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10:23 am: Wright's Writing Corner: Romantic Tension...kind of


The next tip from my list of Writing Tips  is:

Romantic Tension: To make a character seem attractive to another character (at least to women) list a character trait of character A and an emotional reaction to this trait from character B).  (example: she had an air of mystery that intrigued him. Or, her shy retiring manner made him wish he could protect her.)


Okay, folks, we are on shaky ground here.


The truth is I know almost nothing about writing Romantic Tension. This tip I wrote for myself above was my first insight into the topic.


I love romance. When I was young, I would devour whole books just because there was a hint, a whisper, of romance promised in the pages. From those few whispers, I would weave elaborate fantasies. Back then, I would have ‘shipped with the best of them. But, alas, there was no Internet, no way to ever meet anyone else who read the books I read. So, I was left merely thinking about these things on my own.


I love romance novels, too. I used to love all romance novels. Nowadays, I only read one or two favorite authors. But for those authors, I buy everything they put out. There are no fantasy or science fictions authors left alive who I can say that about.


The only kind of romances I have not been able to get myself to read are the paranormal romances. I do not know why. You would think they would be exactly to my taste…fantasy and romance together. But I nearly always find the fantasy part so undefined and ill-thought out that it ruins my enjoyment of the book.


(I have yet to see a paranormal romance that you could run a roleplaying game from without your characters instantly unbalancing the world. Player characters always immediately abuse any possibly loopholes. This does not mean that there are not paranormal romances out there with well thought out magic systems…just that I have not yet seen one.)


But when I set out to write a novel, I picked, for no particular reason, a young woman who worked for a unicorn, and therefore, had to remain a virgin. This severely curtailed her romantic possibilities.


There is a romance in the Prospero’s Daughter series, but it is not the main emphasis of the story, it is kind of a side plot. Or, rather, it is part of the “Miranda wants to be a Sibyl” plot, but not the main emphasis of the story. So, while I did get to play around with romantic tension a little, I was not really put to the test.


So…even though I have read many romances and I have enchanted and dazzled players with romance plotlines in roleplaying games for years (melodrama seems to be my specialty as a game moderator) I am really not quite certain how to write romantic tension.


So, rather than advice, this particular post is just going to contain some observations.


In reading Romances, here is what I have noticed.

The more masculine a hero acts, the more sexy he seems. But what does “masculine” mean in this context? I have carefully studied this and discovered that it means: difficult.


Arrogance. Obnoxiousness. Contrariness. Pig-headedness. The more bull-headed the guy, the more devoted to what he wants to do/thinks is right, the less concerned about the dictates of society, the more interesting and attractive he is.


The more uninterested in what others want, the more he moves like a lazy panther, the more he sneers, and mocks, the more sardonic and satanic, the more he does everything you really would not want a guy you knew to do (except for maybe the lazy panther part) the more he stands out on the page.


You could fill a book just with the names of romantic heroes who are called “devil” or “satanic”. Nearly all the best ones are.

And, if you do this part right, the author hardly has to say how the hero affects the heroine, because it is the reader who is really being seduced.


Want an example? How about Rhett Butler? He is the ultimate romantic hero. (Gone With The Wind is to the romance genre as The Lord of the Rings is to the fantasy genre.) He is surly, arrogant, bold, uncaring, brave as sin, carefree – everything that everyone in the society around him is not. And that is what makes him stand out on the page, what makes him so desirable. Every action of his screams “hard to tame” and the harder the fellow is to tame, the more intriguing it is to see it happen.


Readers cannot help yearning for Scarlet to wake up and realize that he is the one.

What is the difference between Rhett Butler, who practically could walk off the page, and the average romance novel, where the hero is unusually forgotten as soon as the book is over?

Rhett stays difficult.

Even when he is in love, even when he is married, he is still his own man: difficult, opinionated, arrogant.


In romance novels, the authors do a good job of showing us a devilish rake at the beginning, but it never lasts. As soon as the heroine gets to know him, he is almost always the same good-natured, child-loving, do-gooder as every other romantic hero. He becomes the perfect family man and loses all his individuality.


I think that is why Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh is my favorite romance novel. The Duke of Bewcastle never changes. He remains his irascible self. 


 Because what really causes romantic tension is a promise…that promise that drew me along when I was 12…the promise of reaching through all the shields and prickles to touch the softness beating like a bird within. The harder this is, the more we wish to see it happen. The harder it actually is, the more rewarding the story.


Okay…that is all I have so far. What about you guys? What makes romantic tension work for you?


[User Picture]
Date:May 19th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
I'm down with romance; it gives the hero/ine something to fight for. That having been said, the list of works in which the romantic tension was emotionally impacting upon me is pretty short, and nearly all of it is anime. (And nearly all of it is from the Macross universe. Heh.)

Maybe this is because I read SF and not romance. *shrug*

But really, the one shining spot for me in the otherwise weak (imo) Endymion/The Rise of Endymion is Raul's relationship with Aenea. Aenea embodies a lot of desirable things; she's intelligent and self-sufficient, but not in that obnoxious fem-nazi way. She respects Raul as a masculine figure.

That is, incidentally, something that I think anime series that are well done hit the mark on repeatedly: The women are women, and the men are men, and while there's a difference between the two, neither is portrayed as inferior or weaker. Scratch that-- not anime, any series with a well-done romantic tension subplot. Mulder and Scully, Sheridan and Delenn, Adama and Roslin, Mal and Inara. (Back in anime land, Rahxephon's Ayato and Haruka, Macross Frontier's Alto and Sheryl. Which probably explains why I can't stand Ranka, the third leg of the Macross F triangle. She's not an equal to Alto.)

So! In my horrible, rambling, stream of consciousness comment, I think I've figured out what it is, at least for me: The protagonist and the love interest need to be equal, but different. The woman should be competent and self-sufficient without sacrificing her femininity or blocking men out of her life in that knee jerk "I don't need chivalry" philosophy.
[User Picture]
Date:May 19th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
Alternatively, the heroine could just have glasses and long, dark hair and be a physicist/astronomer/librarian. That's probably work for me, too. *nodnod*
[User Picture]
Date:May 19th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
Very nice analysis. I think there's a modern thought that feminitity equals weakness and masculinity equals stupidity. Neither of these are true. A good romance has strong smart characters, who are equals, but also possess feminine and masculine qualities in their proper proportion.
[User Picture]
Date:May 19th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
There must be a reason why these two people can not get together, at least at first. And they must be flawed.
It worked for Jane Eyre. Gruff, reclusive member of the landed gentry with scandalous secret with a poor orphan teacher of strong moral fiber.
[User Picture]
Date:May 19th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
I like a romance in which the main characters are the sort of people I'd feel friendly toward if I knew them for real. I am drawn to intelligent, brave, decent kind women with good senses of humor: especially if that sense of humor has a sarcastic twist. I am repelled by stupidity, cowardice, sleaziness, sadism, and serious pomposity. This applies to my opinion of both sexes.

I agree with you that it's important in a story that characters remain consistent. I have no problem with heroes (or heroines) who are improved by love -- I've experienced such improval personally -- but I do have a problem with characters who instantly lose all their character flaws when they fall in love, because that's either dishonest or impossible.
Date:May 19th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
"I am drawn to intelligent, brave, decent kind women"

Hence my love of the anime princess, Nausicaa :)
[User Picture]
Date:May 19th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)

paranormal romances

I don't like the world-building in them, either.
[User Picture]
Date:May 19th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)
I'd never thought about the necessity of the devilish hero to retain his personality and flaws in order to remain a believable and memorable character, but it is so true. I understand the hero growing and changing, but it makes no sense for a thoroughly exasperating rascal to become a perfect saint in most cases. Of course, there are always exceptions like Ebenezer Scrooge, but that was a story of redemption, not romance.

I love rascals in literature and film. They are more interesting and entertaining than the saints. But I want the rascal to have some warmth of heart, some certain decency of character. He must be admirable in some fashion.
[User Picture]
Date:May 20th, 2010 12:01 am (UTC)
Scrooge becomes a good man, but I never feel that he loses his personality. I love rascals, too...with the same caveat you described.
[User Picture]
Date:May 20th, 2010 03:37 am (UTC)
What about Peter Wimsey? John Steed? James Bond? David Niven in THE PINK PANTHER? Mr. Spock?

No, I'm not casting polyslash. ;-)
Date:May 20th, 2010 03:59 am (UTC)

Good examples!

Though I never found Bond, even in the novels, attractive; there is an element of cruelty in his character that is repellent.

I'm very much in agreement about the paranormal romances, partly because while I'm more interested in the "paranormal" part, the books seem to be heavily geared towards the "romance" part.

I devoured romance novels between the ages of twelve and fifteen, and I do agree that the template for the hero was 'massive pain in the backside'. Eventually, I got to the stage of wanting to tell the heroine "He's a jerk and a pig. Don't bother with him!" because I never did find very convincing the last chapter explanation "The reason I was so mean all along is because secretly I was afraid of the power you had over me, making me feel as no-one else has been able to."

I don't much like romances in the novels that I do read; I don't mind ones in the background or secondary to the plot, but if the story is all about Alison Abercrombie meets Dash Bounder on an archaelogical dig in Egypt and while being chased by the Mummy of Ahwanna-Getya through the corridors of the Lost Pyramid, they spend twenty-three chapters bickering, sniping, and going all wobbly-kneed while in one another's presence to end up with the triumphant discovery of the Asteroid-Sized Ruby of Mummy Killing (and Incalculable Wealth) and a wedding - I'll be cheering on the Mummy and the death-traps to please, dear Anubis, Lord of the Western Land, bring them to a sticky end.
[User Picture]
Date:May 20th, 2010 06:34 am (UTC)
Thinking over my own examples here. They all focus intently, whether on the woman they're meeting or on some inner conflict which the woman might hope to distract them from (or solve for them), thus gaining their full focus. This was explicit at the end of BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON, though I'm not sure just how the solving was supposed to work.

So they might be classed with the broody heroes, though they're the opposite of jerks. Still they'd probably be troublesome to live with longterm, whatever they were doing with that intensity.

So who might do as a counter-example? Tarzan?
[User Picture]
Date:May 20th, 2010 09:21 am (UTC)
My favorite Bonds are not the playboys but the ones who have truly loved and lost.

Some girls do prefer Spock. He left me cold. I preferred Mr. Scott who could be intelligent, tough, sentimental and chivalrous.

[User Picture]
Date:May 20th, 2010 12:39 pm (UTC)


I find sometimes that -- along the lines of your thinking of difficult characters -- difficult circumstances do the same thing: they ratchet up the desire to see two people FINALLY get together.

I'm not big for romance in stories or movies (my wife is the opposite), but it's hard to imagine a great story without at least a little of it. My tendency is to create characters who are, or have been, in love but circumstances (and the way they approach/deal with those circumstances) have intervened. I like to drop little, subtle hints of long dormant affection that is constantly hampered by the reality of the world like embers struggling against a very light rain. The payoff (I hope), is when Providence finally pulls aside the poor circumstances and the characters have a chance (and maybe only one chance) to let the embers explode into flame.
[User Picture]
Date:May 20th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)

Re: Circumstances

That's one of the best kinds of romances...teasing hints that later bloom into a full blown bonfire.
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