How to Write Romance, Part 2: From Character Springs Love

Romance2As I mentioned in the first blog in this series, romance is all about characters growing.

More specifically, romance springs from a character overcoming a fatal flaw. A character’s fatal flaw is her (or his) largest weakness. It is what holds your character back and keeps her from achieving her goals.

For example, in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, Lucy Honeychurch is meek, easily persuaded, and lives life in a dull, uninspired way.

She also isn’t happy, and we (the readers) quickly see that if Lucy tried to think more widely, feel more deeply, and take charge of her own life, she would be able to find the love and contentment she desires.

As Mr. Beebe declares after hearing Lucy passionately play Beethoven on the piano:

“If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting–both for us and for her.”

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Note: Oftentimes, a character is usually blind to his (or her) fatal flaw. If a character knows his weakness, then consider that:

  1. It’s harder for the reader to sympathize when the fatal flaw continues to hold him back from his goals.
  2. It’s harder to convincingly prolong the character’s growth (since realizing the flaw exists is the first step toward personal growth).

Note: A character–particularly our protagonist–will have multiple flaws in addition to the fatal flaw. The fatal flaw simply refers to the “worst” one. Think of Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender. He has tons of flaws (short temper, a mean streak, no gratitude or appreciation), but it’s his fatal flaw (his need for love/validation from his own father) that continues to hold him back.

Complimentary Strengths & Fatal Flaws

Now here’s where the romance really extends from character: it’s our the love interest’s strength that pushes our protagonist toward growth.

In other words, our love interest’s strength perfectly compliments our protagonist’s fatal flaw. And, it’s quite possible that, in turn, our protagonist’s strength perfectly compliments our love interest’s fatal flaw. Thus, when the two characters are together, they force each other to grow (not necessarily on purpose, but as an extension of who they are).

So back to A Room With a View, George Emerson lives exactly like we know Lucy Honeychurch should live: he’s a philosopher who asks big questions, he seeks contentment in his life, he explores the world around him, and he lives passionately in the present moment.

Basically, George makes Lucy miserably uncomfortable and shocks all of her snobby sensibilities…yet he also makes her think. Every time George walks off the page, Lucy has changed just a little bit from being around him.

Lucy was puzzled. She was again conscious of some new idea, and was not sure whither it would lead her.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Love Triangles

Though I see a lot of blog reviewers complain about love triangles, the fact is that a love triangle done well is really hard to hate. But to do a love triangle well, our two potential lovers must offer two very different outcomes.

In other words, the love interests have different strengths, both of which will push our protagonist to grow–but that will push the protagonist in different directions. She WILL grow, but depending on which lover she chooses dictates which possible person she will become.

Back to A Room With a View: Cecil is Lucy’s fiancé. He’s not a bad guy. In fact, I rather adore him. But he’s a snob, he has little interest beyond himself and high society, and when Lucy is with him, she backslides into a more uninspired, more thoughtless, and more blah version of herself.

With Cecil she most certainly grows, it’s just in the wrong direction (or what we, the reader, know is wrong because we know Lucy won’t be happy with Cecil).

“Come this way immediately,” commanded Cecil, who always felt that he must lead women, though he knew not whither, and protect them, though he knew not against what.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

If you’re looking for a more modern example of a love triangle, I’ll point you to Erica O’Rourke’s Torn, Tangled, and Bound. This series has an INCREDIBLY well-done love triangle that never feels forced and that  offers two good options for the heroine. No matter if she goes with Lover A or Lover B, she will become a better person–just in two very different ways. Thus, as she grows through the plot events and her own personal choices, she must decide which “better version of herself” she wants to become.

Putting It All Together

Personally, I often find it easier to logically break apart all of this stuff after I’ve written my first draft and I’m revising. If I try too hard to fit the characters into these Fatal Flaw + Strength boxes, my writing feels forced. It’s when I’m revising that I really break apart who I have and how to better push the characters toward growth.

However, I know many writers (particularly in adult, where character growth is SO critical) who analyze and develop all of these aspects prior to writing. It’s really all about what makes you, the writer, comfortable. It certainly can’t HURT you to think about these aspects prior to drafting (or during a first draft), so why not give it a try? Simply scribble down whatever comes to mind for the follow questions.

1. What is your protagonist’s fatal flaw?
2. Why does this flaw keep him/her from getting what he/she wants?
3. What is your love interest’s biggest strength?
4. How does this strength push the protagonist to grow?
5. What is your love interest’s fatal flaw?
6. What is your protagonist’s biggest strength?
7. How does this strength push the love interest to grow?


And stay tuned for next week’s post, in which I break down romantic tension on a scene level. 🙂

You tell me: Can you think of any favorite romances in which the characters’ strengths + flaws clearly align? Or, how do you approach writing a romance prior to starting your draft?