How to Write Romance, Part 2: From Character Springs Love
As 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:
- It’s harder for the reader to sympathize when the fatal flaw continues to hold him back from his goals.
- 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
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.
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?
July 7, 2014 @ 3:56 pm
This post is so helpful, as I have just finished a draft (version 1.2, I’d say, haha) and am planning to go back and amp up the romance after I’ve gotten some distance and feedback from my CPs. Love how you break it down here!
July 7, 2014 @ 5:50 pm
Yay!! I’m so glad it’s helpful! And double yay for amping up the roooomance!
July 7, 2014 @ 4:24 pm
You always make things so much clearer, Sooz 😉 I’ll have to see how my characters align with your questionnaire now.
But I totally agree with TORN having one of the best love triangles ever. That whole series was the very first time in memory that I honestly didn’t know who I wanted the MC to end up with! (Thought I did love who she chose ;))
July 7, 2014 @ 5:51 pm
Oh my gosh, I know! I loved BOTH heroes SO MUCH. But ungh, it was so deliciously satisfying at the end.
July 7, 2014 @ 5:00 pm
Thanks for this excellent post, Sooz! A quick question: Do you think these questions could be adapted for use with other relationships? A friendship is what I’m thinking of.
July 7, 2014 @ 5:54 pm
Oh absolutely!! Excellent question!! Any character can be put in that foil position for whatever growth your hoping to give your protagonist. Like, Jie is super opposite to Eleanor’s ideas about women in SS&D. Then Oliver is very much her foil/support when it comes to how she views necromancy in ADS&L. Then, in S&EA, Joseph fills that same foil/support role too. (And obviously, Daniel helps Eleanor grow throughout the series and she helps him grow in turn.)
July 9, 2014 @ 10:46 am
This is so cool, I’m totally bookmarking it. I love your writing advice.
I also just started reading Something Strange and Deadly and it’s got its hooks in me already! 🙂
July 11, 2014 @ 4:09 pm
Oh, thank you so much for reading, Kaja!! <333
July 9, 2014 @ 4:04 pm
Hey Sooz! 😀
Your blog posts are always SO helpful! There are so many that I’m planning on referring back to before I tackle the next stage of revision on my novel. I’ve just finished Draft #2 (I’m almost all the way through Holly Lisle’s course now, hooray!) and I’m definitely going to have a printed copy of this post at my side when it comes to tweaking the romantic subplot. I’m going to come right out and admit that I LOVED writing the romance scenes for this particular draft, and I can’t wait to buff ’em up with your tips and questions. 🙂
I’m so happy to see you blogging again, and I’m glad your wrist is so much better!
July 11, 2014 @ 4:10 pm
HOORAY! Draft #2 + almost finishing the Lisle course = HUGE strides!! Good job, lady!
July 12, 2014 @ 2:24 am
I really enjoyed the Putting it all Together section because I’m revising my first draft and tweaking my love interest so he serves my protagonist’s character arc better. It’s good to know that this doesn’t mean I did anything wrong first time round. 🙂
Writing the first draft was exciting, but I have to admit the re-writing is just as much fun.
July 14, 2014 @ 1:49 pm
I LOVE REWRITING/REVISING! It’s my favorite part of the process. 😀