Avoiding the “Instabond”
Making Your Characters Fall In Love on the Page
Last week, I got a little wordy talking about things to remember when creating compelling romantic relationships on the page, and I didn’t get to my tips for making characters fall in love on the page. I intend to give all of my tips, but before that, a bit of observation about the “instabond.”
Avoiding the “instabond” phenomenon is a tricky thing. I think instabonds result from one of several issues (or a combination of these):
1. The author hasn’t taken the time to adequately develop the characters involved.
2. The author has only put two people together for the sake of plot.
3. The author believes there’s a need to titillate the audience with sex or romance for the sake of sex or romance.
4. The author just wants to get on with the rest of the story, so he/she gets the relationship bit out of the way early.
5. The author starts the story too early or too late in the relationship.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to talk about a very specific relationship that I think is the most difficult to make compelling. However, although this relationship is very specific, I think you can easily extrapolate the pointers and apply them to any number of other relationships in your stories. For this article, I’m just going to talk about a relationship between
– Main characters in a novel
– Who meet early in the story and have no previous relationship
– And develop a healthy, committed relationship by the end of the book.
Whew. I don’t expect much.
Time to play matchmaker! How do you make those two people fall in love?
Use shared goals and desires. I’ve already said that I don’t think relationships should only exist to serve the plot, but I do think shared goals and desires can provide one good reason for a couple to be together—just as they can in real life. What are the shared goals and desires of your two characters? How do those overlap?
Put them in close proximity, a lot, over time, without any sexual contact. Proximity breeds familiarity, and familiarity can often breed affection and love. A journey, a common meeting place, a shared home—give your characters a lot of opportunity to meet each other without sexual contact or interaction.
Show us the physical response to the other person. Don’t mistake lust or desire for love on the page, but do recognize that many loving relationships begin from shared attraction. Don’t be heavy-handed, but recognize that it’s acceptable to show sweaty palms, nervous stomachs, flushing cheeks, and even lurching loins (moderately lurching at this stage, of course).
But don’t neglect the emotional response to the other person. An emotional response is very different from a physical response resulting from attraction, lust, and desire. Please, please show us how two people respond emotionally to each other. Show how they defend each other and perform little kindnesses for each other. Show how happy, satisfied, content, or at peace they are around each other. Show how they work together well because they instinctively know how to play off each other’s strengths.
Give us time. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time—even just a few weeks can be enough—but it does have to be something. The point isn’t the calendar time—it’s the page time. Give us enough scenes that we see a believable build up of affection, trust, and shared interests between the two characters.
Don’t focus on the interactions between the characters to the exclusion of everything else. I think the best build-ups come from the scenes were something else happens and a characters react to the external circumstances in ways that build the relationship. For example, two characters can argue for the same course of action in a war council and walk away to different tasks knowing that their bond is deeper for having agreed with each other. We don’t even have to see their interaction with each other at all to believe that they’ve deepened their relationship just by agreeing with each other.
Show us how the characters change as a result of knowing each other. I used this technique quite a bit in Ravenmarked. I think people do change when they grow closer to each other in any relationship—we see things in other people that we long to emulate or that break down our defenses, and we can often desire to improve ourselves as a result of deepening relationships. My character Mairead was ultra-trusting and had no sense of the “real world” in the beginning of the book. By the end, Connor had helped her see enough of life’s harsh realities that she formed some healthy calluses on her psyche and her emotions. By the same token, he was jaded and cynical in the beginning, but in watching her interactions with the downtrodden of society, he began to rediscover the concept of noblesse oblige. It wasn’t that they changed each other so much as that they chose to grow as a result of knowing each other.
Distribute your “firsts” slowly and methodically. I attended a workshop about writing sex scenes, and the instructor said something I’ve tried to keep in mind: Your reader only really cares about the first time your characters have sex on the page. I’m not sure I agree that the reader only cares about the first time, but I do think there’s a tension you lose as soon as the characters experience the “first” of something—first touch, first kiss, first sexual encounter. Keep that in mind when distributing those firsts. Make sure you hold them back until you absolutely can’t any longer.
And finally, one last piece of advice: Never forget the power you have as an author for holding your reader in that tension of “will they or won’t they?” Readers love tension. Give it to them in spades.
Next week, I’ll look at dead mothers and absent fathers and talk about grown children in fantasy.