The relationships between the characters can be worth more than the characters themselves. Lifelong friendships, sibling rivalry, a nemesis – a speck on the palette of what can be done. Love itself is a part of fictional worlds much as it is our own, and there are many kinds of it.
Without being too literal in our interpretations of the word, or too extensive, when people refer to a love story, they are usually referring to the romantic kind. This isn’t the exclusive domain of the Romance genre, because as such a universal theme, love could be a part of any story.
Writing a love story is as much about the characters as it is their interactions. We want to enjoy the presence of the characters, even when we don’t like them. We admire them when they are bold or compassionate, but frown when they’re complacent or disrespectful. We adore them when they are tender, and begrudgingly tolerate them whether they’re abrasive users or slimy sycophants. We want to see their value, and we need to see enough goodness to understand what another character could see.
Respect is key. The characters must be able to come to a place of respect for one another, but do not need to begin there. They can despise one another even while holding respect for each other. Aside, this equally important in rivalries – that they do not just consider each other to be nuisances. A relationship without respect cannot be sustained, and love where one party is dismissive of the other is at best an infatuation. It cannot last.
The characters won’t know each other from the beginning of their lives, and there will usually be some level of unknown details to each in case they did. They will be learning about each other. Having become used to dealing with people in a certain way and responding to situations in another, a new person will be a mystery. There will be mistakes made. Each may be trying to present the very best version of themselves that they can without resorting to subterfuge, and they will not mesh together precisely. If they happen to be almost identical in their mannerisms, it may be their differences that bind them together, while their similarities are what make them clash. This unknown quantity will introduce awkwardness between the characters, as they feel out how to interact.
Honesty and trust are also important in love, but sincerity feels a better fit. It isn’t about being open and forthright with all of their knowledge (because they can or may be things they cannot divulge), but that they won’t be trying to trick the other person into falling in love. They may lie to protect someone or because they’re not ready to talk about their past yet, but it isn’t done for the sake of misleading the other. They mean well, even if their strongest attempts to show it result in them looking like a tuna head. Focusing on sincerity over honesty also means you can have the mysterious figure who is much a target of love for a character, as they are a riddle begging to be solved.
Nothing should feel certain until it’s confirmed, which should be when the obstacles are removed from in front of their individual goals. It should be plausible that the story could be told without the love story developing. If there are multiple love interests, it should not be obvious how the relationships will develop. It must still be plausible, and should not come without foreshadowing. The uncertainty creates tension, which raises the stakes. Care must be taken not to needlessly prolong the tense periods, so that the question over the characters entering a relationship together does not become tiresome. Inaction is frustrating over long stretches of time.
If there are lulls where neither character is moving the relationship, it could be a question of confidence. Certainty in fictional love is boring, but the uncertainty should not be due to a lack of confidence. The characters can be worried that things won’t eventuate, but they must still have confidence enough to act. They can have their self-doubts, but must still possess a degree of boldness. They may have even gone through periods before where they had not acted, but there must be a factor between the characters that pushes them from inaction to action, somewhere between urgency and not wanting to wait.
It isn’t that the other character must be receptive to that confidence, but we need somebody that acts. Some of this may manifest as banter between the characters, and that in turn may result in them misunderstanding one another. Communication is important to every relationship, and poor communication is equally detrimental. A joke may go too far, or words may be taken out of context. A character jumping to conclusions on their own, brooding, and flying into a rage is non-communication, and is a terrible trope and should be avoided – the difficulties between the characters that are caused by the characters should be articulated, so that the reader does not believe it could all be resolved with a quick letter, text, phone-call, email or intermediary person. If it’s because characters are being difficult, indulge them and explain the circumstances later.
Other than the love or relationship itself, the characters should share a common focus or purpose. This focus should not be a destiny for them to be together. Fated lovers are an equally tired trope, and negates any difficulties they have had, as neither needs to experience character growth as their love was preordained. A common focus allows the characters to see another facet of each other and in working together, they have a situation that allows respect to be fostered. It gives them opportunities to learn about each other, and can reduce any antagonism in their interaction through this. In their respective elements, we also see capable characters, and can understand how they could come together.
As with the characters, the writer needs to have respect for the love story for it to work, or you won’t have authenticity. With respect and care, whether it’s the focus of your entire narrative or only a sub-plot, you can write a great love story.