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.