How To Build Up A Believable Romance

It's a question that gets asked a lot: "How can I build up a believable romance between my characters?" So, here's a breakdown and look at just how this can be done, and a few issues you might want to watch out for that could damage the relationship's believability.

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The basics of building up a believable romance - bilaterality all the way!

The basic formula for believably building up a romance is pretty simple. It runs thus:

Bilateral Romantic Chemistry + Bilateral Initiation of Romantic Gestures + Bilateral Acceptance and Reciprocation of Romantic Gestures + Bilateral Escalation of Romantic Gestures.

What does "bilateral" mean? It means that all of this stuff is coming from both partners the whole time, not from just one. One way to think of bilaterality in a relationship is to imagine someone who wants to play ball. If everything is bilateral, one person throws a ball to second, then the second throws it back to the first and so on and so forth. At first their moves are simple and cautious. But then they get brave. They start doing fancy little flourishes and eventually add in dance moves. And everything is awesome.

But if it's unilateral, what you have is someone who just keeps throwing balls at someone who does not want to play ball. There's nothing romantic here; The first person's behavior is annoying and uncomfortable. The second person does not secretly want to play ball deep down inside; the second person wants left alone. Also, there's a legal term for persisting in unwanted social contact: harassment.

So basically, if both partners are passing the ball back and forth, it's all good. If only one partner is tossing balls, it's all wrong.

In too many stories, things end up being unilateral until the very end (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), which makes for some unfortunate, even creepy overtones. Here are few examples of what this can look like:

Example 1: Partner 1 shows chemistry and initiates romantic action toward Partner 2, who does not. This happens over and over, until it escalates to some absurdly theatrical show of affection or act of heroism that makes P2 realize that P1's love is true. This makes P2 fall in love with P1.

In real life, unilateral escalation is creepy. There are just no two ways about it. It's also incredibly disrespectful to ignore someone's clear wishes to be left alone in this way. And when it comes to people's reasons for getting into a relationship with someone else, "didn't take me on a midnight gondola ride in Venice" or "didn't save me from a vampire overlord" are typically not among them, anyway.

Example 2: Partner 1 is constantly doing little favors for Partner 1. The idea here is that P2 is just too dense to appreciate what a catch P1 is. This will go on until someone outright tells P2 to wake up and smell the romance, or until P1 does something dramatic - like jump in front of a bullet or drive across three hundred miles of snowy tundra.

For whatever reason, the concept of P1 making a small flirtatious pass at P2 and seeing if it's reciprocated just never comes up. Somehow, it's assumed that the whole burden of initiation is on P2's shoulders, and that P2 is a prat for not making the first move or for not realizing that all of these little gestures add up to romantic interest.

Example 3: Partner 1 clearly has chemistry for Partner 2, who shows absolutely none - in fact, the "chemistry" that this character shows might as well be expressed in negative values. Yet others act as if P2 has "obvious chemistry" that P1 just isn't seeing, and encourage P1 on to keep trying to pursue P2. Eventually, P2 "warms up" and gives in to P1's advances.

This makes the other characters look like overzealous matchmakers who have no idea what they're talking about and so end up pressuring their friend into making very unwanted romantic advances. And if we assume that P2 actually does harbor secret affections, then we can likewise presume that P2 has personal reasons not to act on them, and that P1 owes it to P2 to respect those reasons, even if they remain unknown. And then we have to wonder: is P2's heart really in this, or is this person feeling pressured or obligated to act?

What this can look like in practice

First off, you want to set some groundwork with some romantic chemistry between them, and maybe a dash of infatuation.

A good early step would be for one character (P1) to invite another (P2) out someplace casual and non-intimate. This could be something like going out for coffee, out on a stroll, or out to play basketball. Maybe one character could volunteer to show the other around.

Another appropriate early step would be for one to pay a compliment to the other. (Do be aware that lewd or raunchy "compliments" or anything resembling pickup lines you find on the Internet are often perceived as tactless, and often mark someone as a creep.) And there's also giving a very simple gift - maybe a candy bar or a cup of coffee.

This is the point where acceptance and reciprocation comes into play. P2 might choose to go out and/or accept the compliment or gift with a thank you. Maybe P2, pleased with the way things are going and interested in seeing things go further, leans over a little closer to P1. Let's say that our lovebirds are standing on a bridge next to each other.

Ball's back in P1's court now. P1 might lean in a little closer, maybe to the point their arms touch. P2 might, in response, lean a little closer still. They might talk for awhile.

Let's throw in a curve ball now. P1 is feeling particularly courageous after all of this and chooses to slip an arm P2's shoulders. But P2 isn't comfortable with this and pulls away. P1 respects that this means that P2 isn't up for that yet, and does not try to press the issue. But P2 doesn't leave and is still happy to talk - so it's clear that P1's company isn't undesired. P2 just isn't ready for that yet.

As time progresses, P2 might eventually choose to take the lead, maybe putting an arm around P1 when feeling comfortable with it or maybe at some point surprising P1 with a simple, thoughtful gift - maybe a box of cookies or a music album. (Gifts shouldn't be too expensive or intimate early on, of course. The sexy nightie should wait until they're intimately physical with each other.) Remember, it's fine for both partners in a relationship to take the lead sometimes. If anything, it can come off as a sign of disinterest if one never initiates or tries to escalate.

Maybe at some later point, P1 holds a hand out invitingly to P2. P1 takes hold. Thus, their physical intimacy can gradually escalate. Maybe from here it eventually goes to kissing, and from kissing to something a little more steamy. Exactly what happens, and how fast, is up to you and how bold you think your characters are. Things can happen over a matter of days, weeks, or months.

It might even happen that now and again, one might just need to come out and ask what the other partner wants or is interested in. It's perfectly fine and healthy to just outright ask about something when the signals are muddled or when there's just no other real way to be sure. (And it's never healthy to expect a partner to just always know or pick up on these things.)

If they're young and inexperienced, they might be very nervous and very afraid of messing up somehow. They might be hesitant to move forward because they're in new and scary territory. They might slip up here and there in awkward ways and be terrified that they're going to be judged for it. If they're older and more experienced, they're less likely to be worried and much less likely to sweat the small stuff. They know that farting during one's most tender and intimate moments is just one of those things that happens sometimes and that anyone who judges them for it isn't worth having. They also have a much better idea of what they want, and they can often tell much faster whether someone else is up to par or not.

This is a model for physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy follows a very similar pattern - as a pair gets to know each other and feel like they can trust each other not to behave hurtfully or inconsiderately, they'll gradually get more and more comfortable sharing intimate and personal details with each other. Emotional intimacy is usually built up as physical intimacy is building up - but of course, for one reason or another might develop at a different rate.

All of this, of course, describes a healthy relationship. For an unhealthy relationship, one partner might use bully tactics to get physical and emotional intimacy out of the other regardless of how safe and secure the other partner feels. If that's what happens, well - let's hope the one getting bullied recognizes it for what it is and does something to put a stop to it.

And remember, if your aim is to write a romance story, then you're going to want to make sure their relationship isn't entirely smooth sailing. Your characters might end up having arguments or end up saying hurtful things to each other. They might end up with goals that seem irreconcilable. This is what gives your story its excitement and suspense - and remember, it's not having a relationship that's always perfect and flawless that's the real test of true love, but the couple's ability to work through their problems together.

Look out for issues between the pair that might realistically be deal-breakers.

Take a good, hard look at your pairing and ask yourself if there's anything that might realistically make one partner uneasy with the other, or uneasy with the whole idea of a relationship (even if an attraction is there).

Is there anything that one partner does that might make the other feel unsafe? Unheard? Drained? Does one constantly say callous and unkind things to the other, yet never truly apologizes for them nor makes a real effort to stop? Is one of them unreliable or untrustworthy? Is one of them a mooch? Does one seem overly needy or clingy? Does one of them act in manipulative ways or try to play mind games? If problems like these seem to be prominent from the start, people might have a hard time understanding why they'd end up starting a relationship, short of one of them being a doormat, or not having a lot of sense, and/or having an abnormally low sense of self-preservation.

Does one character act in ways that the other would consider immoral or unethical, and shows no interest in stopping? This is usually an immediate deal-breaker - people don't want to be with someone who goes around committing actions they feel are deeply wrong.

Or does one of the character have a life goal that a relationship would severely hinder? That can put someone off from wanting to start a relationship, even if the attraction is there. Or has one character shown no interest in or chemistry with the other for a long period of time? It might feel forced if this person is suddenly romantically interested in the other.

If they have strong issues between them, will these issues be solved over the course of the story? Will they experience character development that makes them change their behaviors? Will they have a heart-to-heart, talk it out, and find a solution that works for both of them? Will they ultimately end up in couples counseling or divorce court after ignoring their better judgment early on and going into a relationship anyway?

Now, fiction sometimes treats lavish gifts, physical affection, or acts of heroism as something that can make issues into non-issues, but this is false. Such things might be effective distractions for awhile, but the issues are still lurking below to create tension beneath the surface - and not the romantic kind. There's only one way to deal with unresolved issues, and that's the hard way: to talk about it and work out actual solutions and make necessary apologies. For example, if one half of the pair is being too domineering, then they need to discuss how that makes the other partner feel and discuss what they might do about these domineering behaviors. Or if one half feels emotionally neglected, then they might talk about what the other partner can do to meet those emotional needs.

In summary!

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Basic Tips To Write Healthy Relationships
More Tips For Portraying Believable, Functional, & Healthy Relationships
Yet More Tips To Portray Believable & Healthy Friendships & Romances
How To Avoid Creating Shallow Love Interests & Shallow Best Friends

Things To Avoid When Writing Romance Novels
So You Want To Have An Attractive Character?
Tips To Create & Write Creepy Characters & Situations (Good for knowing what kinds of things you might want to avoid.)

Couple Development Questions
Basic Tips To Write Intimate Scenes

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