two characters falling in love with each other. Forces keep them apart. The can’t be together for this reason or that. They fight. They move away from each other. There is conflict and tension in the will they ever get together? And the movie or book ends when they finally reconcile all the obstacles keeping them from a happily ever after. There is conflict.
So, what happens once they get together? The very real threat of being boring, but at the same time, forcing OTP to fight and go through drama can also get contrived fast. Rather than force a couple into so much conflict that the audience begins to wonder why they’re still together in the first place, I prefer a couple facing conflict together.
There’s only so long you can put off getting a couple together. This is a big problem in TV. You can only put off getting a couple together for so many seasons. And then what? You have to replace the sexual tension with something. They can only break up and get back together so many times. So let characters face problems as a couple. It’ll make them even stronger. Maybe the next step in a relationship is getting the woman’s son used to the idea of having a step-father. Or opening up a business together. Defeat mummies together. Fly Nathan Fillion around in a space ship together. Put up with their friend Ted together while he makes terrible dating decisions. Raise their homicidal daughter and pudgy son together.
The couples that stay interesting stay interesting because each character is still an individual. Individuals who should still have unique perspectives and skills that complement their partner’s. That and the writers didn’t give in to the temptation to keep the tension and conflict going by having them fight constantly.
‘Til Death Do Us Part
As a writer of romance subplots and reader of many scripts on a long-running TV show, these are my observations of how to avoid writing the kinds of couples that an audience will want to get to together and want to stay together. Couples who fill a core need, couples who can handle and help each other with their downfalls, and ones that can attack conflict together (instead of miscommunicating for the drama).
For more romance genre-specific romance help, check out the how-to book Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes, the podcast The Misfit’s Guide to Writing Indie Romance, or the blog The Romance MFA!