I DON’T CARE THAT HE’S HOT: Building Believable Romance

I DON’T CARE THAT HE’S HOT: Building Believable Romance

by editor Martha Mihalick

First things first. Let me state right off the bat that I am a little sappy. Movies, tv shows, books, you name it, can make me cry with both sadness and happiness. And so I am a sucker for a good romance. Here’s the catch: I don’t believe in love at first sight, not on the page. But a lot of manuscripts want me to, based only on the fact that the leading man (or woman) is hot. And that, friends, is one of my biggest pet peeves.

I believe in hotness at first sight. Unfortunately, though, hotness does not equal love. Hotness also does not equal intriguing. Yes, our protagonist has to notice her leading man in some way, and looks are the obvious go-to, but noticing doesn’t necessarily lead to instant soulmates. Isn’t it a more interesting story if it’s more complicated than that?

What does make a romance work? How can you get your readers invested and believing in your characters’ relationship? Here are my top 5 tips.

1)  The romance should not be the main plotline of the novel.

A character’s love life is best kept to the subplot, adding richness and depth–and complications–to the main thrust of the story. Because, as we all know, love doesn’t solve all our problems, but it can add to joy or grief. The protagonist’s personal journey or conflict should take precedence, so that the love story has a stage on which to unfold.

In Leah Cypess’s Mistwood, for instance, Isabel and Rokan’s growing love for each other is compelling, but the story is about Isabel herself trying to understand who she is, to find her past, and to save herself and Rokan from assassination. In Heather Dixon’s Entwined, Azalea may indeed find true love, but the heart of the story is her relationship with her sisters and her father as she struggles to save them. In The Hunger Games, Katniss does have both Peeta and Gale to decide between, but she’s busy surviving and leading a revolution at the forefront of the trilogy.

Know what your protagonist’s internal and external conflicts are outside of any romantic possibilities, and then use the romance to enrich and complicate those conflicts.

2)  The two characters must have an immediate connection.

They notice each other, of course, and there is some sense of connection. But . . . maybe it’s not an immediately good one. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy certainly did not think fondly of each other at first. Sophie of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle did not fall in love with Howl right away–during their first interaction they noticed one another, but she was frightened of him.

Or maybe the connection is good, but the characters still don’t realize they are going to fall in love. When Bella first notices Edward, it’s not simply because he’s gorgeous and she thinks he’s her soulmate, but because he and his family seem to be outsiders, the way she feels. She identifies with him a little, but she doesn’t already know she loves him.

Perhaps the two characters notice each other because they find each other attractive, but the deeper level that kicks in may be that both characters find something funny, or irritating. They might find each other irritating. They might identify with each other in some way. Maybe one is amazed by something the other does. Maybe they have something in common, like a love for Cary Grant films, or indie rock, or skateboarding, or a favorite place. Whatever it is, there is something more than looks to connect to.

3)  Give the fireworks a very, very long fuse.

The slow burn has a much greater payoff in the end, and it’s more believable, no matter what genre you are writing in. Young romance involves a lot of yearning. Use the time to build the relationship on more than one level. While the two characters will ultimately become a couple, they should also be friends, and have a mutual respect and trust in each other. That’s earned and we should see them earning it! Throw complications at them. They–and we–shouldn’t be sure that it’ll work out in the end. Give them highs and lows, and almost-but-not-quites. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are a great example of this. So are a number of tv show pairings, like West Wing’s Josh & Donna, X-Files’s Scully and Mulder, or Veronica Mars’s Veronica and Logan.

But–and this is a big but–stay as far as you can from cliche. One of the reasons I don’t read many grown-up romances is that they are often formulaic and predictable. Heroine and leading man meet, don’t like each other, are thrown together, fall for each other, then one accidentally betrays the other and they split, only to have the miscommunication/betrayal cleared up in the end. While having an arc for the relationship is good, try to subvert what’s expected or surprise your reader in some way.

4)  Every romance needs some humor and awkwardness.

It’s charming. Really. Sure, we all love when Darcy first declares his love for Elizabeth, but what other scene from that Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice adaptation do we all talk about? The one when he comes out of the lake and sees Elizabeth at Pemberly and is so adorably off his game. Part of why I love Eden and Az in Leah Clifford’s A Touch Mortal is because Eden calls Az right away on his cheesy line. Her response to him saying her eyes are like the ocean? “The water’s not even blue, jackass.” And in Heather Dixon’s Entwined, one of my favorite scenes is the one when Azalea and her leading man end up awkwardly squished in a closet together.

A sense of humor keeps the characters from taking themselves too seriously, and thus keeps the melodrama at bay. Being able to make each other laugh can also help them stay on equal footing with one another. And awkwardness, even being too scared to act, makes the romance more real, rounded, and human. Think about how awkward high school romance can be. (Actually…ouch, let’s not think back on that too hard.)

5)  Most of the romance doesn’t need to be directly stated.

Don’t tell us how the characters feel about each other. Show us, make us feel it along with them. The feelings–how they grow and change and deepen–should be evident in gestures, actions, the way they talk to or about each other, the way they look at each other. Come at it sidelong and subtly most of the time. Megan Whalen Turner’s Gen and Attolia are two of the best examples of this. The emotion runs below the surface every time they are together. I can’t even call out one specific scene because it all builds so perfectly. Just go read the Attolia books, if you haven’t. Or re-read them, if you have. Robin McKinley is another of my favorites for subtle, understated dialogue and actions that turn into powerful, memorable moments.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that the characters never directly say anything about their feelings. Even Gen and Attolia have a wonderful, dramatic kiss in King of Attolia. Darcy tells Elizabeth how ardently he admires and love her. Someone needs to hold a stereo blasting Peter Gabriel over his head at some point. But you have to build up to it, and use that moment when it will go the farthest and be the most satisfying both for the characters’ individual arcs and for the plot as a whole.

This is by no means a complete list of everything that makes a teen romance work, so do you have your own pet peeves or must-do’s? Your own favorite examples of what I’ve talked about? Please share them in the comments!

Martha Mihalick is the associate editor at Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. In nearly nine years there, she has worked with many acclaimed authors and artists, including Kevin Henkes, Lynne Rae Perkins, Peter Sís, Megan Whalen Turner, Chris Crutcher, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Martha edits books for children and teens of all ages, from picture books to young adult novels. Some recent titles are: Mistwood by Leah Cypess, Do Not Build a Frankenstein by Neil Numberman, and Me and the Pumpkin Queen by Marlane Kennedy, among others. You can find her elsewhere on the internet at marthamihalick.com and @curiousmartha. And you can see what Greenwillow Books is up to at greenwillowblog.com and facebook.com/Greenwillow.

37 thoughts on “I DON’T CARE THAT HE’S HOT: Building Believable Romance”

  1. This is an excellent post. My biggest pet peeves is the unrealistic set up of many romances in YA lately. The world shakes or raises to some unlivable temperature. I’ve always thought romance happened slower than that in real life. There’s an attraction, but there’s all this bumbling too. Hotness and eye color don’t need a constant mention throughout the book. It’s good to know I’m not alone in that feeling.

  2. Awesome advice, Martha! Actually, this could apply to teen relationships in real life! This is excellent advice for teens on the lookout to hook up… lol.
    My pet peeve is when the guy is typical bad boy, buff. Those are the ones every girl wants to tame.. blah blah blah… i like when the male love interest is just a regular, even somewhat geeky guy and the female MC can see past that.

  3. I’m so glad you wrote this post, because it’s been a pet peeve of mine for a few years now. As a reader, I don’t necessarily want it to be obvious that a couple is going to end up together/the romance is the main plotpoint. Why would I keep reading if I already know how it’s going to end? I also appreciate the tips you offered for writing romances. :)

  4. I’d like to add that YA books set up unrealistic expectations for teens who haven’t yet dated. They might overlook the decent, attractive guy because in books it’s nearly always the hottest guy.

  5. Thank you so much for this advice. Romance isn’t my forte so I worried that I wasn’t laying in on thick enough.

    My biggest pet peeve is lust being equated to love. Sure, guys are hot. But there has to be something being those abs…. right? Right, ladies? *crickets*

  6. Awesome post all around, Martha, though I especially loved the Say Anything reference! ;D ’80s teen movies can also provide an unexpected source of awesomely rendered teen romances as well as all the droolicious books you mentioned.

  7. One of my favorite tips on building character relationships comes from a book by Linda Seger, called Creating Unforgettable Characters. I create a list of how the two romantic leads are different from each other (“She’s an only child – He comes from a large family,” etc.). This gives me plenty of tension to draw upon. Then I come up with at least one thing they have in common that will eventually draw them together. This actually works for all types of character relationships, depending on your story, but does work great for romances.

  8. Thanks so much. I so agree with all your suggestions about making a romance feel realistic. I enjoy the slower develoing romances more than the love at first sight ones too. Your examples really show what works in romances. Thanks so much for the tips.

  9. Oh my gosh…slender fingers… If I read that one more time in a book I think I’m going to puke. I’m all for the hot guy, but quite frankly, hot=stuck up. (Usually.) As long as the interior matches realistically what’s on the exterior, great! I’ve met some really hot guys who are complete social failures–because they don’t really know how to interact appropriately. The problem comes when we have a hot guy who is perfect in every other way. *gag* And can I say enough about awkward? I LOVE awkward.

  10. I think this is my favorite post of the conference so far! Excellent advice and examples, thank you!

  11. Extremely well said. I think romance is one of the hardest things to handle in YA! You want to make it swoon-worthy but also real and not at all forced. Fantastic advice here to help make romance all of that.

  12. Excellent and perfect timing! I’m outlining a romance subplot right now and was trying to avoid making it too cliche.

    I’m going to read this article a dozen more times, I’m sure.

  13. Such fabulously excellent advice. Made me think about my YA contemporary novel with a romantic subplot. When they meet at a ski resort, SHE’S the instructor. So he’s totally into her, but she doesn’t really pay him any attention. However, they have something in common in, which helps set the stage for later on.

  14. Excellent, excellent! There are a number of books I’ve stopped reading because of the cheesy, predictable romance.
    And I am absolutely with you on point no. 3. There is something kind of disappointing about a hero and heroine “getting together” too soon. Sure, the whole build-up and near misses can be frustrating to a reader (and the characters!) but that’s the point isn’t it? It makes it so much more satisfying when they do finally end up together :-)

  15. My YA protag girl is kick ass. The guy is a smart, socially awkward geek. She sees a gem in him and makes it her mission to save him from workaholism. The characters have flaws, layers, hangups, and secrets.
    I love it when the relationship does not progress smoothly and the girl and guy fight. I love it when there is awkwardness and misunderstanding. Not all tension is sexual tension.
    In my novel they actually USE birth control. And I think it’s important to portray some of the more complex changes and consequences that occur around the issue of sex.

  16. The immediate connection and loooooooong fuse parts are fun!

    Especially in the case of my two MC’s. There immedaite connection? They hate each other’s guts, and she wants him dead. Yeah…love? Not so much. But things can happen when you least expect it!

    But I do have a hard not rushing it sometimes. Oh well, it’s only the 1st re-write and I’m sure there will be more to come!

    Thanks so much for this. All this amazing advice!! And I love your title and just…..everything! 😀 I’ll think of some examples/ideas to post later!!

  17. LOL! Great article! The awkwardness is my favorite thing to write because it’s what I remember most from dating in high school. That and the cuddling. *sigh*

    And thanks for the insight about the slow burn! That’s a fabulous visual to go with our arc-plotting. In my current WIP, the lack of a slow burn is the reader’s tip-off that the first relationship won’t end happily. When it’s real love, there’s definitely a build-up. (Darcy and Elizabeth are my favorite slow burn).

  18. Very helpful advice — definitely helps me look at the romance in my novel with fresh critical eyes.

    Maggie Stiefvater’s Lament and especially Ballad are some of my favorite examples of ….almost all your points. Especially the romance being subordinate to another, gripping plot. She does the humor and the long fuses very well, too. (I love her sarcastic James in Ballad).

    And if you helped bring Megan Whalen Turner’s books to publication — Thank You from the bottom of my heart! They are some of my favorite books of all time, and some of the best writing it has been my privilege to read. I only hope she has more!

  19. Thank you for this! I don’t like reading instant attraction romance in novels, but found it creeping into a previous version of a WIP. This is a good reminder to make sure the romance has a solid foundation.

  20. What great advice :)

    In my WIP, my FMC and MMC are thrown together by elements outside their control, so they don’t hate each other or like each other. But they grow– sloooowly– into a tiny romance. Awww :)

  21. This is great advice. I have worried a ton about writing romance scenes with enough tension – in a believable way.

  22. Great article! I agree with giving the fireworks a very, very long fuse as it makes the reader sweat : ) No seriously, a romance that doesn’t ignite and burst into flame on the first page is more realistic. Lust at first sight is all well and good, but love takes longer to develop fully and deepen.

  23. Thanks for the excellent post! Lots of great advice to think about and to remember when working on the romance I’m writing. I especially like point #1.

    One of my big pet peeves is when awkward goes on too long in books/tv/movies. Sometimes it seems like it’s awkward for no apparent reason. It’s too much for me when I want to put down the book or stop watching. If the characters and the rest of the story are good, I’ll pick up where I left off after a few minutes. In some cases though (the ones where they are too stupid to live, or at least date), I don’t finish the story because it’s just too painful and annoying to read/watch.

  24. I am annoyed by love interests that are too perfect in every way; I don’t think you have to swing the pendulum the other way and make the Bad Boy (or Girl) always so fascinating, though. It’s the well-rounded, flawed but redeemable characters that get me every time.

  25. Great article! I especially love #1 because I found stories with romance sub-plots to be most interesting. Rule number 2 because I always believe that there should be an immediate connection between the hero and the heroine-even if their relationship is going to be love-hate.

    I have three pet peeves.

    #1. The girl (or boy) turns down her love interest for shallow reasons (too fat, too skinny, too weird, too odd, etc.) and goes out with the popular kid only to find out that the popular kid is a douchebag. And out of the blue, she/he decides to go out with their love interest! There was no clear explanation why all of the sudden, the hero/heroine loves their love interest. They didn’t like him/her before, so why do they now like him/her? In Kim Possible, there was no clear explanation why all of the sudden, Kim likes Ron now. She didn’t like him before because he was too weird and she only saw him as a friend. There should be a clear explanation and a slow build-up on the heroine starting to fall for the hero instead of the false romantic lead.

    #2. When the hero turns down the heroine for stupid reasons. She’s poor. She’s fat. She’s the same kid that your popular friends picked on. She’s from a different country. Then, later on, for no apparent reason, he decides to date her. He didn’t like her before, so why does he like her now? If someone doesn’t like you because of your weight, ethnicity, or social status, then that person is so not worth it. He does not deserve you.

    #3 I do not mind when couples fight, but I hate it when the writers overdo it to the point where the audience sarcastically thinks, “Geesh, that’s romantic,” or “Why should I want these two characters to be together, they are like, never never never nice to each other!”
    Good examples are Raymond/Debra from Everybody Loves Raymond. Those two are always fighting and are never nice to each other. Debra is always bullying Raymond to the point where it becomes domestic abuse. If a couple is always fighting, even to the point where it becomes domestic abuse, something obviously wrong with their relationship. Next time, think twice before marrying someone. You may never know-you might become a victim of domestic abuse.

  26. Thank you for writing this :) I loved reading it. I am not a writer never imagined myself to be a writer but last week this great well I think it’s great idea pooped into my head and before i knew it a romance book came alive. I have always loved reading good romances beach novels etc. They tell a story about life human interactions struggles and love. Can you guide me to someone who would preview my story and give me feed back ? I am not sure what my goal is. Get it published ? Just for fun? I don’t know but Something about my story excites me :) thank you for getting back to me if you get a chance :)

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