Let’s face it: You know when two characters aren’t clicking on the page.
This is true whether we’re talking about a romance novel or a romantic subplot, and for that matter whether we’re talking about someone else’s novel or your own. You have a guy, and you have a girl (or a guy and a guy, or a girl and a girl), and they’re going out on dates, and the words on the page say they’re attracted to each other, but for some reason it just doesn’t work.
We call this nebulous concept chemistry, but really chemistry has nothing to do with it. Neither does biology. These aren’t flesh and blood creations; they’re characters on a page. And that’s why what it really comes down to is characterization.
This means that there are some important questions we need to ask.
Question #1: What does she want?
Let me be clear here: I don’t mean in a man. We’re aiming for a more complete portrait than that. A strong character has a defined personality and established characteristics, and of course any human character has flaws as well, but what we should also see in any developed character in a novel is established wants and needs. Maybe your protagonist wants to graduate law school, but she also needs some happiness in her life outside her education. Or maybe we flip that around: She wants to find the right guy, but what she really needs is to be more secure in herself as an individual.
Whatever the specifics, these are the forces that drive our protagonist. They comprise her goals, both conscious and unconscious. And they need to be established if we’re going to answer the next question:
Question #2: Why does she like him?
One of the most consistent problems with romance in novels is the belief that two characters will like each other just because the author says they do. It doesn’t work that way. Sure, these are fictional characters, and the author does control them, but if there isn’t a reason for the attraction, then any romance on the page comes not from the characters, but rather from the hand of the author. And if it’s clearly the hand of the author pulling characters together, that same hand will push readers away.
So what do we do? We tie this back into our wants and needs. The romantic interest can’t just be some guy, or even just some rock-jawed perfect guy. He is also someone with the potential to help our protagonist achieve her wants and needs. In one way or another, he stands to provide what is missing in her life, whether it’s in enabling her to see her own worth or helping her understand what she really needs to be happy—or, of course, something else entirely.
In other words, it’s not about him. It’s about her.
But that said:
Question #3: What does he want, and why does he like her?
One of the other frequent problems with novel romances is that the guy or girl, the person of interest, is less a person than a paragon. He’s the perfect guy, right off the cover of the romance novel, unbuttoned shirt blowing in the wind. Or she’s the perfect woman, beautiful and understanding. He’s a confident and sensitive dream guy. She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
And none of that helps you craft a convincing romance.
Don’t get me wrong: In romance, a certain amount of idealizing and wish fulfillment is inherent. It’s part of the genre. But don’t forget that the guy, too, is a character. Aside from whatever personality traits you’ve ascribed to him, he has his own wants and needs. You may not be writing his narrative, but he has one, and in order for him to achieve his own goals as a person, he needs the protagonist.
Which brings us to the other side of the equation. A guy who loves your protagonist just because she’s the hero of the story and that’s what he’s there to do is not convincing. But I see it a lot, especially in early drafts of romances. It’s clear why she likes him, but why does he like her? What makes her special specifically to him? How is his life better for her presence? How does she help him achieve his own conscious and unconscious goals? Maybe he’s achieved success, but lost purpose, and she’s the only one with the integrity to call him out on it. Maybe he needs the courage to walk away from a world where he isn’t happy, or maybe there’s a trauma in his past he needs her help to overcome.
It can be any of these things, or something else entirely. But without a clear, tangible reason for his feelings, the romance on the page will feel, and be, incomplete. And that leaves us with one more question:
Question #4: Why?
Why bother with all these wants and needs? Why do we need reasons? Isn’t attraction much of the time just about attraction? Isn’t it chemistry?
In the real world, maybe. But romance in a novel doesn’t stand alone. It’s part of a story, which means that story arc, character arc, and characterization are inevitably intertwined with romance. And when we step back from these questions and look at what we’ve created, we see why the questions needed to be asked.
Now we have two characters who, in story and character terms, genuinely need each other. They require one another to resolve their own issues. The forces that drive our characters are, in fact, driving them toward one another. And this is what, on the page, we interpret as chemistry.
It’s nothing mysterious or nebulous. It’s simply characterization. And when it comes to romance in fiction, there is nothing more fundamental than that.
What books stand out in your mind, where the characterization created sizzling chemistry?
Join us Friday, when Ann Warner discusses “Avoiding Premature Publication.”
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than three dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.
Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally (formerly Ambitious Enterprises).
Before the plague, and the quarantine, fourteen-year-old Daniel Raymond had only heard of the Listeners. According to his best friend Katie’s police officer father, they were deadly men identifiable by the removal of their right ears. But Daniel didn’t know for sure. It’s not until after the medical personnel have been evacuated—after weeks trapped inside without hearing from Katie, and days since Daniel’s mother left for toilet paper—that the Listeners arrive. Derek, the one-eared man with the big, soulful eyes, promises protection and hope, and a brotherhood under the watch of their leader, the prophet Adam. The Listeners, Harrison Demchick’s debut, is a dark and terrifying journey into loneliness, desperation, and the devastating experience of one young boy in a world gone mad.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule January 12-16
- The Other Gender: Writing a Man (or a Woman) We Can Believe In by Harrison Demchick
- Creating Likable Characters by Heather Webb
- It’s All About Your Characters with Robin Gianna
- Editor Heather Webb – Making Characters Unforgettable a.k.a. Character Arc