I’ve been writing romances for a very long time and reading them for even longer. I’m “one of those” that thinks the best stories are love stories or at least have a strong element of romance. In fact, I get a serious case of righteous indignation if there’s the potential for romance in a book or movie that’s never explored (and don’t even get me started on those times in movies when they don’t give me the kiss. The kiss is half the reason I’m watching, people! If you’re going to build a compelling romantic relationship, you darn well better make it pay off!).
I love reading and watching all kinds of stories. My very specific niche is Victorian era action-adventure with a strong element of romance (there definitely need to be more of these out there). But true love stories are still my big weakness, especially if the love is well crafted.
And that’s really the catch, isn’t it? In the story world there is no shortness of romance. But quite often there is a lack of romance that has been skillfully molded.
Clearly I’m not referring to that genre of fiction is which a thin element of attraction is used as a catalyst to a large element of, ahem…intimate action. Those books aren’t big on realistic relationships and they’re really not trying to be. They know what their audience likes and they deliver.
I’m talking about stories in which the romance between two characters takes center stage, or at least plays a strong supporting role. Stories in which they really want you to believe in the love that blossoms between the leads because otherwise you have no reason to go along for the journey. If the writer is asking me to invest in that love, I expect it to be worth investing in.
This is a scary thing for writers—I would know! My only published work and the soon-to-come sequel are both comedies with a touch of mystery. But at their heart they are love stories. I know I’m asking my readers to believe in this couple and I agonize over whether I’ve done my job to make that possible for them. There are, I’m sure, some flaws to the relationship I’ve built between the two of them. But as someone who has been writing novels for 20 years (I almost passed out when I calculated that) and reading for nearly three decades (that’s an even worse number), I tried to avoid what I’ve come to recognize as the oft-visited pitfalls of fictional romance.
Not to say I haven’t fallen into these traps myself. Usually I’m aware of a mistake with writing technique because I made that very mistake myself once (or maybe nine times). But I hope that by sharing these flaws with new writers, I’ll save you those years of doing it wrong like I did.
Here are 5 big mistakes romance writers make:
1. Giving an unrealistic time frame for falling in love.
We have all seen this. Many modern romantic films do this without blinking. It’s boy meets girl, boy talks to girl for four minutes, boy is madly and irrationally in love from there on out. Often they will chalk it up to “love at first sight” and we all sort of roll our eyes and ignore just how unrealistic this is.
Not to completely discount love at first sight. I’ve come across a few people in real life who claim to have genuinely fallen in love at first sight, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong? I also really do believe in connection at first sight. This is often what leads people to pursue each other romantically after meeting—they feel a spark or they “just click” with this person and want to explore that connection. My own husband insists after one evening of talking to me he felt like I was the kind of girl he wanted to marry (you have my permission to say “Awww”). But that’s very different from actually proposing marriage after only that one night of conversation.
Connection at first sight is necessary as the inciting incident to move the romance forward, but it cannot be the entire foundation for the relationship. Recently I was watching a movie in which the two main characters had a few awkward, even angry encounters, and thereafter vowed their undying love. They even went to great extremes for each other, all because of that horribly stilted handful of conversations. Really?
If you’re going to build a skyscraper that can withstand winds and weather, be sure to construct a strong foundation for that tower.
2. Not providing enough details:
Anyone who has ever fallen in love can attest that you fall in love with a person’s details—their history, their hobbies, all the little quirks and idiosyncrasies of their personality. I fell in love with a thousand tiny things about my husband, including the totally random things—like his tendency to name his cars after characters from old-school fantasy films.
This clearly coincides with having a long enough time frame to fall in love, because you must have long enough to learn the details of someone’s personality before you can fall for who they really are. Otherwise what you have isn’t love, it’s infatuation.
Infatuation can do a lot of things. It can realistically carry us from “boy glimpses girl in a coffee shop” to “boy chases girl twelve blocks and hops aboard a speeding bus to get her phone number.” We buy that because we’ve all been there, right? We’ve all been infatuated enough with someone to do something crazy (I will admit that I just “happened” to walk past the spot where I knew my crush hung out between classes in college. And anytime he “happened” to notice me and start a conversation, I was always “so surprised” to see him there. Yeah). A romance requires initial infatuation for a physical attraction to develop into an authentic relationship. But our leads can’t remain in the infatuation stage.
When a spouse in a story claims that an affair “didn’t mean anything,” what they’re saying is they cheated with someone they were infatuated with, not someone they loved. That’s because infatuation cannot carry a true romance.
If you want to craft a real relationship, you must provide the characters with the chance to get to know the many facets of their love interest’s life and attributes.
3. An unbelievable leading man:
When I was first writing romantic novels, I wrote a lot of what I call “wish fulfillment fiction”–creating leading men and romantic scenes that I badly wanted in my own life. This was a fun way of fantasizing about the kind of love I envisioned for myself, but it didn’t lead to very realistic stories.
Sadly, I’m not alone in doing this. So much of fiction feels like a writer having a “wish fulfillment” moment. This is especially apparent in our leading men. I’m amazed by how often I’m introduced to a leading man that is the ultimate female dream and nothing more. He’s sweet, sensitive, just manly enough to protect and defend her, and will go to any lengths to save her. But on top of that, he never gets annoyed with her. He never wants time away from her. He never just acts like a guy who would rather play video games with his friends one night than talk her about her hopes and dreams.
I mean no disservice to guys, here. They can be all those amazing things I listed, and often they are. But they’re also human beings with flaws. They get cranky, they lose their patience, they say something stupid during a fight that they wish they could take back. We could easily get on board with Mr. Sweet, Sensitive, Manly and Protective if those qualities were balanced by some natural human failings.
Here I reference the great Charlotte Bronte. Her leading man in “Jane Eyre” is one of the most skillfully written in all of literature. Rochester has a dark and painful past that turned him from an idealistic youth to a jaded man in search of a life of distracting pleasures. Rochester has his share of flaws. He can be cranky, rude, and deceitful. These things make sense when you have a full picture of his past, but they also make him a very real rogue. When he’s confronted with Jane, the goodness he’s never had in his life, he proves himself kind, loving, and capable of change, and proficient in those achingly romantic confessions we all secretly wish for. He would do anything for Jane—including endure a life of personal torment just to make sure she’s taken care of. And we believe all those hugely heroic things about him because we’ve already come to know his weaknesses.
It’s not enough to mold a man you think the readers want.
If you want to craft a believable leading man, you must make him balanced and human.
4. An un-redeemable love interest:
Clearly I love a good rogue. I’m a big fan of the tortured soul who, deep down, loves so profoundly he would walk through fire for his lady. But just as those heroic qualities must be balanced by humanity, so must a rogue be given enough redeemable qualities to believe he’s worth loving.
It’s less common, but every now and then I come across a male lead that’s such a dark and tortured soul I wonder why in the world the girl is sticking around. Yeah, those brooding guys are intriguing. But they still have to actually be heroic.
Same goes for the women. Ever read an “average” heroine that everyone in the story just happened to be in love with? I’m a big advocate for falling in love with the “average” girl (wish fulfillment again). But no one how has ever loved anyone believed their love to be unexceptional. Even if that girl is someone normal that we relate to, we still have to see why someone else would find her amazing and want to be with her.
Here I reference another Bronte sister—Emily, the writer of “Wuthering Heights.” Yes, it’s a classic piece of literature and I love it. It’s one of those stories that’s so sad we like to torture ourselves with it every now and then for funsies. But I have a real bone to pick with both main characters, Heathcliff and Cathy (Yes, I know I’m begging for an egging here).
*Warning: Spoiler alerts imminent.
Heathcliff and Cathy share a love that is as primitive and inexplicable as it is enduring. They both claim to love each other as their own soul. Yet, they spend their lives rejecting and betraying each other, then venting the pain of that betrayal by torturing everyone else who happens to be within arm’s reach. We can sympathize a little more with Heathcliff who was orphaned and is later abused by his adoptive brother Hindley. But whatever Heathcliff suffers, he regurgitates on others tenfold. Heathcliff’s revenge spares no one, including his pregnant wife and several innocent children. He allows his thwarted love (that he was partly responsible for thwarting) to destroy not only his life but the lives of everyone he can possibly drag down with him. It’s for this reason critics argue whether Heathcliff is meant to function as a hero or villain. His heroic qualities seem seriously lacking.
Cathy is no better. In fact, given her confidence and happy childhood it’s hard to understand why she decides to actively sabotage her own life. She admits her love for Heathcliff is immovable and eternal, then skips off to marry someone else. Though she clearly regrets her decision, she never acts to correct it. Instead she behaves like a spoiled child who thinks herself entitled to use and abuse others because they adore her too much to correct her. She goes to her grave rather than make logical choices to fix her life or sacrifice for others.
Though I still weep for Cathy and Heathcliff, I never totally believe in their love. I don’t doubt their love is as enduring as they claim. But to me it doesn’t qualify as a great love because it consumes everything and sacrifices nothing. Heroes and heroines can and should be flawed. But they can’t be so beyond redemption that they no longer qualify as a hero.
If you want to create love interests that your audience can root for, they must have redeemable qualities.
5. Ridiculous Obstacles:
There’s a flawed formula seen especially in certain romantic films. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, then… Oh, now what? Often screenplay writers get a couple to the point where they’ve fallen in love, they’re happy, and now would be a great time to end the story. But they have about forty-five minutes of film left to fill.
So what do they do? They come up with some ridiculous reason why the couple can’t be together. It’s like, “Yes, I love you desperately but you threw away that pair of shoes that I adored and now I can’t forgive you!”
Okay, it’s not that extreme. But sometimes it isn’t that far off. Often times people (in literature and in life) will use flimsy excuses to sabotage romance because they’re afraid. But if you’re going to make someone scared enough to undermine a genuine relationship, give them a compelling reason to be that afraid. If they’ve got a horrible past from which they earned very understandable trust issues, then we buy into them breaking off the romance because their shoes got tossed. That makes the obstacle understandably daunting in the face of their personal issues. But if we’re given two seemingly well-adjusted adults without a crippling fear of intimacy, it seems a little thin for them to scurry the second something goes remotely wrong.
This is especially annoying in sitcoms. True, they can’t get a couple together and keep them happy right from the pilot, otherwise the audience has no reason to keep tuning in. But it’s agonizing to watch a couple slam into obstacle after ludicrous obstacle because the tension must be drawn out over an unknown number of seasons. I’ve stopped watching certain TV shows because of this—I simply couldn’t handle that the couple was never allowed to get together and have some semblance of happiness. There has to be a balance.
If you want the audience to feel victorious when the odds are beaten, the obstacle needs to be large enough to be realistic, but also one that can be overcome.
A lot factors into a good romantic formula. But these major pitfalls can be avoided and your romance will be stronger because of it. Give us realistic characters with layers, virtues, and vices overcoming true obstacles. Make us work just as hard as your hero and heroine and we’ll fall in love with them too.