I want you to sit and be honest with yourself. Whether a novel or a TV show, how important are the romantic subplots? Personally when rereading or skimming back through a book I’ve already read, I find myself stopping at the scenes where the romantic interests finally kiss or some other big step in their relationship. In shows like The 100, I know my best friend is invested in it purely to see Bellamy and Clarke finally get it on. A romantic subplot can make or break your story, and you have to make sure that your readers are rooting for them to get together, not wondering why the two are even a thing.
The first question you have to answer is what trope you want the love interest (LI) to fall under in regards to your protagonist (MC) (or other character, if neither of the romantic parties are the main focus of the novel). Do you want them to be ‘opposites attract’ in regards to one another? ‘Tall, dark, and mysterious’? ‘From friend zone to end zone’? ‘Thin line between hate and love’?
Everyone has their preference, but quite honestly you can pick any as long as you do it right. I’m going to go into more detail of each trope, but the first message I want to get across is the dos and don’ts in a more general setting.
Be careful not to make the romantic subplot line completely separate from the main plot. Every scene in your book should be plot-driven, and your characters developing romantic feelings for one another shouldn’t push the brakes on what’s going on. A good example of this is in The Agency series by Y.S. Lee. Mary (MC) and James (LI) have different goals that lead them on the same path. They’re constantly at conflict with one another, and eventually learn that it’s better to work together than getting in each other’s way. This mutual respect mixed with attraction leads to the two’s eventual relationship. It’s a slow and steady progression that doesn’t finally come together until several books in, but it’s the perfect example of the “OH COME ON JUST KISS HER” that keeps the readers wanting more.
My second piece of advice is to not lose one character into the other. Unless it’s intentional and you want a character to come off as a weakling who’s entire being is dependent of the love interest, make sure that you keep clean separations in one from the other. The best example of this going wrong is Twilight. Bella had no personal interests, hobbies, anything that distinguished her. She was shy and clumsy, but that’s as far as her dimensions went. This is brought to light even more in New Moon. When he’s not there she become a non-functioning, suicidal human. The book literally skips months and months because her story simply isn’t worth telling without him in it. While it’s true that romance is a heavy, heavy theme in Twilight, so Meyer might’ve only wanted to focus on the two as a couple, it can also be said that there’s nothing she could’ve potentially written about to keep the readers hooked without Edward there.
Okay, so let’s delve into ‘opposites attract’. The example I’m going to give for this is my very own Ethlynn and Nash from The Freedom Game. Ethlynn comes from a background of slavery, never speaks her mind out of fear, and almost always takes the time to think before she speaks. Nash, on the other hand, was born into one of the most powerful families in the kingdom, makes sure everyone and everyone knows his opinion and expects them to take it as fact, and often has to backtrack to stay in the clear because his tongue is so much quicker than his mind. The two make for an explosive combination. For Ethlynn, Nash represents the very people who’ve kept her people so oppressed; for Nash, Ethlynn is supposed to be property more than human and to lose to her is to lose all respect from his fellow nobles. They have the same goal: to gain Professor Maithe’s apprenticeship. This causes their paths to intertwine and put them face to face more than either would like. The more time they spend together, though, the more they can’t help but humanize one another. With an ‘opposites attract’ dynamic, don’t be afraid of confrontation. It’s what makes this trope so fun to read. To keep the progression realistic, keep it slow. Arguments that turn to debates that turn into challenging one another to look at a different perspective. Give them at least some common morals or interests. In order to make this combination work, they have to have a firm foundation that makes the other stuff just prat of the fun.
Tall, dark, and mysterious. For this trope, I’m going to refer to my sister’s book: Clockmaker: A Gothic Steampunk Novel. Lesauvage (LI) comes to Melek (MC) in need of help to transport a mysterious crate. She doesn’t trust him and thinks him eccentric despite being attracted to him. For this dynamic, the key is to be careful in building trust. Often the ‘tall, dark, and mysterious’ character has trust issues because of their past, and the opposite doesn’t trust them purely based on how mysterious they are. This makes sense. Don’t just magically have them trust one another ‘just because’. If they develop trust quickly, give reason to it. Don’t make either character go against who they are just because of the other’s ‘dreamy eyes’ or other nonsense. I’m not saying don’t have the characters get along. They can be the exact same character type except we know more about one than the other. Their similarities and differences are completely up to you. Make it a journey to find more about the mysterious person. Leave the reader wanting to know more. Maybe some things happen where you have to question their integrity. But when it comes to why you start to trust them, give concrete scenes and scenarios that give you a better understanding of why that person is the way they are.
From friend zone to end zone. As the ever basic Harry Potter nerd, I have to refer to Hermione and Ron in this example. In particular, I’d like to call out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the crucial turning point in their relationship. Up until that point there had been some serious hinting at the two eventually becoming an item, but this was the first time that their feelings (and jealousies) were actually vocalized, unless you count Ron being jealous of Hermione doodling little hearts in Lockhart’s lessons. It’s important with this trope to not skip the friendship phase. Show why they’re friends. Despite their differences, from the first book we saw that Hermione and Ron would support each other. Just look to this quote from Sorcerer’s Stone:
“Yes – of course – but there’s no wood!” Hermione cried, wringing her hands.
“HAVE YOU GONE MAD?” Ron bellowed. “ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT?”
It shows that even if he’s going to do it without directly complimenting her, Ron is going to believe in Hermione and push her to realize what she’s capable of.
Then, there’s the time in Prisoner of Azkaban where Ron stands up for her faults like when Snape deducts points from Gryffindor for “being an insufferable know-it-all”. Book-Hermione is much more brash and gives off more of a stuck-up vibe than Movie-Hermione (which only makes her more three dimensional, not any less lovable). Still, Ron stands up for her saying that Snape couldn’t ask the question if he doesn’t want to be told. I could go on and on of more examples of the two’s developing friendship, but let your readers appreciate their friendship while desperately wanting them to get together before you finally give it to them. This trop is especially tricky because it’s so common in real life.
Thin line between hate and love. For this example I’m going to have to call out my favorite couple from the classic Pride & Prejudice: Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. As soon as they meet, Darcy insults Lizzie in front of all of her friends. Just look at this quote from Elizabeth, “There are few people who I really love, and still fewer whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it…” Both of them are hard to please and have very different views from one another. Darcy went so far as to propose, thinking that she wanted it, when she still hated him. The two are hardly ever on the same page, and even when they are they don’t understand one another’s actions. It isn’t until the letter where Darcy explains his thinking that Elizabeth begins to change her perception of him. Sure, there are moments of attraction between the two before then, but Lizzie is so tight in her ways that she wouldn’t act on them when she believes herself to be so morally repulsed by him. And, that is the key. The only way to properly shift a ‘love to hate’ relationship to ‘hate to love’ is through experience. Write scenes that characterize them to one another. Give them no chance but to understand one another, even when they don’t agree. Focus on their differences in the beginning and give way to their similarities when you need progression. Elizabeth was not what Darcy expected from a wife, nor he what she expected out of a husband. They learned to love one another, and that’s the biggest win to make this trope work.
Before I end this, I want to reiterate that all of these tropes should be written during plot-driven scenes. First think of the MC and LI’s goals in the book, and figure out how they’re going to overlap one another. Make them fall in love during the wild, crazy adventure that is your main plot, not off to the side doing whatever they want to lose your reader’s interest. Doing this correctly can make your readers overly committed to finding out how the two’s love story ends, and doing it wrong can make the reader irritated enough to put the book back on the shelf. Choose your trope wisely, and take the time to write it well!