There have been learned discussions and opinions about love for centuries, but for a more contemporary look at this topic from the perspective of a romance writer, Angela Benedetti offers her views in this essay. Angie is looking forward to your comments on her post. 😀
One of the things a romance writer needs to get across to the reader is that the main characters are in love. Not at the beginning, of course, or not usually, but before the end of the story the reader needs to get a strong impression that yes, these guys are kinda crazy about each other. And by the end of the book the reader should feel pretty secure in assuming that the pair (trio, whatever) is in a stable relationship, and is going to be sticking together for the foreseeable future. That’s what an HEA, or even an HFN, is all about, and the creation of a stable romantic relationship — emphasis on stable — is the heart of the definition of a genre romance.
Verbal declarations of “I love you!” only go so far; if the foundation isn’t there to support it, a lot of readers won’t buy it, no matter how often it’s repeated. Readers want to see the characters getting along, fitting together, behaving like a couple in love. So how do you go about showing that?
One of the most popular devices romance writers use is to show that the characters are incredibly hot for each other. They want to drag each other off to bed whenever they’re together, and they fantasize about each other when they’re apart. Often they can’t keep their hands off one another, and end up cutting meals short, ducking into the bathroom at work, or sneaking away from their friends to get in a quickie, or at least some enthusiastic groping. They rarely get to see a whole movie because their other half is Just That Distracting in a way that’s lots more fun than watching a movie, even a really good one.
When they make it to bed (or the bathroom, or the kitchen counter, or wherever) the sex is hot and plentiful, with lots of vocal effects. They’re having an awesome time, and it’s pretty clear that the reader is meant to be having a good time too.
This is great so far as it goes, and can be entertaining reading, but does intense sexual attraction in and of itself really equal love? Does it even signal love? Heck, does it even suggest love?
As a reader, when I’m in the middle of a book where the characters spend most of their time boinking, however well-written the boinking might be, I find myself wondering what they do when they’re not boinking. Two people can have awesome sex, then walk away without any regrets; sex doesn’t equal love. Instead, I want to see what else they do together, and how they get along the rest of the time.
What do they admire about one another? Do they have complementary skills and abilities, so they can prop each other up? Maybe Joe is great at figuring out a scheme to get what he wants, while Bob is a great diplomat and can always smooth down ruffled tempers. Maybe Bob can always get a stubborn computer humming while Joe can get a beater car purring. Maybe Joe admires Bob’s determination to stick to his principles, no matter what, even if there are times when those principles make things harder.
How about the externals? Do they like the same movies or TV shows? Do they read any of the same kinds of books? Do they like the same sports (to do or to watch)? Do their politics agree? Religious views? Senses of humor? Do they have compatible habits and goals when it comes to managing money or planning for the future? Do they agree on which way the toilet paper should hang on the roller?
This isn’t to say that they have to agree about everything, but if they disagree on a lot of things, or on important things, those are conflicts that are going to surface eventually and need to be worked out. Showing the characters working through one or more of these conflicts can give the reader confidence that their relationship has a chance of lasting. Same with showing the characters having fun doing things that don’t involve boinking.
Teenagers might think that being all hot for one another and boinking every day equals True Love, but adults know that a lasting relationship is more complex. The good news is that this gives the romance writer a lot more things to write about. Show the characters getting along outside the bedroom, living together, doing chores together, arguing and solving their problems together, and having little fun moments that don’t involve sex, and the story of their developing relationship will be that much more varied and interesting, and that “I love you,” when it comes, that much more believable.
On the other side of this coin, looking at all the different points of compatibility that need to fit in order to show the reader a good, stable relationship also suggests ways to show that a relationship isn’t true love. Too often in romances, the old boyfriend or girlfriend, or the ex-spouse, is portrayed as a complete jerk. Other folks have talked about the All Women Are Bitches trend in m/m, so I’ll take that as settled, but the Other Guy is too often either a smarmy, abusive asshole, or a whining, passive-aggressive jerk. Throw in a case of egomania for variety, and how many exes in the genre does this describe?
Sure, plenty of people have awful exes, but plenty of people have perfectly cool exes, good people who just didn’t work in a relationship. (Personally, I only have one ex-boyfriend I’d like to work over with a baseball bat, but there are several I still know and enjoy catching up with when we run into one another.) If love is more than just great boinking, then it’s easier to show the ex as a perfectly cool person who just isn’t compatible with the protag. Maybe one’s a jock and the other is into books, and they have nothing to talk about outside of bed. Maybe one likes a clean house with everything kept in its place and the other doesn’t care, and doesn’t see why he should share the dusting and sorting and polishing for fingerprints when he isn’t the one who cares about that stuff. Maybe one is a foodie and cooks at a professional level, and loves to try new foods and new recipes while the other would rather just eat pizza or burgers or steaks seven nights a week, and resents being expected to clean up a disaster-area kitchen every night, just because his partner decided to cook four-course haute cuisine that day.
Or maybe it’s just a lot of little things. I remember my mother commenting, after her second marriage broke up, that it’s amazing just how aggravating your partner’s squeezing the toothpaste tube from the middle gets after ten years. Stack up a bunch of toothpaste-level incompatibilities, and you have people who are eventually going to annoy the heck out of one another. Neither one has to be an Evil Ex, or even much of a jerk. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and our protag walks away to meet Protag2, the real love of his life. Heck, maybe aggravated ex can introduce them — “Hey, Bob, this guy’s just as uptight about the toothpaste as you are! You’re prefect for one another!”
And maybe they are, and maybe they find they get along in a lot of other ways too. Compatible personalities and habits and preferences — plus great boinking — just might equal an awesome romance. Showing the reader all the ways the characters get along, and how they work out the points that don’t quite match, lets the reader finish the book confident that the relationship is going to last a while.
Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and their computers. She started writing as a teenager, and discovered soon after that romances with two hot guys are twice as good as romances with only one. When she’s not at the computer, she enjoys cooking and baking, going to science fiction conventions, and cruising with her husband. She’s one of the few people in the universe who loses weight on cruises. (Must be all those walking-around shore tours and the lack of free internet access.) Her favorite mainstream fiction genres are science fiction and fantasy, both of which tend to seep into her own writing.
Angie’s latest release is Emerging Magic from Torquere.
Angie’s Contact information