Sexuality is a large part of who we are as persons and it influences many decisions we make. Sadly, I don't know how to make a romance subplot believable.

Are there any good guidelines to creating characters' love-story arcs? Any good articles about it? What are some common pitfalls to look out for? Are there any good analyses of good and bad romance stories in recent pop culture?

How do I make a romance believable?

  • Have edited the question lightly to focus it, adding the final line to reiterate the main point, which boiled down to "how do I do this?" I hope this is in line with what you intended, but please feel free to revert my edit if I'm incorrect. Apr 26, 2012 at 17:27
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    @NeilFein Don't be such an apologetic editor! You're a community mod; we trust your judgement. If anyone ever has any misgivings I'm sure they'll say so. Apr 26, 2012 at 20:16
  • @Aerovistae - Thanks for the vote of confidence, I appreciate that a lot. But I figure that the Stack Exchange model is tough enough to write for already, and politeness never hurts. Apr 26, 2012 at 20:27

2 Answers 2


Off the top of my head--

  • If the romance is indeed a *sub*plot, keep it that way. Don't let it take over and become a central plot thread, which is easy to do. It should complement the story, not distract from it.

  • I think romantic dialogue is the easiest place to accidentally cliche yourself up a wall by getting too serious. "Never let go!" Don't do it. As I said, for a subplot, romance is the easiest thing to let become more serious than it should be. I'll use my favorite example -- Star Wars. Han Solo and Princess Leia have that romantic thing going on for three movies, and how does it manifest itself? As deep and significant proclamations of desire and affection? Hell no, it manifests as constant bickering. They can't keep off each other's backs, and it makes for awesome and oftentimes hilarious dialogue. All the while becoming used to one another and learning to rely on each other. That's not to say everyone argues all the time, but real romance is never like Romeo and Juliet.

  • I think the real key, the most important thing, is knowing your characters. Don't try to have Billy fall for Leona until you know what it is about Leona that attracts him, and how he would go about trying to pursue her, if indeed he has the courage to do so in the first place. If you don't know Billy, how can you know what he would do in a romantic situation? You can't create a living, breathing relationship before you have two living, breathing people to experience it. Carefully and thoroughly build your characters before placing them in a situation. This goes for all of narrative writing, not just romance.

  • This is largely a rephrasing of the last bullet, but it may add a little more depth to it. Remember-- people have reasons and motivations for everything they think and do, and also for the way they perceive things. If Jo-Lee becomes upset with Daniel and won't answer his texts, it's not a random thing, and it's not because of something stupid and contrived. She has a serious reason, or at least a reason that seems very serious to her. The reader needs to see things through the character's eyes. We need to sympathize. Make us understand why your characters are romantically involved, and why their romance is going the way it is, for better or for worse.

  • Sometimes it'll seem like you did it badly, but really it wasn't the content-- it was the writing itself. Sometimes you'll have the right idea but just write it badly so that it doesn't come across well. Be careful to differentiate. It might be a good idea to take something that seems shallow and just rewrite it. Same events, different phrasing. Make sure you know where the problem really lies. The best way to identify this is if everything seems to make perfect sense to you. Thanks to this cause, there was this effect, and so on. Perfect sense, but it still reads stupidly. What am I doing wrong? Rewrite it. Maybe tweak it a little, polish, but keep the essence. Go to great lengths to make the sequence of interactions between the two (three? four?) characters as realistic as possible.

  • Another very important point is to remember is that perception is a thing that grows and changes with experience, particularly with respect to the way you view another person. Let me be more clear. Speaking from personal experience, the two girls I've been closest to in my life, I had classes with for 1-2 years each without even noticing them. One of them was assigned as my lab partner twice and I still found her boring and pretty much disregarded her. A year later she came to my room one night on a whim and we stayed up til 4am talking, and out of nowhere we soon each became one of the other's closest friends. Separately, another girl who I met and liked right off the bat, after spending time with for two months, we realized we had almost nothing in common and mostly stopped talking to one another. This goes for friendships, coworkers, acquaintances-- every sort of relationship, and especially romantic ones. The way two people see one another changes over time. This is one of the most important elements of realism with regard to writing relationships.

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    The core of this is, I think, make it real. Write about how people actually behave, not how they are often portrayed. And make this real to your characters too. Apr 26, 2012 at 11:36

Here's a great article by Mette Ivie Harrison: How To Write Romance (in Fantasy), published in OSC's Intergalactic Medicine Show. I think it's particularly appropriate to your question because it focuses on romances as subplots, romance combined with other elements.

Harrison starts out by rejecting "category romance" and obiquitous mishandlings of fictional romance. She has many valuable suggestions, but at the core, she suggests that a compelling romance should have:

  • Characters who, while they may have deep flaws, are also deeply good (because romance relies on the characters being sympathetic to the reader).
  • Characters who have a unique need for each other - but not dependence. Each one elevates the other in some (possibly unexpected) way; that drives home the romance. But if one character can't live or function without the other, the relationship becomes a pathetic one which doesn't gain a reader's respect.

In terms of plot, she suggests these elements:

  • An external obstacle - the major thing keeping the two characters apart. She writes: As a writer, you should set up the world at the beginning that would make it difficult for the two characters to fall in love and get married. Then the rest of the novel is playing this out, and you as a writer have to figure out the way out of the pit along with the characters and the reader.
  • Having the main characters make mistakes; this is the stuff of drama and tragedy, which gives weight to your characters and story.
  • Sacrifice, similarly, is the classic way to portray monumental choices and character development. It's a great capstone to a story, cementing life choices in a focused dramatic decision. Harrison writes: I think this sacrifice needs to be on both sides for me to love the romance. If the sacrifice is unequal, I always end up wondering if in a couple of months, one of the couple will decide it wasn't worth it, after all.

The entire article is well worth reading. (She uses many examples from Pride and Prejudice, which is even more well worth reading.)

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