It Must Be Love!

It must be Love!

Pam Uphoff

I really hate it when my subconscious is right. I mean, I’ve got this story all plotted out. The enigmatic bad-guy-or-is-he? The slimy politician, his weeny gofer, his bubble headed bleached blonde trophy wife, his bodyguard the retired heroic space marine, the bright pretty young secretary . . .

All I have to do is throw them together with a bit of outer solar system wild west diplomacy/justice/exploration and . . .

What do you mean the space marine isn’t the hero? Shut up, back brain.

No, the weeny gofer is not an undercover agent. The marine is going to rescue the girl. Shut up back brain, he is not too old. Yes, I may have a sixty year old woman’s perspective on what makes a man attractive, but . . . well . . . crap. OK, he’s too old, but this isn’t a romance, so it doesn’t matter.

Actually, it does.

Sex sells. That’s why we’ve got those half naked men and women on the book covers. Readers expect their he-men to come with hormonally driven impulses. Women are _supposed_ to fall in love. Mind you, outside of Romance, Erotica, Urban Fantasy, and Literature the sex is supposed to be a sub plot, not the main storyline. (OK, not always the last two genres.:)) But you just can’t have realistic characters without some libido creeping in, now and then. It just doesn’t happen that way.

And some sexual context adds spark to a story. It changes the readers’ view of the character.

I’m trying to think of some broad categories that romance can fall into.
There’s the just met, feel attraction, falling in love sequence we’re all familiar with. Generally with a ton of ups and downs.
Then there’s the already committed couple, working with each other, worrying about each other, maybe a rescue or three . . .
There’s the estranged couple who might or might not get back together. Ups downs and rescues? Ya think?

Please, all you other writers, chime in, because while I can decide to do it deliberately, I tend to write it subconsciously with no real knowledge of how to properly analyze it, so I can do it again.

And I don’t have the relationship as the focus of the plot. I write what, for lack of a better term, are science fiction-fantasy crossovers. So . . . how do I introduce True Love into a story? Or sex, for that matter.

Well, first you have to throw the characters together in a fashion that won’t have your reader throwing the book against the wall.

I’ll honestly say that I don’t write “can this relationship be saved” books because I don’t really like reading stories about people who are obviously unsuited for each other. Someone else needs to chime in about to how to put one together and make it work.

So, what about the characters meeting for the first time?
Starting with an adversarial relationship is one of those tropes that sticks around, because it works so well. Sarah’s Darkship Thieves, and her shifter series both start with the two main characters at odds.
Cedar Sanderson’s Pixie Noir series starts with a bit of cross purposes, but never actually adversarial, and works very well. They marry early in the second book, and adventure ensues.

So . . . what about an old comfy pair of people? Actually you can have either romantically involved characters, or characters with an established non-sexual relationship who finally notice the other in a new way. (Dang, I just realized I have the perfect pair to do that to!) Or perhaps they’ve been attracted all along, but for professional reasons, it’s just such a bad idea it never happens. Half the cop shows with male and female partners fall into this category.
David Weber’s Honor Harrington makes it through a gabillion books before she falls for Admiral White Haven.
Jim Butcher ditto. But Harry has always had a yen for Murphy, just . . . hands off the cop. _Lots_ of sexual tension, hiding behind both friendship and a very stormy professional relationship.

Which points out another important aspect of making your story sexier. For there to be tension, the characters can’t just have sex in the first chapter, with or without details on the page. The reader has to be kept in suspense. Are they going to? When are they going to? Arg! Another hot, steamy, scene interrupted by a mere explosion or an axe murderer crashing into the room!

Make your reader keep flipping those pages.

“But, but,” you say, “I don’t want them too! I don’t write that sort of book, and anyway, I’ve got this idea for the next book and it has no place for a spouse or similar sort of true love interest!”

That can get tricky.

The clichéd method is to kill the one who is not the main character. Then you have a nice little vengeance book, and your bachelor(ette) hero(ine)can get back to work in the next one without encumbrances. Umm, been done so many times it’s really hard to find a fresh angle. Some clichés stand up to time, other get old really fast. This one’s past it’s sell date, IMO, but you can always try for a new angle.

If you really don’t want a married character, you really need to figure out a way to end the romance that won’t have the reader tossing the book across the room. Or spraining their thumb deleting the file from their ereader.

Umm, lesson from my personal experience. The worst case I had of forcing a romance into a story was a book where the hero, at the end, was essentially, emotionally, untouched by the death toll of the climactic fight. He was a spy and had gotten into an advantageous position . . . So I added a female security agent for him to fall in love with. Right? Last person he should have let get close to him. I felt bad killing her, at the end, just to add angst. In fact my spy got all snotty about it. Inside my head. Yuck!

Always listen, when your subconscious dresses up in one of your characters and sneers at your pathetic attempt to make him feel bad.

So I changed the ending . . . No spoilers, since I’m giving it away down below, but my Beta readers approved. Happily ever after, in this case was they both lived, and he fled to spy another day.

A good finish (AKA satisfying to the reader) of a romance subplot can make the reader forget about all the other loose threads (but do try to sew up as many as possible.) A dangling romance is especially noticeable. Only do it if you’ve got a sequel in the works, with the hanging romance included. Really.

Another thing to remember, in crafting a romance, is the readers’ ick factor.

I’ve run into quite a few people who can’t stand May-December romances. They seem to think it’s (1) a power imbalance and possible abusive use there of, (2) practically pedophilia, or (3) a gold digger, taking the old man (or woman) for all they’ve got and probably the cause of his/her earlier divorce . . .

S&M, B&D . . . read the popular ones and see how far they go, or don’t, and don’t go too much further. Research, so you don’t become a laughingstock.

The GHH’s are all for odd relationships. But how large of an audience is there? What do they actually like, in the way of explicit as opposed to behind closed doors. Again, research, before you write the gay relationship, or the three way or whatever. The more detail you add, the more you need to know to get it right. Closed doors are useful, but the lead up needs to be credible.

What other ick factors have you seen in action? What really turns you off a book, in terms of romance and sex? Personally, I hate the clingy, needy type relationships.

You have to make it work. It needs to fit the story you are telling.

Get it right and it adds sparkle to the story. It can make your characters do the stupid things they otherwise would never have done, and the readers don’t complain. You can make your readers laugh, cry, or throw the book across the room. Romance is _useful_.

What pointers do y’all have? How do you make your romances work?

And the book push: Here’s the SF/F spy novel with added romance. Free today and tomorrow.


  1. I like romance. I just do. But. I much prefer reading it as a sub-plot to cool people doing cool things. When I started writing and wanted to know how to do a romantic sub-plot I started re-reading Georgette Heyer and a couple of others to see how it was done. (We call that the summer of no writing.) It was useful.

    They have to be kept apart through the book. Sabrina Chase’s Sequoyah series does that beautifully by just making the 2 MCs reasonable people who aren’t going to push each other in the midst of all the traumas they are going through. The female MC is recovering from the death of her beloved (backstory, not a spolier). It’s very natural that it takes a while.

    In my two books so far I’ve kept the love birds apart by being lawyers on opposite sides of a case, and, in the second, having a lawyer/client relationship. This allows everyone not to be a romantic idiot. Also, it’s possible to be mad for a legitimate reason, which I’m using in the WIP. I’m not even using it so much as can’t avoid it. One of them has every reason to be mad.

    1. Thorns are good. Tension. Character stupidity making problems worse and so forth. Stomping angrily off into the night, when you know there are lions, tigers and zombies out there.

      1. Oh I have it planned. Female character does something, damages what had been a very good working relationship up to that point with the male character. I don’t plan to bring it in until book 4 or 5 of this series, and they meet in the first, so I want to build on their relationship so her attraction to him is realistic. I do use the ‘make stupid choices’ thing, but it makes sense for the characters to make those choices too.

        One of the books in the series revolves around love, loyalty and devotion though, where I bring up the male character’s emotions as part of the conflict, and have the aforementioned female character mature greatly in the process.

        I also have fun playing with the usual manga trope of the harem concept; except only one of the girls is actually attracted. I also add another male to the party later on.

        And since I’m also an ambitious masochist, the story will have illustrations, since I’m thinking of the light novel format. *sigh!*

  2. I made the romance a strong sub-plot in To Carry the Horn. The hero (thrust into a fae otherworld) has to learn how to keep his feet and thrive, but he’s a can-do type and rolls with the punches. The fae live long lives, with multiple serial marriages, and his love interest is MUCH older, but in the fae context, that is not unusual, and appearance is not an issue, so other than his self-confidence concerns, I don’t believe it gives off that May-December vibe. He’s a grown man, not a youth.

    I find this works best when they are not wish-fulfillment top-of-the-hierarchy characters. He’s not the to-be king, and she’s not a fairy princess, but they’re both in the lesser ranks of important folk (much like Regency romances). He’s in his 30s, so there’s less of the inexperienced fumbling and misunderstandings of youth, though all of us lack confidence in affairs of the heart, no matter our age. The obstacles are not other romantic interests (always tedious) but the circumstances of their lives.

    Yes, they do marry (offstage after book 1 but obvious – it’s covered in short story Under the Bough), and they continue to play active roles as a couple and individually in the subsequent books (distinct roles but as efficient partners). The first 4 books cover not quite a year and end with the first birth of a child.

    He woos her with oranges in book 1 (long story) and the smell of oranges persists as a theme. I quite enjoy being able to keep those sorts of romantic hints going at a subliminal level.

  3. I had a romance (and eventually as explicit a sex scene as I have ever written) in Deep in the Heart – but I had some rather twisted fun with developing it. In the first chapter, the widowed heroine was still smarting from the discovery that her deceased first husband was a bigamist, and has pretty much sworn off romance. She is carrying on with running her business, tending her household, raising and educating her children, coping with her very difficult father, and a mostly-absent brother. She is in a mild simmer of resentment all the while, because every man in her life that she loved, or respected or trusted has let her down in some way or other – and is oblivious until almost the very end, that there is one man who has loved her all along, very deeply, and he has never let her down. She only begins to notice towards the last quarter of the book.
    Not a straightforward romance, exactly – more a slice of frontier life with a romantic sub-plot.

  4. I was reading a series and it got to a scene where even though the sex was basically “they made mad love all night” it was handled so horribly I never finished the chapter and on 3 retries it just ruined the books. It was not a horrid story though it certainly wasn’t great, but it had a much too forced feel to it like he added the relationship then later went back in and added them having sex to force a tension and conflict in the main character’s head. I think the author could use much of the advice here. The storyline is good, the writing is okay … until that point … and if it had been a paperback, it would have hit the wall.

    1. Yeah, it’s got to work with the story. I’ve heard rumors of traditional publishers insisting on sex scenes, which could explain a tacked on scene, but, really some craft needs to come into it as well. And for Indies, no excuse. (Looks nervously at her own stuff.) Half my reason for this column is to see how other people write romance. And what readers want.

      1. I believe those rumors. At one point I read maybe three books in a row that all had sex scenes very early. They were not interesting–the sex scenes, that is.

      2. The only thing I can see was he sent in the first two books of the series to someone and the sent back the second and told him to add sexual tension to it and he had no clue as to how it should go, so it got forced. If that was what happened, he should have gone back and fixed it before releasing it himself.

  5. I’m strongly in favor of not having romance be the lead element in the story. One reason I greatly preferred the last two of the 4 books in Lois M Bujold’s Sharing knofe series to the first two was that the romance took more of a back seat to the other parts of the plot.

    And that BTW neatly explains why I like your Empire of the One. Yes there’s romance but the romance isn’t the main thrust of the action (which remainds where’s the sequel to Dancer dammit? we want more).

    As for May/December or other relationships that aren’t the standard “two young things fall in love”. I think that if it jars then it’s a sign that the author hasn’t presented the characters in a way that generates sympathy for both. Now I get that some people will have a “cooties” reaction that can’t be overcome but if most readers have that kind of reaction then it means they don’t like one or other (or all) of the members of the relationship, because if they do like them they’ll want them to be happy and that should mean getting into this relationship.

    1. Good point about presenting the characters sympathetically. And with SFF, one is likely to be tangled up with definitions of young/old/rejuvenated/immortal/long lived races and whoknowswhat. Your eighty year old elf may be a maiden just past puberty with her parents telling her to stay away from that oversexed baby human. Only forty and getting fresh with their daughter! How creepy!

  6. “Well, first you have to throw the characters together in a fashion that won’t have your reader throwing the book against the wall.”

    And sometimes, to do that, you have to have the characters throwing each other to go splat against a wall. Sort of a Klingon Romance precursor.

    I think if romance is going to be part of a story, there has to be tension of some kind involved. FWIW, LM Bujold wrote of a crippled main character with a very strong, persuasive personality. He’d get the girl, but wind up rejected because none of them wanted to move to his militaristic planet.
    Some of the tension was the anticipated rejection of his suit. In at least one case it was because his society would reject his choice.

    Then, some writers treated their characters love lives as personal and not applicable to the story. Patricia Wrede was one: even when there was a romance involved, the details were left intentionally murky. She didn’t want to know the details, so didn’t inquire.

    I think the key to including romance of whatever form lies in having the characters be believable. Snow White would not have been interested in the Pied Piper, nor he of her. Even when there is blatant conflict between the two characters, there has to be some mutual attraction. Check out the repulsion/attraction in Bujolds KOMARR.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to run on and on and on ….

  7. Romance the genre works off emotions and drives that are significant chunks of what makes humans tick.

    So things wrong there can be a way to show how messed up the characters are.

    This is my favorite theory for understanding Mahouka, as opposed to that of the incest shippers.

    The hero and heroine of that are siblings from a family that may be the worst in their caste for human experimentation in child rearing. I parse the supporting cast as being much less messed up and more normal, because of a more humane upbringing. The supporting cast has romances.

      1. Mahouka koukou no Rettousei, The Irregular at Magic Highschool, a light novel series whose anime adaptation is running now.

        Tatsuya and Miyuki’s parents got together because the biological workup suggested that they would have powerful children. Tatsuya was early on identified as a failure, his mother did mental surgery on him, which wasn’t enough to make him a success, but did mess him up. Now that their mother is dead, Miyuki is estranged from their family, and after her brother, the male she is closest to is unrelated, uninterested, past middle age, and habitually deceptive. She is a success.

        There are extensive back story reasons for the two to be weird and codependent. A lot of the cues used with them might be as innocent as close and dysfunctional siblings, but commonly indicate romance for the genre and format.

  8. I’m not fond of May-December romances in plot or subplot for the very same reason I’m not that fond of intercultural romance: they’re very rarely done well. When done well, they’re quite nice, but on the scale of Bujold’s romances to “Squee! He’s a five hundred year old vampire who’s in high school and he loves me! And he angsts like a teen, with all the same jealousies and insecurities and pop culture references, but will change any habits I don’t like!” ….

    yeah. *sigh* And that would be why I generally don’t enjoy paranormal romance.Or urban fantasy that wanders into PNR.

    1. “Once a Hero” by Michael Stackpole.

      I don’t usually get involved in conversations involving “romance”, because I’m the awkward guy that could never talk to the girls as a teenager, and a bit of that still lingers.

      However, this story takes place over several hundred years, the “present” {I’m sure an alternate world, but the present is Renaissance in tech and flavor} and five hundred years earlier {medieval tech and flavor}.

      A big part of the story, maybe what the story revolves around, is a romance between a man and an elf maid. There are all kinds of kool elements, politics,action, cultural conflicts, racism, action, magic, inter-cultural romance, action, etc.

      Being an action fan, there would have to be a lot of action to keep me interested. But, the “human” elements, the friendships, the enmities, the other relationships, and of course, the romance were so well done that the story moves seamlessly. There are elements of tragedy, some comical moments, some drama, and of course, the love story.

      Sometimes intercultural romance works.

      Even the swordsmanship worked, and I can be a bit of a nazi on that at times.

  9. Spider Robinson had a minor character who was terminal and hospitalized, paralyzed and numb below the chest. He and his wife had a GREAT sex life, though, told very sweetly with the line ‘It’s AMAZING how erotic nipple play can be.’
    So, besides having the necessary conflict reside in the relationship, make the sex a part of the conflict. Rishathra is one way, but there are LOTS of other ways to do conflict that don’t make you hate one partner for what they do to the other.

  10. My two Steampunk protags should be in a romance with each other, but I don’t want to have it blossom too quickly, or I’m afraid there’s nowhere else to take it.

  11. In some way, the romance subplot needs to be organically tied to the main plot, not just an applique that gets bolted on to complete The (INSERT GENRE HERE) Subplot Checklist.

  12. Everybody is talking about romance; what about sex?
    Personally, I like everything about John Ringo’s work except the bondage sex stuff.
    I like the way Sarah’s Diner deals with the potential lovers wondering if they are going to shift at a bad time. Makes it real…

    1. I think we’re all saying there needs to be romance, or sexual tension well before the sex. Not necessarily instead of. Just sex tends to detract from the story.

        Yeah, it could be that…or it could be that everyone is afraid to talk about SEX! STEAMY SEX! (insert maniacal laugh…)

            1. *Sits in a safe space, breathes into a paper bag, and wipes away a single tear.*

              ‘I was just so very scared. I was too intimidated to say that I do not always enjoy sex in what I read.’

              I was really just lazy.

              Even modern American society is not what some in entertainment try to sell it as. Throw in variations in society and times, and there will be situations where sex simply does not make sense.

              With the right characters, setting, and writer, a kissing scene can be both more appropriate and more moving than another effort that goes further, but iterates through the numbers. Holding hands can be powerful.

              If the sex is as meaningful as a handshake, and I don’t feel like reading porn, I may skip ahead. Unless the story is well and tightly written, I might not miss it.

              My reactions are likely far enough from the core audience that they shouldn’t be used to calibrate a romance novel.

                  1. I interpreted an earlier comment as a dare.

                    So I started planning what I could write in terms of a sex scene.

                    I have parts of one that is really dirty. It has steam, soot, and mechanical lubricants.

                    (Two laborers are the only survivors of an incident. At a certain point, they’ve an extended period of waiting for the machinery to finish, and the checks do not take much time.)

                    1. The die-off after civilization falls is going to create a vacuum that demands children. I argue that NOBODY can create steamy sex scenes when it is clear that the return to a technological society (which I define as one not requiring exhausting human labor) depends on procreation.

                    2. It is a stranded spaceship not a civilizational failure. The FTL drive has an undocumented failure mode that is mostly fatal but selectively so.

                      I figure that after the shifts they were pulling securing corpses, salvaging supplies, fabricating components, and validating equipment, one in six hours doing mechanical checks won’t hold off boredom. After they recover from their exhaustion, I think the lack of anything else to do would compensate a lot for how unpleasant the living environment is.

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