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I have a romance arc as one of the major series-long plots of my story. In the first major story arc, the two romantic leads aren't actively together as a couple, this part of the story focuses on when they first met to the point where they realize that they have mutual feelings for one another. Essentially, they both have crushes on one another, but they don't even realize it at first and the two aren't aware of how important each is to the other until the climax.

However, I am having difficulty characterizing the early part of their relationship when their feelings for each other are not overt to sell the sexual tension between them. As a result, the two characters seem to jump from being relative strangers to both being aware that they have mutual feelings for the other. They just seem to "fall into" a relationship rather than have it develop naturally. Making it harder is the fact that a third party, a female best friend, seems to develop potentially romantic chemistry more naturally with both of them than they do with each other. The big issue is the two leads have to be aware of their own unrequited feelings for each other by the climax in order to make the first arc's climax and the broader plot work.

I've been trying to avoid "love at first sight" tropes, not only because I find them frequently unsatisfying from a reader's perspective but also because the genre I am writing in has an issue with poorly written "love at first sight" plots. However, I also know that many techniques authors use to characterize sexual tension between characters have been criticized for being creepy or sexist, for example the recent depiction of Flash and Iris West in the Snyder-cut Justice League.

The novel is written in third-person limited, so it's not possible to give the reader a look into the character's heads to see what they are thinking and thus clue them in that there are feelings going on.

Adding to this difficulty is that the girl is a stoic who is oblivious to social cues and barely even understands her own emotions on a good day, whereas the guy is very shy and introverted (and is somewhat intimidated by her) and so is unlikely to try wooing her in a traditionally masculine way (read: by acting like an idiot). I can't use the cliche of them bickering because they like each other because that's not the kind of relationship they have. I think this is part of the reason the female best friend comes off as having a developing relationship, because this character is more extroverted and hence it is easier to read her actions as being driven by subconscious feelings.

The two leads do seem to have some chemistry together, writing later scenes for them they seem to do rather well together, but the problem is if I cannot establish that chemistry early on and get the characters over that hump it comes off as me retconning them into having good chemistry rather than writing a satisfying relationship.

I know there's a lot of questions about how to write romantic relationships on this site, but what I'm specifically wondering about is how to bridge the gap between very early stages of the relationship, from when people first meet as strangers to when they become aware of their feelings for one another. The broader problem is I am trying to figure out how to depict and write two characters with a crush on one another, both before and after they realize they are in love but before they actively try to attract the other and am coming up blank. I can't even draw on my own experiences because I've never been in that situation myself. I honestly don't know how people with a crush on each other act.

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    "The novel is written in third-person limited, so it's not possible to give the reader a look into the character's heads to see what they are thinking" I assume you mean it's in third person limited from the perspective of someone else who isn't one of these two characters? – DM_with_secrets Mar 28 at 10:44
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    @DM_with_secrets I'm not sure. Basically the scenes are being told from the perspective of a third-person narrator, so the audience is neither totally omniscient as to what is going on nor following the thought process of one specific character. Looking this up I think the right term is third-person limited. – user2352714 Mar 29 at 17:12
  • Ah, okay. I'd probably class that as omniscient, even if the narrator doesn't tell us everything. I think of third person limited as being inside one character's head (or one character per scene), and similar to first person except for the pronouns. Then again, I don't think it's as clear as that binary divide, I'm not a fan of rules, and I'd rather have a clear narrator even if that goes against the prevailing orthodoxy, so shrug. – DM_with_secrets Mar 29 at 18:26
  • But anyway, the point was that I wanted to make sure you knew that third person limited, as commonly used, does let you get into the characters' heads, just only one character per scene (or often per chapter). Regardless, if you're not in these particular characters' heads, you're not in their heads. – DM_with_secrets Mar 29 at 18:27
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Subtlety, Subtlety, Subtlety:

You want to handle this very subtly. Every interaction is an opportunity to present the attraction while making it clear they don't understand themselves or each other. Whenever the characters are together, you can add one or more of these elements, and even if the reader doesn't know this is a sign of attraction, the fact that you as a writer mentioned it draws attention to the detail. Readers are smart, and unless you are giving opposite signs to your readers about people, they'll get the vibe about the attraction.

I had a similar story element in a story between two girls who were convinced the other person couldn't possibly be attracted to them. I googled signs of romantic attraction and followed down the list. Picking up each other's glasses. Breathing deep when leaning in to the other person. Pupils dilating when they see the other person. Making excuses to spend time being close to the other person. Being oblivious to overt advances by other people than the interest. Thinking about the other person at odd and random times. Obsessing about personal appearance when the other is present, but not caring otherwise. Awkward, clumsy dialog followed by feelings of shame at their clumsiness. Forgiving the other person for genuine insensitivity, but getting upset at their own frustrations and acting out at random. The list goes on and on, and almost every rom-com you've ever seen is full of them.

Here are a few sights to look at, and honestly it reads like a bad teen magazine, but it gets the point across.

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Good news, there is lot of ways to do that. Bad news, they have all been tried and fall into beaten tropes.

  1. Personal commitment. Make one or both of your characters already married, engaged or having ostensibly strong feeling for someone else. Then, near the end, use some kind of a plot device to release them from this commitment;

  2. Commitment to destiny. Make one or both of your characters destined for life which excludes marriage. It can be some kind of religious occupation, or disease which is certain to consume them - in either case, falling in love and thinking about the future together would seem preposterous.

  3. Unequal status. Make one of your characters royalty, and the other commoner, or make a considerable age difference between them.

  4. Lampshade. Make it that others find romantic relationship and marriage prospects for your characters obvious, and keep questioning them "So, when?" This would produce resistance and rejection in your characters, and the instant (and even honest!) answer from them would be "You've got the wrong idea!"

  5. A non-romantic persona. Make one characted (both would be harder) a non-romantic type of a character - obsessed with something else and flat-out rejecting any idea of love and relationship.

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