Hi everyone, and thank you for tuning in to another episode of the We Make Books Podcast - A podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between!
This week we have something a little different lined up. As Rekka is recovering, we wanted to give her a break wherever possible and so for this episode, we are happy to bring you an episode of Rekka's previous podcast: The Hybrid Author. In this episode, Rekka interviews Alexandra Rowland, author of "A Conspiracy of Truths" and one of the hosts of the Hugo-nominated podcast 'Be the Serpent'. Alex and Rekka spend this episode talking romance and all of the ways to incorporate it into your story. It can be an awkward part of the writing process but it doesn't have to be! Alex has a lot of advice and insight into the process of making your characters kiss and they won't even make you blush while telling you how!
You can (and should) check out Alex on their social media, which is linked below.
We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.
We Make Books is a podcast for writers and publishers, by writers and publishers and we want to hear from our listeners! Hit us up on our social media, linked below, and send us your questions, comments, concerns, and the most uncomfortable "romantic" exchange you were forced to enure in a book or movie. Don't hold back, bring the cringe!
We hope you enjoy We Make Books!
Find Alex at:
Instagram: @ _alexrowland
Episode 34: Making Characters Kiss with Alexandra Rowland
transcribed by Sara Rose (@saraeleanorrose)
K: Hey everyone! Welcome to another episode of the We Make Books podcast, a show about writing, publishing, and everything in between. I’m Kaelyn Considine and I’m the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press.
R: And I’m Rekka. I write science fiction and fantasy as R.J. Theodore.
K: And, uh, this episode is a throwback. It’s a throwback so far that it predates our podcast!
R: Yes! [laughs] Many of you may know that I previously hosted, or co-hosted and then solo-hosted, a podcast called Hybrid Author. I lost my co-host and it wasn’t really fun doing it by myself, so when Kaelyn made herself available to become a co-host on an entirely new podcast, I was all too eager to jump ship. But there were some good tidbits on that podcast, including a couple of interviews that, now that we’ve needed to come up with some additional back-up episodes, for whatever’s going on in my health and treatment and everything like that—
K: Rekka’s recovering and just to make sure that everyone’s healthy and—
R: That we have options, you know.
K: —not straining themselves, we thought this would be a great episode to put out there. So Alex Rowland is a published author of two books, right now, called A Conspiracy of Truths and A Choir of Lies, and they came on this podcast to discuss writing romance with Rekka.
R: Yes! Well, not this podcast, as we’ve already mentioned.
K: Oh, yeah. Sorry.
R: But, yes, Conspiracy of Truths was out when Alex recorded this. This was actually recorded on February 5th, 2019. So that’s where this falls in the whole realm of time. And A Choir of Lies, as I was speaking to Alex, had just had its cover reveal that morning on Barnes and Noble’s website. So that’s where we were in time, was February 5th, 2019. But it was a good conversation with Alex. One of the things I realized is that we call this a podcast about writing and publishing and everything in between, but we don’t actually talk too much about different genre topics or writing techniques and so I have a few episodes that are specifically about that, from the podcast, which you can no longer find listed on iTunes, etcetera. So I’m all-too happy to resurrect these interviews, which I think are really valuable.
K: We have a few of these episodes that we selected that we thought would be good and interesting to our current audience as well. We’ll sprinkle them in as we need to while Rekka is recovering, but it’s a great conversation about writing romance. About how to create romantic tension, about what drives these relationships and what makes them compelling and interesting to readers. Alex is a master at creating romantic tension.
K: So they have some really great tips, tricks, thoughts in here. Anybody who’s interested in, you know, pumpin’ up the romance a little bit in their writing will certainly leave this with some new ideas.
R: For sure. So, go ahead and listen and KAelyn, say goodbye! ‘Cause you’re not in this one.
K: I’m not! So I’ll see everyone in two weeks. Enjoy guys!
[intro music plays]
R: So joining us today, as I mentioned in the intro, is the wonderful Alexandra Rowland! So, Alex, how ya doin’? Write anything with a cool cover lately?
A: I am great. And, yes, in fact just today—like five minutes ago—we just launched the cover for A Choir of Lies which is the sequel to my debut book, which came out last year, A Conspiracy of Truths. If you read Conspiracy, then you will know the main character of this one. It is adorable cinnamon roll, Ylfing! And this book is full of evil capitalism and fantasy tulip mania and all sorts of cool stuff.
R, laughing: Fantastic! Well, I have brought you on today because I can’t do romance by myself.
A: Sure. Sure, sure.
R: And before we lead everyone astray, we’re not doing romance together, we are going to talk about romance and Alex is going to help me. Because Alex does fantastic pairings and makes chemistry happen. [giggles]
A: I write kissing books.
R: Yes! I really wanted to have you on to talk about that moment of budding romance and how you develop a character’s relationship. What some of your favorite relationship tropes are because I know you have a couple!
A: A lot. I do!
R: And anything else you can think of because I put about as much romance into my books as I do economics.
R: So I thought it would be a good idea to get another author’s take on this. If anyone’s romantic, it’s Alex.
A: Sure, well, that’s true. Yeah, I do love feelings. I often say feelings are how you know you’re alive.
R: The more painful, the more alive you are. Right?
A: Right! Yeah, exactly. LIke having really intense feelings just means you’re really, really alive in that moment. Alright, so, let’s see. Where to start? Do you have anywhere, where you’d like me to start, specifically, or…?
R: Well, you said the feelings thing and it just occurred to me that I just endured the Hobbit trilogy movies.
A: I’m so sorry.
R: Yes. It was painful! It was so painful. And those aren’t the feelings I’m talking about, that taught me I was alive.
R: But at the end of Battle of the Five Armies, the WASP elf says like, “If this is love, take it from me! I don’t want it!” and, like, why does it hurt so bad? And all this stuff.
R: And he says, “It hurts so bad because it was real,” or something like that. And so that’s just—that just came to mind. That wasn’t necessarily going to start our conversation, but I feel like we can get dramatic with talking about feelings.
A: Yeah, yeah. Oh my god, definitely so. I could just spend the rest of this hour doing pterodactyl screaming. All right, so let’s see. Feelings. So how do you design a romance in a book? How do we design characters so that they fall in love? A really satisfying thing—this is not how romance works in real life, obviously, but this is how romance kind of works in fiction, because there’s things that we want from romances in books. One of those things is we want the characters to fit together. We want them to answer a need within each other.
That’s not necessarily—Like, it sounds sexy, but it’s not that, it’s more—
R: [giggles] We’re not talking interlocking puzzle pieces yet.
A: Well, I mean. Kind of! Just not genitals, right? It’s about feelings and emotions and their strength counterbalances your weakness, or they’re confident in something that you’re not confident in. Or they like olives on their pizza and you really don’t, so they always get to pick off the olives. And, you know, you have that sort of symbiotic relationship together.
A: Or they really don’t like oreos. Which is fine because it means that you can keep oreos in the house without having to hide them. There’s all sorts of little bits and pieces to having a successful romance in this book. So—
R: And so far you’re not really saying anything that we shouldn’t aim for in real life.
A: No! I mean, all of those things are great. It’s just that when you write them in books, it can go to a bigger extreme and that can get kind of codependent and in real life it would probably be unhealthy. But in fiction it’s delicious!
A: So, one of the things—I’m gonna use an example from a book that I just finished writing recently. It’s a shamelessly self-indulgent, tropetastic book of my heart. It is probably the most romance-oriented book that I’ve written so far. It’s definitely one of the most character-driven books, and I do write very, very character-driven books in general. But this one is about 50% about the relationship between these two characters and 50% about plot! Despite my misgivings. My agent does insist on the occasional—
R: The little smattering of plot.
A: I know! Gosh! Whenever I sit down to outline a book, I always figure out the emotional arc first. Then I’m like, “Okay! Now I have to staple the plot on afterwards.” Because that’s what I’m most interested in, is the emotional arc. So with these two characters, there is an Enemies to Lovers emotional arc to it. And Enemies to Lovers is a really useful trope because it’s got plot built into it.
A: Right? Like, how do they—Why is it that they start out enemies? What is the source of this? And then what leads them to change their feelings towards each other? A lot of times there’s an unspoken Enemies to Friends to Lovers, in the middle there, so how do they first come to have these changing feelings? How do they grow respect for each other, organically? And how do they come to see each other in such a different light?
So, with these two characters, one of them has chronic anxiety and the other one is very stoic and doesn’t think a lot about his feelings and sees the world in a very black-and-white kind of way.
A: And so the challenge here is for the stoic, black-and-white character to stop seeing the anxiety character as a coward. Because this anxiety character is in a position where the stoic character thinks that he should definitely be more together, and have more of his shit together, and he does not. And the stoic character sees this as a major personal failing and isn’t cool with it.
R: Yeah, I have a cheat sheet in that I have read this book.
A: Yes, yes.
R: Or a previous draft of it, at least. And, so, the stoic has a cookie-cutter of an ideal personality that, in the initial circumstances that bring them together, the anxiety character absolutely, completely fails to fit into.
A: Yeah, like he’s failing to meet every standard that the stoic character has, yes. But they are forced to be near each other for plot reasons—which I will not divulge right now—and over time the stoic character is forced to see more nuance in the world around him and learn to see things in a spectrum of shades of gray, rather than just black-and-white. And to be more accepting of other people’s flaws and also that kind of involves being more accepting of his own flaws, too.
A: I think that’s a big part of romance is that it’s as much about your relationship with yourself, as it is about the relationship that you have with another person. You have to do personal growth and personal work on yourself, before you can achieve this transcendental, epic, soulmate romance with this other person. You have to be worthy of it.
R: Right. So, in a pure romance plot, that is the plot.
R: Sort of, getting through yourself to reach the other person.
R: And in a plot-plot, where you also have romance, you also get to have fun things like economic shenanigans and political shenanigans.
A: Yeah, and external stuff that’s going on. Yeah.
R: Yeah, okay. So when you—Can you name, I mean, you know the tropes better than anyone because you deal with the fanfic. Which, fanfic really knows what they’re doing in terms of story structure and hitting tropes and then fulfilling the promises made by those tropes. So what are—we’ve talked about antagonists to lovers—what are the other kinds of romance-style stories that are out there that seem to be most satisfying? Because one that I think of is the Forbidden Love—
A: So the common thread through all of these is that there’s some kind of obstacle in between these two characters and them being together. Obstacles are great because if you have an obstacle, then you have stakes. If you have stakes, then something is interesting and compelling and you feel tension and stress when you think about whether these two characters are going to be able to overcome this obstacle. So that’s the big thing in any really classical, meaty, compelling romance trope, is that presence of an obstacle. Either in personal perception and beliefs, as in Enemies to Lovers, or in some other externally sourced obstacle, like Forbidden Love, as you mentioned.
A: In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the obstacle is their families and the relationship and the antagonism that is between their families. And that’s something that they overcome. What was the other one you mentioned?
R: The Rogue and Gambit.
A: I’m not familiar with this, what is this?
R: From The X-Men. Okay, so Rogue and Gambit—Oh my goodness. I’m showing my age here. So it’s most exemplified in the ‘90s X-men cartoon, where there’s a powered being, Rogue, whose power is, when she makes physical contact with somebody, she—
A: Oh! She kills them!
R: —sucks their lifeforce. So if they are human, she’s probably just going to kill them. If they’re a mutant, she’ll actually take their mutant abilities for a while and they will either be comatose right after, or she just weakens them. Meanwhile, she’s now developing—Sometimes they bring in personality and the X-men cartoon was mostly just that if somebody was telepathic, she would be telepathic for a little while.
A: So we’re talking about, like, they can’t touch. Like in Pushing Daisies.
R: They can’t touch! So she wears gloves, but obviously she doesn’t have a ski mask on, so she can’t kiss a romantic interest and all this kind of stuff. And that’s sort of torturous, no matter what we do, we can’t be together, so, of course, that’s all we want, situation. So that’s why I bring that one up.
A: Yeah! This was also huge in Pushing Daisies which is one of my favorite shows ever. Have you seen it?
R: Nope, no. So, okay, we’ve each got—
A: Oh my god! You should watch it!
R: —one the other hasn’t seen.
A: Oohh, you should watch it. Pushing Daisies is this amazing show about a pie baker who has a magical power where, if he touches a dead person, they’ll come back to life for, I think, like two minutes.
A: And then he has to touch them again to kill them permanently. And after that he can’t bring them back again. But if he doesn’t, then someone else in the vicinity will die. And then the dead person will just be alive for however long. But still, if he touches them again, then they die. It’s a little convoluted.
R: Okay, so he’s got two minutes—I’m sorry, I just gotta work this out because I didn’t realize there was a magical aspect to this show. So he’s got two minutes, and that’s the window where he can fix the fact that he brought them back to life and, outside of that window, he’s sacrificed someone else at random and still cannot make contact with this person.
A: Correct, correct. So, in the show, he brings a woman back to life who is his childhood crush.
R: Oh, okay.
A: And can’t bring himself to touch her again to kill her. So someone else dies. And then she is here and around and a character, but he can’t touch her. Because if he touches her again, then she dies permanently. So there’s this—but they’re like madly, madly in love and the show is so, so sweet and wholesome. The show actually does a really good job of—the obstacle is: How can we overcome this we-can’t-touch thing? And they get really creative in how these two characters can actually touch by basically giving them, like, full-body condoms?
R: Oh gosh!
A: So they are cuddling together with a plastic sheet in between them or they’re holding hands wearing rubber gloves or things like that. Or they’re kissing through a piece of saran wrap. It’s real cute. Real cute. So, yeah, that’s an obstacle to overcome that gives stakes. And also they play with how close, like close-calls. Like they’re both walking through a hall and they don’t see each other and they almost bump into each other.
R: Oh, okay.
A: So the stakes are huge. If they accidentally touch, at any moment.
R: All right, so we have the Forbidden Love which has many, many fun aspects. Especially, obviously, in science fiction and fantasy. There’s a lot of ways to play around with it. And we have the first one, which was Enemies to Lovers. Then, in terms of romance novels, I’m thinking you have different personality structures that come together, but in the romance novels that I’ve read, someone is always ever so very perfect. So then there’s the pursuit, then realizing you don’t necessarily like that person, and then realizing the person that you were looking for was, like, your best friend all along or anything like that. Is there a better trope term for that, or is that more of the similar, there’s just an obstacle—I mean, obviously there’s an obstacle in all of these, but—
A: I don’t know if I have an exact trope name for that, but the realizing, “Oh, yes, the person I loved was standing right next to me the whole time. It was my best friend that I have known forever.”
R: Right, so this is like the Ron Weasley romance with Hermione where he thinks he’s, you know, he needs a date but, “Ugh, all I’ve got is Hermione” or “You don’t have a date!” kinda thing.
A: And in that case the obstacle is kind of personal perception, again, and also learning to see this person in a new light. With a best friend that can be really difficult because usually they’ve been around you for so long and you know so much about them that it can be difficult to change what you already know. Or to change your mind about someone.
A: And that can be—I guess I would call that Friends to Lovers.
R: Okay. So it’s almost, the enemy in that case is the fact that you have a preconceived notion of who they are and how they fit into your life.
A: Yeah, an established relationship and so forth. And then what other obstacles? Let’s see, I just read a really amazing one, a really amazing romance novel, recently called Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian, which was fantastic. It has a non-binary protagonist in it. And, again, a very stoic, aristocratic person who, again, sees the world kind of in black-and-white and has very, very strict personal codes and personal morals and has to, again, learn to be more flexible and see the world in a more nuanced kind of way. Yeah, with romance novels, I think, particularly that theme of doing the personal work on yourself to grow to fit this other person—rather than being two people who are just perfect for each other independently, and without doing anything—so much of it is about making compromises and changing who you are—We have this whole thing in our culture about how you shouldn’t change for another person. Except that’s kind of how relationships work?
R, smiling: Yes.
A: That’s how human beings work. It’s good to be some degree of flexible. It’s not good to change everything about yourself for another person, but you have to do some degree of—
R: There’s work involved.
A: Yeah, yeah! There is work involved.
R: Even in plots and fiction where the reader gets to participate in this romance without putting any effort into it themself. The characters themselves are going to have to do work. And that’s a good point is that when you decide which things you’re willing to change or sacrifice—when you are developing a character, there should be some sort of moral backbone to that character, where it doesn’t change the core of the character to meet this person in the relationship.
But maybe it helps them through a personal weakness, like they talk about the lies we tell ourselves and use those to build your character’s nuanced anxieties and neuroses. And so you meet a character in the middle where you have to give up either the lie you tell yourself, or you have to give up something that you thought was important but, it turns out, is keeping you from happiness versus giving up the fact that you think no one should beat puppies.
A: Right, right. Exactly. It’s not so much about changing a core belief, it’s more about changing how that belief manifests sometimes.
R: Right. Limiting beliefs are the other things, the other term that I’ve heard used for it. This is the thing that keeps me from being happy and this is the thing that the plot is going to answer. Whether it’s, “I think I need to go find this treasure, but what I actually need to do is go find friends,” or, in this case, “I think I want someone who’s going to treat me like the princess I am, and then it turns out I’m actually not such a princess and maybe I need someone who’s gonna hold me accountable for the things I say, or the flaws,” stuff like that.
A: Right. You said something which made me think of a cool thing, which I would like to see more of in romance novels and that’s friends. Because a lot of times when I am reading a romance in a book—this doesn’t happen quite as much with romance novels, actually, because romance novels know what the fuck they’re doing—but with science fiction/fantasy a lot of the times, if there is a romance in the book, a lot of the times that is the only relationship in the book.
A: And what I would love to see more of is romances that are bracketed, or surrounded by, the ancillary friendships of these two characters who are so involved with each other. I would like to see characters with more of an emotional support network and more of a community and whose communities are interacting with the romance in a way that the characters are also interacting with each other.
R: So, an example of the relationship being the only thing in a romance in science fiction, we are talking like The Fifth Element where not only has he detached himself from his former society of servicemen that he used to work with, now he’s a contracted taxi driver where he doesn’t have to do anything to interact with anyone on a regular basis anymore. Except maybe his mechanic.
A: Yeah. And his cat.
R: And then he meets this woman who was literally just born, so she has no friends either.
A: Right, right. She has those two priests who follow her around, but those aren’t really community. Like, they don’t really see her as a real person.
R: No, those like—And she doesn’t necessarily see them as anything more than just the to-do list that she’s supposed to do. Go find these priests and then find out you like chicken and make-up and then move on with the plot and go get the stones.
R: Like, she has very—nevermind a limited social circle, she has very limited personality in this movie as well. She just has, I don’t know if you would call this the stoic, because she behaves very emotionally in certain situations, but she wants to move from Point A to Point B and then does not know what her life is going to be after that. She’s gonna turn back into a rock or something and then she’ll be done.
R: And he’s kind of drifting through his life at that point with almost zero social circle at that point, except for the man who brings him his noodles right to his window. And fortune cookies.
R: So that’s not how you wanna necessarily do it to build deep relationships and deep realism in your story.
A: Yeah, because I mean everyone in—Okay, not everybody. But the vast majority of people have friends as well as romantic partners. And when you are embarking on a new romantic relationship, a lot of the times you are telling your friends about it. “Oh my god, Rekka, I just met this really cute boy! Let me tell you everything about him!” And then you’re like, “Alex, he’s a dinosaur.”
And I’d be like, “No, he’s not!” You’re like, “He’s a literal pterodactyl.”
R, laughing: I would be all-for that. I would encourage that.
A: I know you would. But, yeah, again going back to Cat Sebastian, who I mentioned before. Cat Sebastian does a fantastic job of writing communities in her books. The communities are almost as important as the romance itself and a lot of the times the characters are kind of having a emotional arc with their communities as well as the emotional arc with the romantic partner in the book.
R: Yes, and you definitely have to consider that your friends are only hearing your side of this romantic endeavour so they’re interjecting judgment and opinions from only seeing half the story. Then the other person’s social circle is doing a similar thing depending on they interact.
R: And whether that person’s trying to keep it lowkey at first and not tell the friends because every time they tell the friends, the next question is, “When do we get to meet ‘em?” or whatever.
A: Yeah. It can make it a really, a much, much richer experience, I think.
R: And definitely adds some complications. And if you have other friends—every now and then in the group of writers that are going, “Okay I have to solve this plot,” someone will say, “Why does this person go over here and do this? I need them to go do this thing. Why would they do it?” And if you have a social circle, you can say, “Because their friend drags them to it,” or whatever. You have more characters that are intimately involved with your protagonist’s life and because there’s an emotional connection between the two of them on a friends level, there are things that people will do for other people that they would never go and do by themself because they’re backing up a friend.
A: Exactly, exactly, exactly. Yes. One hundred percent. Yes.
R: So you’ve got characters who may or may not have an attraction that they may or may not recognize as attraction and you have a healthy social circle built around them, of people who share interests or share community or share careers—
A: Family connection, yeah.
R: —or they met in a bar because the bar has really good lemon twists or something. So what do you do—You, Alex, with this pair, when you throw them together. How? You can think about it as, like, they gotta bounce off each other a couple times before they can stick. So how do you plan a romantic arc, other than just—we know they start in an opposite point from where they end?
A: So a lot of it I do by feel, but there is also a structure to it. So you have two characters and they have to have a reason to be around each other. If you’re doing a thing where they are bouncing off each other, then you have to have a reason why they’re forced to—Like, what’s the gravity that’s keeping them together? Like two bodies in space. What is the gravitational pull that is keeping them together? Sometimes that’s an external thing, something that is forcing them to stay together by circumstance, by someone else ordering them to go on this spy quest or something, I don’t know.
R: Or arranged marriage, that’s another trope.
A: Or arranged marriage, yeah, absolutely. And sometimes it’s an internal gravitational pull. The fact that they want to be near each other. If the pull is internal, then the obstacle is external. If the pull is external, then the obstacle is internal.
R: That makes a lot of sense.
A: Yeah. So if they really, really want to be together, then who is keeping them apart? And if they really, really don’t want to be near each other, then who is forcing them to be together.
R: Mhm. Or what.
A: Or what, yeah. So, I’m just gonna choose the they don’t really want to be around each other, because that’s my favorite one.
A: So if they don’t want to be around each other, then they’re gonna have clashes of personality. And this works best when it’s small things that lead up to something bigger. Or you have an underlying serious thing and this manifests in a lot of small ways. So you don’t want them to clash completely hard against each other because then there is the chance that they’ll blow up the gravitational pull and ruin everything and go off in two completely different directions. So you can’t push them to their breaking point at this point in the book. Because the gravitational pull’s not strong enough yet to survive it.
So with the small clashes, both of them are already starting to change and shift a little bit. Even if it’s just in questioning something that they’ve never questioned before. And saying—or thinking about something that they have thought of as like an unthinking, given truth about the world. Suddenly they’re noticing it, they’re having an awareness of it that they’ve never had before.
R: So a stability that they had before is now shaken by this person entering their lives.
A: Yeah, they’re set off balance somehow. Then you are going to have, towards the midpoint of the book, or, well, between one third of the way through the book and the midpoint of the book, they’re going to have some kind of bigger event which really tests one or both of them. And they have to make the first compromise. So, before, it’s more like questioning and personal awareness and then you have one big compromise where, I don’t know, they hate each other. One of them saves the other person’s life. Or they have a big argument and one of them makes a good enough argument that they win and the other person goes,” Oh, I never thought of it that way before. Now I have to change something that I think.”
R: And keep in mind, this is the thought they’re having internally and maybe not even recognizing it yet. It’s certainly not what they’re saying out loud.
A: Most of the time, yes. With an argument between the two of them, usually they’re not gonna say, “Fine, you win,” but they may have some kind of other, subtle indication that they have not lost the argument, but recognition that they haven’t won the argument. Like, “I don’t want to talk about this right now. I need to go think about this,” something like that.
R: Right, well, that’s exactly what I mean. Rather than saying, “You made a very valid point and I’m shook,” they try to shut down the argument without admitting defeat or redirect it some way.
R: This might be somewhere where somebody starts bringing up how you always leave your shoes right inside the door for people to trip over, instead of talking about loss or grief or something else that’s deeper.
A: I would say that the shoes being left all over the floor is more towards the—more one of the ones I was talking about before, yeah. One of the smaller personality clashes. This is a more significant one, this is where we start thinking about deep, personal values. Also it helps if, either just before or just after this point of change, they have had a moment where they agree on something. Where they are perfectly in alignment and they are pointed towards the same goal or they agree on some deeply held value.
R: Okay, so it gives them the opportunity to say, “Not only is this person making a good point that’s changing the way I’m looking at things, now I’m suddenly able to recognize that there’s other ways that there’s good in them.”
A: Yeah, yeah. Like, “I respect—or I have some small respect or I wonder about them. I’m curious about them because of this thing that I think is correct and they also think that’s correct. So they can’t be a totally bad person. So why are they like this about this other thing?”
A: And, really, all you want to do is get your characters questioning things.
A: So you have this moment of connection between the two of them, and that’s kind of the point where the gravitational pull starts being internal as well. Because they’re starting to be drawn toward each other. And, again, also like objects in space, the farther apart they are, the weaker the connection. And then the closer and closer they get, the stronger the gravitational pull between the two of them.
R: So, in a way, the closer you get them is more forcing them to act toward a common goal. So that puts them—
A: It can be forcing them to act towards a common goal, it can be forcing them to have deep conversations about deeply held personal values. It can be more instances of proving to each other that they’re good people. It can also just be moments of—Here’s the thing. So I’m demisexual and I have a hard time remembering that sexual attraction is a thing?
A: So one of the things that can bring them closer together is also just finding each other just unbearably hot. ‘Cause apparently that’s a—
R: Like one of them changes their clothes and all of a sudden they look really, really good. So that could be a whole struck moment, or over time.
A: Or one of them gets caught in a rainstorm and is like soaking wet.
R: [laughs] Yeah.
A: Or all sorts of things. Or one of them is gnawing on the end of a pencil or eating a popsicle. All sorts of things. Or reading a book in a sexy way, I guess? I don’t know.
R: Reading books sexy, okay. Noted.
A: Yeah. Or reciting poetry, anything. Anything! LIke, having one character experience a deep, deep sexual attraction is another way of bringing them closer together.
R: And to put a point on it, the sexual attraction doesn’t have to be physical attraction. So it might be something where a philosophy that this person reveals is like the most amazing thing to the other person. Where, suddenly, the way that they’ve described—you know, it’s kinda like reading in a sexy manner or reading a poem out loud—suddenly this person is appreciating a new aspect of the other person that is not only something they were unaware of before, but appealing to them on a fundamental level to that character.
A: Yeah. That’s sort of related to having the connection between values. Like deeply held personal values. So, after—now you have them drifting closer toward each other, and that should be maintained throughout the rest of the book as they drift and drift and drift closer and closer together. Then, the next thing is that you can start testing them a little harder and putting them through bigger challenges and more serious challenges and—
R: The sorts of things that would’ve made them push apart completely at the beginning of the book because they didn’t have any investment in each other whatsoever, at that point.
A: Right. I would save that big, big one, the one that would’ve broken them apart at the beginning of the book, that’s your third one.
R: Well, I mean, the thing that would’ve broken them earlier is smaller than the thing that would break them later, so—
A: Depending on how you do it! Depending on how you do it, yeah.
A: But you sort of ramp up to bigger and bigger challenges. And you make them do things for each other that they definitely would not have done at the beginning of the book.
A: And then toward the three-quarter point, you have some huge test. That is about, either—that does require some huge personal change that would have been, again, unthinkable at the beginning of the book. Then, from there, you’re pretty much good. Usually at some point in the book, before that, you have them kiss.
R: Accidentally or otherwise.
A: Accidentally or otherwise, or maybe they’re in an alley and they have to kiss to avert suspicion so that they don’t get caught spying on things. That’s one of my favorites, too.
A: And also it’s best, depending on the characters, they might talk about it or they might not. They might make assumptions about what they think the relationship is like or they might talk it out. If they talk it out, then usually there’s going to be some kind of, again, an obstacle, either an emotional one or an external one. They’re going to say something like, “I am deeply attracted to you, but here are the reasons we can’t be together: our families hate each other; or I’m not interested in having a relationship with anyone right now; or you’re super hot, but I don’t like that you are the person who you are.” Whatever, whatever. There’s a million reasons and they’re going to be unique to your characters anyway.
And then, so you have the big, big crisis moment towards the three-quarter point of the book, and from there, if you’re writing science fiction and fantasy then you’re gonna spend the rest of the time resolving your plot. And if you’re writing romance, then you’re going to be in the denouement by that point and you’re going to be wrapping up the actual relationship.
R: So, when you get to this crisis point and, as you’ve said, it’s unique to your characters and their situation, but what is it that is the crisis? Like is it some—If their complaints against each other were internal at first, is the crisis where they accept the internal, but now that there’s some sort of external that’s forcing them, that they’re facing a crisis with? Or is it not quite shifting poles at that point?
A: So a big crisis. This is sort of like the long, dark night of the soul. This is—I think there’s a technical term for it in the romance studies community and for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is—
R: But it’s kind of the all-is-lost moment, like if we don’t fix this?
A: Yeah! The all-is-lost moment, right. And in romance novels, specifically, I see this a lot of times as: we think the relationship is over. We think that the big,terrible thing has happened and has broken us apart. The thing that we were afraid of at the beginning, or the thing that would have shattered us at the beginning, happened and did shatter us. And because, again, we’re talking about momentum.
I didn’t realize that there was gonna be this much physics in this episode, Rekka. Yet here we are. Because relationships are all about psychics.
A: So there’s the explosion between them, and that pushes the two bodies in space apart, but then the gravitational pull is strong enough that, even though they’re being forced apart, they slow down and then they’re drawn back together. So I’m going to use an example from two romance authors who I like quite a lot. One of them is K.J. Charles and the other one is Alexis Hall. Alexis Hall—fantastic writer, first of all. I binged like five of his books in one weekend. And, binging five of his books in one weekend, I noticed that he has a pattern of he really likes his crisis points to be a huge, not quite miscommunication, because they’re not miscommunicating about anything. It’s one person being just a dick and saying something thoughtless and stupid and, usually, they haven’t noticed that their own internal values have shifted and changed and so they’re saying something that betrays how they thought at the beginning of the book—
A: —and they haven’t quite realized that that’s not their actual real opinion anymore.
R: Okay, that’s interesting.
A: Yeah, it is! Alexis Hall loves doing this. Alexis Hall does this in almost every book. So they say this thing which is petty and thoughtless and not actually aligned with their real values and the relationship is broken apart. The other person storms out of the room says, “How can you say this? How can you think this?” and they leave and oh no, it’s over. And then the first person has to confront the fact that, “Oh shit. I said that, but I didn’t mean it,” and—
R: And it’s only at that moment that they realize that they’ve been changing this whole time.
A: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And then—So that’s a really good way to do it. Miscommunication, like more classic miscommunication, is also a good way to do it. Where you misunderstand something that someone has said or you hear a voicemail or see a text from someone and it’s really affectionate. Who is this person? And it turns out, oh it’s just their brother.
R: Yeah, or grandma.
A: Not actually their lover. Or grandma or whoever, yeah. And so it’s this moment of thinking that all is lost and confronting the fact that you care so much about this person that it can hurt you so badly. And then doing the hard thing and putting aside your pride and your ego to reach out and succumb to the gravitational pull and admit that there’s something between you and want to fix whatever is wrong or explain yourself or have that really deep, important, honest conversation.
R: With the risk—because you think you’ve ended everything—with the risk that you’re going to be rejected again.
A: Yes, exactly. Exactly. The way that K.J. Charles does this—K.J. Charles has a more spectrum of varieties of ways to do this—one of the most recent K.J. Charles books that I read was Band Sinister which was fantastic! And in that, the problem is an external—Well, it’s a little bit of an external obstacle comes and crushes them, but also a little bit of an internal one as well. Because the external one is this family thing and also like an economic and class difference kind of issue. And the internal one is one person dealing with this external problem and the other person having this moment of frustration and, “Why can’t you just deal with it in this other way? Why are you choosing to deal with it that way?”
A: Like, “Why are you being the way that you are?”
R: “Why are you letting other people dictate to you what we do?” That sort of thing.
A: Yeah, exactly. And the first person saying, “You can’t ask me to change in this way. I’m always going to be acting like this. You have to accept this about me.” And the other person storming off in a huff.
R: And the first person, as we mentioned, realizing, “Wait, no. I’m not always going to be like this? Because now I regret that.”
A: Well, actually, in Band Sinister—spoilers, spoilers, spoilers—But in Band Sinister, it’s kind of, it’s that this person, Person A, is behaving kindly to someone who absolutely would deserve them being a little bit more of a dick.
A: And Person B going, “Why don’t you just be a dick to them?” And Person A saying, “That’s not me! I’m always going to be a kind and good person. That’s important to me. I’m not gonna just be a dick.”
R: Okay, so in this case we don’t want them to not be a kind and good person.
A: Yeah, exactly. I’m not going to just be a dick to this person because you think that I should be a dick to them. And it’s just as important, I think, to show someone sticking to their guns in a romance novel, you know?
R: Right. That’s that moral core we were talking about before.
A: Yeah, one hundred percent. And so they break apart and they have this moment of, “This is terrible, we really wanted to be together,” and then, coming back—Person B comes back and says, “You know what, you were right and I really value that thing about you. And here are some other solutions that I have that can fix the root of this problem. Rather than addressing the symptoms.”
R: Okay, all right. So I’m thinking about your tropetastic book.
A: Okay. I’m always thinking about my tropetastic book.
R: Yes! I read this about a month—today is the anniversary of the day I finished it, one month ago.
R: So, as we record, it’s still pretty fresh. So the pair in your book, their major crisis seems to be that they get what they want, but they don’t think it’s what the other one wants.
A: Yeah, the major crisis in that is that—it’s an external crisis. It’s that they have gotten their hands on this one thing—Okay, actually it’s an internal one as well. So the internal obstacle, crisis, that they have to overcome is that they can’t admit that this person is the one thing that they want in the whole world. They’re having trouble getting to the point of admitting to themselves that they’re in love. And then the external thing is reputation and family and we can’t be together because of, again, class differences, kinds of things.
A: And we certainly can’t have the relationship that we have right now. We’re gonna have to give up this relationship, reform in a different relationship, and go from there. Even though this current relationship is the one that we really, really want. And one of them has this dark moment of the soul, where he is realizing that he is going to die. He’s not going to survive this. And he doesn’t—And he says, explicitly, he doesn’t mean this as a literal death. He means this as the Tarot card Death, which represents change. Like, catastrophic change. Where if he, being the person who lives through this thing that he’s about to live through, means that he will be fundamentally changed as a person. He will not be the same person, who lives through that, as the person who is standing here now. And he realizes, also, that the person standing here now is not the same person who was standing there a month and a half ago, because that person is dead, too.
A: And he has this big moment of, like, self-grief that he’s going to have to cope with this and live through this. And who is he going to be on the other side of this? So that’s kind of his dark moment of the soul, is accepting his own “death” in terms of metaphorical, figurative death. And then the other character doesn’t have quite as much of a long, dark night of the soul because—
R: His social stakes are lower, maybe?
A: His social stakes are a little bit lower and also he has anxiety and so he’s been having a long, dark night of the soul the whole time?
R, laughing: That’s true, yes.
A: And, well, he does have a small one where they’re on the verge of changing the relationship that they have and he stays up all night with an anxiety attack, thinking about how selfish he is that he’s putting this off and how he’s going to have to accept it. And he doesn’t think about it in the same way that the first one does because he’s so used to catastrophizing about things anyway. Because anxiety.
R: Right. Yeah, I was just gonna say: as anxiety does.
A: Yes, as anxiety does. Yeah, so the moment—Oh, wait no! His long, dark night of the soul is more like five minutes… less than that. Thirty seconds. Because it comes upon him, where he realizes that the relationship change is going to be forced upon him, and rejects it immediately. And it’s right at the end of the book when his sister is showing him the picture.
A: And so he is looking at this painting of something mysterious and looks over at his love interest and realizes, “I can’t go through with this. I have to keep him, no matter what.” So his long, dark night of the soul lasts like five seconds. Then he rejects it immediately and acts to fix it. Which is a huge moment of personal character growth, too, because he has had trouble acting and and fixing things and making decisions for himself and wanting things that are just his.
R: Right. And that comes out of his role within his family and his class. Is what his role has been has not been to put himself first.
A: Right, exactly. He is a person who makes so many sacrifices and who is very much used to living in a context of not thinking about himself and his wants as a priority. And so in this situation he absolutely does have to think selfishly, for once. Which is healthy for him, is the thing.
R: And finally does and that’s how you get your big moment of, of—
A: Yes! Triumph!
R: —these two have finally come together.
A: Correct, yes.
R: All right. And there’s still a little bit of putting up the classic resistance that they’d been using, up to that point, the external, like, outward-facing resistance of, “Well we really shouldn’t do this. We really shouldn’t do this,” but you can see that that resistance has already crumbled, they just haven’t accepted it yet.
A: Right, right.
R: So, what I’ve been wondering, as we’ve been talking, is how do you do this with one POV versus writing it with two POVs?
A: So I like doing it with two points of view because you can switch back and forth between them, and you can show each person’s individual emotional arc and the things that they’re dealing with and the things about themselves that need to change. Because, again, going back to doing personal growth and changing yourself to fit with another person. With a single point of view, it can be a lot harder and you have to do a lot more clueing and also—So I’m thinking, specifically, of Captive Prince. Have you read Captive Prince?
R: I have not.
A: You should read Captive Prince! It’s great.
A: So, in Captive Prince, it is definitely—the romance relationship is one of the through lines of the series, and it’s one of the major focuses of the book. It does it with just one point of view characters and he is, he’s terribly smart, but he’s an unreliable narrator because he has biased opinions about how his romantic partner is, as a person. Also his romantic partner, as a person, is very much a Slytherin and does a lot of disguising himself and keeping himself blocked off and pulling away and not giving any of himself to the people around him.
So the issue there is that you have to—the reader has to understand what’s going on with both of them. That’s the challenge. Is that the reader has to recognize what struggles the non-point of view character is going through and what the point of view character is going through. You have to do this by not… So, you have to make the reader understand without—
R: So it’s almost a bit of foreshadowing, right? Because you have to foreshadow it and then confirm it with a big reveal that is inevitable, but up to that point you think this person’s being a jerk or you think this person’s a criminal, or whatever.
A: Yeah, sorta. You have to make the reader understand without making your point of view character understand.
R: Right, yeah, that’s kind of what I mean.
A: Yeah, yeah. Because they have to go through their whole emotional arc and if they understand things too early, then that’s gonna affect them. But the reader has to understand. So in Captive Prince, I think it takes like partway through the second book before the point of view character starts—Well, the point of view character starts being sort of vaguely sympathetic towards the end of the first book. Or at least starting to understand in a more intellectual kind of way why this person is the way that they are. I don’t know why I’m not using their names. So Daemon is the point of view character, Laurent is the other, non-point of view character. I’ve just been reading a lot of Captive Prince fanfic this week, so it’s kind of on my mind.
A: But it’s the perfect example of doing a romance with just one point of view character. Because Damen misses so much and so much just goes over his head. And Laurent is very much a subtle person who drops a lot of clues about what is happening and his personal, tragic past and so forth. Damen just misses all of them because Damen is a very straightforward kind of person and doesn’t expect Laurent to be dropping hints, in this way. So the reader picks up the hints, but Damen absolutely does not.
R: And, for the reader, the fact that your POV character’s not picking up the hints, matches what they know about that POV character.
A: Yes, yes.
R: Yeah. Because I’m just trying to think of how you balance—In the double POV, where you get to see both sides of this relationship in “real-time” as they’re each struggling their way through it, you get to play off: this person thinks this and this person thinks this, and the reader’s the only one that knows they’re having this misunderstanding.
R: Versus the single POV where you’re following what, in theory, would sort of be your sympathetic arc, but you can see that they’re wrong but you don’t know the entire truth on the other side.
A: Yeah, yeah. That self-discovery—or the discovery of the other, the non-point of view character, is part of the emotional arc, yeah.
R: And so, would you say that picking which way you wanna do it has as much to do with how you wanna challenge yourself to write it, as it does what’s appropriate for the—if there’s another plot going on in the story?
A: Oh, absolutely!
R: ‘Cause, as you mentioned, this one’s an arc about something else, over the series.
A: Yeah, absolutely. They’re definitely two very different challenges. I really like digging into characters and getting in deep about who they are. And so I like doing the two point of view. I think that I would find it really challenging to do a one point of view. Unless I was doing it in first person, but that’s a whole other thing! That’s a whole other story. Yeah. Because you have to have a really, really tight control over—You both have to understand what is going on with this other point of view character and you have to have a super-tight control over your point of view character to pull that off.
A: And you have to understand exactly where they’re going to have epiphanies about this other person and what things they’re going to miss or misconstrue or ignore, because that happens, too. Yeah, so they’re definitely both very, very different challenges.
R: I’m reminded of writing mystery. You have to place your red herrings, you have to place your clues. You have to have the real and then the moment and then the climax at the end where they finally catch the killer or, you know, catch the significant other.
A: Yes! Yes, one hundred percent. Writing a one point of view romance is very, very, very much like writing a mystery. Yes.
R: All right, now I understand it! I can think about the plot as a mystery! That actually fits. All right, cool. So we’re at about an hour and I don’t wanna keep you because you’re having a big day, as we mentioned at the beginning.
A: I am having a big day!
R: You have a cover reveal and I’m sure your editor is going, “Why aren’t you answering my text messages?” So is there anything else that you would wanna say to cap off this concept of writing, bringing two people together emotionally, binding them forever and ever until the stars collide?
A: Yeah! An interesting thought that I have is that you can use the romance emotional arc structure for relationships that are not romantic at all. Like, I could very easily write an Enemies to Friends book—and have!—which involves this kind of relationship testing, and choosing to build this relationship together. This is absolutely something that works, regardless of whether they actually end up kissing.
R: So kissing: not required.
A: But highly recommended! You know! [laughs]
R: Challenge yourself and try it out.
A: Yeah, yeah. For sure.
R: Congratulations, again, and thank you again for spending a very, otherwise exciting day coming onto our podcast and explaining how to make people kiss.
A: Yay. Thank you so much, Rekka!
R: Thank you!
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R: Thanks, everyone, for joining us for another episode of We Make Books. If you have any questions that you want answered in future episodes, or just have questions in general, remember you can find us on Twitter @wmbcast, same for Instagram, or wmbcast.com. If you find value in the content that we provide, we would really appreciate your support at Patreon.com/wmbcast. If you can’t provide financial support, we totally understand.
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