I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to how to develop character relationships in writing. I’ve never been a romance writer, and I’ve only read a few romances in my time. I tend to lean more towards science fiction and fantasy. Of course, there are always plenty of romantic subplots in sci fi, fantasy, and plenty of other genres. They just aren’t a primary focus, and they haven’t been something I delved into in deep detail in the past.
Like in many other works, my own series, Arcana Revived includes a couple of romantic subplots. The primary one is between the main protagonist, Gabby Palladino, and her love interest, Callia Gainsborough. To avoid spoilers I won’t go into too much detail about their relationship, but suffice to say it’s something that is developed in an ongoing fashion across the first few books I’ve written in the series so far. The more time I spend developing their relationship, the more I have to consider what elements make for a good relationship in fiction.
One thing that comes to mind is that most characters who end up in a romance plot seem to start off single, and their relationship sparks sometime early in the course of the plot. When I think of the various romantic plots I’ve read about, almost none of them involve characters who start off already involved at the beginning of the story. In fantasy series, some of the most prominent that come to mind are Richard and Kahlan from the Sword of Truth series, Rand and Min/Elayne/Aviendha from the Wheel of Time series, Caramon and Tika from the Dragonlance series, and dozens of examples in the Xanth series (many of which include interspecies romances between various fantasy races like humans, centaurs, zombies, dragons, and demons). Each of the examples involve couples that weren’t romantically involved at the beginning of the book, and the majority of them are characters who didn’t even know each other before the story began.
Based on these, and other fictional couples, it seems that part of the appeal to romance stories is developing the initial attraction and building up tension. Indeed, the “Will they or won’t they get together?” question seems to be a common trope that’s also seen across television and movies. It also seems that this tension can be played out across several stages of the relationship, from “Will they or won’t they kiss?” to “Will they or won’t they have sex?” and even “Will they or won’t they break up?” These questions link back to a basic conflict-building technique: give your character a goal, then put obstacles in the way of that goal to keep them from achieving it as long as possible. The first goal might be getting their love interest’s attention, then once they’ve achieved that the next goal may be a kiss, and so on and so forth. The tension and conflict of the relationship can, in such a way, be built up and carried on for quite some time.
The question, then, is how do you know when a romance is complete? The few romance novels I’ve read seem to go through several stages: courtship (developing interest between the characters), buildup of the relationship, a crisis (something that almost ends the relationship), a resolution, and finally an ending that implies there will be a “happily ever after” for the characters.
Is that “happily ever after” really the end, though? Aside from the potential for future conflicts related to marriage, children, and the various troubles that life throws at people, how do you know when the “story” of the relationship ends? It’s a bit of a different question than knowing the ending of the other conflicts I see in various stories. A mystery might end when the murder is solved, an adventure end when the treasure is recovered, a fantasy epic end when the evil wizard is defeated, and so on. A relationship, however, is an ongoing thing; if the relationship is expected to continue “ever after,” then it wouldn’t truly end until “death do us part.”
This thought brings to mind a topic I first read about in the book Radiant by James Alan Gardner. The plot of Radiant involves a character named Youn Suu traveling with another named Festina Ramos, as they try to solve the mystery of a dangerous planet and the alien powers there. In addition to the primary conflict, there is an additional conflict between these two characters based on their backgrounds and viewpoints. Youn Suu is a Buddhist and her viewpoints in the novel are largely inspired by Eastern cultures, while Festina’s viewpoints are more in line with Western cultures.
The difference between Eastern and Western cultures comes up frequently throughout the book, but one particular aspect is relevant to this discussion about character relationships. Gardner (writing in Youn Suu’s voice in first person) describes the difference between Eastern and Western heroes and the way stories are told and how they end (p. 84):
There’s nothing dearer to my people’s hearts than an admired soldier who refuses to break some minor Buddhist precept and, therefore, dies horribly. The more pain and mutilation, the better. In Eastern legends, death is always part of the story. Even if a hero dies peacefully at a ripe old age, you have to include that death as part of the hero’s tale. Many Western champions just vanish into the sunset or “live happily ever after,” as if death passes them by . . . but in the stories I heard growing up, the time and manner of a hero’s death were never glossed over. Often, they were the whole point.
While this concept is described in relation to a character as an individual, it can be applied to a relationship as well. This passage essentially describes the same “happily ever after” idea I mentioned earlier, where the audience assumes that a relationship continues without any serious problems long after the book, movie, or show has ended. If a writer were to apply this Eastern philosophy to a romance story, however, then the story would have to continue until the end of the relationship. This could either mean moving ahead to some time in the future when a couple breaks up or divorces, or following them until one or both of their deaths if the couple remains together until death does them part.
I’m not familiar with any romance novels that follow a relationship to this point, but I’d be curious to see how it would work. There are plenty of ways that a following a couple to their deaths could still lead to a happy ending. The most prominent example that comes to mind is the movie Bicentennial Man, which follows the main character and his wife right up to their death bed. They die on the same day. After spending a life together, there is a certain romanticism about the idea of a couple leaving the world together, so that they won’t have to live without each other.
I’ll be reading a lot more romance novels in the near future, especially since several of my Twitter friends are romance novelists and I’ve started buying their books. I’m curious to see how each of them ends . . . will their romances simply have a happily ever after, or will death do them part?