What would be an ideal romance for you? Is it something intense, passionate and carnal, like the relationship between Casanova and Francesca? Or is it humorous and filled with snarky and witty banter, like the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy?
Some of us may roll our eyes at the cheesiness of romance. Despite this, a good romance can make our hearts clench, whoop for joy, or bawling in tears.
Characters in books and movies with great chemistry are often “shipped” together by fans — even if they’re not actually romantically involved in the plot.
We see passionate fans that draw fan art, comics, and write all sorts of fan fiction in fervent support of certain pairings.
Some famous examples of couples that aren’t actually canon include:
- Rey and Kylo Ren from Star Wars
- Hermione Granger and Harry Potter
- Steve and Bucky from the Marvel Universe
- Lance and Keith from Voltron Legendary Defender
- Katara and Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender
It takes more than flirty banter, cheesy pick-up lines and intense physical attraction to make a compelling romance. We’ve seen in these examples that readers can visualise romantic tension without any of those things.
Which brings us to the question - what makes good romantic chemistry?
What are the elements required to write a compelling romance? How do we write couples that readers can’t help but root for?
1. Fully Developed Characters
If you want your readers to care about the relationship, you’re going to have to get them to care about the characters as individuals. Both characters have to be interesting on their own, outside of their interactions with each other!
Make sure your characters are fully-realised - that they have distinct personalities, flaws, hopes and dreams. Having compelling characters ensures that their dynamic is interesting. Nobody cares if two boring and flat characters get together.
For instance, let's look at the popular (but non-canon) pairing of Keith and Lance from Voltron Legendary Defender. Keith and Lance are interesting characters in their own right. Keith is a loner who's a little socially awkward. He is intense, aloof and hot-tempered. Then we have Lance, a fun-loving and outgoing goofball.
Having distinct personalities enabled them to have funny and oftentimes meaningful interactions that have resulted in them being one of the most popular internet pairings of 2019.
2. Internal or External Tension or Conflict
Suppose that there are two characters, Dahlia and John. Dahlia’s a waitress. John happens to be a regular customer at the restaurant Dahlia works at. John has a bit of a crush on Dahlia. Dahlia has a bit of a crush on John. They get together. The end. Yawn.
What would’ve made this romance interesting? Conflict! Of course we all like a happy ending, but the lack of conflict from beginning to end makes the story boring. Nothing stood in the way of Dahlia and John. There were no stakes involved, so why should we care?
Any good story requires its ups and downs, and the same applies to romance.
Make sure that the characters face conflicts, both internally and externally. Put obstacles in the way for them! Make things challenging!
What if Dahlia was struggling to make ends meet? She could’ve been trying to start her own side business to earn some money. Maybe she could be trying to prioritise her career over everything else. Maybe she rejects John a few times.
Maybe John is hurt. Maybe he has a problem with a jilted ex-lover.
Any, or all of these things at once would’ve made their story more interesting.
3. Shared experiences
Characters forge a genuine bond in the story when they’ve faced both the good and the bad. They’ve had to see each other at both their best and worst.
In Avatar the Last Airbender, Aang and Katara underwent several seasons’ worth of trials and tribulations. Their romance was a slow-blossoming one, with a solid foundation of genuine friendship and understanding.
This is linked to the next point, which is —
Both parties have to expose their vulnerabilities to each other. How they react to having their vulnerabilities exposed to the other will be a crucial point in the story. Such a scene would be very emotional intense - and the relationship could be strengthened or weakened as a result.
At a certain point in the story, the conflicts both characters have will need to be addressed.
For instance, in the case of Dahlia and John - what happens when John finds out about Dahlia’s financial problems? Does he find out because Dahlia breaks down one day and tearfully confesses her problems to him? Or does he find out by chance, to the embarrassment of Dahlia? How does Dahlia feel upon having her insecurities exposed? Is she relieved or in great pain?
We also have to think about how John reacts. Is he paralysed with fear? Does he waver in his feelings for her? Does he attempt to swoop in and solve her problems, to Dahlia’s chagrin? Do they fight?
5. Changing Each Other For the Better…or Worse
In the end, a well-written relationship is one that has succeeded in changing both characters. This change can be positive — maybe they’ve improved on their flaws and developed as people.
We see this being the case for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Fitzwilliam Darcy was initially seen to be a rude and arrogant man. Throughout the novel we see that he becomes more self-aware and gradually displays his better traits.
Similarly, Elizabeth also realised that her prejudice against Mr. Darcy prevented her from seeing his better qualities, and realizing that he wasn’t as bad as she had assumed.
Alternatively, another interesting route would be to watch two characters enable the absolute worst in each other, à la Bonnie and Clyde.
Static characters are boring - we want to see how these characters change!
In summary, the perfect romance to write about is a romance that is imperfect. Make both parties flawed, and don’t make the journey a completely smooth-sailing one. Make them confront issues that can be difficult and personal.
A good love story ultimately withstands the test of time. They're an undeniable classic! After all, isn’t it part of our nature to love, and want to be loved?