How to Write Romantic Relationships (Without Being Sappy)

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Whether you‘re writing a hard-hitting literary novel or a fluffy summer romance, getting the dynamic between a couple right is both difficult and important to writing a compelling story, and it’s certainly the key to creating realistic relationships your readers will care about. Want to attract fans who will ship your characters? Make their bond unique, and their interactions sweet and meaningful, but not overly sentimental or melodramatic. Realism is key here. As you write, there are several easy (or at least relatively simple) ways to make sure your characters’ romantic relationships are strong, and avoid annoying cliches…

Know from the outset where the relationship is going.

As is the case with everything with regards to a story (plot, characters, etc.), if you’re deciding the trajectory of a relationship as you go along, it will be obvious. And it will make the relationship less compelling. I can almost guarantee it. When you plot out your story and develop the characters, which you should do prior to actually writing, also develop their relationships. Particularly romantic ones, which are especially nuanced. Does one character have more power in the relationship? What’s each person’s love language? Is it a healthy relationship? This is probably the most important question to answer about your couple before writing, because it sets the tone of the relationship. Above all, know when you begin whether these characters will still be together at the end of the story. Is it a happy ending, or are they doomed?

Remember the Kiss Rule—if two characters have to kiss for you to know they’re together, you need to develop the relationship more.

I don’t know where I first saw this advice, but it’s pretty genius. Truly an amazing litmus test for any fictional romance. When two people are in love, I think you can tell, even if they’re subtle about it. It might be evident in the things they do for one another, how they look at each other, or their general manner when spending time together. Think about how each person might talk about their partner when they aren’t around, and what little quirks make them smile fondly. These are usually good places to start in depicting romantic love in a way that isn’t heavy handed or unrealistic.

They have to be able to make each other laugh. In fiction as in real life, a shared sense of humor is key to lasting relationships.

This is huge. I think a common sense of humor is quite possibly the single biggest determinant of chemistry between two people. Inside jokes and witty exchanges also play well in the context of a fictional romantic relationship as far as pulling readers in. If your characters are funny as a couple, whether one is lovingly laughing at the other or they’re doing something stupid together, readers will naturally become more attached to them. I also think it can say a lot about the characters, develop their relationship, and just be entertaining to show them making fun of other people together, if that’s in keeping with their personalities.

And while we’re on the topic of humor, some solid banter can work wonders for relationship development.

Disclaimer—before you attempt this kind of dialogue, make sure you’re actually funny. Self-awareness is key as a writer; we all have strengths and weaknesses. Humor is, in my opinion, one of the few writing skills that can’t really be taught. But if you can write funny scenes without it feeling forced or awkward, some amusing back and forth between a couple can be great for relationship development, and even more great for getting a reader invested in the relationship.

Readers like when couples are protective of each other.

Although if the relationship is supposed to be healthy, avoid depicting the characters (especially a man in a heterosexual relationship) as overprotective or controlling. Too far, you’re in Edward Cullen territory. But within reason, people are naturally protective of the one they love. Does someone wrong one of your characters? Make their partner get really angry about it, maybe more angry than the character themself. Simple and effective relationship development.

Give them interests outside the relationship.

Even in a super close soulmate relationship in which the characters are constantly together, it’s unrealistic and can be annoying to have the couple have all the same interests. Both characters will seem more bland if they don’t have any of their own hobbies or friends. I can almost promise readers will prefer a relationship in which each person is interesting in their own right rather than only being shown as part of a couple.

In a long-term relationship, it suggests closeness (and it’s cute) to have the couple know a bunch of odd little things about each other.

If two people are supposed to be very close, knowing each other better than anyone else is a good way to show it. Maybe even knowing each other better than they know themselves. Have one person know a bunch of random medical information about the other, or know exactly how they like their food. Maybe one corrects the other when they say something untrue about themself (“I love camping!” … “She hates camping.”) They might know intimate details of each other’s family drama, or exactly what the other person would say about a situation if they were there. It doesn’t have to be romantic stuff—in fact, a strong long-term couple should know plenty of decidedly unromantic things about each other.

It can also be really sweet (and effective) to show the couple caring for each other in times of difficulty or illness.

Even better, one person knowing just what the other needs when they’re feeling down or unwell. This is also a good way to showcase each individual character—it’s often the case that people show their true colors when they’re not feeling well, emotionally or physically. So if there’s a point in the story where one or both characters isn’t doing so great, it can be a good opportunity to naturally impart a lot of character information.

If you’re in need of inspiration for romantic moments, search Pinterest or Tumblr for “OTP prompts”.

You will get an overwhelming number of short, sweet (sometimes saccharine) scenarios involving romantic relationships. OTP prompts are literally just little moments between a couple—could be something as simple as, “Person A listens to person B tell a story as they lie in bed, absentmindedly running their fingers through person B’s hair.” Oftentimes they’re a little sappy, but they can be a good source of inspiration for writing romance, and they come in every flavor. Search “fluff prompts” for super cutesy scenes, or “whump prompts” for scenarios involving the characters dealing with each other when sick or injured. If you’re looking to write a sex scene, search “smut prompts”. And on that note…

A well-placed sex scene can improve a story and develop a relationship, but don’t overdo it.

I’m all for getting as racy as you’re comfortable with when developing fictional relationships. Sex is an integral component of romantic love, but it’s something that can also make a story worse if written poorly or excessively. I’ll probably do a full post on writing sex scenes at some point, but my advice on the matter in a few sentences? Only include a sex scene if you’re doing it for a reason other than shock value or for fun. If you can get the same relationship development without writing sex between the characters in detail, skip the sex scene. Not because there’s anything wrong with writing graphic sex—the opposite. It can be such a powerful tool in fleshing out a fictional relationship, and it becomes less impactful if the characters spend half the book fucking. When I write a sex scene, it’s frequently a flashback to a first sexual experience or first sex with a specific partner, or sex that was somehow transformative. And be sure that sex isn’t the only show of intimacy between your characters.

Get creative with affection.

There are plenty of non-sexual ways of depicting intimacy that should also be included in a healthy, ship-able relationship. This can be as simple as the couple taking a bath together at the end of a long day, or sharing a drink. And don’t just have them kiss each other on the lips—don’t forget forehead kisses, kissing knuckles while holding hands, kissing shoulders while spooning…all good, just be careful to not make it too sappy. The line between adorable and gross or annoying can be pretty thin.

If the couple has a happy, healthy relationship that you want readers to support, make sure their personalities compliment each other.

A big part of romantic chemistry on paper is simply developing each character’s personality in a way that goes well with their partner’s. To some degree, opposites attract. If one character is super shy, it’s likely that an outgoing love interest would be good for them. Make sure their personalities don’t clash (unless you want them to—love / hate romances can be compelling). And obviously, for all their differences, a good couple should have things in common as well, whether it’s something like shared cultural background or more personality based commonality.

Tension! Readers love it!

Seriously, love / hate romances are awesome when done well, as are slow-burn “will they or won’t they” couplings. Tension is the backbone of literally any story—without narrative tension, there’s no plot. And when writing romance, there’s plenty of tension to be found between two characters with feelings for each other, especially if they’re uncomfortable with those feelings. Disagreement between a couple is also something that can really benefit a story as long as it has a purpose. Happy couples with no problems aren’t super interesting, so whether there are issues between the two characters or problems they’re dealing with together, keep the tension high, and drag it out.

Be aware of how much the couple fights and what it looks like when they do. It’s important in capturing the essence of a relationship.

Even in healthy relationships, there’s fighting. How someone handles disagreement says a lot about them, and how a couple fights says a lot about their problems and specific resentments. Constant fighting is likely to be indicative of an unhealthy relationship, but even some generally happy couples squabble a lot. Think about these things, and use arguments between your characters to get to the heart of their feelings for each other and show the reader how both people handle confrontation. If a relationship is a major subplot (or the main plot), I would usually try to include at least one disagreement between the characters, whether it’s one scene or a problem that runs throughout the story. Don’t make them fight if it doesn’t make sense, but people are difficult—chances are, if your characters are well developed, there will be reason for them to disagree.

Boundaries are something else to think about. How close and familiar are these people with each other?

Is your couple still in the “trying to fill awkward silences” phase, or are they talking to each other while pooping? Somewhere in between? How long have they been together, and are there things they would feel uncomfortable saying to or doing in front of one another? These are all questions you should be asking to get a feel for your characters and their relationship. Comfort level is one of the biggest “tone setters” in a romantic relationship, and it changes with time. Just something to be aware of.

Possibly have the couple find at least some of each other’s flaws or annoying idiosyncrasies cute.

One sure sign someone is in love is seeing the best in their partner; finding their annoying habits and minor character flaws endearing rather than irritating. Maybe person A never cleans up after themself, or thinks they’re always right. And person B, hopelessly in love with this asshole, isn’t even annoyed by their quirks. On the contrary, they embrace them. Having someone love your flaws, whether physical or personal shortcomings, is pretty amazing. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. That said, when translating this to fiction, make sure said “endearing quirks” are actually that, and not serious moral problems being accepted or minimized by a partner blinded by love (unless, of course, that’s the whole point).

It can make a couple more compelling if the reader finds one or both of the characters attractive (and it’s more about behavior than a character being physically attractive).

To be totally honest, all my favorite fictional couples include someone undeniably sexy (whether or not they’re traditionally good looking). Of course, not every fiction-worthy romance is going to include someone readers will be attracted to, and a relationship can still be riveting if the characters in it are awkward and have no concept of *smooth-talking*…but it’s something that can make your characters more likely to become fan favorites. And when writing attractive men, it’s all about the attitude. Some degree of cockiness and bad boy energy balanced by a good heart is something of a secret formula for me and many, many other women. Smirking is hot. Smirking + shirt sleeves rolled up exposing muscular forearms = squealing, fantasy triggered. Don’t be afraid to appeal to readers’ inner teenage girls.

Finally, the best advice an editor ever gave me on writing romantic relationships—make sure you know what they find in each other that they don’t find in anybody else.

Other than a sexual relationship. If you want your fictional couple to be interesting, complex, and endearing, there has to be some emotional need that only the character’s significant other can fill. Whether it’s understanding, comfort, or something else (and there are virtually limitless reasons two people could have for being together). Humans are by nature flawed and annoying—I tend to believe that whether a relationship is successful or not usually comes down to what flaws you can tolerate, and what you get from being with each other. In order to write a powerful romantic relationship that makes sense, the reader needs to know why the couple is together and why their relationship is special. Decide on the “motive” of the relationship, and remind yourself constantly as you write your lovers why they’re in love to begin with. 🖤