On Writing Believable Romance


Anonymous asked: “Do you know how to make a fictional relationship realistic?”

I don’t know that there is one perfect answer to this. You can follow all the “rules” and still not pull it off. What I think is most important is that you believe that these characters are real people and you believe the bond they share is real.

I’m going to assume that you mean a romantic relationship – just because other relationships, like friendship, guardianships, and others like that are generally specified. I get a lot of questions along these lines – “how can I keep from this relationship sounding cheesy?” or “is this relationship cliché?” I think really everyone is asking the same thing: How do I write a good love story? 

There’s isn’t just one answer. The reader that I am would say turn to a book with a love story you adore and note how that build-up happens. How did they feel about each other at the start? What had to happen to get them together? What scenes were needed to make their relationship believable? I learn by example, so this is a strategy that works for me, though I know not everyone learns that way. 

So, let’s talk out an example from a well-known series: Harry Potter. We’re not going to talk about whether anyone likes these romances or anything like that. I am going to say though, I didn’t buy into Harry and Ginny’s relationship. Other readers may have, but just considering how much detail and time Rowling spent developing every other relationship – both romantic and nonromantic, friendships and so on – it was probably one of the least developed relationships in the series. I love this series, so I have nothing to complain about, so instead of arguing against me, let’s talk about why I could have felt this way. 

The biggest thing in my mind is that there is disproportionately very little time in the series talking about their relationship. Rowling even gets very vague about it too. We don’t see a ton of scenes with them together – especially, if you’re going to compare the amount of time and scenes we get on Harry with just about anyone else – we probably get more scenes with Harry and Luna and their friendship than we do Harry and Ginny. That I think is especially telling. 

The next thing is that Harry and Ginny’s relationship isn’t detailed the same way that Ron and Hermione’s is. With them, the romance is depicted in scenes that span a few books and it slowly develops with time. If you compare the amount of time on the page spent developing the relationship between Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny’s feels like little more than a mention. This can be a big reason why it didn’t feel believable. Harry is the main character and this is just the one relationship he has that isn’t really talked about all that much, especially when so many other relationships he has in his life are shown in scene. 

Seeing a relationship unfold on the page is one way to help make it feel believable. Sometimes that means showing “baby steps” that one character might take to try to make a connection or develop their bond. This includes things like looking for common interests, sharing personal things about themselves, opening up and wanting in turn to be opened up to, listening to the other person and trying to be responsive to them. Then, of course, there are physical things they can do. Remember too that physical intimacy does not equal automatic emotional intimacy. It can help and it can show that the characters are in the same place romantically – both interested at least in each other in that way, but it’s important in a healthy relationship for there to be both aspects. (I’m not implying that you need to be writing about healthy relationships, but if you want the characters to seem emotionally connected, physical actions alone for many readers say it won’t cut it. 

The last thing I wanted to note too is that if you’re writing a romantic subplot or a story that spans months and months, readers can also assume some things are happening behind the scenes. What’s important is that nothing seems to just jump out of nowhere. That might feel less believable. Even in instances where you’re meant to be surprised by a sudden romantic development in a relationship, there’s always some kind of explanation later to how that could have happened. Believability will be built on logic and the characters staying in character. While there’s not guarantees for believability, those things are both good first steps.   

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