Fiction Writing Made Easy

#130: How to Craft Romantic Chemistry & Tension Between Characters

February 20, 2024 Savannah Gilbo Episode 130
Fiction Writing Made Easy
#130: How to Craft Romantic Chemistry & Tension Between Characters
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“ Flat or boring characters who are underdeveloped are never going to light up a scene, no matter how many tricks you pull.” - Savannah Gilbo

If you’re writing romance, the chemistry and tension between your characters can make or break your story. Let’s explore how to create romantic chemistry between two characters in an authentic and compelling way to keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Read the blog post here!

Here’s a preview of what’s included:

[01:44] What is chemistry?

[03:01] The first thing we need to do when creating chemistry between two characters is to have fully fleshed-out characters with their own goals, motivations, and inner obstacles.

[03:42] Capitalize on opportunities for opposition and harmony between your characters.

[07:41] The 3 key ingredients of chemistry are vulnerability, desire, and resistance

[09:14] Examples from Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros.

[17:51] Writing romantic tension between romantic and non-romantic characters

[22:56]  If you want to master crafting irresistible chemistry and tension, I highly recommend studying your favorite stories. This is the best way to improve your writing. You can ask yourself questions like:

  • What do I like about the chemistry and tension between these two characters?
  • How did the author play on each character’s vulnerabilities within the relationship?
  • What does each character like (or desire) about the other (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?
  • How did the author create resistance between the characters? Why do the characters not want the relationship to move forward?
  • What can I replicate in my own writing?

And if you need help getting started with your story, check out my FREE Story Starter Kit: 5 Questions To Ask Before You Start Writing. This fillable workbook will help you build out the foundational elements of your story: genre, character, setting, plot, and theme. Grab your free copy here!

Links mentioned in this episode:

Want to write a novel but not sure where to start? Click here to grab a FREE copy of my Story Starter Kit workbook that'll help you get clarity on your characters, setting, theme, plot, and so much more!

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Speaker 1:

Now you might be wondering can chemistry exist in non-romantic relationships? And the answer is yes, it can and it should, but you might need to be a little more loose with those three ingredients. So, for example, maybe there's very little to no resistance between the two characters, and what I mean by that is maybe the reason one or both of your characters are resisting. The relationship comes down to more of a preference, not a need. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started.

Speaker 1:

In today's episode, we're going to talk about how to craft romantic chemistry and tension between your characters, and we're going to use the fourth wing by Rebecca Yarrows as a case study. Now, it's no secret that if you're writing a romance novel or a story with a romantic subplot that the romantic chemistry and tension between your two characters can either make or break your story. But it's not always as clear how to craft this kind of romantic chemistry and tension that readers expect, right? So that's what we're going to talk about today. We're going to talk about how to craft that kind of romantic chemistry and tension between two characters that's in a way that's authentic and compelling enough to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. But before we dig into all the details, I want to just talk about what chemistry is.

Speaker 1:

So what is chemistry? In its most basic sense, chemistry is how two characters interact with each other. It's an energetic exchange between two people in a relationship, whether that relationship is romantic or not. So on the surface, I think we know what chemistry looks like, right. It could be dialogue that flows well, so teasing, witty, repartee and things like that. It could be using affectionate nicknames with each other middle names, pet names, whatever you want. It could be really feeling that physical attraction or signs of that physical attraction, so lingering stares, special smiles and things like that. It could be two characters reminiscing over a shared history so maybe they went to the same grade school or share a lot of the same memories, or it could be just two characters that are comfortable in each other's physical space. So, you know, one character reaches out and adjusts the collar of the other character, or they don't mind sitting close to each other. You know things like that. This is what chemistry tends to look like, but none of these things make chemistry, so they are more a result of chemistry.

Speaker 1:

So what we're going to talk about today is how to create that kind of chemistry that makes these physical manifestations of chemistry possible. Okay, so the very first thing we need to do when creating chemistry between two characters is we need fully fleshed out characters with their own goals, motivations and inner obstacles, and that's just because flat or boring characters who are underdeveloped are never going to light up a scene, no matter how many tricks you pull. Now I'm not going to go into all the details about how to craft a compelling character, but I do have a podcast episode for you to go check out if this is something you need to work on. So it's episode number seven. It's called Five Questions to Help you Write Better Characters, and we will link to that episode and that blog post in the show notes.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so, once you've done the work to develop and flesh out your characters, then it's time to capitalize on opportunities for opposition and or harmony between your characters. And this is really important because chemistry between two characters is never static. It's an ever-shifting dynamic of opposition and harmony. Think about it like this Even when characters are fighting, there's always some kind of balance or a give-and-take or a push-and-pull. So when there's good chemistry, each character gives as good as they get, which can result in a certain measure of respect, regardless of their overall feelings towards each other. So once you've done the work to flesh out and develop each character, I want you to look for opposition and harmony in these key areas. Number one their goals and or motivations. So look for areas where they're opposing each other in their goals or motivations and or where those are in harmony.

Speaker 1:

You can also look for opinions about relationships. So, whether that's romantic relationships or not. So are they in opposition about these opinions about relationships or are they in harmony and that's not a blanket statement either? So they might be in harmony about wanting a relationship in general, but they might be in opposition about what that relationship would look like or how to get to that end result of a relationship. You can also look in areas like communication and or their confrontation style. So is one a good communicator and the other is not? Does one like confrontation and the other one does not? Things like that. You can look at the amount of power and or control each of them have. So a really easy example of this is, if one of them is a supervisor and the other one's a subordinate, one has more power and control than the other. And then you can also look at each character's expectations of themselves, others and or situations, and this is a really good one. So where are your characters in harmony and where do they oppose about their expectations of themselves, others and or situations?

Speaker 1:

In these five categories I just gave you, this is a really great place to start when brainstorming how your characters will show up on the page and interact with each other. So once you've done some of that brainstorming, you can then play with traditional character arc types to, you know, surprise and delight readers and to create some opportunities for chemistry. So consider how your characters can push against each other's assumption of the other person, only to be met with resistance when those assumptions are subverted. So I'll give you an example, because I know that sentence was a mouthful. So Mr Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the traditional love interest, right, that's the archetype or the role that he's playing in the story. But he is a bit standoffish and he's a bit surly right. So Elizabeth assumes, you know, he's going to act like all the other wealthy gentlemen she's met and she's going to judge him accordingly, of course, but she is wrong about him and it's this realization that forces her to grow and change and eventually open her heart to Mr Darcy. So I love this example for how the characters can kind of push against their assumptions of each other, only to be met with that resistance when those assumptions turn out to be true. And this is really important because unexpected behavior requires a new response and this is what's going to help your characters grow and change.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so everything I just covered from you know, fleshing out your characters, goals, motivations and inner obstacles, to looking for areas of opportunity and harmony within how these two characters interact and within their relationship, and then to playing with traditional character archetypes to kind of surprise and delight readers and create opportunities for chemistry. This is kind of that foundational work, right? So once you've gone through kind of these three mini steps. What we're going to look for next are three ingredients that will help you create sizzling character chemistry. So, with all of this character work, what you're ultimately looking for when crafting chemistry between characters are three ingredients. Number one vulnerability. Number two desire. And number three resistance.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so when I say vulnerability, I'm referring to the willingness to show emotion or let one's weaknesses, insecurities, fears and or hopes and dreams be seen by another person. Okay, so that's number one. When I talk about desire, I'm referring to the strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen and since we're talking about relationships, you know we can say of wanting something to happen or wishing for something to happen with another person. And then, finally, number three, resistance. When I say this, I'm referring to the refusal to accept or comply with something or the attempt to prevent something by action or argument. So we want to identify the vulnerability, the desire and the resistance that's occurring between these two characters. If you can identify how your characters will be vulnerable with each other, what they like about each other both physically, mentally and emotionally and their reason for not wanting to be together. This is what's gonna help you create the push-pull dynamic that makes for really great on-the-page chemistry.

Speaker 1:

Now to bring all of this to real life, because I know we just talked about a lot, I wanted to look at a case study. So I chose Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yaros, because I think there is some really great character chemistry in this story. So in this book, the protagonist, her name is Violet Sorengale. She has two love interests. One of them is named Zaden Ryerson and the other is named Dane Aetos. Her relationship with Zaden is the primary focus of the romantic subplot. But Violet has a history with Dane which is briefly explored once she enters the writer's quadrant. And if you're unfamiliar with the story, I recommend just pushing pause really quick and Googling Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yaros just to read a quick summary.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so we're gonna look at Violet and Zaden first and we're going to identify the vulnerability, the desire and the resistance that exists between the two of them. Okay, so in terms of vulnerability, zaden acknowledges that Violet has a disability and because of that she lacks physical strength. She also hasn't trained physically as much as the other people in the writer's quadrant have, so she is at a disadvantage and Zaden sees and acknowledges this. On the other hand, violet sees Zaden sneaking out and meeting with other rebels. So pretty early on she's privy to a really big secret and as the story progresses she learns more and more incriminating information about Zaden that could really get him in trouble and probably would result in his death. Okay, so all of this adds to the vulnerability that exists between Violet and Zaden. Now, if we look at the desire factor, right, zaden is a hot guy, he's powerful, he's mysterious and for some reason he seems inclined to help Violet train and get stronger, despite the history between them. So, long story short, their families were on opposite sides of the war. Zaden is a rebel and Violet's mom is the general of Baskyeth War College, so definitely on opposite sides of the fence here. On the other hand, violet is beautiful and she's cunning and she has a strong sense of honor, which really appeals to Zaden, and for some reason she seems inclined to keep Zaden's secrets again, despite their shared history. So all of this kind of adds to and increases that desire between them.

Speaker 1:

Now, looking at the resistance between them, there's kind of a lot going on here. So Violet believes that Zaden wants to kill her because of their shared history of growing up on opposite sides of the war. Plus, this is something her sister has literally told her. So she says Zaden will kill you when he sees you. And then, on the flip side, zaden believes that Violet will be like her mother and her sister and he lacks evidence otherwise. So he thinks that Violet is going to follow in the steps of her mom and sister and, you know, be a part of a group that has subjugated his people and that killed his father. Plus, zaden is a wing leader and cadets are off limits for romantic relationships. So all of this adds to the resistance between the two characters.

Speaker 1:

Now, given all of that, I want to read you a passage from Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarrows, where we see Violet and Zaden together. So it says Even the diagonal scar that bisects his left eyebrow and marks the top corner of his cheek only makes him hotter, flaming hot, scorching hot, gets you in trouble and you like it level of hot. Suddenly I can't remember exactly why Mira told me not to mess around outside my year group. And then later, on that same page, it says Good gods, I don't even reach his collarbone. He's massive. He has to be more than four inches over six feet tall. I feel exactly what Mira called me fragile, but I nod. Once the shining onyx of his eyes transforms to cold, unadulterated hate, I can almost taste the loathing wafting off him like bitter cologne.

Speaker 1:

Violet Rhiannon asks moving forward, your general soaring gales, youngest. His voice is deep and accusatory your Fenryerson son. I counter the certainty of this revelation settling in my bones. I lift my chin and do my best to lock every muscle in my body so I don't start trembling. He will kill you the second he finds out who you are. Mira's words bounce around my skull and fear knots in my throat. He's going to throw me over the edge. He's going to pick me up and drop me right off this turret. I'm never going to get the chance to even walk the parapet. I'll die, being exactly what my mother's always danced around, calling me weak.

Speaker 1:

Now, when I read that passage, what do you feel and what do you notice about the interaction between Violet and Zaden? Did you see how Violet immediately feels a physical attraction to him but then kind of slowly pieces together who he is and how powerful he seems to be, and how Zaden does not kill Violet the second he sets eyes on her Right? So, without understanding that vulnerability, desire and resistance that exists for both Violet and Zaden. It would be hard to write a scene like this and to evoke these thoughts and feelings in the characters and the readers, so it would be hard to write this kind of chemistry and tension. Now I want to look at Violet's other semi love interest, dane Atos, and we can do the exact same exercise to understand their chemistry and sometimes their lack of chemistry.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so first up, we're going to look at the vulnerability that exists between them. Now, dane knows about Violet's disability because he grew up with her. He also knows that she's been training for the scribe quadrant and therefore assumes she's not qualified to be a writer. On the other hand, violet believes that she does need protection and she allows Dane to provide it, despite jeopardizing his place amongst the writers. Okay, so all of this adds to the vulnerability that exists between the two. Now, in terms of desire, we know that Dane is also attractive and that he's very familiar to Violet. Plus, it's clear he wants to keep her safe. On the flip side, violet is a reminder of home for Dane she's pretty and she makes him feel strong and important. So all of this adds to the desire between the two. Now, in terms of resistance, dane is Violet's superior, which makes a romantic relationship technically off limits. But, more importantly, as Violet grows and changes, dane's words and actions start to hold her back. So this creates a lot of resistance on her end and, plus, her feelings for Zaden are growing over the course of the story, which also adds to the resistance.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so now I want to read you a different passage from Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, and I want you to notice what you feel and just you know what you see in this passage, and I want you to ask yourself whether this would be possible if we didn't know the vulnerability, the desire and the resistance that existed between these two characters. Okay, so it says. I stare at Dane, at the scar that defines his jaw and the hard set of his eyes that are familiar, and yet not what he asks. The voices around us grow louder and there are more footsteps coming and going. You bonded a dragon. You have powers I don't even know about. You open doors with magic. You're a squad leader.

Speaker 1:

I say the sentences slowly, hoping they'll sink in that I'll truly grasp how much he's changed. It's just hard to wrap my head around you still being Dane. I'm still me. His posture softens and he lifts the short sleeve of his tunic, revealing the relic of a red dragon on his shoulder. I just have this now and is, for the powers Kath channels, a pretty significant amount of magic compared to some of the other dragons, but I'm nowhere near adept at it yet I haven't changed that much. As for lesser magic, powered through the bond of my relic, I can do the typical stuff like open doors, crank up my speed and power ink pens instead of using those inconvenient quills.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so what did you notice about the interaction between Violet and Dane? Did you notice how Violet is kind of keyed in on certain aspects of his physical appearance so things like the scar that defines his jaw and the hard set of his eyes that are familiar and yet not and how Violet seems to be a little bit in awe of her best friend now that he's a dragon rider. And then even Dane he worked really hard to reassure her that he's still the same Dane that she had a crush on before he left. Now, again, without understanding the vulnerability, desire and resistance that exists for both Dane and Violet, it would be hard to evoke these thoughts and feelings in the reader. So personally, I think this is a really great example of how to write chemistry and tension between two characters and also how to craft a love triangle, even if that love triangle kind of disassembles pretty early on in the story, or at least in this particular example.

Speaker 1:

Now you might be wondering can chemistry exist in non-romantic relationships? And the answer is yes, it can and it should, but you might need to be a little more loose with those three ingredients. So, for example, maybe there's very little to no resistance between the two characters, and what I mean by that is maybe the reason one or both of your characters are resisting the relationship comes down to more of a preference, not a need. So instead of needing to resist the relationship for something like survival or whatever it is, maybe it's just a preference that if they had their way, they wouldn't be in a relationship because of XYZ. So if we want to think about some great examples of non-romantic character pairings who have great chemistry, I like to think about Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, michael Scott and Dwight Schrute on the Office, kate Malarkey and Tully Hart from Firefly Lane, harry Potter and Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter series and even Alyn Gallithinius and Aydian Ashriver from Throne of Glass. So, yes, definitely possible to have chemistry in a non-romantic relationship. I think there are so many great examples out there other than the five I listed. And again, you can use the same key ingredients. You just might need to interpret them a little less, a little bit more loosely than you would if it was a romantic relationship.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so now that you know how to create chemistry between characters, let's talk about writing romantic tension, aka what to do with the chemistry once you've created it. So let's start with the definition. What is romantic tension? Well, in its most simple form, romantic tension is the suspense created by how two potential romantic partners orbit each other before their union is certain. So, basically, it's the question of when will these two characters get together, or are they going to get together? And the good news is, if you've already explored those three key ingredients of character chemistry so vulnerability, desire and resistance then you're well on your way to writing this kind of page-turning romantic tension. And that's because desire brings your characters together right, resistance pulls them apart and vulnerability operates kind of in the middle, bringing them closer together and sometimes keeping them apart. Now, it's no secret that building this kind of tension is one of the most important parts of developing an intriguing romantic story arc.

Speaker 1:

You need to make readers care about what's happening in the story and create suspense by doling out information, aka the answer to the story question are these characters going to get together or not? You need to dole that out in increments, with holding the full answer until the end. So to do this, what you can do is deliver scenes in which the chemistry and the tension increases in frequency and intensity as the novel progresses. So, in other words, each scene should bring your character one step closer to or farther from that happily ever after or that relationship coming to fruition. This creates that suspense and that tension for the reader and it evokes that desire to read the next scene, hoping to get the answer they've wanted since page one. So there you have it, my favorite tips and strategies for crafting chemistry between two characters, whether their relationship is romantic or not. Now let's do a really quick recap before I let you go.

Speaker 1:

So in today's episode we talked about crafting romantic chemistry and tension between your characters, and the first key point in terms of crafting chemistry is that you do need to do the work to flesh out characters with their own goals, motivations and inner obstacles before you can actually write good chemistry. And that's just because flat or boring characters are never going to light up a scene, no matter how many tricks you pull or what you try to do to make that chemistry on the page. Key point number two is that once you've done the work to develop your characters, you can look for areas of opposition and harmony that exist between them. And this is important because, remember, chemistry is never static, it's an ever shifting dynamic of opposition and harmony, or give and take or push pull. So look in key areas like their goals and motivations, their opinions about relationships, their communication style, the amounts of power and or control the characters have, and then their expectations of themselves, others and or the situation. And then, key point number three, once you're done with all of that character work, you want to find three key ingredients of sizzling character chemistry. Number one vulnerability, so this willingness to show emotion, or let one's weaknesses, insecurities, fears or hopes and dreams be seen by another person. Number two desire, so the strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen, usually in terms of a relationship with another person. And then, finally, number three, resistance, so the refusal to accept or comply with something or the attempt to prevent something from happening by action or argument. This is what's really going to help you create that push, pull dynamic that makes for really great on the page chemistry.

Speaker 1:

If you want to master the art of crafting irresistible chemistry intention, I highly recommend studying your favorite stories. This is the best way to improve your own writing, and you can ask yourself questions like number one what do I like about the chemistry intention between the two characters in this story? Number two how did the author play on each character's vulnerabilities within the relationship? Number three what is each character like or desire about the other physically, mentally and emotionally? Number four how did the author create resistance between the characters? So why do the characters not want the relationship to move forward or to come to fruition? And then, number five what can I replicate in my own writing? I think if you study enough stories, you'll start to see patterns in the stories that you like and that really stand out to you in terms of having good romantic chemistry intention, and then you can apply your learnings to your own writing and level up your story that way, which is pretty fun.

Speaker 1:

So that's it for today's episode. As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgilbocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.

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