As in real life, your characters should be attracted to the people they're attracted to for a reason beyond the superficial. (Don’t get me wrong, some people fall into passionate but superficial relationships, but they tend to burn out quickly without the other important aspects of true love: commitment and intimacy.)
In real life, finding and getting along with your “other half” long-term is difficult. The good news when it comes to fiction is that Conflict is the engine that keeps every story going, and the love relationship between your characters is one of the most important parts of that engine.
Some questions to help you generate realistic conflicts. Try to be as specific as you can when you answer.
- What drives you crazy in a relationship? What are your pet peeves?
- What drives your partner (or past partners) crazy about you?
- What kinds of life decisions and stages have created conflict in your life? That is, which things challenge your relationships? Money decisions? Family decisions? Work decisions? Something else?
- What really stresses you out (in general)? How does this impact your relationships with others?
In real life people choose the partners they do for all kinds of reasons, some of them noble and romantic, some of them less so. For example, maybe they had great "chemistry" with their partner. Maybe they had a lot in common. Maybe they need to feel needed. Maybe they wanted to get out of their parents' house. Maybe they were ready to settle down. Maybe they needed someone to help them parent a child. Regardless, there is definitely a reason other than that an author needed them together to make a particular storyline work.
Some things to think about:
- What attracted your character to the love interest in the first place?
- What needs does the love interest fulfill for your hero or heroine?
- Why is the love interest different from all the other men and women out there?
Once your characters are together, why do they stay together? Doing couples therapy was always a fascinating endeavor for me, because couples with enormous problems would come in and complain about each other and the relationship—but still want to make it work. They still loved each other. And they could usually tell you why. In other words, for all of the ways they drove each other crazy, they always had a reason that they were still together.
In my stories, relationships are usually messy. People say the wrong things, have affairs, and hurt each other—sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose. Ex-partners create havoc, hidden histories drive wedges, but in the end love always prevails for me. I like to pretend to be pragmatic and sensible, but the truth is that I'm a hopeless romantic, and in my stories, love really is the greatest power of all.
- What is the absolute worst thing each partner could do to the other? (Usually the "worst thing" varies by character.) Why is that the worst?
- Can you work that conflict into your story?
- Why might your characters still want or need each other in spite of this betrayal?
- Usually things are not "like new" after a betrayal—what are the lingering effects of having survived the conflict?
I'm most drawn to fictional relationships where there is a strong, identifiable reason for an attraction at the same time there are problems (internal or external to the relationship) that are trying to tear the couple apart. For me, the attraction to each other has to be stronger than the problems, but not by much. The characters have to keep coming together the way a pair of magnets will. They might push against each other, but inevitably, they snap together and hold on.
How about you? What are your secrets for making romantic plots and subplots work?
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+!