Writing romance can be tricky, but luckily, many of the WBP contributors loves romance and have spent a lot of time reading, studying, and analyzing it! So we gathered three of our romance-loving contributors to do a roundtable!
Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
KAT: Obviously the UST, right? Okay fine, a more in-depth answer is that I love romance because it’s about a relationship between two people and I love reading about complex and complicated relationships. I love seeing them built up and I also love seeing them torn down (thus my love of UST and angst). So, when there’s romance involved, I know that there will be at least one in-depth relationship journey in the story. I also love kiss scenes.
KATY: Obviously a sense of tension is important, as Kat already pointed out! And I particularly love when that tension works on multiple levels–sexual/romantic tension of course, but also a tension between who these characters are and who meeting the other person will help them become. I love relationships that have the capacity to shake up a character’s entire world, for better or for worse. What really makes a romance work, in my opinion, is when the emotional weight of the story is aligned with that relationship–that is to say, that the story itself would not be the same without that romance. I think a great example of this is actually Kat’s books! Wicked Fox (and Vicious Spirits although I haven’t finished it yet) is such an effective romance because the moment Miyoung and Jihoon meet, we know immediately that both of their lives are forever altered. And watching them grapple with that is half the fun!
KAT: Aw! Thanks Katy! I could say the same for [redacted] and [redacted] in There Will Come a Darkness!
AXIE: As a reader, I will *always* look for romance in any book (when it’s appropriate). Because I just love the feeeeelings it gives me, and like my fellow WBPers have already said, when there’s romance, there’s often tension and spark and vividness and vivacity. And as a writer, the same applies. I get truly excited to write scenes that have that romantic spark or drama because they feel heightened and they’re honestly just so. much. fun.
MEG: I agree with Axie—the push and pull of romance is what does it for me. I love when a story whether it be a book or a TV show continues to up the tension between the couple you’re rooting for. I also don’t mind a little chaos sometimes when another character gets introduced to upset the pairing…
KAT: I try to figure out who each of the characters are individually first, so that they’re not completely defined by their relationship. Obviously, in stories that are in the romance genre, a lot of the character development will be tied into the development of the romance. But I think that the best romances are the ones where the characters don’t become people just because of their relationship they just become DIFFERENT people. For example, in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, one of my fave fantasies and fave romances, Karou and Akiva have complete and complex lives before they ever meet each other. They have their own individual problems that have nothing to do with each other. Now, meeting the other person does end up complicating said problems, but if Karou and Akiva had never met they’d still be complete people in the story. And that’s why they’re so interesting to me together. I want to see how they change with and for each other. And I also want to see if being together makes them better or worse. Exploring how being together might make people worse always fascinates me too. Sometimes love is not always the best thing for someone depending on where they are in their lives. So, I think it’s more realistic to explore how relationships might bring out the bad in us (or at least force us to face our bad behaviors).
KATY: I do tend to think about the specific character dynamic when creating a romance. In particular, I spend a lot of time thinking about where the conflict and tension will lie within the relationship. Are one, or both, of the characters holding back for some reason? Why? Are there external forces pushing these characters either together or apart? How does the backstory and the way these characters see the world impact their relationship throughout the course of the story? I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions, and thinking about how the dynamic between the characters will ultimately lead to their growth. One example from my own work, which I hope isn’t too spoilery to say, is the relationship between Anton and Jude. I wanted to play with this idea of the “protector” character, someone who is supposed to devote their entire life, essentially, to someone else. What does falling in love look like to someone who isn’t allowed it? What does it mean to believe in someone because of who they’re supposed to be versus believing in someone because of who they are? Since the Age of Darkness series is very much concerned with the idea of choice vs. destiny, that was an aspect that I wanted to bring to some of the main romances as well.
AXIE: Yes to all of the above! On a basic craft level, I try to write romances where the love interest is most able to attack the main character’s greatest weakness and/or the love interest’s goal is in direct contention with the protagonist’s (this is why enemies to lovers is so compelling to me).
MEG: I sort of go for a mix of what everyone’s been saying. I try to look at the story and say, “Okay, what kind of fun trope could we use or turn on its head” but really analyze the characters. The fun of using a trope like there’s only one room at the inn or something like that is how those specific characters are going to interact with it. If there is a trope I’m interested in using, I don’t treat it like a fill-the-blank. It doesn’t have to be like 1. This happens, then 2. This happens. You listen to the characters and make the moment unique for them and like Axie said, use the characters’ weaknesses and goals against each other. And maybe there’s some kissing, you never know.
KATY: I genuinely love to see any common romance trope with queer couples. Give me all the enemies-to-lovers, rivals, childhood best friends, fated soulmates, fake dating, but make it queer! When it comes to m/f relationships, I love to see any romance that inverts a common m/f dynamic. So anything that casts the girl in the role of protector or as the one with more “strength,” or the boy as the more emotional party or the one in a caretaker role. Let’s deconstruct gender roles with kissing!
KAT: Katy stole mine! But, seriously, I am always of the camp that no trope is overdone if it’s done with diverse POVs! I really love the fake dating trope and how it looks different from different cultural perspectives. Like, the idea that sometimes people do have arranged marriages to this day, so the whole being forced to be with someone you don’t have feelings for is a reality in some non-Western cultures. Or, how there’s literally services to rent fake partners or families in some Asian countries (I’m really looking forward to Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao for this very reason!). Also, I LOVE how K-dramas deal with love triangles and how it’s less about which one the person chooses and more about how their relationships with both options change and evolve into different kinds of love and how it settles into something unique for them. I haven’t yet done a love triangle because it’s truly daunting, but if I ever did it would be full on k-drama styles!
AXIE: Yes! Give me all the paranormal romance stories that were popular in the 2010’s but with marginalized characters plz and thank you.
MEG: I completely agree with what everyone’s said here! And honestly, there’s always a way to explore a trope from a new perspective. Again, it’s the context and the characters that can make something really fun and special.
AXIE: The willful girl who the complicated hot dude falls in love with. I’m sorry but I’m basic. At least they’re Asian.
KATY: I do like to explore a lot of different kinds of romantic tropes and dynamics, but I think one thing that I will always be drawn to is a character who fights tooth and nail against falling in love with the other person. Whether that’s because romantic love doesn’t fit into their life path (*ahem* Jude Weatherbourne) or because the object of their affection is the absolute worst person they could’ve fallen for, or because they simply can’t afford to open themselves up to the “mortifying ideal of being known”–whatever it is that holds that character back, that’s always a dynamic I cherish. Almost anytime one of my character’s starts to have Feelings, their first reaction is always going to be oh NO.
MEG: I’m a sucker for enemies to lovers as well as friends to lovers. There’s something about the two that I just love. There’s so much built in tension! I love the moment Katy already mentioned: if the character is thinking about how much they shouldn’t like that other character’s stupid attractive face, I’m already hooked.
KAT: Friends to lovers. I think there’s something complex and intricate about people who get to know each other one way (friends) and then see their relationship evolve over time. I think it makes each relationship so much more dynamic and interesting. And it can also be a great source of tension because what you expected from someone as your friend might not play out the same way when you’re in a romantic relationship. (I would also argue enemies to lovers has the same dynamic but more stabbing/fighting)
KATY: I think I have established myself as being firmly opposed to love triangles–not because I think they’re overdone or can’t be well written, but because they stress me out too much! For multiple reasons. But at their core, I think well-written love triangles get at the same question that a non-triangle romance does, which is the question of who does this character ultimately want to become? With a love triangle, that question is illustrated by the choice between two romantic interests, each of them encompassing a certain life or path that the protagonist can take. And without a love triangle, that question is illustrated by the choice between pursuing love or denying it. Both are a valid way to explore that question.
KAT: I remember talking to Katy about how much love triangles stress you out, lol. I agree, they can be so stressful. The problem I generally see with love triangles is that it depends too solely on the tension created by the eventual “decision.” But I don’t think that needs to be the only use of a love triangle. Like I said above I see love triangles from a different angle because of K-dramas. Sometimes in a drama it’s very clear from the beginning which love interest will be chosen, so it’s not about the end result but about the journey and how the different loves evolve and change the characters (for better or worse). I like to look at all relationships (regardless of romantic or platonic) as tools and avenues for character development. So when it’s seen like, there are so many possibilities to how relationships can play out and contribute to the story.
MEG: Listen, Katy and Kat, you know, it’s okay to be wrong about love triangles. We can’t all always be right. LOL! Joking, but I’m actually a super huge fan of love triangles, provided that there’s T E N S I O N. I sound like a broken record, but when there’s no tension between any of the characters I’m bored. I feel like there’s a way to do it well where there’s a constant push pull and you don’t know who the main character is going to choose. A successful love triangle has to get developed just like everything else in the story. Everyone needs to have an equal playing field, otherwise what’s the fun in that?
AXIE: I honestly *hated* love triangles when I was a young adult cause I felt anxiety that the heroine had to choose, and the person left out would be SAD. Like Vampire Knight destroyed me. And my sister who is a young adult now (16 years old) also doesn’t like them for that reason. BUT now I love them, ahahahaha. But like Kat said above, I love them when you know which love interest is endgame and the others serve a pivotal purpose of giving more tension to the story, heightening the drama, and being someone you can root for in and of themselves. Vampire Knight still kills me though.
OH – an actual love triangle I’m SO curious to see play out is in Janella Angeles’ Kingdom of Cards duology. Right now I’m on #TeamDemarco, but things could change…
KATY: I mean, I think they both should serve one another! The romantic dynamic between the characters should ideally reflect the thematic elements of the story itself. Whatever the dynamic is within the romance, whether they’re enemies, reluctant allies, friends, or something else, should reinforce or complicate the premise of the story and the character development. A great example of this is The Cruel Prince series by Holly Black. The whole series is about the main character, Jude, trying to gain power in a world where she has little of it (being a human in the world of the Faerie.) Her relationship with Cardan, the titular prince, follows that trajectory as well–at the beginning of the series she is essentially at his mercy, but throughout the series she is constantly maneuvering to gain, and later maintain, power over him as a means for grappling for power in their world. And, of course, as her feelings for him change over the course of the series, it complicates her grip on that power and introduces new facets to that power dynamic.
KAT: I definitely agree with Katy (again). Even in romance novels the romance is more about kisses and happily ever afters. It’s about how the characters change because of their dynamics with another character. They often have to face an internal issue they couldn’t before the relationship. Or if they were trying to face it before, having someone to lean on helps them deal with it better or in a healthier way than they did before. When it comes to speculative stories with romantic elements, I also think that the romance should be a way for the character to have a relationship so intimate that they can’t hide their fears or worries. It’s a way of showing their inner turmoil both to another character and through the eyes of that character. And if the romance itself is a source of tension, it needs to be applicable to the greater conflict/storyline. For example, I think Katy does this really well in There Will Come a Darkness. For Jude (another Jude lol), the keeper of the word, he knows that love is not an option for him. If he is with someone it can only be to continue the bloodline of the keeper, but he does love someone and trying to ignore that love is a cause of so much internal conflict for him. It’s not just about the love for Jude though it’s about his ability to embrace a path that has been laid out or him since birth. It’s a commentary on whether he is capable of walking this traditional path or breaking free of it. And if he does break free of it, what would that look like? All of these questions and choices are great sources of both tension and character development as Jude is forced to grapple between his head and his heart throughout the book.
MEG: I think if the romance isn’t weaved into the conflict of the story, then something has to get looked at. One of the common moments in a romance novel is the like, Now We’re Having Our First Fight Right Before the End of the Novel and We Might Be Breaking Up. I’m never a fan of this if it feels out of the blue. I want to feel and see the dynamic on the page before we get to the fight, otherwise it doesn’t feel as earned to me. Of course a couple is going to fight, but it also has to make sense given the context and plot. Conflict and character development have to work hand in hand or the payoff isn’t as fulfilling (for me at least!)
KATY: I feel like I don’t “ship” things as easily as I used to, but one that I will always love are Ben and Leslie from Parks & Rec–just such a good example of a genuinely supportive and healthy relationship that I feel like we don’t often get to see in media! I also absolutely love Victor and Yuri from Yuri on Ice, which I think is just such a great example of a romance where the two characters meeting (and later falling for eachother) completely changes both of their lives. In books, I’ve already mentioned a few that I love, like Jihoon and Miyoung in Wicked Fox, Jude and Cardan in The Cruel Prince, as well as Alex and Henry from Red, White, and Royal Blue. And completely in the realm of fandom vs actual canon, I love the relationship between Steve and Bucky in Captain America. The angst potential there is out of control.
KAT: I mean, obviously Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I also really love the relationship between side characters in that book! I love the (beginnings of) relationships in There Will Come A Darkness, but I can’t say who is involved because I don’t want to give spoilers! I love the relationship between Alex and Ama in both Rebel Seoul and the companion novel Rogue Heart. So much angst! It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming! I also feel like most people who love YA probably know that Lara Jean Song Covey and Peter K are OTP, but I have to reiterate that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy has such a realistic and healthy depiction of teenage love/first love. I also think that the relationship Lara Jean has with John Ambrose is also such a beautiful example of love and worth stanning (I personally think that one of the boys is now game and one of the boys is end game, but just in case you haven’t read it I won’t say who!) Honestly, if you’re going to go straight romance novels, then I’d say check out pretty much any Nora Roberts book, she makes strong and complicated female characters but she also makes very complex and vulnerable male characters which I love!
AXIE: Oh boy. Since Katy and Kat already gushed about mine and each other’s books, I won’t repeat it – though – *mmmfffeells at their romances* A few off the top of my head, Gen & Attolia in the Queen’s Thief series. (SPOILER: she cuts off his hand in the second book and they still fall in love). Juliet Mariller writes the BEST romantic fantasy, soooo many emotions. I absolutely love the romances in Stacey Lee’s historicals (as well as her one swooonworthy contemporary fantasy). In television, I felt PAIN over the love square in Mr. Sunshine. The YEARNING in My Girl, Descendants of the Sun, & Crash Landing On You. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE!!!! PERSUASION. I don’t know if Meg is going to answer these questions, but Meg’s book has SO MUCH UST and ST… wink.
MEG: LOL! Thanks Axie. I try 😉 Everyone’s already said so many good pairings and I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t agree about There Will Come a Darkness, Wicked Fox, and Rebel Seoul. Katy, Axie, and Kat all know how to create the perfect romantic tension IMO. It’s always *chef’s kiss* Some of my other favorites are Emmy/Tate from Faker by Sarah Smith, Elias/Laia from An Ember in the Ashes (ughhhHh) by Sabaa Tahir, and Em/[redacted] from the upcoming Beyond the Ruby Veil by Mara Fitzgerald.
Get to know the WBP Contributors!
Axie Oh is a graduate of the University of California-San Diego where she studied Korean history and creative writing. Her debut novel, REBEL SEOUL, was released Fall 2017 from Tu Books with a companion novel titled ROGUE HEART (Tu Books). She received her MFA from Lesley University in Writing for Young People. Her obsessions include: her new puppy, Toro, stationery supplies and milk tea. She is represented by Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Her next novel, XOXO, is out August 3, 2021 with HarperTeen. Find her online: Twitter | Website
Kat Cho used to hide books under the bathroom sink and then sneak in there to read after bedtime. Her parents pretended not to know. This helped when she decided to write a dinosaur time–travel novel at the tender age of nine. Sadly, that book was not published. She loves anything that encourages nerding out, including reading, blogging, K-dramas, K-pop and anime. Kat is the co-host of the Write or Die Podcast, a podcast that interviews authors about the struggles of getting published and maintaining an author career. She writes YA sci-fi and fantasy and is represented by Beth Phelan at Gallt & Zacker. Kat is the international bestselling author of the YA Contemporary Fantasy GUMIHO duology: WICKED FOX and VICIOUS SPIRITS. Find her online: Twitter | Instagram | Website | Youtube
Katy Rose Pool is a lifelong Californian and unapologetic nerd. The daughter of a screenwriter, Katy learned how to type at age six so she could write stories as fast as they came to her. She graduated UC Berkeley with a degree in history, focusing on 19th century America. When she’s not waiting for her BART train, Katy can be found fixing websites in order to support a serious coffee habit. She writes YA fantasy about ruthless girls and boys with too many feelings, and is represented by Alexandra Machinist & Hillary Jacobson at ICM Partners. Her debut YA Fantasy THERE WILL COME A DARKNESS, the first book in The Age of Darkness trilogy, is out now from Henry Holt Books for Young Readers (Macmillan). Find her online: Twitter
Meg RK wrote her first book when she was four years old about a giant heart that destroyed a city. Meg likes to think this story is a metaphor for all of her current and future work. An avid lover of pop culture, Meg enjoys music, television, books, and any good One Direction conspiracy theories. In an alternate universe, Meg received her masters in Media Studies by writing about young adult authors, readers, and social media. Don’t ask how Meg ended up in this timeline, she’s sworn to intergalactic secrecy.