Romance is a large feature in the majority of books (at least above middle-grade level). It’s nearly impossible to find a book without at least one romance in it, and almost as hard to find a book with a good romance in it. The romances found in most books today are shallow, based almost entirely on physical attraction, and often have little basis in a prior platonic relationship. This is not a good kind of relationship to be praising and providing examples of. Real relationships require much more than physical attraction to survive, and relationships based only on physical attraction are not love, no matter what the media may say. We need to write romance rooted in real, deep relationships – particularly in the YA category, where the readers are those who are most pressured to be in relationships and most likely to take their cues from the media – so that there is something in literature that provides a good, healthy example of what a romantic relationship should look like.
I will be the first to admit that I’m not always the most thoughtful when I write romance. We’re steeped in a culture that prizes beauty and physical displays of affection over character and selflessness. When we’re reading books that have these bad romances in them, it’s easy to write our own relationships more shallow than we might intend because it’s what we see displayed, giving more evidence that something needs to be done about the romances in literature. It’s hard to push against the current and not be swept away.
So what does a good relationship look like? They say write what you know, and I’ll tell you now that I don’t know a lot about relationships firsthand. I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, so my knowledge here comes from my own experience with crushes and what I’ve seen demonstrated by my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. in their relationships. Proceed or ignore the rest of this post as you will, having that information.
Physical Attraction Does Not Mean Love
Physical attraction, so lauded as “true love” in mainstream media today, has nothing to do with love. If you find a person attractive, you may want to be with them, but that doesn’t mean you should be with them. Often they’re physically attractive but they don’t share your religious beliefs, they don’t like you back (woe of woes!), they’re just plain jerks, or there’s something else that just doesn’t make you a good match. And even if you do match in personality, values, etc., that still doesn’t mean you’re automatically “in love.” What the mainstream media calls love–the Greek word Eros–is just a feeling, an emotion, a surface-level thing. Love–the Greek word Agape–is an action. Love is something you choose. A romantic relationship likely will begin with some sort of physical attraction, yes, but real love is something that has to be worked at.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Patience, kindness, humility, politeness… These things don’t just happen. They’re worked at. They’re disciplined. Love is something you do, not something that happens to you. It’s active, not passive. And sometimes it’s a huge pain in the neck. Sometimes that person you’re loving is the most stubborn human being on the planet and will not hear what you’re saying. It takes a massive amount of self-control to be patient and kind in those situations, and we’re not perfect. We’re not going to be able to be patient and kind all the time like we should. We’re fallen humans. Which is why it takes work and love is an action. If we were perfect, true love would be a piece of cake.
Know the difference between love and attraction and glorify relationships accordingly. Yes, it’s okay for your characters to not understand the difference, but make sure that you’re not glorifying the shallow relationship and indicating to your readers that that’s right and good. Glorify the true loves, the relationships that are worked at and maintained through the hard times.
Physical Attraction Isn’t Even Always the First Step
Physical attraction is often the first thing that makes us want somebody for a romantic partner, but it’s not always the first thing we notice. Sometimes we don’t even think someone is particularly beautiful or handsome until we’ve known them for a while and suddenly realize, “Wow, how did I not notice how beautiful you are until now?” Because the people that we enjoy being around and think are wonderful in other ways gradually begin to seem more physically beautiful as well. It’s weird how that works. So while some people may seem physically attractive right off the bat, it’s quite possible for your character to be drawn to a good friend, and that relationship is likely the better one. When you write romance, it should reflect this reality.
Write Romance that Starts With Friendship
A romantic relationship needs a good foundation, and the best foundation for that is friendship. A serious romantic partner needs to be someone the character can trust and feel safe with, not just someone they like to look at and kiss. If the character doesn’t trust their significant other, the relationship isn’t realistically going to last. Friends trust each other, and melding that with the above point that those we like as people become more physically attractive to us means that your character will quite likely want to begin a romantic relationship with a friend.
If your character is particularly wise and sees someone they find physically attractive, or gets to know from a distance and grows to find attractive, they’re likely to want to become friends with that person so that a potential romantic relationship can be based on friendship and trust. And even if it doesn’t turn into something romantic, they’ve still gained a good friend.
It’s Important for Us to Write Romance Well
I talked at the beginning of this post about how it benefits readers for us writers to write romance well, but what about how it benefits us? Personally, it’s hard for me to not write romance. There’s at least one romantic relationship in each of my books. Part of this is because I’m something of a hopeless romantic when it comes to characters, but a lot of it is simply because of the culture we live in and the fact that romances are so praised and promoted. It’s easy, having read so many novels that show examples of bad romances – or at least not optimal romances – to fall into writing less-than-stellar romances myself. It’s easy to not think about it and simply see that two characters have chemistry and begin “shipping” them. Goodness knows how many times I’ve done this.
But this is dangerous to our minds. It does even more to reinforce the idea of these shallow romances, these romances that aren’t selfless and aren’t sacrificial like Agape. It affects not only what we’re putting into our stories, but also how we act in real life.
As I’ve started taking certain crushes more seriously, actually considering whether or not the guys I’m attracted to would be suitable for me to marry, I’ve realized that I don’t know how to love properly. I have trouble being okay with the fact that my friends sometimes don’t have time for me. I have trouble not obsessing over the guys I like and thinking about hanging out with them. You might think that because it’s not anything specifically romantic most of the time it’s harmless, but it’s not; I’m still thinking only about myself and how being with them would make me happy. I don’t think about their happiness, I think about mine, and that’s not what Agape is. That’s what Eros is, or possibly Ludus (playful love). There is nothing of Agape – true, selfless love – in that.
As I read and watch movies I find one of the first things I think about is which characters are going to end up together. I start “shipping” them right off the bat, and I’m disappointed when the characters I think fit perfectly don’t get together. I’m frustrated when the girl picks this guy over that guy.
I even find myself, on rare occasions, “shipping” real people and having to force myself not to. It’s bad enough when it’s the first thing I think about with fictional characters, but with real people? It’s a terrible habit, and it’s hard to break when you’re reading, watching, and writing lukewarm romances.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things – Philippians 4:8
When we write these things, we’re meditating on them. We’re reinforcing them in our minds. We’re dwelling on them for as long as it takes to write the book, and then into the many levels of editing. This can take years. Is what you’re writing something you want to be reminding yourself of and reinforcing for years? Is it portrayed in such a way that you’ll be inclined to think it good and right or is it portrayed in such a way that the character is obviously in the wrong, if you do have a lukewarm romance?
A member of one of the writing groups I’m part of, in response to a post about what we take in affecting us and who we are – be it books, movies, conversations, music – said,
That which we ingest we may remember or forget, but that which we put forth is forever a part of us.
This is definitely something we need to keep in mind as authors. We need to be mindful, for the sake of our readers and the sake of ourselves, to put forth what is edifying.
Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. – Ephesians 2:29
To reiterate, I do not mean to say that you should never have a lukewarm or even harmful romance in your book, we should all simply be aware of how we’re portraying them and what we’re promoting.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. (Even more than usual.) Do you agree with my assessment, or do you think looser definitions of “good romance” are acceptable? Do you think I missed any points? Do you struggle, like me, to write romance well, or is it something you find easy?