Want To Write a Compelling Romance? (Or Anything Compelling?)
Make Sure Your Characters Feel Vulnerable
By Angela Ackerman
Building a compelling romance is not easy, and to make the pairing realistic, a writer must know each character down to their bones, including any past hurts experienced at the hands of others. Why? Because pain is a necessary component of any fictional romance. I know, it sounds crazy, but here’s why.
- Romance isn’t simple. You can’t throw two people together and expect pheromones and sex drive to do all the work. Readers have expectations that a rocky road lies ahead, because obstacles, suffering, and hardship are what makes a romance so satisfying. Characters willing to walk through fire to be together is what convinces readers that they belong with one another. Love is powerful, and there is great beauty in the struggle to obtain what the heart wants most.
- Healthy relationships (especially romantic ones) require vulnerability. In the real world, a person must be willing to trust and put their true feelings out there. Being genuine and honest allows people to connect on a deep, emotional level. This openness, this sharing of one’s innermost feelings and beliefs, is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. If a character is unable to open up and be vulnerable by showing their true selves, the romance will read as false.
And this is where things get tricky for the author. Being willing to bare oneself emotionally is difficult, especially for anyone who has been hurt by someone they once loved. And, let’s face it—our job as authors is not to create happy characters in a happy land. We specialize in broken, damaged and emotionally wounded characters. It’s a safe bet that one or both people in the romantic relationship we’re writing are going to have some deep trust issues.
For example, if our protagonist was manipulated by an abusive ex-husband, her painful experience with him becomes a wound she can’t forget. To cope, she will harden herself, maybe push people away using emotional armor (flaws), keeping herself from being hurt in the same way again.
Convincing Jaded Characters To Trust Again
In a romance, our protagonist must at some point yearn for the love and affection that is missing from his or her life. The fact they were hurt by someone in the past becomes a huge obstacle--they don’t want to lower their guard because they might get hurt, but to love another, they MUST. You can’t have love and intimacy without vulnerability.
Writing the inner transformation of a character letting go of their fears so they can open themselves to love again is tricky and must be done slowly to feel authentic. Showing their changing attitude toward vulnerability has to be done in small, careful stages to ring true. Here are a few tips:
- Hone in on the desire for “something more.” A common need we all have as people (and therefore all characters should have it as well) is the desire for growth and fulfillment. Fears hold a character back and leave them feeling unfulfilled, affecting their happiness. They must realize there’s a void in the way that they connect to people, something missing that love and belonging can fill. As they yearn for something to change, they take the first step to being open to it. For example, if your character is having a hard time with trust and openness, have her look within and see the dissatisfaction she feels at not having close relationships, or people to hang out with, trade gossip or confide in. This realization will lead her to probe for what she truly wants (genuine friendship and deeper connection) and create the desire within her to obtain it.
- Create positive experiences for vulnerability. There are many times when opening up and being genuine pays off. It feels good to tell someone a secret fear and then discover they understand this fear because they feel the same way. Or to ask for help, and actually get it. Even when we share a problem, we feel the weight of it lift because it’s no longer ours alone. Experiencing love, intimacy, trust, and friendship are all positive experiences that can build a person up, encouraging them to be more open and vulnerable with others.
- Allow understanding to seep in that the character’s past wounding event is negatively impacting them, either holding them back or limiting them in some way. In the example above of the woman seeking friendship and connection, it will take time for her to learn how to trust and feel comfortable sharing details about herself, but if the desire for change is strong enough, it can be achieved.