Writing Romance That Won’t Make Readers Cringe
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Yes, yes, quite the long title, but it’s all necessary. Because anyone can write romance. Yes, anyone. “I love you,” said Jamie. “I love you, too,” replied James. Boom. I just made two characters love each other. I’m like a match-making fairy godmother.
But the purpose of this article is to write a romantic relationship that won’t make readers cringe.
And, for the record, I cringed writing that snippet up there. So for those of you who thought I wielded serious writing magic, ohohoho no. Sit down, because I’m going to insert knowledge bubbles into your brain so you can make characters do the lovey-dovey thing without making readers do the gag-reflex thing.
1) Romance is not instant cake mix.
I’m sorry. I know cake is wonderful, and so is instant cake mix. You toss it in a bowl, add water, throw it into the fires of hell, and it comes out all delicious and cakey. Why can’t romance be like that?
Well, for one, dousing people in water and shoving them into ovens works better on witches than potential love interests. Sorry? For two, insta-love is never satisfying (or real), on paper or in person. You have no time to develop characters and let the reader appreciate their qualities before they’re swept into this grand romance. No one cares that much about someone they just met. There’s this thing called attraction, sure, but that’ll only get you so far.
Let’s go with a real-world, hot-stranger scenario. How far would you really go for a hot stranger?
Buy a drink (or let them buy)? Yeah, sure, they’re cute. Go out of your way to be in their presence? I mean, maybe, if you’re trying to get their attention. Take a bullet for them?
. . . Jesus, they’re hot, but not that hot.
But you see this ridiculous scenario in literature all the time. Love at first sight is cute in theory, but in practice you would sound like a moron. Love comes with time, with patience, with learning. You have to know and understand the person, fully appreciate them as a nice human being, before you go from “sure, I’ll pay for dinner” to:
2) Love is not all-consuming.
At least, it shouldn’t be. If it is, what that person needs is a counselor, not a relationship.
Let me clarify: yes, love is powerful and uplifting, it can encourage and inspire, it can take up your thoughts and your time . . . but not all the time. The relationship can’t be the only thing your character has. It doesn’t define them. It might change them in some ways, maybe make them a better person, but it won’t be everything in their life.
Your characters should be multi-faceted. This means they will have hobbies, interests, goals, and responsibilities away from their significant other. There is not one person who can spend every waking minute being with and/or thinking about their loved one (no matter how well-loved). It would drive them insane.
Give your characters a personality and reasons to be away from their love interest—that they enjoy; nothing is more eye-roll-inducing than seeing characters pine after each other because they had to disentangle for five minutes to take a piss.
3) Love should not make your character stupid.
I understand. Love can make you do and say foolish things. It makes you giddy, makes you nervous, makes you awkward. But when I see a strong character I admire turn into a brain-dead, babbling goon who’s chucked common sense out the window, I get frustrated beyond belief.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be conflict or that your character shouldn’t make mistakes. That’s counterproductive to story-telling and frankly unrealistic.
All I’m saying is: stay true to your character. If they're chock-full of common sense, don’t have them fling their hands in the air the second romance enters the page and say, “Screw it! No thinking from now on! My brain is mush-pie!” It alienates readers and lowers their respect for that character. If they handle everything else with some semblance of maturity, relationships should be no exception.
Which leads me into . . .
4) Avoidable Conflict
I understand not all couples are the best at communication, particularly if the relationship is meant to seem shaky.
Unless it’s being portrayed for humor purposes (like, say, a romantic comedy), there is no sense putting too much stock in a dilemma that could have easily been cleared up with a conversation. Especially if the writer blows it out of proportion and makes that the entire plot.
I see this too often in YA and even some adult romance: a silly argument/ misunderstanding that went way over the line and tore the characters apart. Over-the-top jealousy, mistrust, selfishness—these are all qualities that, if not handled with care, can easily seem petty or spiteful. And downright stupid.
If it’s that easy to knock over, the relationship did not have a good foundation and, once again, it seems the characters didn’t need to be in one. Who’s going to root for that?
5) Don’t make them kissy-faced all the time.
I like sweet, romantic moments as much as the next person, but don’t beat your reader over the head with how in love! they are. Don’t make them that couple you see in high school, always hanging off each other, making kissy faces in the middle of the halls, calling each other barf-worthy nicknames like “gumdrop teddy muffin” or “cookie-wookie” . . . okay, actually, I kinda dig “cookie-wookie.” It makes me giggle.
Moving on: like I mentioned in point #2, give them something to do besides . . . um, each other.
And give them moments that aren’t inherently cutesy. I find those regular moments just as adorable (sometimes more) as the blatantly romantic ones. Show them having fun together, being weird together, being in friendly competition with one another. Have them challenge each other, learn together. Show me, as a reader, that there’s more to this relationship than how long they can gaze longingly into each other’s eyes without blinking *shivers*.
That’s about it for today’s post! What are some of your romantic lit pet peeves? Share with us in the comments!