How to write a romance that's already started rolling
Romantic subplots (or rom-subs, as I call them) are a huge part of speculative fiction, or any kind of fiction, really. We can't go two feet without stumbling into a pair of characters making out. I've complained about it before, and will continue to complain about it in the future, because it's often poorly handled. I've even written a few articles on the matter to help fellow authors with their rom-subs (see, How to Write a Romantic Subplot Parts One and Two, as well as How NOT to Write a Romantic Subplot).
But for this post, we're going to focus on a very specific breed of rom-subs today: the part of the relationship that comes after "The Big Kiss." We all know this moment. After several episodes/hours/books of flirting, bickering, and saving each others' lives, the characters finally--finally!--acknowledge that they want to be in a romantic relationship and make out properly for the first time.
And this is where the majority of romantic subplots end. All of the writing goes into setting up the relationship between our leading man and leading lady, and then...we don't get to actually see the relationship. Which is kind of a bummer. Because it feels like we go through all this work and turmoil without any reward.
And as a writer, I get it. Creating a relationship is a lot more exciting and dramatic than maintaining one. However, for the purposes of sequels, second acts, and just for my own peace of mind, we're going to be looking at how relationships are written after they're actually...you know, relationships. Rather than the will-they, won't-they nonsense.
But before we begin, I'm going to level with you: I am probably the last person in the world who should be writing this blog post. Not only am I still relatively new to published writing, but my own personal love life is pretty much non-existent. I didn't date in high school and only had one S.O. in college (and we broke up after less than a year). And most of the time, even though I am now getting back into dating, I usually have little to no interest in romance. So I know that I am far from an expert in building and maintaining romantic relationships in real life, and real life is the building blocks of fictional life.
However, I can tell you how any type of relationship looks in a story, including how one is done so well that even I think Wow, that looks really cool and realistic. So today, an attempt is made. Whether or not it's actually helpful to your writing, you decide.
SFF Characters Suck at Relationships
The first book (or movie, or season, whatever) ended with not only the villain defeated and the day saved, but also with the author's OTP kissing and starting a romantic relationship. It's now book two, and what's one of the characters' main problems? Their relationship is failing! Oh, no!
Seriously. Writers tend to have a really hard time writing functional relationships. The characters are having major problems that one of the characters has to confide in their bestie about (Nyota Uhura and Spock from the Star Trek reboots), or they've even broken up (General Leia and Han Solo in Star Wars: the Force Awakens). Sometimes, this makes sense. Not every relationship is destined for a fairy tale ending. Real life doesn't work like that, and neither should fiction.
But this problem is everywhere. Almost every romantic subplot that gets to continue from The Big Kiss runs into huge issues. And even when they don't, even when everything is fine, we rarely get to see the two characters actually do the relationship thing.
Look at Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in MCU. They start a relationship in Iron Man 2 and have some issues that they get to overcome in Iron Man 3, which is great. But then the next time we hear of their rom-sub is in Civil War, where Tony tells Steve Rogers that he and Pepper are "taking a break." Which is usually code for "breaking up or on the verge of doing so." This comes out of nowhere, since, while she doesn't make an appearance in Age of Ultron, it is established that she and Tony are still going strong. And THEN, the next time we hear from them in Spiderman: Homecoming, they're apparently back together again and Tony's proposing to her, which she accepts. Then in Infinity War, Tony's talking about possibly having kids!
Now don't get me wrong: I would much rather watch big explosions and ass-kicking in a superhero movie than dedicate an hour to the romantic subplot. But at the same time, you can't just skip over huge chunks of a character's life and relationship with others and expect everyone else to be able to follow along. You'll just give your readers whiplash. You're the writer. You have to write the damn thing.
Writing the Relationship
Because my life experience has left me woefully unprepared for this kind of thing, I'm going to be pulling from two stories that do manage to do the relationship thing very, very well: Avatar: the Last Airbender, and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson / Heroes of Olympus / Trials of Apollo series. (Minor spoilers for all of them.)
The ATLA show was the set-up for the romantic subplot between several characters, which are then explored in the comics that take place a year after the war. (If you haven't read those yet, please do. They're awesome.) Zuko and Mai do end up breaking up, and while Sokka and Suki seem fine on the surface I personally have been getting the vibe that there are some issues brewing. But Katara and Aang's relationship has been golden. They've continued to travel the world to bring peace and balance to the four nations, and have of course run into several obstacles and issues. Many Fire Nation colonists don't want to leave their Earth Kingdom homes. Aang's trying to preserve Air Nomad culture despite being the only living airbender. The South Pole is trying to modernize to keep up with the rest of the world, which grates on Katara.
But through all this chaos, just like all the chaos that happened in the show, Katara and Aang are there for each other. They continue to support one another and watch each other's backs. Only this time there's a bit more kissing and they call each other "sweetie." (Which I personally have a soft spot for because that's what my parents call each other. It's really cute. Fight me.)
Then we have Rick Riordan's books. Again, there are a ton of relationships because he went a little overboard in Heroes of Olympus, in my opinion. Piper and Jason, we find out in Trials of Apollo, did break up, but they're still friends. Nico and Will continue to be sickeningly adorable, dorky, and snarky. Leo and Calypso are still figuring it out but have managed to weather the first major test to their relationship: surviving a quest with a de-godified Apollo.
But of course, the main couple is Percy and Annabeth. They got together at the very end of the original Percy Jackson series, and despite that one hiccup where Percy was missing and amnesiac for eight months (because Hera is a bitch), their relationship has continued to be solid. They continue to fight bad guys. They continue to snark at each other and occasionally argue. They continue to lead the other demigods on crazy adventures and almost die.
Now, this piece of advice and personal wisdom I'm about to give is probably extremely obvious. Especially to experienced authors. But as I've said, most writers seem to be bizarrely incapable of writing the relationship after it gets started, so it needs to be said.
The common thread between these stories is simple: the characters in the relationship continue to be themselves. They don't act any differently other than the fact that they trust and rely on each other a little more. At least, the successful ones do. Part of the reason Zuko and Mai didn't work out is because Zuko didn't confide in her, or anybody, as the pressure of being Fire Lord started to get to him.
Basically, your characters are always themselves. They just get a little extra spice in their life now that they have a significant other. If they get lost in their relationship or start acting like a completely different character, then they probably shouldn't be in that relationship at all.
For an in-depth look at rom-subs as a whole, check out Overly Sarcastic Productions' video here.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!