When Romance Doesn’t Work

The fundamental building block for all romance (novels, movies, comics) is fantasy. Characters must be flawed but sexy, imperfectly desirable. From their meet-cute to the tensions that keep this obviously destined couple apart to their final declaration of love, we go along with the fantasy of believing that romance exists, that some people just belong together, and that love will always find a way.

Surely they can make this work!

Romance hinges upon fantasy, it’s true. But good romance also feels plausible. It’s fantasy but not fantastic. The reader (or viewer) has to believe the characters are real and that, as wild as the circumstances may be, they will overcome their obstacles to be together. (Let’s put aside our cynicism about what may happen with their relationship two months down the road. Not thinking about what comes after “happily ever after” is also part of the fantasy.)

What happens when characters seem out of this world? What happens when the circumstances that keep them apart seem so big that overcoming them seems impossible? Or what about when the circumstances are too minor? Let’s break down each of these questions to see how good romance is plotted.

Unbelievable Characters

A character with a flaw is always more intriguing, but this may be a line too far…

I’ve blogged about this phenomenon before. It’s an easy trap for a writer – especially a romance writer – to fall into. But when a writer is too in love with their own character, it’s hard to write them in a way that makes them imperfectly desirable. Perfection is not sexy. “Flawless” is a desirable trait for a photo shoot with Beyonce, but not for a romance story.

In my current novel, which I’ve also blogged about, things are progressing slowly because I’m struggling to find the balance between lovably awful and awfully lovable. The character is a wealthy narcissist, but if they only flaunted their wealth, it would be gross to the other 99% of us in the real world. If they are too self-absorbed, they’ll never see the beautiful person that their love interest is. Striking a balance is important.

But this can also tip too far in the other direction. I’ve read many romance novels in which male love interests are written to be petulant, emotionally stunted, aggressive, just plain awful, and unfortunately the writer never shows another side. We’re just expected to believe that the women who fall for these men are fine with this. I could digress here and say a lot about the way society conditions girls to participate in cis hetero relationships, but I’ll save the sociology lecture. Suffice it to say, good romance writing can’t make a hero or heroine too perfect or too awful.

Insurmountable Obstacles

A similar difficulty in romance writing is making the obstacles that keep the characters apart balanced. It should be tough for them to get together. That’s part of the pleasurable agony of romance. But we should also recognize from page one (or scene one) that they are going to get together in the end. Good romance doesn’t leave readers or viewers to wonder if the couple will get together.

Remember You’ve Got Mail or its precursor The Shop Around the Corner? In the 1990s version, a local bookshop owner loses her livelihood and entire life to a chain bookstore (which, hopefully, faced its karma ten years later when it was put out of business by Amazon). With her store and life ruined, Kathleen (Meg Ryan) is now free to write children’s books, which it turns out is what she always wanted to do. She is also free to love her business rival Joe (Tom Hanks).

Let’s break this down for a second. He drives her shop out of business. The shop her mother started. The shop that keeps all the neighborhood children entertained. The shop that she has devoted her life to. And she says, “Oh, well, at least I’ve got you?”

Yeah, the only reason this got a pass was Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Putting someone out of business is a common theme in Hallmark movies. In novels, I’ve seen dark romances in which a hero actually commits a crime against their love interest, kills someone close to their love interest, or worse. There is an entire body of romance scholarship on narratives in which the hero abducts and/or rapes the heroine. This material is tricky, and I couldn’t adequately talk about in this short essay. So I’ll just say this: a good romance narrative shouldn’t ask the reader or viewer to believe one character is sacrificing their emotional, mental, financial well-being for the relationship. The circumstances that stand between the love interests should be challenging but not so life-changing as to never be fully surmounted.

Barriers That Aren’t Barriers

In lesser quality romance, writers and screenwriters seem to struggle creating barriers between the characters. This can be as frustrating as barriers that are too significant. We know from the first page or scene that the characters are going to end up together. That’s the pact producers, writers, editors, directors, audiences, and readers make with each other in romance. But at least give us two hours of wondering how.

One of my favorite romance tropes is royal romance. In these stories, one of the love interests is royalty, usually from a made-up European country, while the other is a commoner, usually a middle- or working-class American. Talk about barriers! Not only do we have an economic disparity, but there’s also giant cultural and political differences, fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. Does success and wealth come from hard work (the American value) or from pedigree (the monarchical value)?* Is marriage a coming together of two people in love (American) or two people whose families are politically and economically aligned (monarchical)?*

*Of course, these values aren’t solely American, nor are they the reality of American society — or a lot more of us would be rich for all the hustling we do.

Most of the time these stories resolve this tension this way: the kings, queens, and prime ministers who insist the royal character must marry royalty eventually realize true love is more important than bloodline. Does this make sense for a real life monarchy? Kind of, kind of not. (This is why Duchess Meghan has captivated the American media.)

But does this make sense for romance? Oh yell yes! Different citizenship, political systems, and economic classes are tough barriers to overcome. How enjoyable to see them surmounted through a radical change in political philosophy.

Imagine if Lizzy Bennet were wealthy, and the only thing standing between her and Mr. Darcy was their unwillingness to admit their love for each other. A good writer could perhaps make this compelling, but more than likely, we’d think it was a boring story because it would seem as if the characters were just being silly or emotionally unaware. This is why romance sequels are usually less than satisfying. Once the couple has gotten together and the barriers have been overcome, it’s hard to wedge the couple back apart without convincing us that this new wedge is a dumb contrivance or that the couple never should have gotten together in the first place.

Recap: Three Essential Qualities of Good Romance

  1. Believable characters who are not perfect but still very likeable
  2. Obstacles that don’t leave us wondering if the couple will ever get together
  3. Obstacles that do leave us wondering how the couple will get together

What are your biggest pet peeves about romance narratives, and how do you think writers could fix them?

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