Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tips and Tricks For Writing Realistic Romance Novels

Relationships aren't easy; ask anyone who's had a few, and I guarantee you that there are going to be one or two horror stories in their repertoires. So why do we keep going back time and time again? Is it because we as human beings are social creatures, and thus we need to feel the strong bonds of community, friendship, and love? Is it because of the huge dopamine rush that makes seemingly reasonable people turn into giggling fools with how happy they are? Is it because no matter how hard and cynical we are it's impossible to deny the appeal of a couple who makes it through all the dark things in the world and remains in love?

It's all of that, and a few other things besides. That's why romance exists as a genre, and it's why it consistently has high sales. People as a species are compelled toward these stories, and it's why authors will not stop writing them.

It's also why fan fiction writers are never going to stop doing... all those things they do.

This week's entry is not here to tell you to stop. All I'm hoping to do is guide other writers past the bigger pit traps in the red road, and to help you all improve your stories so they can be the best they can be.

Savvy? Savvy.

Tip #1: There Is A Fine Line Between Fiction And Wish-Fulfillment

One of the most common critiques I've read (and keep in mind that my reading in this particular genre isn't as extensive as my reading in, say, horror or sci-fi) regarding either romance books or books with heavy romantic themes is the trend toward wish-fulfillment. You could argue that all fiction is just wish-fulfillment, but according to this entry at TV Tropes this term specifically refers to instances where the author sacrificed good plotting, deep characterization, solid pacing, etc. in favor of making a story work out the way he or she wanted it to.

This was clearly written for spatulas who want to believe they can get with knives. Juvenile.
Let me be clear; you're the captain of this ship. If you want to drive it into an ice berg or slam it into a coral reef, then that is your prerogative. However, it is your job as the storyteller to craft a tale that is satisfying, well-written, and which doesn't have any obvious flaws in it.

Let's provide an example of wish-fulfillment, shall we? Let's say that a man decides to write a romance novel. He himself is a hopeless romantic who's had a very spotty record with women, so he decides to write what he knows. Throughout this novel our lead bumbles his way through encounters with beautiful women who are quickly won over by his awkwardness, and develop strong feelings for him. He's trying to choose one of them, but the ladies all get together and decide they love him enough that they will share him with no strings attached.

Sounds a bit gag-worthy doesn't it? It does... but it's also very ham-handed. Most wish-fulfillment is a bit more subtle. For instance, isn't it weird how the motorcycle-riding werewolf millionaire just happens to fall madly in love with the frumpy, middle-aged recent divorcee? Or how the clueless guy who just broke up with by an admittedly manipulative girlfriend just happens to fall right into the lap of a new, beautiful woman who's secretly been admiring his horrible poetry on the Internet for years?

I don't usually say this, especially not on this blog, but some prices are too high to pay for your integrity. That said, there's nothing wrong with writing character with attributes you understand (or that you embody... some might argue Stephen King has made a career out of this). It is sometimes helpful to take a step back and ask yourself just who it is you're really writing this story for/about though.

Tip #2: Don't Skimp on Details

You have no idea how long it took to get to this point.
A common misunderstanding about romance is that it's easy to write. Guy meets girl, guy screws up and loses girl, guy comes up with crackpot plan to get girl back, they kiss, bam! Run spell check, pour a drink, and wait for the royalties to start pouring in.

Trust me, if it was that easy I would be writing this blog on the wi-fi hookup to my personal satellite from the rear deck of my yacht.

Romance is, no joke, the third-hardest thing to pull off in a story (the first is making your readers cry, and the second is scaring them hard enough that they have trouble falling asleep). With romance we're getting out into deep water, where you have to figure out emotional and psychological intimacy, personal bonds, lifelong dreams, and personal preferences. You need to know your characters' fears and desires, what relationships they've been in before this, and what it takes to really make them fall hard for another person.

That's deep stuff, and it isn't easy to realize in your story. It might be tempting to take short cuts. Short cuts like:

- Physical Desire He's handsome, she's gorgeous, what's not to love? Feelings, schmeelings, get to the good part!

- Hand-Waving Backstory No, really, they're totally in love! All that getting to know each other and courtship happened at some point in the indeterminate past. Oh, and they maybe broke up before, but knew they shouldn't have, because they're still in love!

- They Were Meant For Each Other Sure he's a vicious, blood-drinking creature of the night and she's an avowed monster hunter who's been fed hatred since she was born, but it doesn't matter because they were fated to fall in love!

- Because That's How The Story Goes Just look at all the things he's done for her! She's got to love him at this point... what else could she do?

- That's Just Fucking Adorable! Meet cute. So... much... meet cute...

There are other tropes, but these are the ones I'm the most experienced with. What I am not suggesting is doing away with any of these (okay, the fourth one can be thrown in a boiling lake to die screaming). What I am suggesting is that you take a step back and look at what you're asking the audience to believe. Is asking the audience to believe that an FBI investigator can find a career hitman charming and ruggedly handsome unbelievable? No, of course it isn't. Is asking your audience to believe that said agent would throw away any sense of propriety and procedure to have sex with said hitman while he's in interrogation unbelievable?

Yes. Yes it is.

I'll give you a fix, and I'll do it by using a few the tropes above just to prove they do have their places. Let's say the agent and our hitter grew up in the same neighborhood, and they were close friends as kids. They fought the same bullies, had the same classes, and read comic books on the weekends. At graduation our hitter kissed our agent, who was so shocked that he never spoke to his friend again (Yes they're both men in this scenario. That's diversity, deal with it). Our agent went on to college, but his friend was heart-broken by rejection and got mixed up with entirely the wrong crowd. A tough guy who wasn't afraid to to rough work, he helped a small gang grow bigger by drilling the boss's enemies. The boss is growing too vicious, and our hitter wants out. He contacts his old friend, and for a while things are a bit cool. Our agent is struck by his old friend's appearance, from his sleek physique to the sharp way he dresses. Just as the agent is about to open up about all the things he wished he'd said back then, our hitter tells him that he's in trouble and really needs his help. Yearning, danger, desire, and the knowledge that one wrong move could get both of them killed.

That's fucking romance!

Romance is more than the sum of its parts. Physical desire is important, but so is trust, friendship, and sacrifice. If it doesn't cost you anything to love someone (fear of rejection, personal safety, the looming shadow of monogamous commitment, knowing that you're painting a big target on your lover because you have merciless enemies) then there's nothing to give that romance any real flavor.

Tip #3: Romance is About People

Yes, even this guy.
It goes without saying, but it needs to be said anyway; romance is only as compelling as the people involved in it. You know why I decided to put the two lovers on opposite sides of the law in my previous example? Because Americans love their heroes, and they take most of their heroes from the criminal classes (famously said by someone who may have been Oscar Wilde). The rest of our heroes we tend to take from other dangerous professions like law enforcement, bounty hunting, fire fighting, and cow punching.

Seriously though, would the above story of estranged friends overcoming their differences and becoming lovers still work if one was an accountant and the other was a bar tender? Sure it would, because the elements that make the romance work (desire, budding trust, friendship, etc.) are still present in the story. Would your readers still be interested in the relatively boring romantic exploits of people with work-a-day jobs realizing that some things really do come back after you've let them go?

Maybe. But I'm pretty sure more folks want to hear about the shoot-outs, car chases, and undercover stings.

This is one reason in my view that villains and anti-heroes get so much play; they're compelling, and typically more so than the heroes they're placed opposite of. Raoul Chagny is handsome, dedicated man, a decorated soldier (in some versions of Phantom of the Opera), and he's willing to risk death, dismemberment, and worse to save Christine from the Phantom. Erik, the Opera Ghost, is more than twice (sometimes triple) Christine's age, and is a psychologically unbalanced murderer who attempts to blackmail Christine into staying with him in a dungeon that looks like something out of a 19th century production of Saw. To the surprise of no one Christine leaves with Raoul.

Ask fans of the stage production, the novel, or the pulps, and you'd be hard-pressed to find any fans who don't wish, deep down, that Christine had stayed with the Phantom. Why? Because he's interesting! Mr. Fantastic is a genius who accidentally gave his wife Sue Storm, her brother, and his best friend superpowers. That's cool, but Victor Von Doom is king of his own country, posses a similar level of intellect, has old world manners, a sweet suit of armor, and actually seems to notice Sue instead of constantly being wrapped up in his next big experiment. Romeo and Juliet weren't just two teenagers with authority issues; they were the prized children of warring gang lords who with every kiss were leading the city closer to violence and bloodshed.

You see where I'm going here? Anyone can fall in love; it happens every day. If the people romancing each other aren't very interesting though, then your readers are going to set your book aside and stop reading.

This was where this section previously ended, but I felt compelled to put something else here.

The couple that plays together, stays together. While some of you might be snickering thinking that this is where we discuss how much sex you should have your book, that's not what I'm talking about here. What I'm using this phrase for is to explain that no matter how cool, interesting, or awesome your characters are, they have to have some believable connection for their romance to feel real.

Let's go back to that millionaire werewolf biker and the recently divorced housewife. Why? Sure it's a nice fantasy; a beyond-amazing man sweeps an average woman off her feet and makes her the center of his mystical, dangerous world. But why does he feel that way about her? What do they do when they aren't making love in the woods or riding down the highway? Does she have a lifelong passion for Harleys, but she had to give up riding when she got married? Is she a nature freak who knows every inch of the woods and valleys around town? Is she an amateur folklorist, as curious about his world as he is about hers?

My point is that while the dopamine rush is all well and good, it does not a romance make. Your job as the author is to convince your readers that no matter how outlandish the couple you've created is, that their love is real. Why does the centuries old vampire fall in love with a 26-year-old girl? Because she's bold and unafraid of him and what he represents? Does she make him remember what life was like when he was young, virile and alive? Is she really good at chess, giving him a genuine challenge for the first time in 150 years? Why does the gently-born princess love the scarred barbarian? Is it because he treats her as a woman, and not as the idea of nobility? Is it because he shows her a world she's never known before? Or is it knowing that she's lived more with him, and he with her, than either of them have done before they began their adventures together?

These are the building blocks you should be thinking about. Big or small, romances are built on lasting traits and shared desires. Whether your couple likes the same video games, is passionate about the same causes, or works in the same profession, that brings them closer together. Opposites may attract, but new rubs off pretty goddamn fast a lot of the time.

So, to Sum All This Up

Here's the short version; if you're going to write a romance novel make sure that you present the relationship in a believable light, that both of the participants are interesting, and that the audience gets invested in their love. Don't rely on cheap tricks and titillation to keep your audience turning pages, and don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get into the nitty gritty parts of this budding relationship.

If you can do that, you too will have readers say things like, "I thought it was great! I didn't feel like I was reading a romance story at all."

Yes people will say this to you. Yes they think it's a great compliment. Thank them, sign their books, and be glad that you have fans.

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