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Avoiding the “Instabond”

Making Your Characters Fall In Love on the Page

Caress by Luis RoyoLast 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.



  1. Avatar Jo Hall says:

    Great series. Very much looking forward to next week too!

  2. Avatar Anne Lyle says:

    Whoa, steamy NQSFW picture or what! 🙂

    Nice article, though. Check, check and…mostly check, for the romance in my trilogy. Their relationship moves forward in each book, but it’s…complicated.

    I didn’t set out to write a romance (I never do!) but I threw these two people together in a difficult situation where they were motivated to help one another out, and they bonded. I guess it just grew naturally out of the story, which is what you want, really!

    • Anne, I know–the Overlord keeps leveling up the heat factor in his pictures with my posts! Not a complaint–just an observation. But I probably should stop writing about romance while people are still mostly dressed. 😉

      I had to set my parameters somewhere, but I think you can still use these guidelines for “complicated” relationships. I mean, not every relationship is going to start or end in exactly the same place–nor should they! And I totally agree that you want the relationship to grow naturally from the characters and story. 🙂

    • Avatar James Kelly says:

      You know, Anne, I didn’t even notice what she was doing with her hands until I read your comment! What does that say about me?

      Great article, Amy, I’m really enjoying this series. I think you’re absolutely right about the instabond; I think a lot of writers decide that two characters are going to fall in love but don’t realise they have to know why before they put pen to paper. And it’s an easy trap to fall into: after all, one of hardest questions to answer is “why do you love me?”

  3. 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.

    An excellent list of goals/criteria. Some techniques to achieve them would be helpful. One obvious and useful technique: Put them on opposite sides (in one respect) while having them work together (in another respect).

  4. Avatar Overlord says:

    LOL. I swear I didn’t notice that the woman had her hands down the guys trousers 😛

  5. Avatar Kyla says:

    I almost laughed out loud when I read this post name on your recent tweet. I’m writing a fantasy in another world, where each person has a pre-destined “mate”. Each creature has a different means of recognizing that mate, and my main character’s mate knows she’s his almost as soon as they meet. However, my main character does not know, and her mate won’t tell her, thinking she’s too young and ignorant for him to burst it on her now (she’s sixteen; he’s thousands of years old).

    So, they do have an “instabond”, actually. But I’m still struggling with these same relationship issues. Just because they are pre-destined, and already bonded to one another, doesn’t automatically translate into instant-love or make the two have a true, deep-rooted relationship right off the bat.

    Btw, I don’t agree with the “first” thing. While, in most cases, that’s true, there are other cases I have read where the “first” time together happens within the first chapter…but then they don’t get back together for like 200 to 300 more pages. The tension comes back quickly in those types of novels, even after they’ve already had sex. I think it has more to do with the prolonging of the relationship development before they jump into the physical, that we look forward to.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

    • Kyla, that’s very true about the instabonds still presenting conflict. I should have pointed that out, because it’s a very good distinction. I think the instabonds only become really unbelievable when both participants are thrilled with the bond–the “I just met you but I love you and we’re fated to die in each others’ arms” kind of bond. But just like with an arranged marriage in the real world, there can still be very strong conflicts on the page as a result of the instabond. It’s a cosmic destiny, perhaps, but the feelings aren’t always there–they have to work up to them, and perhaps even put aside real loathing.

      On the “first” thing, there are a lot of factors, I think. The leader of that particular workshop was teaching to a group of authors across genres, and the genre can certainly make a difference. Many romance readers like reading several encounters between the main characters, and if the plot is strong enough, there can certainly be tension even while the characters are having sex frequently. 🙂 What it comes down to is tension, perhaps. As long as the tension is still there, and if the character development is good, the frequency of encounters doesn’t matter too much. The point is, perhaps, to make the tension ramp up until the reader can’t stand it, then ramp it up a little more, and THEN give them what they want. 🙂

  6. Avatar Farah says:

    hello, I’m but I just read your article and I must say its helpful and I hope when I write my novel I can remember the points you mentioned, in truth I wanted to know who drew the above picture? they both fit the imaginary protagonists of my novel , no really, she’s a pricess ( Cliche I know) and he’s a soldier with a secret of his own.
    Thanks again

  7. Avatar Marion Watkins says:

    Hello, thanks for the tips, they’re very helpful! But I was wondering whether it applies if the characters start of not trusting each other (from ennemie clans or the like). I’m working on a story about two people from opposite worlds (heaven and hell in this case) find themselves obliged to work together. Now, the timeline is pretty short (about a month and a half to two months) because it’s a race against time. So I was wondering if I was making them fall too fast (meet chap 5, first kiss planned in chap 11) because they don’t trust each other at first but slowly bond (but argue a fair bit too). Thanks in advance!

  8. […] I intended to give some tips about how to do a slow build in a romantic relationship, but I’ve run out of room. So that will be next week’s column: How to make two people fall in love on the page and avoid the instabond. […]

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