I recently read a book that began as contemporary literature and finished as romance. It was by turns clever and witty, romantic and dramatic, and was truly superb—for the first half. So what went wrong?
Let’s talk about the essential elements to crafting a good romance.
The book I read follows a 17-year-old girl who lives in a barren wreck of a castle along with her author father (who hasn’t written in years), her elder sister (who is determined to marry rich to save her family), her younger brother (a semi-intellectual student), and their non-servant man (handsome and devoted to our protagonist). They are all eccentric and desperately poor. Then two brothers move into the neighborhood, and the elder sister sets her eyes on the rich one.
An excellent romantic setup, and romance did follow—but it didn’t work at all.
Why not? What is essential to making romance work? What makes something feel romantic? The dictionary tells me that “romantic” means a strong attraction—an idealized version of reality.
In other words:
- The reader is strongly attracted to the notion of two characters becoming romantically involved,
Which means the reader has to like and care about the characters.
- The reader thinks the characters getting together is their ideal reality,
Which means the reader has to think they would do well together.
Using these criteria, what pairing should I have rooted for in the book I read? Here are the options:
Rose + Simon: Rose is gold-digging for Simon without caring about him.
Rose + Neil: Rose avoids Neil because she can’t stand him.
Rose + Stephen: Stephen is devoted to Cassandra.
Cassandra + Simon: Only days after becoming engaged to Rose, he lures the naïve Cassandra into his house and kisses her.
Cassandra + Neil: Neil is boring and views Cassandra as a child.
Cassandra + Stephen: Cassandra regards Stephen as a rather foolish and inferior brother.
No worries, right? If the characters are in this setup at the beginning or middle of the book, they can learn and grow!
I agree. The problem was that they didn’t.
- The reader has to like the characters.
The characters got stupider and less likeable as the book went on.
- The reader has to think they would do well together.
So clearly, that didn’t work out. But what would? What combination of traits (by the end of the book) makes a good romantic pairing? I’d suggest the following three.
1. Characters who can interact on a sufficiently equal intellectual level. One can be more intelligent or educated or from a different background, but they need to be able to exchange thoughts and ideas in a manner engaging to the reader.
2. Characters should have compatible morality and relatable levels of worldliness. Elizabeth Bennett should not be marrying Rhett Butler.
3. Characters need to interact sufficiently to get to know one another (and for the reader to get to know them). “I saw him once in the beginning and heard about him twice and am marrying him in my epic conclusion” is surprising, but not satisfying.
. . . Not bad advice for real life, either.
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