Writing Romance Part 1: What is Love?

I launched my career as an author writing stories about love, and it’s what I still enjoy working on more than anything else. Even so, I hesitate to classify my fiction as romance. In fact, I don’t—they’re classified as autobiographical fiction or contemporary romantic women’s fiction. Do they involve romance? Most certainly. But that’s only part of the story.

There’s a lot more to love than what goes into a novel classified as romance today, particularly one that follows a specific trope. There are strict guidelines on length and a requirement for a happily-ever-after, and so on. What I’ve found is that these stories tend to be a little thin, lacking the depth of character development and true emotion that’s a necessary part of love. Additionally, there tends to be only a single facet to the romantic love on the pages.

In reality, even in our romantic relationships, we have more than a single type of love—at least in relationships that we find fulfilling.

I wrote this in the preface to my debut novel, Finding Annie:

“Some of my earliest childhood memories involve being utterly lost in a book, sometimes until the sun rising the next morning startled me into realizing I’d never slept. And I read just about anything I could get my hands on: encyclopedias, memoirs, travel journals, dictionaries self-help tomes, historical accounts, pamphlets. But my real love was fiction.

Great fiction.

And I don’t mean the classics when I say great fiction, though they undoubtedly are. I have always been most drawn to stories that have realistically flawed, gloriously imperfect characters. People who make serious mistakes and survive the most unlikely circumstances that have been pulled straight out of real life; the kind of real life most people are lucky enough to have never experienced. People who triumph over their greatest oppressors—including themselves.

Maybe especially themselves.

And while I enjoy any story that fits this bill, the genre I have the biggest weak spot for is [tales of love]. But not just romantic love; familial love, platonic love. A person needs it all, unconditionally.”

Excerpt from preface of Finding Annie

Of course, a character can find familial love with a family member and platonic love with a friend. But to have that raw and lasting kind of connection with another person even in a romantic sense, you need to share these other types of love with that person as well.

There are varying definitions of romantic love, but they mostly agree on one important characteristic: romantic love involves physical intimacy and passion (lust). And this is what you can find in spades in just about any contemporary romance novel you pick up today. In other words, you can read a book full of lust. And while that might get your heart racing a bit if those lusty scenes are well-written, you finish the book without really remembering the characters or feeling very strongly about them. These characters aren’t likely to stick with you or teach you anything about love.

This is because the other components of romantic love are missing—those familial and platonic types of love that definitions agree are also a part of romantic love. It’s great when someone gives you a searing look with bedroom eyes and you feel wanted and attractive and ready to jump between the sheets, but what good is that look when you’re grieving the loss of your best friend or mother? What help is knowing someone wants to sleep with you when you’re struggling to heal from some trauma in your past or looking for support to strike out and follow your childhood dream of writing instead of working in an office? Who really cares about great sex if you can’t have a conversation about something that doesn’t involve stripping naked and hopping into bed together?

There was a common theme in the reviews I received for Finding Annie (see the end of this post): my book made people feel. The majority of the book had a distinct absence of sex—not just that it was happening and not talked about, but it wasn’t happening at all—yet there’s no doubt in readers’ minds that this book is a story of love, that it’s a romantic story. And that’s because there are different kinds of love that comprise romantic love.

If you want to capture your audience and have them hanging on your words, building a world and characters that will move and stick with your reader for a long time when you’re in the romance arena, you need to make sure to encompass the different facets of romantic love instead of focusing solely on physical attraction (though you don’t want to neglect this part entirely!).

Instead of asking what sort of love story you want to tell, I recommend starting with this question: how will your characters love each other and why? What is it they truly value in the other person? Make sure you’re including non-romancey things in this list. Maybe he admires her tenacity, or she adores his loyalty to his family. Perhaps they’re drawn to each other’s competitive natures, or one of them fell in love with the way the other cooks.

Then ask yourself what they do for each other. Does she support him emotionally when he decides to leave his day job to pursue his dream of becoming a professional photographer? Does he stand up for her when her mother criticizes her weight at the family reunion? How do those things make them feel?

Understand all these emotions your characters are experiencing, then be sure to write about them. If you talk about more than the sexual chemistry between them, showing the reader the other ways in which they show their love for one another (even if they haven’t called it love yet!), you are going to write a more powerful romance, or story of love, and that is going to make you memorable to your readers.

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Writing Romance Part 1:
What is Love?

Published by Katherine Turner

Author of contemporary romantic women's fiction. Believer in the healing power of love.