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Monday, August 27, 2012

Writing Realistic Love Relationships

Credit: Spekulator
One of the challenges of writing relationships is making romantic relationships realistic. A problem I see in some fiction is that there is no reason for the characters to fall for each other or be in love—other than the fact that they're both excruciatingly hot, of course.

As in real life, your characters should be attracted to the people they're attracted to for a reason beyond the superficial. (Don’t get me wrong, some people fall into passionate but superficial relationships, but they tend to burn out quickly without the other important aspects of true love: commitment and intimacy.)

In real life, finding and getting along with your “other half” long-term is difficult. The good news when it comes to fiction is that Conflict is the engine that keeps every story going, and the love relationship between your characters is one of the most important parts of that engine.

Some questions to help you generate realistic conflicts. Try to be as specific as you can when you answer.

  • What drives you crazy in a relationship? What are your pet peeves?
  • What drives your partner (or past partners) crazy about you?
  • What kinds of life decisions and stages have created conflict in your life? That is, which things challenge your relationships? Money decisions? Family decisions? Work decisions? Something else?
  • What really stresses you out (in general)? How does this impact your relationships with others? 

In real life people choose the partners they do for all kinds of reasons, some of them noble and romantic, some of them less so.  For example, maybe they had great "chemistry" with their partner. Maybe they had a lot in common.  Maybe they need to feel needed.  Maybe they wanted to get out of their parents' house.  Maybe they were ready to settle down.  Maybe they needed someone to help them parent a child.  Regardless, there is definitely a reason other than that an author needed them together to make a particular storyline work.

Some things to think about:

  • What attracted your character to the love interest in the first place?  
  • What needs does the love interest fulfill for your hero or heroine?
  • Why is the love interest different from all the other men and women out there?

Once your characters are together, why do they stay together?  Doing couples therapy was always a fascinating endeavor for me, because couples with enormous problems would come in and complain about each other and the relationship—but still want to make it work.  They still loved each other.  And they could usually tell you why. In other words, for all of the ways they drove each other crazy, they always had a reason that they were still together.

In my stories, relationships are usually messy.  People say the wrong things, have affairs, and hurt each other—sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose. Ex-partners create havoc, hidden histories drive wedges, but in the end love always prevails for me.  I like to pretend to be pragmatic and sensible, but the truth is that I'm a hopeless romantic, and in my stories, love really is the greatest power of all.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the absolute worst thing each partner could do to the other? (Usually the "worst thing" varies by character.) Why is that the worst?
  • Can you work that conflict into your story?
  • Why might your characters still want or need each other in spite of this betrayal?
  • Usually things are not "like new" after a betrayal—what are the lingering effects of having survived the conflict?

I'm most drawn to fictional relationships where there is a strong, identifiable reason for an attraction at the same time there are problems (internal or external to the relationship) that are trying to tear the couple apart. For me, the attraction to each other has to be stronger than the problems, but not by much. The characters have to keep coming together the way a pair of magnets will.  They might push against each other, but inevitably, they snap together and hold on.

How about you? What are your secrets for making romantic plots and subplots work?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+


Jackie Layton said...

Hi Carolyn,

Thanks for posting this. You've helped me as I prepare for my new story.

I usually try to think, and I know this is corny, how do my characters complete each other. How are they better for being together.

Thanks again!

Charity Bradford said...

Great post and the questions are perfect. I knew the answers to most of them, but they will help as I write the second book.

Here's a question I have for you. I didn't originally write my novel as a romance, but my publisher is categorizing it as science fiction romance. I'm fine with this, but in my mind the love story isn't the main plot line. So, my relationship conficts are minimal.

Is it bad that my focus isn't on them hurting each other? (they do on accident all the time, but as I said I'm not thinking "what's the worst he could do right now.")

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Hi Jackie,

Glad the post was helpful! Thanks for your comment!

Hi Charity,

First, congratulations on the publication!

The amount of conflict between the love interests is often directly related to the importance of the romance to the story. But that doesn't mean you have to shift your focus over to the romance. If you're plotting science fiction first, keep doing that. It worked for you once! :)

I think the best conflicts between couples are the ones that impact the main storyline in some way. So if most novels are plotted so that characters are constantly met with setbacks, the question becomes -- can those setbacks include bad decisions (or better yet, the best decisions a character knows how to make at the time, which backfire) that then impact the relationship? Or vice versa -- can relationship problems impact the main plotline?

I guess what I'm saying is go ahead and ask yourself from time to time "what's the worst s/he could do right now?" and see if you get any intriguing ideas to add conflict to the plot/main storyline, and not just to the relationship between the characters.

Hope that makes sense! If not, let me know and I'll try again.

Trisha said...

This is a great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I would like to link to it from a page at my blog if you don't mind, with your name attached.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Hi Trisha,

Glad you enjoyed the post. You may certainly link to it from your blog. Thanks for asking!

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Great post as always, Carolyn. Thanks.

I decide what would make my character most uncomfortable or frightened and give that attribute/element/characteristic to that character's love interest and vice versa.

Unknown said...

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