Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I hadn’t intended for my next article to address love, but the topic came up in another context and so . . . (You didn’t want an article on adverbs, did you?)
Love, romance, and sex feature in many works of fiction. We’ve looked at ways to include sex in stories, but today I want to look at romantic love, at the importance, especially for romances, of showing characters falling in love. Yet the advice here is not solely for writers of romance.
You may write a story in which a couple are already in love and there’s no need to show them falling in love. Telling the reader that they’re in love may be sufficient for some stories, as simple as adding what amounts to a line of description.
Roger wore his shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple, his belt at the second tightest hole, and his love for Ginger in his eyes.
We typically want/need to see love in action in order to believe it, but sometimes telling is enough. If the description came from the thoughts of an adoring older sister, the protagonist, it might be easier to see that it’s probably sufficient for nailing particular aspects of Roger’s personality, at least in the eyes of his sister.
My youngest brother was such a goof. He wore his shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple, his belt at the second tightest hole, and his love for his wife in his eyes.
If your narrator is believable, it’s likely that this expression of love will be believed by the reader and will be sufficient for conveying Roger’s love for his wife. We wouldn’t need to see every little thing he did that conveyed his affections.
So there are situations when you don’t need to show love in action. This may be true for descriptions of secondary characters or in stories where the love element is a minor one.
And yet it’s so very easy to show even established love through a simple action or response.
Nalla dropped her fork before she even took the first bite. Shaking his head, John handed her his, leaned to the floor to snatch up the dirty one, and wiped it on his sleeve. He took a heaping bite of the lasagna and then grinned, pasta squeezing from between his teeth.
Love in action is easy to portray in fiction and yet easy to forget to include as well. My suggestion is that you not forget to show love.
It’s likely that you’re familiar with the different ways of expressing love—author and counselor Gary Chapman wrote a book detailing five ways that we show others we love them, and others have made the same kind of observations. Just as individuals have different ways of learning, they also have different ways of expressing love. We also have different ways we want to experience love ourselves. That is, what says love to me may not be the same as what says love to you.
To one woman, gifts from a lover tell her she is loved. For another woman, words of love—in person, through texts or letters—confirm that she is loved. A third woman’s husband might declare his love by keeping her gas tank full and the car in shape, and she may revel in that practical declaration of his love.
Sometimes lovers need only to spend time together, either participating in events that they do as a couple or simply sharing a room as one reads the paper while the other cooks dinner. One member of the couple may prefer to be alone, but if the other is a be-with or do-with person, the one who gives up time alone to be with the loved one is showing love by being with his beloved.
Touching and physical contact—from comforting stroking to holding hands to passionate caresses—are other ways we show love. Some may need more touching than others, but no matter how great the need to touch or be touched, it is a valid expression of love.
The expression of love is vital to relationships and therefore it’s vital for fiction. Love’s expression doesn’t need to overwhelm other aspects of a story, but if love should be present in your novel, you need to give thought to the way it’s portrayed.
Not every novel will feature a love element, though many do. And while there are other types of love—love for friends and family and dreams—I’m addressing romantic love here.
If love is an element far down the list of ingredients necessary for your story—maybe it’s there, but only as background—you can simply show love through an action or a thought, using one of the ways we understand love to be expressed. You may need to show this love more than once, but on the other hand, you may not. The number of references to and examples of love in action or word is dependent upon the importance of love to the story.
If love isn’t a major element of the story, doesn’t figure in the major characters’ setbacks and motivations and goals, then only a few mentions of love or examples of love in action are necessary. Treat love as an established fact, just like any other detail you include.
However, if love plays a major role in your story, especially in romances, you’ve got to do more than tell us that men and women love. You’ve got to show love. You’ve got to make the reader fell that the love is real. Simply saying that Ford loves Annie is not enough. Not until the reality of that love has been established. In romance, you typically have to show the characters falling in love. Even for characters rekindling their love—those not meeting for the first time and falling in love—you’ve got to put the love on the page.
See and Feel
Readers want to see and feel love. That’s one of the major draws of romance and of novels with romantic elements. The jolt of passion, the sweetness of a first glance, the heat of a second glance can stir readers. And readers want to be stirred.
Readers come to story for many different reasons, but they often want to feel. They want to experience what the characters experience. And when you promise love in one form or another, readers want the kick and the rush and the overwhelming wonder of love.
Readers want to experience love as if they’re the ones falling in love. And if you’re the writer, you’re the one who has to make love real, even though fictional love is very often different from real love.
It’s the perception that’s important. If readers feel the connection you’ve created between characters, they can believe those character have fallen in love. And the readers can actually feel the joy and high of that emotion.
If your characters are supposed to fall in love—that is, if at some point you declare that they have fallen in love—you need to give them reasons throughout the story for that growing love.
Why does one character fall for another? What is it about a particular man that engages a woman’s heart? Why does a woman fall in love with Sam rather than Dennis?
You have to include the reasons Molly falls for Sam. You have to show Sam doing and saying things that catch her attention, that speak to something inside her, that stir her. You have to create that something inside her that’s looking for a complement or an answer in another character.
You have to make Sam do something that knocks her off balance.
The writer’s duty is to create a need in one character that’s met by a trait, shown through behavior, in another character. And the writer needs to give the reader multiple opportunities to see the need in one character as well as see (in operation) the trait of the character who meets that need.
That is, both the need and the answering trait that will fulfill that need must be shown. And you need to show the need of both parties as well as the fulfilling trait of both parties—this is not a one-way street, with only the heroine needing something from her hero. Both have needs and both fulfill needs.
When I can’t see reasons that characters fall for one another in manuscripts, I’ll ask the writer what is in a character that makes another character love him or her. What is the draw? The attraction? What makes attraction deepen into affection and then into love? What is the fascination, the mental, spiritual, and physical connection?
What makes the characters worthy of love? What makes them worthy of a particular man’s or woman’s love?
In romances and in all stories where love plays a major role, these elements need to be clear. Not necessarily in-your-face obvious, but one-step-leads-to-the-next-step clear.
Readers need to see what calls from one character to another and how characters fit and complement one another.
This can be done through action, through dialogue, through facial expressions, and through thoughts.
So you create characters with needs and then you create characters who fulfill those needs. You may even create multiple characters who might be seemingly right for your heroine and then have to give one something special that tilts the balance in his favor. Making a character choose between two possible love interests is one way to push the conflict and tension.
Once you give characters reasons to fall in love—remembering that you have to give both members of a couple reasons to love—you have to show them falling in love. You have to create situations that allow them to see each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You have to show—multiple times—the traits that complement the other character.
A hero in a romance doesn’t fall in love because his sister tells him her best friend would be perfect for him. In fact, that’s a way to guarantee that he won’t fall for the friend. (Until he meets her, of course.)
What you have to do instead is put the characters into situations where something in her calls out to him, something that demands they spend time together so he can figure her out, something that demands he get to know her.
At the same time, she needs to see something in him that intrigues her, that calls both to the need within her and to the strengths in her that complement him or that would fulfill his needs.
And all this goes on while other parts of their personalities rub each other the wrong way, creating friction and maybe even animosity. But that draw you created between them, that draw that goes both ways, grows increasingly stronger until it obliterates or negates the reasons they claim not to like or love or want one another.
Your job is to show that attraction growing and escalating, to make it grow and escalate.
When falling in love is part of the story, readers need to see it happen, need to gauge whether or not the love is real.
If readers don’t see reasons for love to grow or don’t see the love unfolding before them, they won’t believe it. And readers not believing the love in a love story is disastrous for that story and maybe for your reputation.
Characters can’t simply declare their love and be believed by readers when there’s been no reason for them to fall in love: the falling-in-love parts need to take place center stage, in scenes. You can and should also show growing love through narrative summary, but it can’t all be summary. Readers need to see Paul’s smile when he sees Rosemary crossing a room, even when she can’t see that smile. Readers need to see Paula cooking the third of three roasting chickens for Ben’s birthday feast after the first fell on the floor, into the mouths of eager dogs, and the second set the oven on fire. Readers need to see Joshua taking up for his fiancée at their engagement party when her drunk brothers go overboard and start spilling embarrassing secrets about her.
The whole range of actions that make up the falling-in-love arc should happen before the reader’s eyes.
We must see and understand and feel the love. We must see the initial attraction. And not only see it, but feel it. Resonate with it. We must see the deepening attraction. We must see the stages of love.
We must see reasons one character admires another.
We must see the respect and the tenderness and the passion as characters connect, as love wraps around them to make connections that no other characters in the story have. Connections that turn two individuals into a new unit that never before existed.
You must make the characters work as a couple, make them fit. You must not only make them individually appealing to each other and to the reader, but you must make them successful as a couple. The readers should have reasons to want them together, to cheer them on.
For readers to be involved and invested, they must see the connections build and feel the reactions in their own guts and hearts and minds.
They must understand how need or weakness in one character is met by a trait or strength of another character.
While physical attraction can be the catalyst that brings a couple together, that’s not enough to hold them together. They must find traits to admire and respect, and the writer must create multiple ways to show that respect and admiration to the reader.
In addition, the writer also has to show why both parties are reluctant to commit and show—in scenes—how that reluctance is overcome.
Reluctance can be overcome and love can deepen when the couple has to work together to defeat another character or to head off disaster (disaster being relative here). So showing a couple doing together what neither partner could do alone is a great way to show that love has arrived.
Moving from individuals with different needs and interests to a couple with shared needs and drives and interests is part of the progression of characters falling in love. Make sure that your lovers get the chance to do something that they couldn’t have done alone or that would have cost them greatly to achieve on their own.
And don’t be stingy with the reasons for their love. Give them multiple connections at a variety of levels. Give them multiple reasons to fall in love. Weave the love connection through them, linking them at more than one place.
Make being a couple satisfying to them. Make it a positive. No, this doesn’t mean that their lives are a rosy slice of heaven, without conflict. It does mean that the reasons to love and to commit to one another are stronger than the reasons to remain apart. This too is part of the falling-in-love arc, the realization that they are better off as a couple than as individuals.
The Bottom Line
Give characters reasons to fall in love
Make those reasons clear to the reader
Make those reasons fit the characters individually and as a couple
Make the characters fit one another—give them complementary traits
Show the characters falling in love through multiple events and across multiple scenes
Give them setbacks
Love is a big deal—make characters work for it; make them value it; make it cost both parties something precious to them
Make readers see and feel the love as it grows
Make readers believe the love is real