First we must separate relationship love from romance. Relationship love comes in many forms and is a deep attachment to another person cemented over a period of time. Romantic love is the feeling found most in the beginning of a relationship when we are generally on our best behaviour and eager to impress. It’s is often twisted up with the first flush of lust and a physical, chemical reaction to that person. Relationship love is what’s left when reality sets in, hormones settle and the best behaviour slips a little. That’s when the hard work of accepting another person, warts and all, begins and romantic love often becomes overshadowed or left behind. Romance is separate and can happen at any time, but what is it?
This is something I’ve thought about a lot in my role as an author. Is it a champagne balloon ride, a huge white wedding, a walk on the beach, a first kiss, or hearing “I love you” for the first time? Whether it is a grand gesture declaring undying love, a single rose, or a few hours without the kids for a busy mum, romance means something different to every person.
From what I’ve seen, romance isn’t only for new relationships, nor is it about the dizzy breathlessness, the tumbling butterflies, or a chest clenching racing heart. It’s the prelude to this, the actions that inspire warmth and that feeling of safety that comes when we know another person really sees us and has taken the time to learn what touches us. An old man reading a book aloud to an old woman on a bench may seem corny or easy to dismiss to the general passer by… if even noticed at all. A man commandeering a loudspeaker at a game to say “I love you” will always get a few snickers from a crowd.
Let’s face it, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. My personal idea of romance is watching a black and white movie lying in bed on a Sunday afternoon or my partner taking the monster out while I get the house to myself for an hour so I can write. These are the things that touch me and inspire my romantic love to resurface.
So how do we translate this to the page? How do we create a situation where the reader swoons instead of cringes? I’ve never imagined myself swooning at the idea of very public displays of affection or candlelit dinners arranged for me. Yet, I tend to cry at weddings I attend. Why? The answer is actually pretty simple. It’s because I’m invested in the couple so even if it’s something I wouldn’t want, I still find it romantic because I know the journey they’ve taken to get there.
As writers, the simplest way to avoid the cringe factor is to create ‘real’ characters. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to like the character, although this is a bonus, but they should understand why it is the character feels the way they do about the other character. The reader should care about the relationship and the outcome. They should root for them. A writer does this by creating complex characters with history, personality and motivation. It’s often why ‘instant love’, or ‘love at first sight’ at the beginning of a book is dismissed in reviews. If readers know nothing about the new girl in town or our hero, why would they understand or even care that our hero is suddenly smitten, or vice versa.
The old couple on the bench from earlier. They were teenage sweethearts. She nursed him back to health after he was injured defending his country. She read to him every night. Now, she has Alzheimer's and it’s his turn to take care of her. Every night he walks her to the bench where they shared their first kiss and he reads to her. Some nights she knows him and remembers their life together, some nights she doesn’t.
The man behind the loud speaker. The girl sitting in the stands has never heard him say “I love you”, in fact, she has never heard him speak. The man was born deaf and his whole life has avoided using his voice for fear he will be ridiculed or laughed at. For the girl he loves, he has found his voice and to her, it’s the most beautiful sound in the world.
This is how we write romance, we give the reader foundation and a reason to care about the old couple or the man.