The connection between two characters is one of the most magnetic forces in storytelling, especially in romance novels.
Whether they welcome the relationship, fight it, or fall somewhere in between, emotional friction creates an energy that leaves readers anxious to see what will happen next.
Building a compelling romance is not easy, and to make the pairing realistic, a writer must know each character down to their bones, including any past hurts experienced at the hands of others. Pain is a necessary component of any fictional romance. Pain? I know, it sounds crazy. Here’s why.
1) Romance isn’t simple.
You can’t throw two people together and expect pheromones and sex drive do all the work. Readers have expectations that a rocky road lies ahead, because obstacles, suffering and hardship are what makes a romance so satisfying. Characters willing to walk through fire to be together convinces readers they belong with one another. Love is powerful, and there is great beauty in the struggle to obtain what the heart wants most.
2) Healthy relationships (especially romantic ones) require vulnerability.
To really dig into this, we need to first look at vulnerability in real life. It’s usually cast in a negative light, used in the context that if we don’t avoid it, bad things will happen. If we don’t lock our doors, we’re vulnerable to thieves. If we don’t protect our personal information, people may steal it. Negative experiences teach us to be wary of appearing vulnerable, so we take care in who we trust and what we share. We dress a certain way, act a certain way, hide our hurts and pretend we are strong. Characters, to be realistic, should think and act the same way.
But there is another powerful side of vulnerability: acceptance.
When a person accepts themselves, faults and all, they are able to show their true self to others rather than hide it. This openness, this sharing of one’s innermost feelings and beliefs, is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. Being genuine and honest allows a person to connect with another on a deep level. In romances, characters who are willing to be vulnerable and put their true feelings out there open the gateway to love and intimacy. Without vulnerability, a romantic relationship reads false.
So where does the pain come in?
Being vulnerable is not easy, especially for characters who have been hurt by those they once loved. A character’s past is often a quagmire of painful events making it difficult to let down one’s guard and trust.
For example, if our protagonist was manipulated by an abusive ex-husband, her painful experience with him becomes a wound she can’t forget. She will harden herself, maybe push people away, using emotional armor to keep from being hurt. But this also blocks any new trusting relationships from forming, something she may deeply want. Even when she finds a man to love, it is a difficult process to strip oneself of that armor and be vulnerable enough to forge a strong relationship, risking hurt once more. The character’s desire for the relationship must outweigh her fear of being hurt.
As writers, the need for vulnerability creates a giant obstacle. Why? Because it is our business to create characters who are broken, jaded or struggling in some way. Yet somehow we must show them it’s okay to trust. We must find a way to give them the strength they need to let go of their fears of being hurt and open themselves up to another. The question is, how do we do that?
1) Hone in on the desire for “something more.”
A common need we all have as people (and therefore all characters should have it as well) is the desire for growth and fulfillment. Fears hold a character back and leave them feeling unfulfilled, affecting their happiness. They must realize this, and yearn for something to change. This is the first step.
For example, if your character is having a hard time with trust and openness, have her look within and see the dissatisfaction she feels at not having close relationships, or people to hang out with, trade gossip or confide in. This realization will lead her to probe for what she truly wants (genuine friendship and connection) and create the desire within her to obtain it.
2) Create positive experiences for vulnerability.
There are many times when opening up and being genuine pays off. It feels good to tell someone a secret fear only to find out they understand because they fear it too. Or asking for help and then getting it. Even when we share a problem, we feel the weight of it lift because it’s no longer ours alone. Experiencing love, intimacy, trust, and friendship are all positive experiences that can build a person up, encouraging them to be more open and vulnerable with others.
3) Showing how the past has affected your character but having them see how negativity is holding them back so they can take an important step forward.
In the example above of the woman seeking friendship and connection, it will take time to learn how to trust and feel comfortable sharing details about herself, but if the desire for change is strong enough, it can be achieved.
The path to vulnerability is often the meat of a romance, so it’s important to get a good grasp on it as it plays into the obstacles, hardship and struggles that must be overcome to end with a deep, loving connection.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Elise Edmonds says
This is a really interesting article. I’m considering a romantic subplot at the moment and this has made me think about my characters and how to get the readers to connect to them.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
So glad it helps!
Angie Dixon says
I really like this. I especially like the point about having the character realize that the past or the negative element is holding them back, and having them want to change. I think one thing that makes real people compelling is how they deal with their “issues,” so to speak. I know someone who’s been through a lot of stuff, though you wouldn’t know it to talk to her. Before she began using her past to create the person she is now, she really was not someone most people would find a compelling personality. Most people don’t know why she is the way she is, but it’s because she chose to overcome things. I think that’s a very powerful tool for fiction writers.
Dylan Jones says
Are you or have you talked about family or any other non-romantic relationships?
:Donna Marie says
Love this, Angela! I’m going to want to have a romantic subplot and this will be very helpful! 😀 Thank you!
Jennifer Lane says
This post speaks so much truth! Exposing our vulnerabilities makes us more lovable, too. You can’t get close to a perfect robot.
Julie Musil says
This is great information. The romance portion of my YA novels is something I continue to work on. You don’t want them to be together simply to satisfy the needs of the plot. It has to work on a much deeper level. Thanks, gals!
Traci Kenworth says
Very insightful and spot on!!
Christina Hawthorne says
This is true for anyone writing character-driven stories. Know your characters and their vulnerabilities and so much more falls into place. Conflicts and connections become easier to match-up. Of course, that’s where your books become so valuable. Thank you so much for this great post, Angela.
Viola Morne says
Great post and very helpful. Vulnerable characters are also “rootable” –as readers , we love to see their vulnerability. As writers we have to love our characters, no matter how unpleasant they initially appear on the surface, and show how their pain made them the way they are.
Denise Willson says
Great advice, thanks!
Linda Andersen says
This post helped me to see a WIP in a different light. I’ll now be equipped to interject emotional reactions from a romantic relationship point of view. Thank you!