Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Magic Ingredients to Writing Swoon-worthy Romance

LOVE by coolcal2111 (flickr)
When I write romance, I try to think long and hard about the last time I fell in love. How did we meet? What did we talk about? At what point did I know that I had a thing for this guy? And, even better, at what point did I know that he had a thing for me?

Great romance sparks on the page. It makes us feel heartsick and heart-full at the same time. As with everything, writing love requires skill and a few magic ingredients, and isn't quite as easy as falling in love yourself. But fear not! I have some tips.

Attraction. It seems superficial, I know, but attraction is the intangible, human, chemical element that kickstarts infatuation. (And, in some cases, infatuation leads to love--but it would be dishonest of me to use the two interchangeably.)

Of course, all physical attributes of a person contribute to whether the reader finds them attractive--but there are some key focal points.

- Eyes may not necessarily be the window to the soul, but they do give us insight into what a person is thinking--even if that thought doesn't appear on the face. But don't get hung up on eyes in descriptions. They get old!

- I like to tell the reader about the shape and impression of the face as a whole: aristocratic, soft, angular. The way a face is described gives a definite image not only of how a person looks, but a whole sense of the person. Faces tell us a lot about someone's personality.

- It's easy to fall into the buff-hot-dude or skinny-boobalicious-girl traps when creating love interest characters. It would be unrealistically optimistic to say we, as a culture, don't idealize certain body types; but there's far more to attraction than culture-enforced standards of beauty. Some guys like big girls; some girls like rails-thin dudes. I try to express more in my description of bodies than simply whether they fit those narrow standards of beauty; instead, I focus on why the character appreciates the other character's body--why it's chemically appealing to him or her in a unique way from other bodies.

- This is a pet peeve of mine, but I doubt I'm alone. In YA, hair color is emphasized, repeated and reiterated to the point of ridiculous. When writing love interests, I put less focus on how "his hair shimmers like autumn leaves" and more on the texture, the quality, even the styling. How someone cares for their body can tell the reader something about that person's personality.

- Looks are a starting point for attraction, but don't forget other swoon-worthy attributes like voice and scent.

"punks in love" by LordKhan (flickr)
The key to writing attraction is not to show that the love interest is perfect; too much perfection reads as fake, and fake isn't lovable or engaging. Give love interests unique quirks and imperfections that we can fall in love with. The best fantasy is one that's close enough to reality that you can't help but believe it.

And remember, attraction expresses itself. Let your characters be infatuated; show it. Infatuation is sometimes mindless and bereft of reason, and that's just fine!

Delve deeper. If we write our romance right, attraction and infatuation develops into something more. To achieve this something more, we need to access our characters for more than just looks.

- Personality: Again, avoid "perfect." Give your romantically-inclined heroes quirks, flaws, and back stories we can understand, love, and appreciate. Let's explore an example: my heroine's love interest a little over-confident and arrogant. Soon we discover, though, that he's become this way by compensating for being naturally shy. Does he struggle with his shyness? He can be mysterious about it at first, absolutely; leaving open questions to be answered later is a great way to let readers gradually in, and to string them along as you weave your romantic web.

Let us admire your love interest along with your hero. Quirks and flaws allow characters to grow, change, and cope, so don't be afraid of them. The way a character copes with hard situations tells readers more about him or her than you'd think. Does she have a hard home life, but deals with it maturely? Does she seek help, analyze what's wrong, and try to fix it? Though you're writing fiction, injecting it with reality will bring it to life, and let readers feel more intensely what your characters feel.

- Passions, Talents, and Professions: Quirks don't have to be negatives. What else can we admire about the heroine's love interest? Is he a dedicated chef, a passionate writer, a closet Trekkie? The more interesting you can get with a character's profile, the more fun readers will have when the heroine discovers they are both obsessed Star Trek fans.

Think about your own romantic experiences. Looks are what draw us in, but shared interests, good conversation and a great smile can take us down the rabbit hole.

Add complexity. Now that we've built two characters and set the stage for them to fall in love, it's time to execute. (I don't mean kill them, but, actually, it could really spice things up if one of them dies, so execute if you like.) Often, your character profiles and plot outline will guide you fine as a dime down the path toward true love, but do please sprinkle some conflict jimmies on top.

- Erect some barriers to keep your characters apart: overprotective parents, geography, commitment issues. Take a page from reality's book. Be sure to let your heroes conquer the barriers eventually; once they're down, keep them down. (Another pet peeve: recycling the same plot points in romance is tiresome.)

- Allow drama to unfold naturally. Though your characters may be mostly compatible, a few traits that don't work in tandem will create some conflict and drama on their own. Forcing drama--creating unlikely situations, making our lovebirds do things that their character profiles suggest they wouldn't do--does not make for emotional or believable drama. (In fact, as a reader it often makes me feel a teensy bit used.) Work with what you already have; I guarantee every situation is ripe for conflict in some way or another.

Statue at St. Pancras, by David Sim (flickr)
- For every layer of complexity you add, provide relief, too, and allow your characters to get some of what they want (but not all, at least until the end). Relief for the heroes is relief for the reader, and there's a balance to strike between withholding for a delicious amount of time and an obnoxious amount of time.

Write passionately. The reader will only feel passion if your romance is written with it. Use rich language and don't shy away from letting your characters fall madly in love. If you've ever been in love, it's an overwhelming and intense feeling. To some degree, writing great romance asks that we writers also fall in love with our story.

It comes through!

Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.


  1. Great post, Kiersi! When I write romance it's very emotional for me. I tap into feelings, usually from my first love because I those usually fit my books best. It's a crazy emotional ride going back down that road, but I think it's the only way to make sure my readers take the journey with me.

    1. Thank you, Kelly! No wonder everyone loves your romance books. They're so heartfelt! It really is an emotional roller coaster to remember those first loves... but that is how we write with passion. ;)

  2. Voice & scent, definitely. And quirks & wit. You've offered so many wonderful ingredients here, Kiersi. I don't write romance but characterization is an element writers of every genre have to learn well. So thanks for the list!

    1. Thank you Claudine! I'm glad some of these can be applied so much more generally. Setting up characters for the plot ahead of them is always a good idea :)

  3. Thanks for sharing Kiersi! Like yourself, when I'm writing about something that I want my readers to connect with, I try my hardest to think about how I was feeling at that moment or what I was doing. I don't write romance novels, but I do write fiction for children and non-fiction for adults. In both cases, I often reflect back on my writing or journals as a child so that I can remember how I felt or what I was thinking when I was journalizing everything. Thank God for some of those journals! People tend to not want to utilize their own experiences to express themselves, or often times, simply forget. But if you can put your mind back to that very first time you saw the first guy you knew you wanted to be with. Or that one person who drove you home from your first real date. Intertwine a little bit of imagination and truth, and you could have weave out something amazing! And I love your approach to building the perfect character without he/she being too perfect. That is so true how we fall in love with imperfections, great post!

    1. Thanks for coming by, Gina! This is such a thoughtful comment. I wish I had kept journals as a child. It's hard to tap into our own feelings without it getting personal--making it just personal enough to be passionate. And the imperfections thing is really important in my opinion: making characters feel more like real people, with real quirks and flaws.