How to Write Romance (In Fantasy)
I read more than 10,000 category romance novels between the ages of 10 and 25. I
think I know formula romance well. I learned a lot about a strict plot structure from
reading these novels, and I even believe that it helped inoculate me against some of
the worst mistakes that women make in romance. While I know that most people
think of romance as the least literary of genres, I am sometimes forced to defend it.
In college, I had fun tweaking certain professors of mine when I put a category
romance on my list of greatest literature of all time, and then got to explain to them
about the descendants of Jane Austen, the literary ghetto that romance has been put
in, and Derrida's deconstruction of literary value in the first place. Ah, those were
Now, I cannot stand to read category romance. I have not even found a romance
without other elements that I like. But I love romance. I love it when combined
with other elements, at least in part because I am frustrated as a reader when I feel
that the characters are wandering around their world aimlessly bumping into other
characters like the bird in the children's book Are You My Mother? asking "Are
You My Eternal Love?" I want characters who are actively engaged in making the
world a better place who come upon romance not as a main purpose in life, but
accidentally, as they are saving the world. I know I am not every reader, but I think
there are many readers like me. This advice is for those who are interested in
satisfying me and those like me as a reader.
Things I hate in romance: love triangles (I want to either kill everyone in it, or set
up one of the boys with a nice girl from one of my own books), misunderstandings
(that could be solved in about ten seconds of rational conversation), stupid and/or
morally vacuous characters (whom I am supposed to believe change because of the
power of love), coincidence (is that the only way you could get them back
together?), stupid obstacles (invented by the author, who ought to be trying to get
the characters together, not keep them apart -- that's the job of the world you've
invented), and incessant sniping (it's not annoying in Pride and Prejudice, but few
people can duplicate that).
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Romance as a strong element in fantasy or science fiction should come out of the
story organically. That is, characters who are strong, good, and deeply committed
to a cause will be naturally attracted to someone of the opposite sex who is equally
strong, good, and committed. Some writers focus on pages of backstory for each
character, detailing their first pet, their favorite color, and their most embarrassing
moment, before they even begin the story. Flaws and strengths, on and on. But you
don't fall in love with someone because of a list of their attributes. You fall in love
with someone because of the way they change to fit you. I want both the hero and
the heroine to grow and develop because of their relationship with each other. It
isn't just that they are seen more clearly.
Like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, who both change, the best romances are ones that
work doubly as Bildungsromane, or novels of development. Maybe this is why
young adult literature has become a place for truly outstanding romance, because it
is a place where development of the adult character is naturally occurring anyway.
Some of my favorite romances which also work as Bildungsromane are: The
Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner, The Folk Keeper by Franny
Billingsley, Ironside by Holly Black, Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
(not technically published as YA), East by Edith Pattou, Beauty by Robin
McKinley, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, and The Demon's Lexicon by
Sarah Rees Brennan.
Some elements of romance that I like include:
I am not a fan of first meetings where the hero and heroine hate each other because
they have to hate each other. I know that is part of Pride and Prejudice, but it only
works because those characters are unique. As a writer, I recommend focusing
more on the uniqueness of your characters and on getting your reader to fall in love
with them than on the standard trope of them sniping at each other and then falling
in love in one dramatic moment at the end. What is more important than whether or
not the hero and heroine get along at first is the writer's skill in convincing the
reader that these two are similar as a couple. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are
proud and prejudiced at first, in different ways. They are smart and witty, and this
is part of the reason they are right for each other.
I like to read about deeply good characters who fall in love with other deeply good
characters. Also, flawed characters who are trying to be better for each other. In
Persuasion, Anne Elliott shows her deep goodness in going to visit her sister who
is a hypochondriac, because it has to be done. She does everything that has to be
done. And think of Captain Wentworth and how he thinks of marrying Louisa
Musgrove because he has given her expectations, even though he realizes he loves
Anne and not her. I try in all my novels to make my characters at least good
enough that the reader doesn't want to hit them over the head with a sharp object
while trying to finish the book. I've written before about the importance of
beginning a novel with a scene that makes your character sympathetic to the
reader. I think it is doubly important in romance.
- Witty Conversation or Poetic Writing
Witty repartee has been a romance staple since Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.
I'm not brilliant with one liners like Jane Austen, and if you're not either, you
might think about how to use conversation or writing to simply expose your
characters' vulnerabilities. True honesty can be very endearing. It's a mistake to
overwork your writing to create a poetic effect, however. The best poetry is simple
and stark, with all else pared away. It is true for your romance, as well. You don't
have to make your character sound like someone else's in elevated language. Write
what they would say and make it painful to say it. Make sure there is risk involved
in exposing themselves. I think the best romance is more in words than it is in
- Unique need for each other (but not dependence)
I am not interested in dependent relationships in romance, where one character
obviously needs the other one more, or is constantly being "saved" because of
stupidity or clumsiness. The need has to go both ways. But it can be a useful plot
element if one character can offer the other character something that is necessary
for the way the world is set up. In The Princess and the Hound, George needs
someone who can understand animal magic in order for him to deeply connect. I
don't give the obvious answer, by having the princess with animal magic. Instead, I
make her a character who understands magic from the other side. And animals, too.
However, it's not romantic to me when Darcy proposes the first time to Elizabeth.
She needs someone who is wealthy, but she also needs someone who is, as her
father says, her equal.
- A mistake, or series of mistakes
I think it's important for the reader to see the main characters making mistakes, not
just because it makes them feel more realistic, but also because it helps the reader
have that moment of Aristotelian catharsis where the audience feels uplifted by
having experienced the tragedy with the players on the stage. If someone else steps
in to correct the mistake, it doesn't work. If the mistake is caused by some external
event, and is not part of the character of the hero or heroine, then it doesn't feel as
real and doesn't have the same affect on the audience. I once argued that the
mistake can never be physical violence on the other character, perhaps because I
read too many 70s romances where the man hits the woman and then is forgiven by
it in the end. But in The Queen of Attolia, she chops off Gen's hand when he is
caught as a thief and this works for me because of the way the world is set up.
- An external obstacle (or more than one).
The main point I would make about the obstacle is that it has to be organic to the
world and the plot. You can't make up the obstacles as you go along. As a writer,
you should set up the world at the beginning that would make it difficult for the
two characters to fall in love and get married. Then the rest of the novel is playing
this out, and you as a writer have to figure out the way out of the pit along with the
characters and the reader. In my new novel about two princesses from different
kingdoms, one falls in love with a man from the wrong kingdom. This is an
obvious problem, but it is a convincing one. And as a writer, you can't cheat. You
can't have the characters simply decide that the problem isn't one, after all, and
then get together. Be creative. The whole world may have to change for them to
have a Happily Ever After.
To me one of the most poignant moments in Pride and Prejudice is when Darcy
sacrifices his pride to his love by giving Wickham money and accepting that he
will be Wickham's brother-in-law. A uniquely painful sacrifice for Darcy to make,
the more so as we readers come to understand Darcy more. He does it solely for
Elizabeth, because he has understood now how much she loves her sisters and how
their lives are bound up in hers. He doesn't do it for social reasons, or because he
feels guilty. He does it because he loves Elizabeth and he doesn't want her hurt.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, sacrifices her pride because she knows that she will
be seen as an opportunist by society and even laughed at by her family. I think this
sacrifice needs to be on both sides for me to love the romance. If the sacrifice is
unequal, I always end up wondering if in a couple of months, one of the couple
will decide it wasn't worth it, after all.
Finally, writing about physical intimacy past a kiss isn't necessary in my opinion,
although I don't object to it if done well. If you are a writer who is concerned about
whether or not you can describe details without using laughable euphemisms, just
skip that part and focus on the story itself. To me, romance is about talking more
than it is about physical contact. I think you can have a very "hot" romance without
any physicality at all. Maybe that's old-fashioned, but watch Pride and Prejudice
(whichever version is your favorite -- I can't choose) again and see how the eyes
of the actors convey longing perfectly. Describe that, and you are on the right road.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison