It goes without saying that love stories are a real thing in RPGs so it’s worth the time to craft them well. (And many games…well…don’t. What’s passable in a game would get laughed out of a literary agent’s office.) So today I’ve moved outside the realm of game design and writing theory over to romance writing tips used by actual romance authors to make the love stories in their work more believable.
They ought to know what they’re doing, so let’s take a little time to learn what works for them and apply it to game writing to create more interesting and deep romances. Whether it’s sim-style dating, a special couple in the party or just backstory characters, if you’re going to do it, do it well or just plain leave it out. We want relationships we can root for!
Because we need more ships, you know. Watch ’em sail. 🙂
“I try to create characters who are familiar enough to be relatable – but who are moved by the power of love to do extraordinary things.” – Nicholas Sparks
Romance Writing Tips You Can Actually Use
I generally try to keep things upbeat around here, so I’m going to get the ugly bullet point out of the way first.
Don’t glamorize abuse.
I don’t like negatives on my lists, but this is one I gotta say in the most absolute terms.
Abuse is abuse, even in fiction.
There is no excuse for letting one character manipulate, physically abuse, emotionally abuse, or bully another character within the confines of a romantic relationship and call it good. You wouldn’t call it acceptable in real life (or at least I hope you wouldn’t), and it’s not acceptable in fiction. Young, impressionable people soak this up like a sponge and normalize it as a “healthy” relationship. It isn’t the norm, and it shouldn’t ever be.
So please, do the right thing and, unless the point of your story is that such relationships aren’t right, avoid damaging stereotypes that give license to a character to treat another human being below their dignity and yet call it “love.”
One of the first things to consider (after the relative health of the relationship, of course) are the stakes. People like to see other people overcome adversity…romantic relationships are no different. We want to see obstacles in their way so we can see the process of “winning.” In the case of your romance, what is the stake? What’s the difficulty? Is it a forbidden romance, where the parties might even be killed if they’re spotted together? What is the cost the two must pay for their love? This will help keep dramatic tension high and the player thoroughly engaged even when the plot moves on to other subjects for a minute.
Make romantic connections earned
Love at first sight is a pretty common gimmick. It happens, it seems, even in real life. Two people just “click” right away for whatever reason and from that point on, it’s incomprehensible for them to think of life apart again.
It’s fine for them, but as players, we get cheated out of a big part of the journey when this occurs. After all, we don’t get an opportunity to walk with them through the difficult stages…it’s already done for us. There’s no awkwardness, no stages of denial, no drama, no pacing whatsoever. BAM, it’s done. And we’re left to be convinced that they’re good together when we haven’t really had the opportunity to witness the growth ourselves and make that determination.
If your characters are really good together, you don’t have to tell us. We’ll know.
Tension drops because there’s no “when will they confess or at least admit that this is a thing?” moment to hang around for. When you put a relationship like this in the “slow cooker” so to speak, though, we have time to see lots of depth in the relationship. Let it build, let it linger, let it suffer a while. Let the characters grow into the role of proper loving adults (if that’s appropriate.) Then, when the payoff does come, it’ll feel a lot sweeter. Instant gratification is fun, but struggling along with them through the hard times to see them overcome can be a lot more fun…and still have the same payoff at the end.
People are complicated. Really complicated. Add one person to another person, and now you have double layers of complexity. Somewhere along the line, these layers are going to clash.
This is good.
After all, you’re talking about the figurative merging of two souls into a single unit. Is it really believable that there will be no hiccups along the way? Don’t their pasts, their hobbies, their quirks get in each other’s way, at least at some level? Not only does the abrasion allow for conflict, it also gives the relationship a living, breathing, relatable quality instead of a simple, drab, shallow cardboard romance that comes together too easily and isn’t very satisfactory.
Maybe you’ve got a couple like this in your story. Maybe you know one in real life. The couple that’s just so plain strange that you have no idea just why they like each other, why they work together, and yet for some reason, they do. Quirky characters make fun fodder for storytelling, and sometimes, just reconciling their weirdness with a potential romance makes enough material for a novel itself! It may be that they’re merely opposites on the surface, or it could be just the sheer idea that someone so strange could find someone to love them for who they are, but they tend to make for easy drama. It also, I think, brings a sense of inclusion to ordinary people…you know, where not all of us are buff heroes or jpop star lookalikes.
No matter how different two characters are from each other or anyone else, all you really need is a point of connection, a commonality that draws them together. Even the greatest differences can be reconciled if, somewhere deep inside, they have something that makes people go “those two are definitely soulmates. Weird soulmates, but yeah.”
The world is full of some pretty imperfect people. Obviously.
So how is it that so many characters end up still falling in the Mary Sue trap? How is it that some heroes are just a little too darn heroic…unrealistically smart, handsome, strong. Well, they’re just plain better than everyone else.
They also don’t exist.
They’re also…you guessed it…boring. They’re dull and unrelatable. We can’t be like them or even really like them; they’re too perfect. Add in another all-too-perfect character and you have a recipe for…well…whatever it is, it isn’t interesting. There’s no possibility for their personalities to clash. Their motives won’t get in each other’s way. There’s no possibility of deep conflict.
If you ever catch yourself thinking “this is my idea of the perfect man/woman” you probably need to go back and revisit their flaws. They may be beautiful enough to be arousing, but honey, that isn’t the kinda game we’re writing here. Or at least, I’m not. If you are, you probably aren’t that interested in actual “romance” writing tips and I can’t help ya. 🙂
Overly simplistic flaws.
Keeping that in mind, the flaws shouldn’t be too simple either. They shouldn’t exist solely as a channel to push the two characters together. It’s not genuine and real readers will notice. “Just flawed enough to get by” isn’t really enough either. It should flow as a natural product of the kind of character they are…which you probably have developed by now. There are always sheets of questions you can download and fill out to learn more about your characters. Developing that level of detail can help you avoid cliches and stereotypes.
Just a personal thought, but you should probably leave the wish fulfillment at home too…unless you ARE writing that kinda game. 🙂
(As an aside, I discovered in my research for romance writing tips that apparently a poll conducted by Romance Writers of America found that their readers preferred that their romantic heroes have intelligence and humor as top traits, while physical attractiveness was usually toward the end of the list!)
This doesn’t have to be a literal challenge, of course. But what sort of interaction do your characters have in which one seeks to better the other? Not to change them, but to drive them to their own ultimate potential? This also isn’t about control or manipulation, but the true love that seeks the better of the other. How do their differing ways sharpen each other? Or do they allow each other to stagnate, believing they’re “good enough” as they are? An example of this would be one partner encouraging the other to live out their dream, even when there’s been a big setback of some sort. In what ways do your characters drive the other to whatever goal it is you have for them?
The one who does nothing.
Then there are the love stories where you just have to look at them and think “I have no idea why ____ would even be interested in ____.”
One character may be witty, charismatic, or just plain interesting somehow…and then their significant other…isn’t.
They don’t have anything special about them. They have no real chemistry…in fact, their only personality trait might be a submissive silence or arrogance. Then the story bends over backwards to try to prove to you how great they are as a couple.
A well-developed couple won’t need a lot of prodding to convince the audience. In fact, they’ll carry so much weight naturally that everything should flow smoothly along the way.
Keep in mind juxtaposing odd/conflicting personality types, deep characterization with layers of flaws, and high stakes, and you’ll already be halfway to creating a better than average game couple. Find out the rest of our discoveries in Part 2! (Coming soon! Sign up for our newsletter to read it when it’s finished!)
Your turn! Which couples, in your opinion, represented the best relationship building (in any medium, not just games)? What can we learn from them? What other romance writing tips would you suggest?