I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a serious problem with romantic relationships in literature nowadays.
And worse, this issue seems to be overlooked by the large majority of writers — until it’s too late, that is.
The problem: The unrealistic and unhealthy portrayal of romantic relationships.
There. I said it. And now people can take notice because yes, there is a serious lack of realism when it comes to the romantic relationships in books.
Authors are writing relationships that are meant to be exciting and intense, but their execution of those couples can be flawed in sometimes very harmful, although unintentional ways.
There’s nothing wrong with writing romance. In fact, adding a romantic relationship to your book can help you write a good story. The dynamic of love can:
Up the stakes
Make readers more emotionally invested in the characters
Create contrast in emotions, adding to the coveted “roller coaster” of emotions
Give your readers another reason to root for your main character
Pitfalls to watch out for when writing romance
All of these powerful elements can make your book a lot better, but only if you can create a relationship that isn’t problematic for the readers.
Which means you’ll want to avoid these mistakes many writers might not even realize they’re making when it comes to the romantic relationships in their stories.
Here are a few traps to avoid when writing romance.
1. Glamorizing abuse
This might be the biggest, most overlooked issue in books. Way too many authors are writing abusive relationships and passing them off as romantic, particularly in the young adult genre, though this can be seen in all types of books.
If you’re not sure what this looks like, it’s when writers portray abuse as love.
They write about a person being overly jealous and verbally abusive to their partner and have the main character justify it by narrating that the other person “just can’t live with the thought of losing” them. So the main character is written as seeing this abuse as true love.
This romanticization of abuse is simply harmful to anyone reading it. Young people might turn to books when it comes to learning about romance. If they don’t have a healthy relationship to learn from in real life, they might think the relationships in books is how it’s supposed to be.
Therefore, they accept abuse and pass it off as the person just “caring about them too much” because that’s what they’ve seen in their favorite books.
In order to avoid these types of mistakes, make sure your relationships are written consensually. Think about how you’d feel and act given the situation you’re putting your characters in.
A general rule is, if you’d be appalled by someone being treated that way in real life, it’s not right.
2. Instant romances
Think about the romantic relationships you’ve been in or have seen around you. How often do you hear two people locking eyes across a restaurant and falling madly and immediately in love with one another?
Not often. Because it’s not realistic, and that’s not the way love works.
For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it’s just as it sounds. An instant romance is when two people meet and are in “love” and in a committed relationship instantly. Or within a very, very short amount of time, which is not remotely accurate.
However, there are many novelists who write romances this way with the intention of creating an intense moment, but it sends a very harmful message to young readers and takes away from the realism in your book.
You can write intensity without making your characters be “in love” right off the bat.
Relationships take time. You have to get to know one another first, build the chemistry and allow that spark to ignite before you can begin that romantic journey.
Why should your book characters be any different?
If you want the relationship to be realistic and keep your readers fully immersed in it, you have to give it the appropriate amount of time to grow and evolve.
3. Making a single person passive in the relationship
Relationships aren’t about one person seizing control of the other and making all the choices.
Both people should be equally as active in the ongoings of the partnership. Because it’s just that — a partnership.
This makes it a little concerning when writers make a single person who just goes with the flow and doesn’t really care about much. This person doesn’t initiate anything, make any choices for the sake of the relationship and when going gets tough, they sit back and let the other person do everything.
This is both unrealistic and just plain boring. It doesn’t add anything interesting to the dynamic of the relationship and readers won’t root for them.
Make sure you’re writing a romantic relationship between two people, not between a person and a passive robot.
4. Writing relationships without commonalities
If two people are in a relationship, they should have things in common. They don’t need to both like the same food, movies, books and activities, but they should have similarities at their core.
If you have two characters who are moral opposites and don’t share the same values, your readers are going to question why they’re together in the first place.
And if you can’t really answer why they’re together other than the fact that they need to be for plot reasons, you’ll have to do some adjusting. Characters can’t just be involved for the sake of conflict in a story.
If those two people need to be in a relationship for your plot to work, then you need to put just as much effort into their dynamic as a couple as you do for the entire plot.
Otherwise, the story plot won’t matter because readers won’t care about the relationship.
5. Never allowing for vulnerability
For your characters to bond on a deep enough level for love to be in the air, some vulnerability needs to happen. They need to open up to each other and express more emotions than lust and longing.
How else will they be able to grow closer? Allowing for moments of vulnerability shows their weaknesses. Not only will this be important for crafting a stronger emotional connection between characters, it’ll also help your readers connect with them more.
Here are a few ways you can create some vulnerability:
Have one character get injured
Create conflict involving something one is particularly sensitive about
Make a character break down from the stress of your plot
Have them share secrets
Even strong, tough characters need moments of vulnerability and weakness. Not only does this make the relationship stronger, your readers will also like the character a lot more because they’ll be able to relate. Two birds, one stone.
6. Creating inappropriate and harmful age differences
Many writers get this wrong and it can be far more harmful than you realize. In middle school (or early high school, I can’t remember exactly), I read a series in which there was a 17-year-old student who wound up romantically (and sexually) involved with her 27-year-old superior, physical trainer, and guard. This may not seem like a big deal to a young teen reading the book—it may even seem exciting to them.
But it’s very harmful and can send the wrong messages to impressionable readers.
Not only does the age difference impact the dynamic, but it also effects the reader’s perception of a healthy or appropriate dynamic. We all know fiction is fiction, however, it’s important not to play a part in encouraging inappropriate dynamics within ages.
Self-published author Hannah Lee Kidder suggests these tips for maintaining commonalities in relationships while keeping them healthy and appropriate:
Is the age difference legal (SUPER important – and no, an excuse about your world not having “legal ages” doesn’t cut it, sorry but not sorry)?
When they go out or spend time together, can only 1 of them drink alcohol (legally)?
Is one of their brains fully developed and the other isn’t (Example: both between 21 and 25 OR between 18 and 20 OR both over 25)?
These rules also ring true for real-life relationships, which is why we want to bridge this gap (so readers are not learning inappropriate and unhealthy dynamics, much like the “glamorizing of abuse” tip above). Ultimately, this is your choice, but remember that (especially if you’re writing young adult) your audience can be impressionable and take queues from what they read. There are always options to create the plot and character development / dynamics you want without perpetuating harmful perceptions.
Adding romantic relationships to your novel can up the stakes, add a layer of interest and give your audience all the lovey-dovey feels, but in order to have those effects take hold, you’ll need to write them correctly.
And writing them correctly means avoiding these mistakes that can take your fictional relationship from realistically impactful to harmfully impactful.
What have you found works for you when writing romance in fiction?
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
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