Today’s post is written by Julie Tetel Andresen.
Something magical happens when the relationship between two characters sizzles across the page or the silver screen. Remember the old-timey fireworks that sparked between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. More easily recall the modern swoon-worthiness of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga making beautiful music together with smoldering eye contact.
As a romance writer, I want to create relationship magic in every story I write. If I knew the recipe for the secret sauce, I’d share it. But I don’t know it. All I can do here is describe my writing process so you can adapt it to yours.
1. Name It
These days I’m a committed pantser, which means I write by the seat of my pants. I like to get my characters up and running in order to see them in action and find out who they are. At the beginning of a story I have a sense of how the hero and heroine relate to each other, but at some point I have to come to clarity about their relationship dynamic. I have to name it.
What are the possibilities? Let’s see . . . battle of the sexes, friendship turned to love, beauty and the beast, opposites attract, love at first sight, puppy love, second chance at love, unrequited love, forbidden love—and any of the permutations and combinations of these possibilities. The story, then, becomes the exploration of the chosen dynamic.
The dynamic suggests a trajectory. Every point along this trajectory needs to reveal some new facet—for better or worse—of the way the hero and heroine relate to one another. This progression, this deepening of the relationship needs to be logical. Yes, logical! The heart may have its reasons the head does not know, but plots are coolly calculated in order for the magic to be released.
When I first began writing (before I became a pantser), I would imagine the central scene that would capture the basic relationship dynamic of my couple, and this exercise helped me name it. Then I would try to imagine the initial conditions that would lead to this central scene . . . and the rest of the story would be the inevitable consequence of all that had already been established.
The more clearly you can name it, the better you can write it.
2. Know Your Story
Yes, you need to know your characters’ goals and motivations and conflicts. You also have to know what kind of story they’re in.
I have a strong preference for two types of stories:
- a mystery, often a murder mystery, or some kind of treasure hunt; and
- strangers thrown together for whatever reason, be it a marriage of convenience, an unexpected shared inheritance, or a shipwreck (in any case, a situation where two people have big stakes in trying to live together, to share something of value or to simply survive).
These two types of stories give your characters something to do and something to do together. Of course, they will likely be at odds at times about what to do, who’s a suspect, where to look for the treasure, how to deal with the wedding night, what to share, what’s the best way to survive. Their agreements and disagreements will arise from their relationship dynamic.
And that’s the point. Giving your characters something to do creates the background against which the relationship dynamic can unfold and be explored.
3. Tune Into the Dialogue
Dialogue is the verbal sculpture that reveals the shape of the relationship.
When my hero and heroine have a clearly defined dynamic in a story with consequential stakes, their dialogue has a good chance of creating the magic I always seek. That’s because they are engaged with each other, trying to figure out the best way forward. Negotiating. Disagreeing. Finding common ground. Arguing. Kissing and making up.
Not all characters have to be verbal wizards. There’s something to be said—and much to like—about the strong, silent type. But then think who you’re going to pair him with. A charming chatter box, a shrewd observer who can interpret his silences, or even a woman who is just as reticent and is comfortable with silences others would find uncomfortable. Any of the three possibilities will do, and you choose the one best suited to the relationship dynamic you’re interested in exploring.
The point is: I’ve read many a romance where the hero and heroine struggle to have meaningful or even interesting conversations. If they’re engaged in a battle of the sexes, not all of their conversations can revolve around how much they dislike one another. First, a one-topic conversation story gets old. And, second, such a story does not allow for an in-depth exploration of the relationship dynamic.
But let’s say these two people are engaged in a treasure hunt. Now they’re engaged in goal-directed activity with things to discuss. And they can bring their dislike of each other out in the discussions of something other than themselves in the way they argue for which clues are relevant and/or how to proceed. Understand that ‘treasure hunt’ may mean finding market share for an app they’re either developing together or competing against each other to get to market first. All things old have modern twists.
Which is also to say that what counts as dialogue now includes all uses of social media.
4. Find the Humor
Your story may be deadly serious. After eighteen years of war, it is no wonder that many American novelists write about soldiers returning from battle with injuries both visible and invisible. Wounded soldiers, male and female, figure in many romances.
A romance necessarily involves some level of sexual tension, which may remain implicit in a so-called sweet romance and be all sorts of explicit in erotica.
Now notice: a shared laugh is a meeting of the minds, a cerebral/spiritual release, the way that sex is a meeting of the bodies, a physical release.
Humor creates chemistry and heightens romance.
Find some humor, however fragile, in the situation, in the characters, in the difficulties of life.
5. Let Go
Creating chemistry between characters is no more magical than the process of creation itself.
Neuroscience tells us that when artists are in the flow of their work, their neural activity is dissociated from the prefrontal cortex, which is the area associated with planning. Instead, these artists activate parts of their brain that regulate motivational incentive, intentionality and drive, but bypass the areas where a sense of agency arises. The findings from these brain imaging studies are consistent with the experience of many artists who describe the creative process as seemingly guided by an outside agency.
I can’t tell you how to activate or deactivate any part of your brain, any more than I know how I do it to myself, although I am aware (retrospectively) when I’ve been in the flow.
I can say that if you have clearly named “it” and know your story, you can let your front brain go and let your characters do what they need to do: interact with one another and participate in the alchemy of their own creation.