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July 2, 2020

Crafting a Relationship That Matters — Guest: Angela Ackerman

Pile of different colored matchsticks with text: Finding Our Character's Perfect Match

Different stories have different goals. Some care more about making us think, and others care more about making us feel. Some focus more on the plot, and others focus more on the characters. And so on.

Sometimes those goals are driven by our genre. For example, the romance genre usually strives to make readers connect and care about the characters on a personal level. Readers want to root for them to find and deserve their Happily Ever After, so a strong emotion and character focus is key.

Given that I’m a romance author, that’s one of the reasons I greatly respect and appreciate what Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of the famed Emotion Thesaurus have done for the craft of writing. While their Writers Helping Writers blog includes plenty of information about plotting, they’ve focused on characters and emotions more than many other resources.

So when Angela offered to share her insights into applying what she’s learned about characters to crafting a deeper, more powerful relationship (specifically with romances), you can bet that I jumped at the chance. Especially, as she’s sharing fantastic examples so we can understand how we can apply her insights too.

Please welcome Angela Ackerman! *smile*

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Writing a Romance:
How to Create Powerful Love Connections

By Angela Ackerman

As anyone writing romance knows, the love connection takes center stage, and building a powerful one requires artistry, planning, and understanding. Why?

Because while two people meeting and falling for one another is a tale older than chastity belts, it’s also a complex act. The belief that we can mash two characters together and love will magically follow puts us in danger of spending a lot of time writing a novel that will…probably…flop.

(And that sounds like a horror story, so let’s not go there.)

Clearly, we want to craft a romance that enthralls readers by capturing their imaginations and reminding them of their deepest yearnings. So, to really nail the love component, we should do some serious up-front work on the characters we intent to pair, figuring out who they are deep down and why they should be together.

Start with the Protagonist

A compelling lead character in any genre will have inner complexities, and it’s our job to understand what these are. We must become explorers, unraveling their personal goals and desires, defining their attributes, flaws, and morals, and unearthing any fears or past wounds that are holding them back.

In romance, this means figuring out what is interfering with their ability to bond with others and find lasting love. This backstory and characterization prep (either done in advance or during a discovery draft) will help us see the shape of the love story and get a clear picture of who the Love Interest should be.

Protagonist Example:

Let’s say an exploration of Lydia, the protagonist, has uncovered people-pleasing tendencies. She puts the needs of others first by doing everything she can to support their goals, going the extra mile, overcommitting…and this burns her out. She is a workaholic intern at photography studio, giving energy to those who don’t appreciate her, and it means she has nothing left in the tank to further her own aspirations.

When we dig a bit deeper, we realise her people-pleasing comes from a need for love and acceptance. Growing up, Lydia had to fight for attention as her successful, powerful parents always put their careers ahead of her, and this is her emotional wound.

Analyze What Kind of Match They Need

From what we know, is it fair to say Lydia needs to learn how to put herself first? Sure. Unfortunately, because of her wound, this is a blind spot.

What kind of character will be the perfect match to our protagonist? @AngelaAckerman shares her insights Click To Tweet

You see it and I see it, but Lydia doesn’t. She believes the love and acceptance of others is what gives her worth, and so bending over backwards to prove her loyalty is what she believes will lead to being accepted and loved.

Now that we know Lydia’s suitcase of pain that she lugs around, let’s move on to think about who might make a great match for her, helping her to see the truth about her life, what holds her back, and how she can get what she needs most.

Avoid the TDHO (Tall, Dark, and Handsome Only) Trap

Now if Alex, a sexy underwear model rolls into the studio, yes, he might get Lydia’s nerve endings pinging (and the reader’s too!). But if there’s nothing more to him, any connection between him and Lydia will be flash-in-the-pan (and ultimately leave the reader dissatisfied). This is why a TDHO can’t carry a romance on his rippling pecs. 

Lydia’s love match should be someone with substance, a person who sees the real her, the one hidden deep down. An ideal love interest should be able to discern what Lydia needs most (even if she isn’t aware of it), and he will connect with her brokenness and vulnerability because in some way it reminds him of his own.

Contrast Is Your Friend

Because Lydia is always in a state of over-commitment and overwhelm, the perfect love interest might be someone like Jack, a photographer hoping to land a job at the studio. He’s laid back, doesn’t stress, and in fact when he doesn’t get the job, he’s easygoing about it because his attitude is that the right fit is out there.

How can we craft a love interest deeper than just a "tall, dark, and handsome" generic character? @AngelaAckerman shares her insights Click To Tweet

As Lydia walks him out after the interview, she sees he’s a complete contrast to the demanding people she works with. Rather than complain about being passed over or pressuring her to get her boss to give his portfolio another look Jack asks about her internship and her passions. And, when Lydia struggles to answer a question that never gets any air to breathe in her mind, he spontaneously suggests she should join him for coffee so she can tell him all about it.

(Observant enough to see a hit of spontaneity might be needed in her highly regimented world? Seeing her as a person and not as a tool to get ahead? This guy has potential.)

Love Match Analysis Example:

For Jack to be the perfect match, contrasts need to be apparent. For example, he can’t be the type to place conditions on her or have steel expectations like other people in Lydia’s life.

He also needs to be genuine—nothing about him should be transactional. Independence would be a good trait, where he has his own goals in the headlights, because this shows Lydia that it’s okay to put yourself first. Also, unlike those who monopolize Lydia’s time, Jack should encourage her to make space for herself so she can explore what she wants in the future.

Contrast Leads to Growth

See how seeding in contrasts deepen the connection between the two? Contrast are powerful because their job is to draw notice. In this case, they help to pull Lydia out of her ordinary world and see not all people are the same.

A contrast can help point to something that one character is lacking (Jack is easygoing and Lydia’s not, but she needs to learn how to be), or by modelling behavior that is meaningfully different (Jack is pursuing his passion as a photographer while Lydia’s lost dreams must be regained if she’s to be truly happy). Use contrast to awaken a character so they think differently, look within, or even to trigger an internal change to support character arc.

Supply the Missing Piece

The other side of the romance coin is a match should work both ways. Jack is a great fit for Lydia, but is she his missing piece?

To find out, we need to dig into his backstory.

Love Interest Example:

Maybe Jack’s last relationship was toxic—he was with a woman who was a taker and it took him a long time to recognize this and get out. His other dating experiences have been with women who had certain expectations and if he didn’t meet them, they discarded him and moved on.

His failed relationships left him jaded and wondering why he was never good enough. He feels like women are just out to get what they need and not interested in being part of a loving, unconditional partnership.

Knowing this backstory about Jack, let’s go back to when he meets Lydia. He sees a giver, someone who is overworked and underappreciated. Someone who others don’t value as they should. (Sound familiar?)

And because she’s not a taker like other women he’s been with, she represents safety. He sees her trying hard to contribute and be part of something, to be accepted, and that’s what he’s wanted all along, too – to be part of a relationship where both parties are invested. It’s not in Lydia’s nature to use people, and in fact she needs to be protected from the users in her life.  

(Sounds like a missing piece to me!) 

Perfect Matches Create Emotionally Satisfying Stories

We want to bring readers something new and fresh in all genres, but especially romance. Readers of this genre may know the mechanics of a romance but what is always the mystery is how your characters’ inner worlds will collide.

So, give them an amazing read by thinking deeply about how your couple’s inner complexities can create a harmonious relationship that neither expected. Make each the other’s missing piece.

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Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world.

Angela is also the co-founder of One Stop for Writers, an innovative creativity portal for one-of-a-kind tools that give writers exactly what they need to craft unbelievably rich stories and characters. Stop by and give their free trial a spin…writing can be easier!

Facebook | Twitter | Instagram.

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Need more ideas for crafting characters that match? Try the Character Builder!

One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder is a hyper-intelligent characterization tool that will help you plan unique, deep characters in a fraction of the time. Once you create a custom profile for each character, compare them! You’ll be able to view their histories, personality traits, emotional wounds, goals and more, helping you to spot places where points of natural friction and relationship potential exist.

Check it out today!

Character Builder Walkthrough

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Thank you, Angela! This is a fantastic big-picture look at how to match our characters in a way that will create tension, growth, and a strong relationship. Your post incorporates so many aspects we’ve talked about over the years and brings it all together in a straightforward explanation. Love it!

As I explore in my Romance workshop, the romance genre can be (and should be) much deeper than simply putting our characters in the same place at the same time and acting like they’ll suddenly fall in love just because the plot needs them to do so. Instead, characters need a reason to fall in love that readers can see, root for, and relate to.

Like Angela said, with a well-crafted match, our characters will fall in love because they see each other as they truly are. In addition, they’ll also often help each other grow in their emotional/internal character arcs, such as overcoming their false beliefs and other aspects of their backstory wound, while also hopefully developing a healthy relationship. *smile*

10 Year Blogiversary Reminder!

My blogiversary is coming up mid-July, and that means 2 things:

As I announced a few weeks ago, after 1000+ posts and ten years of publishing articles every Tuesday and Thursday, I’m giving myself the gift of an irregular schedule. So this is a great time to make sure you’re signed up for my blog-post newsletter so you don’t miss any of my new scheduled-when-I-feel-like-it posts! 😉

My blogiversary also means that it’s time to enter my 10th Annual Blogiversary Contest! The more comments we get on that post, the more winners we’ll have. 😀

Have you read romance stories with less-than-a-perfect-match characters? How did they fail to mesh well, or how could their relationship have been strengthened? Did that affect your satisfaction with the story? Does this post give you ideas for how to create your characters? Do you have any questions for Angela?

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Angela Ackerman

Thanks so much for having me here, Jami! It’s always so interesting to dig into the layers of relationships. I so greatly admire romance writers because they have an extra challenge in some ways of readers being more likely to pick up on a romance’s structure yet time and time again they BRING IT to provide fresh, brilliant relationship pairings. It’s awesome!

Sieran Lane

Hey Angela, I thought your example was particularly interesting, because I’ve heard of readers complain about the “opposites attract” trope, where the reader feels like this is unnatural, that people are usually more drawn to partners who are similar to them. Well, I didn’t have a problem with “opposites attract,” since I find them quite entertaining to read. But if we think more deeply about these seemingly opposite partners, I can see that oftentimes, the characters do share some similarities. For example, they could be working at the same firm, maybe both of them love dogs, both value honesty and sincerity, or other similar interests, backgrounds, or life attitudes. With your example of Lydia and Jack, here we see another example of how “opposites” may work. Jack and Lydia do have the similarity of being underappreciated and diminished by others in the past, so they’re not completely opposite. It makes sense that Lydia would want (even if subconsciously) someone who loves and accepts her unconditionally, rather than someone who would only love her if she achieves certain impressive goals. It’s good that you pointed out the reverse, too, that the other partner should have their missing piece completed as well. Jack also wants someone who can love and cherish him for who he is, rather than as someone who is just a “prized possession” for his partner. As for my own story, there are multiple couples in it. The couple I’m thinking the most about right now, is troubling me.…  — Read More »

Angela Ackerman

Hi Sieran,

Yes I think sometimes we get “protagonist blindness” where we’re so focused on finding the perfect love interest for our main character that we don’t think as deeply about the LI’s own needs in a partner. The strongest romances (or friendships, partnerships, etc,) are ones where things go beneath the surface and there’s a strong, deep connection. To find out how these two “click” in a meaningful way, we need to dig deep into both, rooting around in their psyche and backstory to understand them, what they have been through, and how the other person will help complete them, heal, and allow them to grow into a stronger person.

Deep brainstorming is always work, but boy does it ever pay off. Readers, even if they don’t consciously pick up on every way you make the other a perfect fit will feel it on a gut instinctual level. The romance pairing will just feel ‘right” and therefore be so satisfying to them.

Definitely dig into your love interest and think about what their experiences have been before the story starts. How those experiences (especially negative ones) have shaped the character and the negative life lessons they’ve walked away believing that shift how they see the world and themselves. Look for the lies they believe that need to be turned on their head, and the bruises that the right partner can heal. Good luck!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great example with modern characters and occupations. Thanks!

Angela Ackerman

Hi Clare,

Thank you–glad this post resonnated. 🙂

Dawn

I’m not a romance writer, but my novels are strongly character-driven. Angela’s posts and the Emotion Thesaurus are extremely helpful.

Angela Ackerman

I am so glad to hear this. And I think that we can take our understanding of relationship dynamics and alter them to fit other pairings and strengthen those characters as well.

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