February 25, 2014

What Makes a Romance Believable?

Wedding picture of couple holding hands with text: What Makes a Romance Believable?

Okay, so I’m a week-and-a-half late for Valentine’s Day and the topic of this post. I’ll “blame” the time I put into WANACon. *smile* We had a fantastic and successful WANACon though, with great sessions on many writing-related topics, so I’ll call it a worthwhile trade.

I recently came across an interesting post at my newest favorite time-sucking website: Wait But Why. (Their posts are like a mixture of the must-click-on-another-interesting-headline obsession of and the insightful-look-at-humanity-and-society truths of Hyperbole and a Half. In other words, irresistible. You’ve been warned. *grin*)

Anyway, they were prepared for Valentine’s Day with a post about How to Pick Your Life Partner. Yay for them (and for us in what we can learn from it).

As the post says, happy marriages aren’t about how awesome the honeymoon is or how romantic the Valentine’s Day celebrations are. Rather, happy marriages are built on a couple’s ability to be happy with each other on a random Wednesday, over and over, for the decades they’ll spend together.

The post then goes on to share three key ingredients for couples to enjoy spending 20,000 days (50-some years) with each other: friendship, a feeling of home, and determination. Those ingredients echo the advice my parents (45 years and counting) give to others, so there’s probably something to those specifics.

As a romance author, I naturally wanted to explore how we could use those tips to make the relationships of our stories more believable. But even if you’re not into romance stories, check out the Wait But Why post—if you dare. *snicker*

Making Readers Believe in a Happily-Ever-After Ending

I should note that many of these characteristics won’t be in place for a couple during the story. Friction and secrets and arguments are all things creating the conflict we need in our stories.

However, by the end of the story, if we want the reader to believe that this couple will survive the divorce statistics and experience their happily-ever-after (HEA) promised on the last page, we should see resolution for many of the issues. Or we should see at least enough progress that we know they’re serious about working out their differences.

#1: An Epic Friendship

An epic friendship means that the couple genuinely enjoys their time together. They don’t suffer from boredom when they’re with each other.

Do we see the hero and heroine*:

  • sharing a sense of humor?
    Not every story has to include witty characters, but whatever their sense of humor is should be compatible. If one’s making jokes under pressure and the other disrespects that trait as flippancy (and there’s no new understanding by the end of the story), that’s a problem.
  • having fun together?
    We should see them making the best of bad situations when they’re together. Whether fighting the bad guy or a traffic jam, our couple should strengthen each other and seem better together than apart.
  • respecting each other’s way of thinking?
    We should see the couple be able to share their thoughts with each other and not be belittled or shot down for them.
  • sharing interests, activities, and people preferences?
    Couples don’t need to have everything in common, but they should share enough that we know they won’t be living completely separate, parallel lives. By the end of the story, we should see enough compromise that we trust they’ll come to a happy medium on the remainder of the issues.

*  or whatever combination the relationship entails

#2: A Feeling of Home

This ingredient primarily encompasses the sense of the couple being comfortable with either other. They should be natural and real with each other and not hiding behind a mask.

Do we see the hero and heroine share:

  • a sense of trust and security?
    The characters shouldn’t walk on eggshells around each other, wondering what’s going to set off the other one. They also shouldn’t have secrets or suspicions between them anymore.
  • natural chemistry?
    We should see the couple “get” each other more often than not by the end of the story. While they might misinterpret each other at the beginning, they should be on the same “wavelength” by the final paragraph.
  • an acceptance of each other’s flaws?
    The couple should have been through enough strife that they know the other isn’t perfect. Maybe they were caught in a drenching rainstorm, maybe they had a huge argument, or maybe they’ve confronted each other’s major flaws in a life-or-death struggle. Regardless, they’ve decided that they’d rather be together than apart.
  • a positive outlook?
    We won’t believe in a HEA ending unless they both believe this relationship is real and can last. If one is pessimistic about their chances, that’s definitely going to ruin the mood. *smile*

#3: A Determination to be Good at Marriage

Whether a story ends with a marriage proposal or not, the theoretical HEA ending needs a sense of commitment from both parties. It’s hard for people to adapt from the often-self-centered single life to the need to compromise all the time. We need to believe that this couple is willing and able to do the work and make the sacrifices required.

Do the hero and heroine:

  • communicate well?
    We should see the couple working out their differences in productive ways, not just kicking them down to road to rise up again later.
  • treat each other as equals?
    Many romances include subtextual negotiations of the couple’s power dynamic. By the end of the story, we should see them valuing each other’s opinions and needs.
  • fight well?
    The vast majority of couples fight, but there’s a difference between healthy disagreements where the parties still listen to each other and destructive battles where they fight mean and dirty. We should see them avoid the latter (or at least learn to try) and aim toward the former.

Again, we don’t expect our story couples to be perfect at each of these items. But if we see them on the right path to learning and trying to reach these goals, we’ll believe they’re serious in the attempt to make the relationship work.

In romance novels, a happily-ever-after ending is the norm, and our whole story could fall to pieces if we don’t prove to the reader that this couple will beat the odds. The proof can come in outright statements of love and promises or in demonstrations of the willingness to sacrifice. (Or both.)

Together, the subtext of all these clues over the course of the story will help make that ending feel believable. And that will make for a happy reader eager for a repeat of that experience with our next book. *smile*

Do you have a favorite time-sucking site? Do you agree with Wait But Why‘s ingredients for a happy relationship? How else could we show these traits in our stories? What other tips or insights do you have in how to make a romance believable to readers?

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Comments — What do you think?

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*laughs* This post is so ironic to me, because I have a particular in-progress story arc where the couple does just about everything “right” but still screws up. It’ll probably be a few years before I can get to the particular scene your post brought to mind, but oh! It’s going to be particularly horrible, because communication is what screws them up. (Girl says something she means as a “Thank you,” he understands it as “You took advantage of me”…and they each have good reason for that and for misunderstanding their ensuing reactions. And getting them back to the point to realize there was a disconnect is going to take a long time, particularly because even their friends don’t realize what happened.) The mask thing is interesting, though, because that’s what I’m dealing with in one WiP right now. The MMC fell in love with the FMC while she was behind a particular mask. He now knows she’s not quite who he thought she was, but he doesn’t want to give up his fondness for her…and she’s too fond of him to want to risk forcing him away from her, because he’s borderline suicidal. The tricky thing with the FMC, though, is she’s been a spy for decades. Even when she wants to, it’s a struggle to drop the masks. Anyway, it’s fun to play with those things. I firmly believe that a writer can get away with a character doing anything if s/he’s built properly. The key is to…  — Read More »

Sharla Rae

Thanks for sharing this Jami. It’s a great reminder for having our characters hit it off–which is difficult sometimes because it’s really fun throw them into unknown water with strangers they might otherwise avoid.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

My favorite time-sucking page, YOURS!!! If one takes the time to peruse your wisdom they will find a treasure trove of amazing info. I love your blog and your website. I can honestly say yours is my absolute favorite!
I also love your breakdown on making the HEA feel believable. I think that constructing a human being from scratch, giving them quirks and flaws and life and then matching them with some other quirky, flawed living being all while you’re constructing a plot around which they eat, breathe, sleep, converse etc…is a pretty hard thing to do. But to make their relationship and love feel real and lasting, now that’s why romance novels are soooooooo incredibly desirable. Love makes the world go round 😉
I’m in awe by your talent as a teacher. Thank you for your wisdom!
Have a great evening,

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Phew! It looks like the heroine and hero of the novel I’m writing right now have the majority of the above qualities. 😀 But then I haven’t gotten to the romance part yet (so far, they’re barely even friends/ have just begun to be sort of friends), so I can only judge by what I FORESEE them becoming. In my mind, they’re pretty much your ideal couple though tempered with a few flaws and realisms, so they have a rather simple romance plot, haha. (I’m not even going to do love triangles/ love trapeziums/ love stars, etc. Lol! I don’t really like love triangles anyway, haha.) It’s simple partly because it’s mainly an action/ adventure story, not a romance, lol. However, since I am still very far from where the romance begins, I can’t be sure that their romance will indeed be so ideal and simple. 😀 I’ll keep these qualities in mind though, so thanks for the list!

For the similar interests point, yes! I see that a lot of fictional couples seem to have NO similar interests at all. :O Won’t they bore each other eventually? Not saying one HAS to have at least one major similar interest, but…I personally wouldn’t want to marry someone who doesn’t love some of the main things I love in life, lol.

Carolyn Branch

I looked up your page after wanacon because your presentation was so well organized and USEFUL.

You know HEA is a fictional concept, don’t you?

We were married in 1963 and we’ve been happy, we’ve been sad, we’ve been mad enough to spit! But none of it is Ever After. All temporary, all changing, every day. We constantly renew that long ago decision to stick it out together, no matter what.

Most long marriages include a certain amount of plain mule stubborness!

That said – My Richard and I do fit most of the items on your list. Great Post!


[…] What Makes a Romance Believable? by Jami Gold on February 25, 2014. Writing craft. […]


[…] If you’re writing a romance, regardless of the sub-genre, I strongly recommend you read Jami Gold’s post What Makes a Romance Believable? […]


Well, this was timely–trying to write pairings while you have no idea of how couples are supposed to work does not end well. (That is probably the main reason my romance stories crash and burn… Oh well!) I’ve got a better idea, so thank you!

My time-sucking website? …Probably TV Tropes… I’ve used it for looking up stuff for my fav animes, character types, voice actors, schoolwork (that Useful Notes section does come in handy!).

Click to grab Pure Sacrifice now!