Constructing a Compelling Romance

Anna and Kristoff from Disney's Frozen

When done well, romance not only makes stories feel deeper and more meaningful but also gives the audience another reason to turn the page. Unfortunately, it’s easy to jump into writing a romance without thinking it through. And if the romance isn’t setup well, it will end in storyteller heartbreak. To aid your efforts, I’ll show you how to plan a basic romance.

Establishing a Need for Romance

Aladdin and Jasmine on their magic carpet ride.

Many stories, particularly TV shows, make the mistake of picking two attractive people and simply revealing they are in love. These attempts always fall flat. It takes more than two hot people in proximity to form believable chemistry. To make a romance compelling, the audience must see how the lovebirds fit each other.

So your first step is to demonstrate how your protagonist has an emotional need that a romance could fill. Their unmet need might be one of the usual suspects, such as loneliness or feeling misunderstood. However, it could be less obvious, such as a desire for excitement or stability. In Disney’s Aladdin, Jasmine feels trapped. Aladdin takes her on a flying carpet ride, promising to “show her the world.” He is a great love interest because he offers her the freedom she’s been craving.

You don’t have to lay as much groundwork for a love interest as you do for a viewpoint character, but you should still identify their need and how your protagonist fills it. That will make the romance more convincing.

Making the Love Interest Desirable

Princess Leia drawing her blaster in Star Wars: A New Hope.

The romance won’t be appealing unless the love interest seems desirable to the audience. Creating desirability can include attractive physical features, but if your story is a written work, you don’t have to describe how amazingly hot they are. Instead, you can give the love interest a few unique physical characteristics and let the audience decide on attractiveness. If you do include gorgeous features, avoid objectifying too much. Describing in detail how the love interest’s breasts look will give the impression that the protagonist has been creepily staring at them.

More than their physical attractiveness, a love interest must be competent. Ideally, they’ll have an important skill that makes a difference to the plot. A love interest can even have more candy than the protagonist. If the love interest has a status far above the protagonist or otherwise feels out of reach, that can make them more desirable. However, don’t let the love interest steal the spotlight. If they wipe out the villain when the protagonist isn’t looking, the audience will resent them.

In Star Wars: A New Hope, Princess Leia is attractive, of higher status than both Luke and Han, and as their clumsy rescue attempt shows, more competent than either. This establishes her as a desirable love interest.

Whatever you do, don’t let the love interest become a domineering jerk. This is a common problem, so I’ll go into more detail later.

Planning Attraction and Repulsion

Your lovebirds will need many opportunities to interact. However, those interactions shouldn’t cause them to hook up immediately, or there won’t be much story. When storytellers don’t plan ahead for this, they often resort to depicting inappropriate behavior, such a making one character a stalker or persistent suitor. There are two general formulas that will provide a long courtship. Choose the one that works best for your story.

Star-Crossed Lovers

Your lovebirds form a strong, romantic bond quickly. After meeting the first time, they actively look for opportunities to spend time together. However, external forces prevent them from making their relationship official. Maybe they are already betrothed to other people or their houses are enemies. Perhaps one is a superhero and the other is a villain, and they can’t be together until one of them converts the other.

In Disney’s Frozen, Anna and Hans appear to follow this classic formula. They click instantly, but their plans to marry are thwarted by Elsa. Their romance is subverted later, but you wouldn’t know by the setup.

Bickering Partners

Your lovebirds aren’t interested in a romance when they first meet. Making them hate each other will give the romance more room to bloom, but they can also have lukewarm, mixed, or one-sided feelings. Even though they aren’t pursuing a relationship, external forces bring them together. They might partner to accomplish a joint goal, attend the same school, or be hired to investigate each other.

In Frozen, Anna and Kristoff are bickering partners. Anna needs a ride and Kristoff needs money, so they work together even though they don’t get along. Over the course of their journey, they grow closer.

Need more ideas? See my lists for romance obstacles and ways to bring characters together.

Creating Early Chemistry

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 4, Willow goes to a meeting of witches because she wants to learn about magic. However, she finds none of the women at the meeting know that magic is real or practice it. That is, except one, who shyly makes eye contact from across the meeting space. The shy woman’s name is Tara, and she and Willow bond over their interest in magic. Soon, they also realize they’re in love.

Strong first meetings like that one are crucial for getting the audience invested in the romance. However, they can unfold in a variety of ways. The lovebirds might feel affection, dislike, or a mix of the two. Generally, star-crossed lovers need more affection, and bickering partners need more dislike. The longer your romance plot line needs to be, the more it can be helpful to delay by making the characters dislike each other.

Build affection with small bonding moments. The characters might:

  • Find they love the same odd things, like pickled eggs or vintage records.
  • Help each other out, even if it’s just picking up a fallen bag of groceries.
  • Have moments of unusual understanding, such as finishing each other’s sentences.

Build dislike with moments of light conflict. The characters might:

  • Compete over something, like a property up for auction or the last slice of pie.
  • Engage in an intellectual disagreement, such as whether a notorious criminal should be given a second chance.
  • Have an unfortunate misunderstanding, like one mistaking the other for an employee instead of a customer or client.

Even if your romance is on slow burn, look for ways to hint that your couple-in-progress will work well together. Maybe your protagonist is fiery and competitive. Their emotional need is to have a connection with someone they can’t scare away. When they get into a fierce competition with an aggressive new opponent, the audience will notice they’ve met their match, even if the two dislike each other at first.

Avoiding Unhealthy Behavior

Malcom and Inara from Firefly

While your lovebirds may act out at first, you don’t want your audience to decide they’re terrible people. Unfortunately, it’s common for male love interests in particular to be outright abusive to their partners. As time passes, more and more audience members will feel disgust when relationships aren’t equal. Avoid this pitfall by checking over your character interactions.

Start by comparing the behavior of your two characters. Do they give each other a hard time to the same extent? Do they tell each other what to do equally? If one talks down to the other, is that behavior returned? Why they do what they do also matters. If one lashes out because they’re used to working alone, and the other lashes out because their partner has damaged expensive equipment, that’s not an equal relationship.

Next, check for behavior that would make any character unlikable.

  • A character might be abrasive because they’re too busy for niceties, but they shouldn’t cut someone down for no reason.
  • A love interest can clean and bandage a wound on an unconscious protagonist, but they should never bathe or dress them without permission.
  • A character shouldn’t make important choices for anyone else, even if it’s supposedly for that person’s own benefit.

In Firefly, Inara and Malcolm have an antagonistic relationship despite harboring feelings for each other. For the most part, their antagonism works because it’s two-sided. Malcolm is sometimes petty and rude to Inara, but Inara is also petty and rude to Malcolm. Unfortunately though, Malcolm casually refers to Inara as a “whore” several times. This may seem fair; Inara does sell services that include sex. Even so, a term like that has too much emotional baggage to be comfortable to many audiences. A man calling a woman a whore reeks of misogyny and verbal abuse. To keep your romance from feeling that way, don’t use gendered slurs.

Avoiding unhealthy behavior isn’t always easy. Knowing your characters are meant for each other will color your perception of their actions. That’s why the non-consensual sleeping kiss in Sleeping Beauty was overlooked for so long. It can be helpful to remember that if something wouldn’t be okay for a gross and ugly acquaintance to do, it’s not okay for a love interest either.

Depicting Bonding and Growth

Cage and Vrataski from Edge of Tomorrow.

Once you’ve finished with the awkward first interactions, it’s time for the bonding stage. If you are using a star-crossed romance, this will usually happen right at their first meeting. Otherwise, it should start later and continue gradually until the climax.

In the bonding stage, the characters will engage each other on a deeper, more meaningful level. If they dislike each other initially, they’ll start to warm up to one another. Deeper bonding is often created by:

  • Doing something unexpected that impresses the other person. A character might save their partner’s life or display an unusual act of compassion.
  • Opening up about personal things. The characters might discuss their pasts, talk about their life goals, or reveal what they’re afraid of.
  • Working well as a team. Maybe once they’ve bickered about what they expect from each other, the next time they face a tough situation they will compliment each other well.

The characters may not be in love yet, but work in body language, thoughts, or actions that illustrate their growing feelings. They might take an extra look back when parting or thoughtfully make the other’s favorite dish.

In Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow, Major Cage is caught in a time loop of going to battle and dying on the field every day. He knows the same thing once happened to a famous war hero, Rita Vrataski, so he seeks her help. At first Rita is unimpressed by Cage, but as he continues to repeat a day of training and then a mission with her, he becomes more capable. He gets to know her and uses his knowledge to earn her trust. When he halts progress on their vital mission to keep her alive, it tells the audience how much he cares.

Causing a Tragic Separation

Clarke and Lexa from The 100.

Assuming you want your lovebirds to get a happily ever after, consider separating them first. This creates a riveting and satisfying finish. (If they don’t end up together, they should instead become a happy couple briefly and have a falling out at the end.) This separation will form the climax of your romance arc. It might be during or just before the climax of your throughline (or central plot thread).

The cause of their falling out can be outside forces, disagreements between them, or some combination of the two.

  • If the characters are star-crossed lovers, one or both of them may decide that the forces pulling them apart are too much to overcome. They might become convinced that dating a member of Team Evil or violating their family’s betrothal agreement is irresponsible.
  • An antagonist might forcefully separate them. One or both of them could be kidnapped and taken far away. Even if the villain has no objection to the romance, the lovebirds might be too powerful together to be left alone.
  • Their intellectual or personality differences can come to a head. Perhaps they have to make a critical decision, but they disagree so strongly that they turn against each other. Alternately, one of them might be too slow in reforming and make a big mistake the other can’t ignore.

In The 100 season 2, Clarke and Lexa bond over their desire to be good leaders for their people. But when Lexa cuts a deal with the enemy to save her people at the expense of Clarke’s, it’s a heartbreaking betrayal. At the end of season 2, they go their separate ways as enemies.

If one of your characters decides to abandon the relationship, the other should respect their decision – even if they disagree. A scorned character can make arguments for staying together, but they shouldn’t physically prevent the other person from leaving or insist their beloved is “running away.” Controlling or condescending behavior will only make your lovebirds look like a poor couple.

After the characters separate, show how unpleasant it is for them to be apart. They might wake up expecting the other person to be beside them or spend every moment ranting about the other person to anyone who will hear. By the end of their separation, it should be clear they’re better off together.

Bringing Them Together

Aragorn and Arwen from Return of the King

At a pivotal moment, your lovebirds should choose to be together. If they were forcefully separated in the previous step, they can get back together through daring deeds. However, a conscious choice will make your end more satisfying. Perhaps one or both of them is forced to choose between reuniting with their beloved and something they care about. Sacrificing something to be together will make their reunion more meaningful.

In the 2003 Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Aragorn encourages his lover, Arwen, to leave him, so she can emigrate with her people to a paradise across the sea. She is headed to the ship when she sees a vision of her future with Aragorn. She decides to stay after all, but doing so comes at the cost of her Elven longevity.

If your characters separated because of a disagreement, it can be resolved in a number of ways.

  • After they feel the pain of separation, whatever disagreement they had may feel small in comparison.
  • They may discover they were lied to by a character that wanted to separate them.
  • One or both of them may learn first hand that the other person was right.

Once they are back on speaking terms, they should quickly resolve their differences and apologize where appropriate. Their willingness to compromise and admit guilt will convince the audience that they belong together despite their previous trouble.

Last, don’t forget to include happy moments in your epilogue. Show how those emotional needs you set up in the beginning are now filled by their relationship.

Once you get used to them, you’ll find romance arcs are much like other plot arcs and especially similar to other relationship arcs. Start with a problem, let your characters struggle to solve it, peak with an important choice, and tie it all off.

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  1. Cay Reet

    I think Babette’s and Korbinian’s star-crossed lovers romance in “A Monster’s Coming of Age” is pretty well-done. And that’s even allowing for the fact that Korbinian is killed before half of the book is over.

  2. SunlessNick

    The BBC’s The Musketeers has a great example of the “Create need for romance” part with Constance and D’Artagnan. Well before they get together, you can see that she’s all over the derring-do that’s come into her life since meeting him.

    I couldn’t stand Mal with Inara in Firefly. Apart from calling her whore (specifically because she didn’t like it), he constantly barged into the shuttle space she was renting from him (which she also didn’t like). Also, I thought Inara had way more chemistry with Kaylee.

  3. Sam Victors

    Thank you for this, as I do have a romance idea for my next story; a time-travel romance, with picaresque adventures and Jungian/Freudian themes.

    The story’s Heroine (lets call her Alice), is an Anglo-Irish young woman who lives with her clingy mother. Their is a tragic backstory, Alice was a spunky girl with two equally spunky and loving half-sisters, unfortunately, they were living during the Irish Troubles in the 90s, both the sisters and their Father died in a bombing at a family reunion in a hotel. The Mother, who was a doctor at the time, tried to revive her husband but failed. Alice, then 6 years-old, lost all spunky courage as she witnesses the corpses of her family. When they left for England, she was bullied at school by an Anti-Irish girl and the teacher, her Mother quickly took her out of school and kept her by her side all times. Alice grew into a meek, quiet woman who spends her days reading, researching, working at her Mom’s flower shop (she has since given up medicine ever since the incident), part-time babysitting, and secretly longing for a life of her own but her clingy and codependent mother holds on to her and Alice fears of losing her too. It was until her Alice’s birthday that she disappears through a magic Copse of Birch Trees surrounded by small hedge stones.

    The first thing Alice does when she traveled to the 17th century, is rescued a man from drowning, and she used CPR to revive him. He revives, stares at her for a moment and quickly leaves. Alice is soon caught by a gang of Highwaymen (and women) and the man she rescued is one of them (lets call him Ralph). They take Alice to their hideout, where she earns their trust by helping around with what knowledge and education she has.

    At first, Alice thought Ralph was a typical uneducated, illiterate bloke, but turned to be be far more intelligent then she thought. He was also chivalrous, thoughtful, insightful, emotionally intelligent, honorable, and had philosophical thoughts of death. Ralph likes Alice for saving his life in the river, and vows to protect her. They get along well, and Alice becomes his sort of tutor to help Ralph learn to read and write. She even helps him out with the Gang in stealing (they are Royalist Highwaymen stealing from Puritans and Roundheads to fund the return of Charles II). Ralph and Alice share a strong, emotional blond so close, that one day, Ralph asks to ‘see’ her in her bedroom, she returns the question by saying that she will see him in his bedroom.

    Both Ralph and Alice are demisexual virgins, and have been honest about how they never been close to a person until they met each other. They are both know how sex works as they have admitted that in their youths they read/watched pornographic pictures. After a couple of tries, the two fall madly in love. They argue once, when Alice got herself kidnapped by a rival gang, and when Ralph find some futuristic things in Alice’s personal belongings, he becomes scared of her that he doesn’t speak to her for a day. Then when he confronts her and asks her of her origins, she tearfully tells him the truth and allows him to do as he wishes with her secret, but Ralph couldn’t bring himself to betray Alice, he makes love to her again and vows that he will not be separated from her, for he has found his match and believes God has lead them together. Through her newfound independence and life among the Royalist criminals and refugees, Alice feels alive again like when she was a girl.

    Alice and Ralph also meet two repulsive suitors that try to win the over, they are the nephew and niece of Ralph’s boss. Master and Mistress Gale, a pair of spoiled and stalkerish siblings, who are an example of the Nice Guy/Girl trope. Before Alice arrived, young Mistress Gale was all sweet and girly with Ralph, she admired his virginity as she found it to be an enticing trait of his. She’s been nothing but a lady and a schoolgirl to him. When Alice arrived, Master Gale was always attentive to her, he would stand up for her, offer her his help, wrote poems to her, would give her the tools and equipment she needed, and he would listen to her a lot. Ms Gale on the other hand found her common, but when Ralph and Alice started to be in each other’s company more often, both Gale siblings turned green with jealousy and started stalking them. Ms Gale was convinced that Alice was an evil temptress taking Ralph away from her, and Mr Gale was furious that Alice would reject him that he went and ordered a Poppet doll to attack her. Both siblings confessed their feelings to Ralph and Alice, but they kindly (and rudely) turned them down when they got together. This made the Gale siblings furious that they planned their destruction.

    During this time, Alice’s mother in the present times, falls into a deep depression and ennui, mourning over her daughter’s disappearance. Through an ill-wish she made on the Copse Trees, her grief and rage affected the environment around the village, all the plants and trees withered and rotted, the water tasted bitter, the earth dried, libidos decreased, low energy and depression arose in the villagers. There was no life or joy in the surrounding area, and throughout all the seasons, the ‘plague’ spread and got worse.

    There are three main villains of this story; A fanatical zealot and Cromwellian Agent posing as a witch-hunter to secretly hunt down covert Royalists, a former friend of Ralph in the war, and who wants to reclaim Ralph for the Roundheads again, because he loves Ralph as they once shared a strong brotherly bond. He wants his friend and brother back.

    The other two are the historical doppelgangers and shadow selves of Alice and her Mother; a selfish, identity-stealing Maidservant who is secretly the sister of the Cromwellian Agent; and a roguish, inbred, unstable and irrational, cannibal woman, who is mother of both the maidservant and the agent. A fierce and wild woman who is hunting down all her children to cannibalize them, so as to ‘return’ them to her womb, as she is vehemently jealous of their growing individuation.

  4. Nikita

    Ughh I hate when writers don’t think about the “need for romance” and just put two characters together. It always feels so meaningless and I can’t care about them. I think romances should either make sense in fiction or just shouldn’t exist in the narrative if it doesn’t make sense.

    • GeniusLemur

      Agreed. Waaaay too many writers think you HAVE to have a romantic subplot.

  5. TkNoel

    Overall, this is a good and thorough list. It seems to lean heavily toward depicting a romance at its inception – which is fine, as that’s where most fiction romances focus. However, I wonder if you might have any thoughts on investing your reader in a romance already in progress at the story’s start?
    My current story includes a star-crossed duo who are best friends, and who’ve known each other since childhood. Both want more, but due to their society (without elaborating), a romance between them is forbidden and could end with one or both killed. This provides tension throughout the story, but since both characters are already very close, how would you go about making a reader empathize with and care about their relationship? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    • Chris Winkle

      That’s a great formula for romance. What you need is pretty similar to what I’ve outlined here for star crossed lovers, but with the beginning stages expressed a little differently. If they are already friends that want more, you want to show the audience what is special about the relationship they already have. What do they offer each other that they can’t get from other people? Since they are close, there’s a good chance they can tell each other things they can’t otherwise share, they know each other better than anyone else does, and that they offer just the right emotional support when the other person is feeling down. Make sure you don’t just tell stuff like that, show it.

      All of this emotional intimacy however, would be marred by the need for restraint. Maybe they long to hold the other person when they are crying, but they know that would take things too far. When the other person is sick or injured and in bed, their good friend worries all day about them but can’t visit. Once you show the value the relationship has to the characters, readers should want to see them overcome these limitations.

      • Tknoel

        This is extremely helpful, and already giving me ideas! Thanks very much for responding

  6. Richard

    One could also step away from the SF/fantasy genre and see how movies have been handling romance since they began.

    • Cay Reet

      Genres have little influence on how you write romance, as it were. Human interactions are the same in a galaxy far, far away, somewhere in Mordor, or in a dystopian future. The tips for constructing a compelling romance work in a fantasy or SF environment just as well as in an everyday reality environment or wherever else you want them to work.

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