Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Believable Young Adult Romance

One of the biggest complaints I see in reviews of YA romance novels, or YA novels that include a strong romantic element, is that the reader didn't understand why the MC (main character) has romantic feelings for the LI (love interest). It didn't feel believable enough for the reader to buy into it. And when the reader doesn't believe in their romance, everything about the MC and LI's relationship becomes annoying.

This may seem a trivial thing to quibble over, but believable romance between characters is a story element that falls under the umbrella of Things That Will Make or Break Your Story. It could mean the difference between a reader liking a book and loving it.

The problem is, How do you make the reader see a character's reason for falling in love with someone? When asked for the reasons behind your feelings, the answers don't come easy. If you asked me why I love my husband of 12+ years, I'll give you a different answer every time. And I'm an adult and I know I'm love. It's even harder for teenagers to justify things they might be experiencing for the very first time.

So. I think the better question is, How do you make the reader see how the LI is affecting the MC, making them feel like they're in love? Whether they are actually in a lasting relationship or not is beside the point. In that moment, in that situation, they feel like they're truly in love, and your job as a writer is to make the reader feel what the characters feel. Anything beyond that is too analytical, and over-analysis has a way of souring a story experience.

When I'm reading a YA novel and the viewpoint character suddenly goes into an internal monologue that is quite obviously meant to explain to the reader why he/she feels so strongly about the LI, it always (always!) has to opposite effect on me that the author intended. They want me to know exactly why these two feel the way they do.

But that isn't realistic. Love isn't something you can really explain.

Love is





Most of the time, you don't know why you're in love, you just know that you are.

If we look at reviewer comments more closely, we find the heart of the problem. They say things like, I don't understand why the MC is so in love with the LI because...

...he's so annoying.
...he's a user.
...she's always mean to him.
...she's a flake.
...all he does is shrug.
...all she does is whine.

It goes on and on. What the readers are trying to tell us, the authors, is that they don't love the characters as individuals--they don't see any reason why someone else would love them, either. They won't believe in a romantic relationship between two unlovable characters.

So the key to creating a believable romance lies in first making the reader fall in love with the MC and the LI, and showing the reader why these two characters, despite their flaws, are good for each other. Once the reader has been hooked with that sense of wanting the two characters to see what the reader already sees, eagerly anticipating the moment the characters realize they're in love, the romance between them is both believable and satisfying.

The key to making the reader fall in love with your characters and showing how these two characters are good for each other lies in the details of character action, interaction, dialogue, and viewpoint.

These little details that show they are:

1. Getting to know each other.
2. Acting on that knowledge in ways they wouldn't have before they knew each other.

Their relationship grows and squeezes them closer together.

This technique works for any type of romantic relationship, whether it's male/female, male/male, or female/female. And yes, you can write believable romance from the male point of view. In fact, I'd love to see more of that (which is why I'm writing it myself). Boys fall in love, too!

Layering details like this throughout the novel builds the romance toward a satisfying ending, no matter what obstacles the couple face along the way. At some point they will realize what they truly feel and how it has changed them, for the better.

No overt explanation required. Just sit back and feel the love.

Who are your favorite fictional couples? What makes you believe in a character's romance?

Happy writing,


  1. So, romance is both unexplainable and subtle?

    This is actually useful information. I was planning to write a tangent for my narrator where he goes off about why he still wasn't in a relationship, having him end by indirectly calling his romantic interest an a**hole (due to actions taken out by that character earlier). Now I'm unsure if it's needed.

    1. So, romance is both unexplainable and subtle?

      Pretty much, haha. But as a writer you have to understand how it works to be able to pull off the necessary subtlety without explaining it. Extremely. Tough. Good romance writers don't get nearly enough credit for what they do, in my opinion.

    2. Thinking about it, I should consider some of the possible gestures that pushes the relationship from its complicated mess into apparent romance. Probably a few instances here and there, with brief thoughts that barely interrupt the narrative:

      * "Stop dragging me by the hand!"
      * Is this his way of apologizing?
      * He's stepping too close to me.
      * Wait a minute, did he...?
      * Oh, s***! He's having a panic attack, must--".

      Now you're getting me more interested on cultivating this newly blossomed romance arc.

      By the way, I'm in an online roleplay where I'm planning a romance between my character and another player's character. Do you think we can get away with jumping from "oblivious to love" to "sleeping together" under a week if one of the partners involved can read and control emotions, and the Game of Death they're in pushes at least one of them over the edge?

      Let's say their romance arc is probably not going to end well, probably because of forcing it.

    3. Do you think we can get away with jumping from "oblivious to love" to "sleeping together" under a week...

      There are too many unknown variables for me to be able to answer that.

  2. This is a brilliant post, and so well illustrated. I fell in love with the boy just from his actions here. :D

  3. Great breakdown of building a romance :D

    I am a HUGE fan of the slow build. I don't enjoy or believe instant love. Instant attraction, yes. Love, no. For me, love takes time to grow and build. I adore the tension of the long, drawn-out attraction that culminates in an explosive release (not that kind!). Ron and Hermione spring immediately to mind. Their attraction was very slow, built out of friendship and knowing one another really well. It was obvious to outside observers that they were into each other, even before they realized or admitted it themselves. Their small annoyances at one another were founded on a much deeper level of attraction.

    1. Precisely! High tension = keep turning pages.

  4. I loved this post. Lots of useful information here. I have been accused in my writing of having my characters fall in love for no good reason. You've helped me see some ways to explain what attracts them to each other.

  5. Fantastic post. I often see reviews where readers complain about the insta-love in YA books. I know I often feel that some attraction is purely physical, and that the tendency to describe crooked smiles, sparkling eyes, or sculpted muscles rather than an emotional connection.

    I loved your snippet, too, and hope to be able to read the full book some day!

  6. This supports that idea that "it's the little things." And it is. Because we look at these small gestures and details and conclude larger things about a person -- whether or not they end up to be true in the long run. They leave an impression, and we can fall in love with someone in spite of other oddities. They have given us clues to who they are and we like it.

    Great post!

  7. Great analysis of a tricky issue! I agree that you can't just throw two characters together and expect instant true-love. Wesley had to woo Buttercup for years before she'd even call him by his name! I noticed while writing my own WIP that adding off-camera scenes where my MC and her LI hung out together working toward the main story goal really helped solidify their feelings for each other without me having to work that hard. Also, tender moments like the one in your example add a lot without diverting too much attention (or word count) from the main plot.

  8. Such a great post! So true. When my husband walks through the door, it makes me happy. Why? I don't know people, it just does!! Showing how the mood/energy/thoughtfulness of the character changes as a result of the LI is so much more powerful than an analytical breakdown of the character's thoughts.

    Happiness, delight, sense of adventure, annoyance, concern ... all those are heightened when LI is involved.

    1. Yep! It's like adding hot sauce to everything. Suddenly you're much more aware of it all, and sensitive to it.

  9. Great post! I think I also might be in love with your MC just from that snippet. (And somehow, I'm now craving donuts...) What you've illustrated there is a fantastic example of Show Don't Tell and how powerful it can be when it's done correctly. Describing the tingly feelings your MC gets when he/she sees [insert physical characteristics here] doesn't do the trick, and that's where a lot of YA paranormal romance fails. They get hung up on the physical. It's how they act towards each other--those little, thoughtful things, like saving a donut instead of eating it yourself, that actually make the romance move beyond that initial physical attraction.

    Favorite fictional couples? Mm, well I'm struggling to think of one for YA that hasn't been mentioned. Ron and Hermione are a great example, and also what you said about making your readers fall in love with both of them individually applies there as well. They're great characters first, and a paired off couple second. That's where the emphasis should be.

    1. Describing the tingly feelings your MC gets when he/she sees [insert physical characteristics here] doesn't do the trick,

      Agreed! It can be effective once the romance is established, though.

  10. Wow. Your subtle, concise method of showing how the characters are looking out for each other and falling for each other is wonderful!

    The first fiction couple that comes to my mind isn't necessarily a YA couple, but I think YA authors can still draw insight from them: Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Neither of them recognizes the other's worth at first meeting, but as they get to know each other better, and see each other in many different circumstances, they learn to overcome their initial judgments. In the end, they realize how much they have to learn from each other and how much they depend on each other.

  11. Very nice! And I love boy POV. I need to write some (more) in the future. :)

  12. I soooo agree with this! If I don't like the LI, why should I believe that the MC does? Nice example.

  13. I really liked the donut example. You were able to show so much in such a short space. Actions do speak louder than words (and louder than internal monologues). Nicely put!

  14. This is an awesome post! And very timely for me, as I've been thinking about romance in YA a lot recently. It's not something that crops up in my own writing very often at all, but I know that when/if it does, I always want it to be the kind you've so deftly illustrated here. I just can't do the whole instant-attraction, "ZOMG he's sooo hot and snarky/broody/mysterious---I must love him!" thing. I've never, ever felt that way about another human being, and it baffles me whenever I encounter it. But I have developed crushes on close friends before, and it always happened in that sneaky, gradual, holistic way.

    Anyhow, again, nicely done! :)

    1. I have developed crushes on close friends before, and it always happened in that sneaky, gradual, holistic way.

      Very well put. Thank you!

  15. Great points! Especially the part about how a long section of internal monologue describing why the character is in love doesn't work. I think the difference there is that it's telling. But in your excerpt? You showed. And showing is always more believable and emotional.


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