Being married to a physicist for the past twenty-five years has given me a rather unusual perspective on a number of things to do with romance writing. For instance, I didn't take the notion of a "formula" for romance fiction as an immediate insult , but tried to work it out in the way of a scientific formula -- The Secret Formula of Romance Fiction. More recently, while teaching a course on romance writing, I began to think about the conflicting forces at the heart of romance fiction.
We often use physics terminology to describe a good romance. We may say it was dynamic or that the characters had a magnetic attraction. Perhaps we talk about the story's energy. Let's look a bit more closely at the forces acting upon and between the hero and heroine in a romance novel to see how this kind of dynamic energy is created. I've identified three principle types of forces: those that pull the hero and heroine together, those that push the hero and heroine together and those that pull the hero and heroine apart. When the author gets the tension carefully balanced between these three types of forces, intense romantic energy powers the story.
What Pulls Them Together?
Three major things pull the hero and heroine together to varying degrees at different parts of the story. In the beginning, physical attraction is very important. What physical characteristics about the hero and heroine does each find most attractive about the other? Some could be things the character feels positive about. Others might be things the character feels insecure about, but the other character still finds attractive. The heroine thinks her butt is too big, but the hero thinks it’s gorgeous and sexy. The hero might not think he’s much to look at, but the heroine hates pretty boys and thinks his rugged features are perfect. Play up the physical attraction early in the story.
As the story progresses, that initial physical attraction is augmented by a deeper, more lasting emotional connection. What inner qualities does each admire and find attractive in the other? A sense of humor? A sense of honor? Gentleness? Strength? Honesty? Loyalty? Vulnerability? Whatever the basis for this emotional connection, the writer must make sure the attractive qualities are ones the character has been shown to possess. Readers are far more likely to become emotionally engaged in the developing romance if they notice and respond to admirable qualities they see the characters demonstrate. If, on the other hand, the hero thinks about how much he admires the heroine's intelligence when she has acted in a foolish or immature way, it makes him seem gullible or unrealistic. To further strengthen the emotional bond, it is helpful to give the attracted character compelling motivation for finding those qualities attractive. A heroine who has been abandoned in the past, for instance, would be likely to notice and admire dependability in her hero. A very reserved hero might enjoy the company of a high-spirited heroine.
The qualities a hero and heroine find attractive in one another might be traits they have in common. In my first medieval The Elusive Bride, Rowan DeCourtenay and Cecily Tyrell admire each other's courage. Admired qualities may be things one lacks and therefore desires. In Beauty and the Baron embittered recluse Lucius Daventry admires Angela Lacewood's compassion. The characters' good qualities may compliment one another. In my fantasy novel, The Wizard's Ward, semi-reformed outlaw Rath Talward fights to rescue people from harm, then healer Maura Woodbury takes care of them afterward. Romance writers need to develop this story element carefully, because without a believable emotional connection between the hero and heroine, it will be difficult for readers to buy into their happily ever after.
Related to emotional connection is a sense of shared values. The hero and heroine may have major differences of personality or background, but if their value system is very different and neither will compromise, long-term commitment isn’t likely. The values a hero and heroine share might include things like a strong work ethic or a belief in the importance of family or tolerance. In my novel The Wedding Wager, bluestocking Leonora Freemantle and rough-mannered Rifleman Morse Archer appear to have almost nothing in common. But through the course of the story, they discover a shared belief that education and opportunities matter more than social class. The fact that such beliefs were considered quite radical in Regency England only reinforces the bond between More and Leonora, allowing them to transcend their different backgrounds and personalities.
What Pushes Them Together?
If the hero and heoine just meet by accident and begin to date, it will be easy for either to cut and run when conflict rears its ugly head. That’s why most romance novels involve a situation that forces the hero and heroine together. Perhaps they work together or circumstances might force them to live together (as in the popular marriage of convenience stories). In my novel The Bonny Bride, Scottish mail order bride, Jenny Lennox, persuades Harris Chisholm to act as her body guard when she sails across the Atlantic to join the man she intends to marry. Despite many differences and difficulties, the two fall in love during their long journey.
In Harris and Jenny's case, the story situation is temporary, which adds urgency to the romance. Readers wonder if the characters can fall in love before their time runs out and Jenny must marry the man who is has sent for her. This kind of situation is rather like the midnight clock in Cinderella. The end of a temporary situation may provide the black moment for the story.
Character goals can play an important part in driving story situations. The hero and heroine may have a common goal that makes frequent contact necessary. In The Last Champion Dominie de Montfort lures her former finacé, Armand Flambard, to help save her estate's harvest from a marauding robber baron. This shared goal keeps them working closely together for several months – plenty of time for love to rekindle. In other stories, one character may have a goal that requires contact with the other. In Carpetbagger's Wife, former Union soldier Manning Forbes must marry Confederate widow Cady Marsh to fulfill a battlefield vow to protect her and her children. It is also possible for opposing goals to bring two characters into frequent contact. This is the case in Highland Rogue when Ewan Geddes means to marry Tessa Talbot, but her sister Claire believes he is a fortune hunter and intends to stop him. Claire tricks Ewan into accompanying her on a voyage to her remote estate in Scotland where she hopes to seduce him away from Tessa. Ewan only goes along because he hopes to charm Claire into giving her consent for him to marry Tessa.
What Pulls Them Apart?
Just as in physics, there can be no dynamic energy in a romance novel without the interaction of opposing forces. One type of opposing force is the initial conflict which is usually an external conflict. Without the initial conflict, the hero and heroine would act upon their initial attraction at once, making for a very short and probably not very interesting story. What sorts of things cause the hero and heroine to dislike each other at first? Sometimes it is mistaken opinions about one another. When timid Bostonian Jane Harris first meets half-Cheyenne ranch foreman John Whitefeather, she is wary he may be the steriotypical savage warrior she's read about in western dime novels. Only after she discovers the gentle patience of the horse-whisperer, does she begin to thaw towards him.
In many romance novels, the hero will be the heroine’s worst nightmare and vice versa. He may be the kind of guy her mother warned her never to get involved with. She may seem like the type of woman who has hurt him in the past. In Border Bride, wandering warrior-bard Con ap Ifan is the last sort of man a homebody like Lady Enid wants to get involved with. She fears he will uproot or desert her and Con fears any committment to Enid will tie him down. The situation that brings the hero and heroine together could also cause conflict between them. This happens in Lady Lyte's Little Secret when Felicity Lyte and Thorn Greenwood pursue her nephew and his sister to Scotland to prevent their elopement. Felicity blames Thorn's sister Ivy while he blames her nephew Oliver. There is further conflict as he tries to rekindle his relationship with Felicity while she struggles to resist him and hide the fact that she is pregnant with his child.
The opposite force to the characters' emotional connection and shared values is the differences between them that may prevent them from forming an attachment. Differing family and social backgrounds may cause tensions, as they do between heiress Claire Talbot and former servant Ewan Geedes. Beliefs and prejudices about life or about each other can also create conflict as they do between Confederate Cady Marsh and Yankee Manning Forbes. Elements of personality, including strengths, weaknesses, flaws and fears may be another powerful source of conflict. Idealistic Armand Flambard experiences this with the ruthlessly practical Lady Dominie. Though conflicting goals can sometimes contribute to the situation that pushes the hero and heroine together, they more often create problems. Governor Sir Robert Kerr doesn't want his orderly colony disrupted by The Bride Ship but chaperone Jocelyn Finch is determined to sew the seeds of romance in Nova Scotia in spite of him.
Not all sources of conflict are created equal, which is a good thing for romance novels. Some conflicts, such as initial misconceptions or prejudices are minor and can be overcome without much difficulty. These are good to employ early in the story to keep characters from getting too deeply involved too soon. Other conflicts such as conflicting goals may take more effort to resolve and can be worked out over time through the middle of the story. Conflicts that involve core values or basic differences in personality will require big changes from the characters and often form the major obstacle to committment. A deadlock in this area is often at the heart of a romance novel's Black Moment.
Sort of like Newton's Third Law about no action without an equal but opposite reaction. Only in romance, the opposing forces aren't exactly equal. Love always tips the scales in the end!