I have been arguing with a friend for the past few days about romance, chemistry, and relationships in writing. In the course of our conversations, I said something that made me think about something that has been obvious to me for a long time.

A relationship is its own character.

I’ve been reading a hell of a lot of books recently: anything written by Josh Lanyon (but especially his Adrien English series), just finished “Matched” by Ally Condie, I’m halfway through “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld, and I recently read “Discord’s Apple” by Carrie Vaughn. A quick plug: Josh Lanyon is m/m (male/male) or LGBT. His books are PHENOMENAL, his character building and world building are AMAZING. Not to mention his storytelling is out of this world. Check out anything by him to see all of the following points illustrated masterfully.

Now, I’m going to address three key points by using the other three books as examples that I found while reading. SPOILER ALERT. I will be half-reviewing, half-discussing these books so don’t read further if you don’t want to know what happens in the books. You have been warned!

The Void

What is it about the relationship that fills the void that the two characters feel within themselves? This may sound selfish but at the subconscious level, people only think about themselves. The way that this manifests can range from: turning the people around you against each other to prove that they love you, to altruistically helping others to feel like you are useful and valuable as a person. Yes, charity is a selfish act (as are all acts). The justification (I am helping others) is the excuse we give ourselves for the real reason we do it (I feel good about myself when I do something that I feel is helping others). This is the same in a relationship.

At the subconscious level, we are with the person we love because that other person makes us feel a certain way. It would be easy to say “I love her because she’s smart” or “I love him because he understands me.” But more accurate descriptions would be: “I love her because she makes me feel smart by talking to her, because she knows so much and other people think she is smart, therefore I look smart for being with her” or “I love him because I feel understood when I talk to him and that makes me feel valued.”

Just like a character, a relationship changes and grows depending on the circumstances and times in which they occur. Let’s look at “Uglies.” (I really enjoyed it and definitely suggest it). In the beginning of the story, our main character (MC) Tally appears to be in love with her best friend Peris, who has just had his operation to be “pretty” and has moved to New Pretty Town. Being younger than him, Tally has to wait a couple of months before she will have her own operation and be with him. Let’s look at their relationship through the void that the other fills for them.

Tally: Peris is her best friend, therefore she has a strong emotional connection with him. He plays tricks with her and spends time with her, and he made a vow to always be with her. He represents a continuation of the norm, the expected life, and a person who has known her since childhood. Peris fills Tally’s void of needing something constant in her life, something to look forward to, but also something comfortable and dependable. It is mentioned (much to Tally’s discomfort) that Peris has dated other girls. She is seemingly okay with this, because she knows they will be together in the future. Not much passion here but a bond is evident. The way I see it, she’s not really in love with him but views him as a dear friend, based on her void.

Peris: just operated into a pretty, Peris has begun the expected life. He has self confidence gained by external means and has very clear expectations for his life. Tally, the constant, will continue being constant (so she must get the operation in order to fill his void of being normal). Notice how his motivation and Tally’s motivation for being together is nearly identical. This means that their goals are in alignment, at least at first. Therefore, it makes sense for them to have a relationship in the beginning of the book. Later, however, when Tally’s motivations change and the experiences she has makes her want different things, then she and Peris come into conflict with one another.

The strength of the motivation and the alignment of their true goals will determine how believable your romantic couple is. If they are together for superficial reasons, they will be superficially in love – perhaps even superficial as characters as well. It is important to determine 1) what it is the two characters lack, and 2) how they find it WITH THAT OTHER SPECIFIC CHARACTER. If any other character can slide into this slot, then you have a problem. True love isn’t just about attraction: Romeo is in love with Juliet and no other. No other character is like Juliet. Find the other half.

Get Over Yourself

In order to enter into a real, mature, adult relationship, a character has to be able to look beyond their own problems. Before you even look at how the character interacts with their love interest, they have to be able to stand on their own two feet. This is one reason I’ve had a problem with the Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer for a long time now. Bella Swan, the MC, has no personality, motivation, hopes, fears, dreams, or anything else outside of her love interest, Edward. Let’s take Edward out of the picture for a second and look at Bella in the first couple (boring) chapters of Twilight before she meets him. She complains. She drifts. She has no purpose. She has no depth. She isn’t a real person, therefore when she is paired with Edward, the chemistry doesn’t feel real. Edward is an interesting character so you can easily ignore Bella’s lack of personality for a time, but again, there is no depth. She has plenty more chemistry with Jacob Black than she does with Edward.

Anyway, back to the subject of this section, your character needs to get over their own problems in order to enter into a relationship. Why? Because if you’re too self absorbed in your own problems, your character won’t have the time or attention to notice the person who is in love with them. I’m thinking of Tera Lynn Childs’ “Forgive My Fins.” The MC Lily is so absorbed in her own problems: needing to find a mate so she can rule her kingdom by a cut-off date, getting the attention of a boy she has been drooling over for years, leading a double life – that she completely misses Quince, the guy who has been in love with her since he first met her, the fact that the guy she likes is a total dick and proves it the second she reveals her secret to him, and that her behavior only hurt her kingdom. That she was the one putting pressure on herself, making everything harder for no reason.

It wasn’t until she saw over her own problems and peeked into someone else’s life that she was finally able to get into a serious romantic relationship. The most telling scene was in the “interview” part of her courtship with Quince, when he knows the answer to every question about Lily and she knows absolutely nothing about him. Her obsession with her own problems made her blind to someone who lived next to her for years.

Scared of Your Own Shadow

Having a character who avoids confrontation, strong emotion, or discomfort sets you up for creating a character with no depth. This is one of those seriously tricky traps that are very, very easy to fall into. This is true for character building as well as for relationships, romantic and platonic.

There are naturally going to be times during your story when your character is not going to like whatever is going on. Murder, massacre, bullying, losing a family member, forgetting their homework… whatever it is, it can be uncomfortable even for the writer. We love our darlings, why should we make them suffer?

The problem with shielding our characters, allowing them to get away with avoiding difficult situations is that there is no room for growth. In Carrie Vaughn’s “Discord’s Apple,” I seriously hated one of the MCs, Evie. She’s weak and pathetic, avoiding strong emotions or difficult situations by diving into her comic book scripting. She tries to channel her feelings into a creative outlet but the result is less than stellar. Her character has no depth because she has no self reflection. She isn’t interesting. In fact, when she has a sudden romantic thing with Sinon (a character I loved and felt had tremendous character growth), it simply doesn’t make sense. They have no chemistry together, nothing in common. All they appear to have is sheer physical attraction, which can be realistic and allowed, but it certainly doesn’t feel like love. Evie could have been any other woman and Sinon could have reacted the same way. There is nothing about Evie herself that makes her hold her own weight in the relationship arena.

I had a similar feeling to Ally Condie’s “Matched.” While I enjoyed the book more than Vaughn’s, I had trouble seeing Cassia (the MC’s) chemistry with Xander, her predestined match. Even as a friend, their connection seemed flimsy. Xander seemed more invested in her than she in him. I felt that Cassia shined at certain times of the book, such as when she refused to take the red pill, but at other times she crumbled from weakness. It didn’t feel authentic.

In Summary:

1) The Void: find what it is the character is lacking that their paired couple fulfills.

2) Get Over Yourself: you need to stop living within your own gravitational sphere and look beyond into someone else’s soul before you can truly love them.

3) Scared of Your Own Shadow: let your character feel strong emotions and deal with difficult situations. Avoiding it will just weaken your character and lose you author points with the reader.