Beyond the Spark: Building a Romance That Sticks
by Misa Sugiura
I’ve read romances where the main character wonders to themselves why they’re so drawn to this other person, and all I can think is, “Good question.” The love interest may have intense brown eyes, luscious lips, and a smokin’ hot body, but beyond that, I can’t figure out the attraction, either. The two may have met cute, shared a toe-curling kiss, been involuntarily pressed against each other in a small, confined space…and for some reason it still doesn’t work.
Yes, physical attraction is the thing that readers glom onto. It’s sexy, literally. It jumps off the page and is the easiest and most fun thing to write (for me, anyway). But it’s just kindling. It lights up quickly and burns brightly, but it’s useless if you don’t have anything more substantial to feed the flame.
An obvious and easy way to do this is to give your pair a common interest. They both like music (Eleanor and Park). They both like Oreos (Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda). They’re both computer geeks (When Dimple Met Rishi). You can go a bit deeper with a common trauma or a common goal (The Empress of a Thousand Skies). But you can’t stop there. It’s like adding sticks to your kindling—it’s better, but not enough. “Things-in-Common” works with these romances because they all have something more.
To build an authentic connection that goes beyond the initial spark-and-catch, each character has to offer something the other admires, and something the other needs and is willing to pursue. They need to be flawed—perhaps even drawn/propelled toward each other because of their flaws as well as their strengths. They need to complement each other and bring out the best in each other.
One popular and lovely example of this is in Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon and Blue’s relationship is non-physical for most of the book—and yet they still have amazing chemistry. Yes, they both love Oreos. Yes, they both love Harry Potter. But as their wonderful emails illustrate, they stimulate each other intellectually, they make each other laugh, and they provide for each other an empathetic listener—they become partners who talk honestly about themselves, their fears, and their desires. That is what makes them fall for each other without ever laying eyes on each other. Without a single stuck-in-a-tight-space-together moment.
In order for the characters to be attracted to each other on that level—in order for them to be able to show off their strengths and discover their intellectual and personal compatibility, to confess their deepest desires and fears—they each need to have those things. They need to be fully human, multi-layered, interesting characters without the other. Otherwise, why bother?
So unless the theme of your story is mad hookups (which, hey—that’s cool, too), the eyes, hair, the abs, and the smoldering looks should be just the kindling (or the…uh…tinder, if you will). In the best romances, the author shows us not just the attraction between two bodies, but the attraction between two souls—not just how the characters are hot for each other, but also why they are good for each other.
For a romance that sticks with your readers, you need sturdier stuff like commonalities and parity, and substantial emotional, intellectual, psychological, and/or spiritual strengths and weaknesses. Which is to say, finally, if you want to get your lovebirds to fall in for each other in a way that sticks with your readers, you need to put in the hard work of crafting carefully constructed characters with emotional depth and real stakes. (Though don’t forget the kissing.)
Misa Sugiura is the author of It’s Not Like It’s A Secret (HarperTeen, May 2017). She was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, but now lives under a giant oak tree in Silicon Valley.
It’s Not Like It’s A Secret
Sana Kiyohara has too many secrets. Some are small, like how it bothers her when her friends don’t invite her to their parties. Some are big, like the fact that her father may be having an affair. And then there’s the one that she can barely admit to herself–the one about how she might have a crush on her best friend.
When Sana and her family move to California, she begins to wonder if it’s finally time for some honesty, especially after she meets Jamie Ramirez. Jamie is beautiful and smart and unlike anyone Sana’s ever known. There are just a few problems: Sana’s friends don’t trust Jamie’s crowd; Jamie’s friends clearly don’t want her around anyway; and a sweet guy named Caleb seems to have more-than-friendly feelings for her. Meanwhile, her dad’s affair is becoming too obvious to ignore.
Sana always figured that the hardest thing would be to tell people that she wants to date a girl, but as she quickly learns, that part is easy…what comes after it, though, is a whole lot more complicated.
Thank you so much to Misa for your amazing words of advice! Building a romance can be so difficult, even in reality. We all struggle with building relationships so it’s hard to write in a perfectly imperfect one in our manuscripts. I’m sure your advice will stick with so many people!
A huge thank you to everyone who has participated in this feature. Your words do wonders for those of us who are stumbling through writing everyday. Thank you.
We hope you all have a wonderful rest of your week!