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.