A love interest can strengthen almost any storyline. Romantic relationships increase stakes and tension. This gives you another pacing tool outside your main plotline. They also amp up readers’ emotional investment. Relationships can become almost like their own characters, with readers rooting fervently for one or the other.
Poorly executed romantic elements can also drag your story down. Literature, movies, and television are all full of examples of unrealistic, unhealthy fictional relationships. Follow these six tips to avoid common pitfalls.
Don’t use stereotypes as shorthand
I’ve never met anyone who conforms perfectly to a stereotype. We all have at least one way we deviate from the norms of our gender, race, class, or professional background. Remember this when writing relationships. Each character is a person, not a prop. Develop them as individuals with depth and complexity beyond the context of the relationship.
Develop intimacy on a realistic timeline
Fiction is full of insta-romances, where characters somehow fall deeply in love within weeks or even days of meeting. However, like characters, romantic relationships need complexity and development for readers to get behind them. Let readers see the fits and starts, the uncertainty, and the vulnerability and trust required for those initial feelings to grow into real love.
Give your characters a reason to be together
Books, movies, television shows — so many of them break this rule and it drives me bananas! Romantic relationships can add so much depth and complexity to your characters and your story. Don’t waste the opportunity. (Pssst: this is doubly important when portraying non-cis/het/white characters in relationships.)
Maintain a realistic level of conflict and tension
Much like the relationship-without-a-cause mentioned above, it’s tempting to let conflict die after the relationship begins. Our love interests butt heads and dance around each other until at last they discover their true feelings. Then it’s happily ever after!
This is neither realistic nor satisfying for the reader. Real relationships involve negotiation and conflict. Your fictional ones should, too.
Avoid romanticizing unhealthy or abusive behavior
Now more than ever, readers will be sensitive to how you portray characters’ treatment of each other — especially in relationships, and especially in relationships between men and women. Tread carefully with common tropes that may have been acceptable in the past but will raise hackles now: the overly persistent guy who keeps pestering a woman until she finally agrees to go on a date with him. Use of diminutives like “sweetheart” and “girl” between characters with no rapport to support it. Questionable consent in a physically intimate scene.
Also avoid glossing over — or worse, glamorizing — behaviors that would feel like a red flag if your best friend described them in a partner. Jealousy, possessiveness, and a need for control aren’t romantic.
Treat romance like any other story element
When it comes down to it, romance is just another tool in your writing toolbox. It’s easy to overwrite it, especially in sex scenes. Try to relax and remember less is more.
Also, stay mindful of point of view to avoid common cliches. If your character wouldn’t organically notice the color of someone’s eyes in this scene, don’t mention it. Likewise with most other physical descriptions. We tend to write characters who notice the details of their love interests’ physical form far more — and more often — than most people would in real life.
Romantic relationships can add significant depth and complexity to your fiction. Use them wisely. Treat them with as much care and pragmatism as the rest of your story and your characters will win readers’ hearts.