As a child, I read frequently, various books and of various genres (as a slightly older child, I still read various books, but my genres tend less toward slightly realistic fiction for seven-year-olds). Of some of the oldest memories I have regarding reading, I recall there was one series I read multiple books in—I can’t remember the name, but it was one of the aforementioned slightly realistic books for seven-year-olds—that chronicled the life of a young girl from childhood to motherhood.
That is, the series chronicled her life from childhood to motherhood; I was done at the first sign of any romance.
My years of bailing out at the first romantic glance now long since over, I’ve found that many authors, whatever genre they write, have a desire to include romance. Occasionally the romance is fabulously well done; frequently I tolerate it; every now and then I’ll make snarky comments about it for weeks later.
Throughout the ones that I like, there are a few solid aspects that always make their way into it – sweet romances are the best, with respect for one another and an intact brain even while they fall in love (what a novel idea!).
As with most things, there is no easy-to-follow formula for the perfect romance, whether in your story or in your story. However, for your enjoyment and for the education of your characters (and hopefully the improvement of your romance subplots), I’ve compiled a list of seven poor decisions I see most often in the romances that dance (by moonlight, most likely) across the pages.
(Not even mentioning blatant immorality on the list because I know my readers are amazing, noble people who have all that down already.)
Decision Number One
For years, The Spontaneous Kiss, our starring guest, has been considered a good option for any young, dashing hero. In any situation where he loves a young, charming lady, but has yet to tell her that he loves her, the spontaneous kiss is clearly the option. It’s romantic, and very straightforward. The girl will clearly not only understand everything better now, she’ll also appreciate it and cherish the memory for years to come.
Well… no. No. No.
There have been a few instances in real life of this working, some love stories that I’ve heard which began with a spontaneous kiss and turned into something good and beautiful, but those are the exceptions that make the rule. The rules, in this case, are don’t touch someone where they don’t want to be touched. Don’t surprise someone by taking them to their own, unplanned wedding. Don’t kiss someone suddenly and take away their ability to say no.
If a person is kissed suddenly, they’ve lost their ability to say no; there’s no way to decline the offer if one is not made. To be kissed is a very intimate thing, a special act that should have the unmistakable agreement of both parties involved. To do otherwise is to take a beautiful thing and twist it. Because yes, O charming hero, she will remember it for all of her life, but not at all in the way you want. (Also, you may remember for the rest of your life how solidly she punched you.)
Decision Number Two
“No,” she says. But clearly she means… “Yes.” Not to be dissuaded by her apparent lack of interest, our young hero stalks her, creates opportunities to “accidentally” run into her, follows her through whatever dark forest she happens to be questing through, because eventually, she’ll change her mind and realize how much she should love him. Congratulations, my good man. You’ve become the perfect embodiment of Stalker Love.
This one goes back to basic respect and, quite frankly, you can get arrested for that for good reason. It’s a disturbing tendency and, if you can’t respect her to say no, how do you expect to love her for the rest of your life? If she can’t trust you to respect her, how do you expect her to love you for the rest of her life? By all means, go talk to her, but talking to someone in a polite and respectful manner is a far cry from stalking her.
Decision Number Three
The charming, beautiful young lady tends more toward this particular decision—and, thankfully, I have yet to see this one in too many of the books that I read, but it’s still there, lurking, a long-dreaded beast from the shadowy land of 1940s soap operas. In this case, someone attempts to re-attract their lover by way of jealousy, flirting with another man to get their man to want them more. The trouble here is, any lass with a fully functioning brain (and I dearly hope that your charming, beautiful main character has one of those) will see in a heartbeat that this is only bound to cause trouble. People will get hurt; emotionally and physically. The situation will quickly grow sticky, and you’ll find yourselves trapped in the endless drama of a bad 1940s show. You’ve been warned, O charming main character.
Decision Number Four
Ever since Beauty and the Beast, people have been falling in love with the idea of Stockholm Love. As with the last one, this mainly affects the pretty lasses who are kidnapped by the male (who is usually remarkably handsome, as if only the remarkably handsome males turn to a life of—mostly nobly-inspired—crime). Obviously, she’s a little rattled by this, but after she regains her cool, she slowly starts to realize… she’s falling in love with him. This can be brought about by various different things; he’s either very noble and kind for a creepy kidnapping psycho, he’s ruggedly handsome, or he’s tragic and broken, and she wants to do something about that.
I admit that this particular poor decision would most likely be me. I have a tendency to see brokenness and try to fix it, so, O sweet and pretty lasses, listen to me when I tell you: it’s not a good idea. Yes, your author will probably see this through and he’ll turn good and you’ll live happily ever after, but only because that’s your author’s tragic hero character. If you are in a situation where a man is holding you captive, your first thought should be to not get killed, and then to getting yourself and any other hostages out of that situation. Your emotions are not reliable in periods of high stress and there are far, far better times to be falling in love. Always avoid Stockholm Love.
Decision Number Five
Set in a medieval land far, far away, there are two kingdoms or two houses, both high in power. A young lady and young man are of the same age, and to secure an alliance (or maybe, just occasionally, because they’re both young and unmarried and need a spouse), their parents arrange a marriage between them. It’s friendly, it’s uncomplicated, they know who they’re going to get married to, and there should be no problems in a culture where this is clearly the norm.
Except! There’s another two people, also (surprisingly) of the same age; also unmarried, and most likely remarkably good-looking (are we starting to see a trend here?). In spite of the fact that both the young lady and the young man are aware that they’ve been promised in marriage to another, they both seek to spend time with the other person, noting as they begin to develop feelings for them, and decide to pursue a romantic relationship with a person other than their betrothed.
Please don’t do this. If you are promised to another, it is your duty to guard your heart and your mind from straying, just as if you were already married. If you have reason to want to avoid marrying your betrothed, by all means, work it out – but don’t fall in love with someone else when your hand belongs to another! This will cause endless issues after your marriage.
Note that this scenario usually works out in stories, but only because the writer has made it their goal to speak out against the oppressive practice of arranged marriages, which was not only not oppressive, but also went out of style in the west long before any of them were born.
Decision Number Six
After a relationship has already been established between two characters, whether they’re engaged or simply officially “together”, there comes up the topic of kissing. Specifically, for a good many characters, frequent and passionate kissing while in dangerous situations.
Kissing is going to completely destroy any situational awareness. Off the top of my head, I can imagine a hundred better places for kissing than the side room the characters ducked in to as they infiltrate the villain’s lair.
Save the kissing for romantic moments and avoid getting a spear thrust through your characters while they’re distracted.
Decision Number Seven
One particular trend that always seems to pop up in romances, especially of the Young Adult variety, is Instant Love.
You were expecting me to quickly bash this one’s head in and send it home robbed of any power it had over these stories, weren’t you? Well, I’m afraid that’s not my plan of action for this particular one. Instead, I’d rather tell you a story.
Two decades and a few years ago, there was a young man, and a young woman. He had just gotten out of the military, and as he found himself in the mall where the young lady worked a cart, he still wore the paint-flecked pants in which he had painted his army barracks. From across the mall he saw her, and thought she was much too pretty for him to pass by without talking to her, so he made his way across the mall. Upon reaching the cart, his eyes fell on a tiny “Now Hiring” sign and – though he was not looking for another job – he asked for an application.
The young lady told him that she was doing interviews that very day, and she interviewed him on the spot. She remembers him as being unbearably shy during that first interview; he didn’t even meet her eyes once, but at the end of the interview she told him that if he would come back the next day and show her that he could wear something other than green-stained sweatpants, he could have the job.
She never thought he would return. But he left that cart, and from that very mall, he bought a new pair of clothes with which to return the next day. He got the job.
And he married that girl. A few years and a couple of children later, I was born.
My point of the story is this: there is a difference between “Instant Infatuation” and “Potential Love.” Potential love is to see someone or talk to someone and be very aware of the fact that you could, and would like to, fall in love with them. Instant infatuation is the “Instant Love” that so many YA novels use as a poor substitute for a well-written romantic subplot. If a person can take one look at someone and instantly be head-over-heels in love, there is a very simple explanation: it’s not love, and it won’t last.
In the end, a love that lasts is really what we want for romances – whether in-story, or out.