How to Develop and Show a Healthy Romance — Guest: Bran L. Ayres
I’m still on vacation this week, but don’t worry, Bran L. Ayres is here with another fantastic post. *smile*
Earlier this week, Bran shared their insights on whether authors should include trigger warnings with their story for readers. Today, they’re back with another important topic that applies to both authors and readers.
We’ve probably all witnessed unhealthy relationships at some point in time. Disrespect or outright abuse are far too common in real life.
At the same time, those same problems are far too common in fictional relationships as well. Between stalking being portrayed as romantic or “alphahole heroes” controlling every aspect of their love interest’s life, stories don’t always provide good role models.
I’ve mentioned many times that as a paranormal romance author (a genre that often seems to specialize in alphaholes), I strive to instead portray healthy romantic relationships in my stories. I’m a big believer in consent and a balance in power between the characters.
But with the lack of real-world role models, we might not know the elements of a healthy relationship. Or even if we do, we might not know how to show that in the characters we write. So whether we want to know for real-life purposes or for our writing, Bran’s post today is going to help us identify what aspects are important for healthy romances.
Once again, please welcome Bran L. Ayres! *smile*
Writing a Healthy Romance
by Bran L. Ayres
Romance novels often get blown off by the wider reading community (and especially the literary) as frivolous emotional porn (and sometimes actual porn) lacking any real substance or plot. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
However, like all genres, romance does have some troublesome tropes. Some of these tropes are perpetuated in common advice heard throughout the romance community. Particularly when it comes to what constitutes a romance plot and what ‘needs’ to happen at certain points.
There has been some backlash recently against overtly abusive relationships portrayed in some romance books (this includes gay romance novels). Unhealthy relationships are a staple of media.
Pick up nearly any romantic comedy movie, and it is rife with troublesome elements such as:
- stalkerish behavior being labeled romantic,
- a woman’s ‘no’ being a ‘challenge’ for the man to overcome,
- little to no respect for a woman’s right to decide on her romantic partner,
- a partner being controlling or jealous as a sign of affection (it’s not),
- and the list could go on and on.
We as authors need to be aware of these issues and make certain we are not sending readers the wrong message. Everyone deserves to be in a healthy, loving relationship. Including our characters.
So how can we avoid troublesome tropes and instead show a loving, healthy relationship in our romance?
10 Elements of a Healthy Relationship
First, what is a healthy relationship? This might seem like a very simple question, but many of us are never taught (even in our personal lives) what it means to be in a healthy relationship.
What are the 10 elements of a healthy relationship? Click To TweetShowing one in a conflict-riddled romance can be a challenge, but one I know you’re up to facing. These points might even give you entirely new ways to write your next story.
Just remember these points are character-centric, not plot points. Your plot can and will affect how the relationship develops, but that doesn’t mean it has to be an unhealthy relationship.
(The following points have been adapted from the article 10 Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship by Jennifer Twardowski.)
#1: Take Responsibility
What this means is that your main character knows their happiness is their own responsibility. They aren’t looking for someone to ‘fulfill’ them or ‘make them whole.’
The idea of two lovers being separate parts of a whole is very unhealthy for both. It is one thing for a partner to have personality traits that complement or support each other. It is very different to completely rely on the other for their personal happiness. It creates an imbalance.
Understandably, this is a big trope in romance: finding the one who ‘completes’ you as a person. It’s also fraught with issues.
Putting someone in the position of being responsible for your happiness isn’t just unkind, it’s unloving. The moment they can’t emotionally, mentally or physically provide that happiness, what happens? Romanticizing that kind of relationship can potentially mislead our readers into thinking they either must find someone to fulfill this or do so themselves.
This doesn’t mean you cannot write this trope, but I strongly caution you to evaluate why you are doing so. Can’t your main character be happy on their own and still find joy in their relationship? Or perhaps they can find their own happiness with support from their lover? Possibilities abound.
#2: Not A-Fixer-Upper
We’ve all run across those stories where the love of the main character is all that it takes to make the love interest change and become law abiding, gentle, loving, what have you.
No. This is bullcrap.
Unless the love interest is actively wanting to change, and the main character is there to unconditionally support them (or vice versa), this is just … no. We humans are very stubborn and stuck in our ways, and any change undergone to gain someone’s love is often superficial at best and deceitful at worst.
In a truly healthy relationship, neither partner is going to seek to change the other. They like each other for who they already are. That’s what drew them to each other in the first place. They respect each other.
Respect. Remember that word. It’s important.
Jane just loved it when John would take her menu away and order for her. He always knew exactly what she wanted. It was so romantic.
Jane, I hate to break it to you, but either you are a doormat, or John is overbearing and controlling, and you need to hightail it. Even if John really did know exactly what Jane wanted, this relationship would still be unbalanced. And probably not only when it came to ordering food.
For both our characters and our life, RESPECT is essential for healthy relationships Click To TweetA healthy relationship is balanced when it comes to decision making (and yes, that includes ordering food). When both partners truly respect (there it is again) each other, they will discuss decisions.
Respect also comes into play when each partner realizes the other might have more experience in certain areas. If John is a 5-star chef, he might be off the hook. Maybe. Even then he needs to respect Jane’s personal preferences.
The ‘alpha’ male portrayal is often (not always) a thinly veiled abuser. Men who must dominate in a relationship often aren’t being loving or respectful of their partner. This includes queer relationships too.
If you find yourself writing a lot of these kinds of characters this might be a sign of internalized misogyny.
#4: Conflict Management
Oh boy, there’s the big C. Conflict. Romance novels thrive on conflict and tension.
But is it the right kind of conflict? Hang on. I’ll explain.
As writers, we understand that conflict is often (not always) the driving force of a plot. James Scott Bell in his book Conflict & Suspense on page 7, says that conflict is a “clash between at least two incompatible sides.”
Too often in romance the ‘incompatible sides’ are the main character and the love interest. Which leads to conflict. Lots of conflict.
Conflict is natural in a relationship. However, it should be a time to learn and grow.
Too many times in romances, a petty argument has both sides slamming doors and proclaiming the relationship over. This is not a healthy relationship.
If each truly cared about and respected the other, they would deal with their frustrations together. If the two are so incompatible as to constantly be in conflict, then why are they even together?
A better method could be to have the conflict come from outside the relationship. This allows them to grow together in a partnership as they work together to resolve it.
#5: Show and Tell
No, no. Not the showing and telling in your prose. Deep breaths. There you go.
This showing and telling has to do with your characters and how open and honest they are with each other. Understandably, being open about certain things comes after a relationship has begun or is in its early stages.
Being able to honestly communicate and respect each other’s feelings is one of the foundations of a healthy relationship. Repressing emotions isn’t healthy and only leads to later conflicts. Not the right kind of conflict either. Again, respect comes into play, on both sides.
This one is a bit mutable depending on your plot and characters, their personalities, where they are in their relationship, and how much they trust each other. However, if they respect each other at all, they will be honest and open about their true feelings. They will also find responsible ways to express those feelings. Again, this may also depend on your plot and the characters’ personalities.
This is related to taking responsibility for their own happiness. To maintain a healthy relationship, the partner must first take care of themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically, as far as they are able. This will allow them to be properly supportive of their partner.
This means that if your character suffers from a mental health issue, they will, as far as they are able, try to do what they can to help themselves. See a doctor, therapist and get on meds. They will not expect their partner to be their therapist/doctor.
This does not mean that the partner cannot be there to support and help them. It simply means that they will not expect their partner to be their sole means of care.
An established relationship should feel like a close partnership, with each taking into consideration their lover’s thoughts and feelings before making a decision. This means they need to talk openly about things that concern them and make room in their lives for the other person.
Obviously, plot wise it may seem like a good idea for one or the other to go gallivanting off to save the day. But this is a partnership. They’ve agreed that they wish to be in each other’s lives.
Could they not face the challenge together and further strengthen their relationship? If not, is there another way the partner left behind could show support or help? If you start looking, I’m certain you’ll find many ways to use this to your advantage.
#8: Agree to Disagree
Your characters are people with their own opinions and beliefs. They aren’t going to agree on everything, and that’s just fine. If they did, it would be not only boring but either unrealistic or unbalanced.
This one is a little trickier because so many romance plots call for there to be something that drives the two lovers apart. Often this is a disagreement over something, a closely held belief by one or the other, or ideas on how to proceed with a solution to the issue they are facing.
Many times, instead of talking to each other like adults, there is either no communication or spiteful arguing where one of them leaves until they are forced back together to finally confront the issue together. While this does increase the tension, it strains what could be a healthier relationship.
I challenge you to find alternate ways to introduce tension and reduce the amount of needless quarreling between the lovers.
Your lovers are going to meet challenges. They must, to test the strength of the relationship. If they are truly committed to each other, they will remain loyal and be ready to work through the challenges together.
#10: Joy in the Other
Why did they choose each other? What is their real reason for wanting to be in the relationship?
Is it for selfish reasons? Or only out of sexual attraction? Do they actually enjoy being with the other person? Why? What drew them together? What is keeping them together?
Every relationship is different and will always have things both partners need to work on. No relationship will be perfect at each of these points, but by working at them together, you’ll find yourself writing much healthier relationships that people can still identify with.
Portraying a Healthy Relationship: Ideas for Doing Something Different
Now let’s look at how to incorporate this into the theory of 12 Key Romance Scenes as proposed by Michael Hauge:
(Note from Jami: If you’re not familiar with these scenes, check out C.S Laskin’s post: How to Layer Scenes in a Romance Novel.)
- The Ordinary World:
Your main character in their element. Show who they are and that while they may have a ‘need,’ they are secure without needing a romantic partner to feel complete.
(Again, not all characters will be able to do this. They might grow over the course of the novel to learn that they are whole within themselves but that doesn’t exclude loving their partner).
- The Meet:
Just what it says. Somewhere in the beginning, they meet each other, and depending on your plot, there may or may not be instant sparks of attraction. This is a good point to establish mutual respect at some level, even if it is an ‘enemies to lovers’ trope.
Here, many writers (Mr. Hauge included) would advise you to show that the pair are incompatible for one reason or another or have there be an openly negative response by one of the characters. Why? Let them enjoy meeting each other and want to get to know each other.
This doesn’t mean things will be perfect right off the bat. You can always have plot elements that will keep them from being able to get together. It doesn’t have to be the relationship itself that is a source of contention.
- Wise Friend Counsels:
Let’s make this Wise Friend Listens instead. Let your character know their own mind and make the decision for themselves.
Too often women aren’t allowed to decide for themselves whether the relationship is for them. Their well-meaning friend will tell them why the man is ‘the one’ for them. This is often a sign of internalized misogyny on the author’s part and needs to be very closely looked at before allowing it to stand in your story.
- Acknowledge Interest:
Your main character has realized they have deeper feelings than they thought. If first impressions were not positive, now is the time to let your character realize that maybe they were wrong and either judged too harshly or too quickly.
- First Quarrel:
This can go several ways depending on your character’s personality, but use caution and remember that if they truly are invested in the relationship, they will respect each other. This could be a good point to show that, and instead of pushing them apart, it could draw them together as they talk through whatever is affecting their relationship.
- The Dance:
A lot of writers would advise you to show the relationship development, except it’s always on the fence whether the relationship can or will work. There is no set rule that says this must be the case. There are plenty of ways to create tension without that tension constantly being on the verge of tearing the relationship apart.
- The Black Moment:
The relationship is dead? What? Why? Instead of having something internal kill it, why not find some external reason that keeps them apart or makes the relationship impossible.
If it is something internal, it could be related to the character’s fatal flaw, something they must overcome.
Don’t fall for the ‘fated lovers’ trope. Let them come together willingly and because they want to be together, not because they were ‘meant’ for each other.
There obviously will still be obstacles to overcome, but don’t force them together. Let them come back to each other organically.
This is where those obstacles really come into play. The outside forces aren’t about to let this stand for whatever reason.
- Finally together:
Now they can face their issues as a couple, showing that they have grown together and can face the problem head-on. Their respect for each other allows them to defeat the issue and move on to …
- Happily Ever After:
There is nothing wrong with allowing your characters their happy ending. With the issues this world is facing, people crave something positive and uplifting.
Need ideas for how to show characters in a healthy relationship? Click To TweetRomance novels are some of the most nuanced and complicated plots out there. But we cannot let ourselves become complacent and fall into negative tropes. We must always challenge ourselves to do better and think critically about why we are writing certain things.
These ten points are meant to give you a guide, not be hard and fast rules. Everyone is different and needs different things, just like our characters. But we all deserve to be loved and respected, especially by our partner.
About Bran Lindy Ayres
Growing up in rural Missouri surrounded by dense forests teeming with giants, dogwood horses, pine castles and grapevine snakes, Bran has always had a very healthy imagination. This was further inculcated by their mother, who encouraged them to read the likes of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Their love of fantasy and writing has never waned even as they got older, and has developed into a need to write.
They currently live in Southern Missouri with three young nerdlings and several precocious felines. When not writing, Bran can be found with their face still glued to the computer screen playing video games or reading.
Find Bran on Twitter (@WriteRainbows), Facebook, Patreon, Book & Main, and Tumblr, or explore their books
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The workshop focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity and will not address racial diversity as Bran is white and does not wish to stray from their lane.
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Thank you, Bran! As you said, these tips aren’t about trying to make everything line up right from the beginning of the story (our characters will often be works in progress) or trying to force out every questionable behavior from every scene of our stories. Instead, these are simply ideas for how to do something different and hopefully add healthier romances to the market.
All of these ideas can be tweaked, and a lot of variation lives in the nuances. For example, there’s a huge difference between a character offering to order for another in a restaurant or a character asking for help deciding versus a character taking away the choice. The problem is in taking the choice away from a character (i.e., controlling behavior).
Many stereotypes and tropes “default” to unhealthy behaviors simply because we’ve seen them play out that way countless times. But the romance genre is aspirational by design, so showing as many healthy behaviors as the story allows is important for encouraging readers to aspire to those types of relationships in their lives. And with these ideas prompting us to look at our characters’ situations from a different perspective, we can make something unique—and maybe healthier too. *smile*
(And *psst* Thanks to Bran for offering an exclusive 50% off their workshop to all of you with the discount code “JamiGold”! But that code is only good for the month of June, so be sure to sign up soon. *smile*)
Do the stories you read have healthy or unhealthy relationships (or are they a mix)? Do you prefer one over the other (or does it depend on your mood or the story/characters)? Do you agree that it’s important for stories, especially in the romance genre, to portray healthy relationships? Do these tips from Bran give you ideas for how we can do so? Do you have any questions for Bran?Pin It
Thank you again for letting me hang out on your blog this week, Jami!!! I hope you’re having a fantastic and relaxing vacation!
Thank you so much, Bran, for sharing your insightful posts with us! I feel so lucky to have the benefit of your expertise here. 😀
I like these points. I keep wondering how to add all this “conflict” that is recommended for writers. Smart-ass repartee is sometimes fun to read, but I doubt I can write it. I chose to have a team (not romance) that gets along and the external problems they encounter provide the conflict. But, I must confess I get a kick out of some of the conversations I read with sparks flying. There must be some parameters. Perhaps the respect you allude to. Maybe have the protagonists come from such disparate backgrounds there will be authentic but not necessarily acrimonious conflict. I have seen examples in sci fi where the characters come from very different backgrounds.
Perhaps that would work. Also, some of the conflict I have chosen includes the subdued form where the characters have the normal differences of opinion. But, I am not sure that’s enough. Supposedly, conflict provides some spice. The problem quite often for me when I am reading stories is I feel the conflict is there for conflict’s sake–and is not organic to the story or the characters. I am trying to figure this out right now. I appreciate your views. (I sure like your point about so much acrimony the reader wonders what the two protagonists see in each other.)
Hiya Elizabeth! Thank you so much for the comment! I love witty banter and it can make for great tension between the protagonists. A recent example I can think of is Rosalie Stanton’s A Higher Education which is a modern Pride and Prejudice retelling. Sparks definitely fly between the two main characters and there is plenty of conflict between them but it is all nicely resolved by the end. Mutual respect plays a big role.
The type of conflict that will arise in your stories depends on your characters, their needs and goals, and your plot. The above points are only meant to be a guideline. Every relationship will have weak points. But you’re right, conflict just for conflict’s sake is not a good way to develop a relationship and there is a big difference between flirty banter and rude, sarcastic and cutting comments (though even those may have their place depending on your character and their arc).
I’m sure Bran will chime in, but I wanted to share links to a couple of posts that might help. 🙂
In a guest post by Janet Hardy here, she points out that:
“Some of the most gut-wrenching conflicts come from people who care about each other who are facing impossible choices.”
Then in a post I wrote a couple of years ago, I wrote about the difference between antagonists and villains:
“conflict can refer to any situation where:
Thinking of my own stories, my romance couple typically becomes a “team” (perhaps begrudgingly) around the 25% mark, and that establishes a baseline of respect between them that builds over the story. (They accept that they need to work together anyway. 🙂 )
But even with respect, there can still be conflict with their individual goals, or keeping secrets, or interference from false beliefs, or external issues, etc. — at least until they resolve those problems by the end. 😉 And none of that equals fights, undermining, controlling, or other unhealthy types of conflict. Hope that helps with ideas!
Thanks. The link to the difference between antagonists and villains was helpful–especially as concerns the advice for conflict in every scene that seems overdone unless one has the understanding you provide in this post.
I also liked Janice Hardy’s advice to make conflict involve choices (best if impossible) and consequences.
One other note that Bran mentioned in their reply to Kassandra on the post really got to the gist of what I was trying to say in my last few paragraphs here…
That internal conflict can come from things “the two can work through together.” That’s very different from internal conflict that sets the couple head-to-head.
Many of those things I mentioned, such as keeping secrets, could lead to fights, etc. But they also could be about learning how to trust each other to have their backs, etc.
In other words, as long as the conflict isn’t specifically about damaging, disrespectful behavior (controlling, etc.), there are usually ways to make any issues between them help them grow together and strengthen the relationship. I hope that makes sense! 🙂
YES!! I think the key words are “can work through together.” So there can be misunderstandings but still a direction toward working things out. Two steps forward, one step backward–just like in real life. I like the fact you say romance is about how everyone can find love and happiness no matter how seemingly unlovable someone may be. Therefore, perhaps the biggest gap at first makes for nice tension, but naturally, in a romance, it must always end with the people getting together. I like all the comments I have read here about the nature of the type of relationship that should ensue. I write problem-solving stories where the conflict is mostly external. I knew when I started I hated the nasty put-down types of dialogue I had read. But, sometimes I have wondered if I ended up with relationships that were too harmonious. Maybe I need to just acknowledge the only ones I would want to be in would be harmonious. Maybe I can’t write against type. But, maybe I could write about achieving that harmony. But, first start out with major disharmony. The comments here suggest having both parties wanting harmony, wanting to work out understandings. Yeah, OK.
More. Jami, you write stories I love to read. It’s not just the terrific imagination you have. It’s also how you have the couples work towards good relationships. I was considering whether some of the tension and conflict that drive the stories comes from how different the two parties are at the beginnings.
Aww, thank you, Elizabeth! I’m so glad to hear that. 😀 And I’m glad Bran and I could help!
Thank you for adding these fantastic links Jami!
This post has totally nailed why I’m not a romance reader per se. I read and write both mystery and romantic suspense, and the appeal of the latter, as a writer, is that I can make the conflict be external to the relationship, i.e., about the suspense, not the romance.
Also, as a retired psychotherapist, I love,love, love that you are promoting role models for healthy relating!!! Wow, so awesome!
On my blog at misterio press, we are only officially posting every other week, but on the “off” weeks I often do reblogs. With both of your permissions, I’d love to reblog this! (Meaning a teaser lead-in and then a link to this post.)
Hiya Kassandra! Thank you so much for the comment! I tend to be much the same way when it comes to romance. I much prefer the conflict to come from outside or be based on flaws or competing goals that the two can work through together.
In one of my stories, the romance is central to the plot, but it is not a cause of conflict (except where Garrett is an emotionally repressed loner and still learning to trust). But things that relate to the relationship create tension and conflict. Such as Garret’s inability to articulate himself and having zero clues about how relationships work. One major source of internal conflict is Garrett’s guilt at having indirectly caused Adrian to be maimed. His need to ‘fix’ things is the driving force of the whole plot. Without their romance, there would be no plot but the romance itself is not a major source of conflict.
And I’m absolutely fine with you reblogging this. The more people who see it the better, imo. I think Jami will likely agree. ^_^
Bran, I loved this point you made in your reply to Kass: That any internal conflict comes from things “the two can work through together.”
Perfectly stated. 😀 That’s what I was trying to get across in my reply to Elizabeth above, but never quite got to the gist I meant. Thank you once again for being able to express these ideas so well!
Absolutely! Reblog away. 😀 As Bran said, the more who see the information the better.
Thanks!! I will be putting this up as an “off” week post soon. Again, so awesome that you all are promoting healthy relating!
Hey Bran! It’s good that you mention that unhealthy relationships appear in gay romances too. I partly believe that there will be more equality if the partners are the same gender, but that is not always the case. (Misogyny might appear more easily in cishet romances, though, at least I think so. I find misogyny quite intolerable, which is one reason why I don’t really want to read cis straight romances anymore, unless it’s my friend’s book.) Or the partners could be the same gender, but there could still be another type of power imbalance, e.g. trans guy and cis guy, where the cis partner would enjoy cis privilege. Oh a type of power imbalance I found particularly interesting lately, is the one on different species. I think a lot of the time, if it’s between a human being and a supernatural, the supernatural probably has more power. So that kind of inequality would be fun to write about and handle inside the romance. Sometimes, though, I think the author tried very hard to make the power balanced between the couple, but I still feel that one partner has significantly more power than the other. (E.g. More respect from others, higher social status, physically stronger and faster, of a “more superior species,” has more money and power, has a more admired career, etc.) Sometimes I think that the equality will only remain if the more powerful partner stays nice. Or am I just being pessimistic?
Hiya Sieran! You make some great points here! I think power balance within a relationship has to be evaluated on an individual basis. What works for one couple, won’t for another. Knowing your characters and what they bring to the relationship will be key. As always respect should come into play. For example; a physically stronger partner would be certain not to overpower or assume that the other always wants to be shielded. A more educated partner wouldn’t overrule the other’s right of choice or make their decisions for them. Someone with a higher social standing or wealth would be careful not to force their partner to ‘fit in’ or ‘keep up appearances’ if that person felt uncomfortable doing so. Things would need to be clearly discussed and all expectations stated.
It all comes back to respect. If the more privileged partner always takes the other’s feelings, wants and needs into consideration there will be more balance.
I hope this makes sense. ^_^
Speaking from personal experience, there is another aspect to imbalance, although I’m not sure this is fodder for romance novels. I am a very intense person and my husband is very easy-going. This makes for a good balance as long as I am cognizant of his right to feel strongly about some things. When he expresses a stronger than usual opinion about something, I try to sit up and listen. And most of the time, I let him have his way in such matters. I figure that since I get my way most of the time, I should let him have his way when it really matters to him. Might be interesting to explore this dichotomy in a romance novel, maybe?
Note: we will have been married 42 years in August.
Thanks! Women have much more responsible roles in romances nowadays – they used to be the nurse or secretary, now they are the surgeon or veterinarian, the police dog handler or the hydrologist. I find this particularly applies to romantic suspense. Male roles are actually more stereotypical because few of them have taken on jobs that used to be done by women. The more professional your characters, the more equal they should be in a romance.
[…] you write romance or have a romance subplot in your story, Bran L. Ayres shows how to develop and show a healthy relationship, and Lisa Hall-Wilson examines the real body language of […]
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