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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How to Write Romance: 5 Secrets for Writing Believable Relationships

Their eyes meet across a crowded room, the rest of the world disappears, and it's love at first sight…

Or is it?

We all know love at first sight is a sure sign of problems down the road. Real love, the kind that survives "'til death do we part" takes time to build and time to grow. While admittedly, some readers enjoy romance novels to leave the real world behind, many readers enjoy a good solid romance that's believable, real-world love.

The job of a writer is to create believable characters, whether writing a romance novel or a horror story (and yes, there are the jaded few who would say they are one and the same!). So how is that done? How does a writer create believable relationships in a world where love at first sight just doesn't ring true?

It all begins with the character sketch and planning characters that have real needs, real fears and real motivations. So, let's look at how to make that happen.

1. Consider the Enneagram of Personality as a starting point

If you've ever studied the Enneagram of Personality, you know that determining a person's core need is at the center of finding their personality type. The Enneagram is a model of the human psyche and covers nine personality types along with how those types are connected. For each type, several qualities are outlined:

  • Characteristic role
  • Ego fixation
  • Holy idea
  • Basic fear
  • Basic desire
  • Temptation
  • Vice/Passion
  • Virtue

If you want to take the easy route for creating believable characters, I'd suggest you look at the Enneagram types and pull these qualities straight from one of the outlined personalities. It covers the basic fears that are most likely in any personality, and will go a long way in helping you set up a believable character.

If you want to take the long way around and create truly original characters that are unpredictable, a way to do that is to determine these Enneagram qualities on your own in your character sketch process.

2. Find your characters' basic fear and the incident(s) that created that fear

For the Enneagram, one of the most important considerations is the person's basic fear. This makes sense in a psychological study because as humans, our fears are the primal basis for what motivates us, particularly our decisions.

Let's say you have two people who have met in the real world, and there is a potential for a budding romance. Along the path to falling in love, there are going to be hiccups and problems—we know this because we know love at first sight only happens in fairy tales and life is no fairytale, right?

Love at first sight only happens in fairy tales
Love at first sight only happens in fairy tales. Photo by Niki Sanders on Unsplash

These hiccups and problems are almost always related to each person's core fear. For example, let's say the woman was abandoned by her first love, who left her for someone else when she was young. On top of that, her father left her mother, leaving their family to struggle under a single parent income for most of her teenage life. Obviously, these situations have produced in her a fear of abandonment—a fear that the men in her life will eventually leave her alone.

This fear then produces self-defense mechanisms in her future relationships. So, fast-forward to present day. A believable pattern that will inevitably show up in her relationship with this man she has just met and is falling in love with is…. you guessed it…a fear that he'll just go away like the rest.

And what about his basic fear? Let's say he has a fear of having little worth. This fear likely stems from his own youth, where he was bullied or perhaps not given enough attention from his workaholic parents. The result of this fear is that he will likely put too much effort in being "important," either though his social circles, his hobbies, or maybe even his job.

What you now have, simply by finding your characters' fear and the incident(s) from their early lives that created that fear, is real character motivation. And that will produce real characters.

3. Consider your characters' core need

As humans, our core needs are almost always connected to our core fears, so that's why I suggested you start with the fear first. But once you have determined your characters' core fear(s), it's now time to work on their core need(s).

When we consult the Enneagram chart, the personality type whose core fear is worthlessness has the basic need of feeling valuable. This makes logical sense when you consider the whole psychological process of fear influencing need.

So now that we know his need, we know what the other character needs to provide for him to make the relationship believable. If she provides for him a sense of worth, it is quite logical that he would eventually fall in love with her. Likewise, if she is afraid of abandonment or separation, she will inevitably fall in love with him if he provides her the peace of mind that he's not going anywhere. It's through these simple exchanges of knowing a person's fear and need that people eventually connect on deeper levels of love and trust.

4. Consider your characters' primary vice

Another section of the Enneagram charts reveals the vice of the nine personality types. These passions go a long way in creating believable characters who enter into believable relationships.

Returning to our two lovers—for the woman whose basic fear is separation or abandonment, the Enneagram lists her passion or vice as disengagement. This means that there will likely be a point in the timeline of the relationships where she will disengage from it and from him, creating conflict in doing so. Since all great stories involve conflict and resolution, this knowledge about her character gives you (the writer) a natural evolution when mapping out your characters and storyline.

For the man, whose basic fear is worthlessness, the Enneagram lists his vice as being deceit. This makes sense from a psychological standpoint. Someone who is afraid that they are not worthy of another's time and attention will inevitably deceive the other to make themselves seem worthier. So, in the process of creating his character sketch and the plot outline of your romance novel, a believable point of conflict would be to have her discover a lie he has told—either about himself or his past—to make him seem worthier. This gives you, the writer, needed conflict and believability in creating the timeline of the path to falling in love.

The path of love involves conflict
The path toward love involves conflict. Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash

5. Consider your characters' ultimate virtue

Just as we should consider the characters' vice, we should also consider their virtue in order to create believable characters that engage in a believable romance. It just so happens that one of the categories of the Enneagram chart is the virtue of the nine personality types.

Starting with him—our character whose basic fear is worthlessness and has a tendency toward deceit—the Enneagram suggests that his ultimate virtue is the opposite of his vice: truthfulness and authenticity. In knowing this, we have an excellent understanding of the character arc that needs to be created over the course of the novel for our male character to make him believable. Perhaps in the process of her discovering his basic need and his vice of deceit, he comes clean and acknowledges the things he once thought made him unworthy in the first place. In doing so, he becomes an authentic, imperfect character that she falls in love with based on the character arc she has seen him take.

And for her, whose basic fear is separation and vice is disengagement—the Enneagram states that her virtue is action. This means that over the course of their love story in the novel you are writing, the best way to make her a believable character is to make sure she moves from being disengaged in the relationships (out of self-defense) into a role of actively pursuing what she wants. Now, as the writer, this action is entirely up to you to create. Maybe she realizes at the last minute that his authenticity made her fall in love, therefore she needs to chase him down at the airport as he is boarding an airplane to leave for good? Or maybe his truthfulness at the end makes her fall so deeply in love with him that she goes to his window, à la John Cusack in Say Anything, and holds a radio up, blasting a song that is special because it was playing on the night they met?

Whichever path you choose as the writer, using real character motivation and creating believable character arcs are essential to ensuring a believable relationship that readers will root for. Falling in love at first sight is the stuff of fairytales, not realistic romance stories that might be chosen for screenplays or become bestsellers on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Whether you use the Enneagram as your source for finding character fear(s), basic need(s), vice(s) and virtue(s), or come up with your own qualities for these categories, it is essential to determine each for your characters if you want the relationship to come across as believable and real.

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