How to Craft Romantic Chemistry Between Characters
As both a reader and a writer, I am a big fan of romance.
I love the unique tension and allure that exists within a love story, the will-they-or-won’t-they mystery that leads to such great page-turning material. But that material can’t exist without strong romantic chemistry between the characters in question (as evidenced by many a lackluster rom-com, right?). And unfortunately, chemistry isn’t exactly easy to define or to craft.
Though I don’t write within the romance genre myself, romantic subplots are a staple in my personal brand of storytelling. So today, I’m going to share with you everything I’ve learned about crafting romantic chemistry readers can believe in.
But what exactly is romantic chemistry?
To craft a believable romance, it's important to first define what romantic chemistry is. Or rather, what it isn't.
Romantic chemistry isn't physical attraction. Just because two people are physically interested in one another doesn’t mean that romance will blossom between them. However, an immediate physical attraction can encourage people to get to know one another better (no innuendo intended — wink!). This, in turn, can lead to a deeper attraction that may result in romance.
It’s important to note this difference between romantic chemistry and physical attraction for several reasons. Firstly, conflating these two types of attraction erases the existence of asexual people, many of whom feel romantic attraction despite a lack of sexual desire. For asexual people (and even some sexual people), romantic chemistry can exist without physical attraction.
Secondly, relying solely on physical attraction to build romantic chemistry between characters will always result in a shallow, lackluster love story. People don’t fall in love simply because they find one another sexy. That’s lust. And while lust can lead to a similar will-they-or-won’t-they tension and erotic passion, it doesn’t make for a love story. Not on its own.
So what is romantic chemistry?
We’ve all heard romantic chemistry defined as a “spark” between two people, and this definition isn’t wrong. Romantic chemistry is an energetic exchange between people that indicates that romance could exist between them.
Like all relational chemistry, a key ingredient in romantic chemistry is attraction, the pull that interests one person in another. But the types of attraction that create romantic interest will vary from person to person. In fact, there are four main types of attraction that you can use to craft a romantic profile for your characters. Let’s take a look:
Physical Attraction: a desire to touch and be touched by another person, often in a sexual manner.
Intellectual Attraction: a desire to engage with someone due to their intellect and/or interests.
Social Attraction: a desire to interact with someone because of their social aptitude; their confidence, humor, ambition, likability, and/or particular social personality traits.
Emotional Attraction: a desire to connect with someone on a spiritual level, an attraction often prompted by a person’s emotional capacity, attitude, beliefs, or shared experiences.
On their own, each type of attraction can lead to great platonic relationships. But because romantic relationships are so intimate, romantic chemistry typically can’t exist without the presence of two or more of these types of attraction, with emotional attraction often being essential.
How can you use this knowledge to craft believable romantic chemistry?
You know how enamored partners often refer to one another as their “better half?” Well, it’s time to kick this phrase out of your vocabulary. To craft believable romantic chemistry between characters, you must first craft believable characters. Ones that aren’t merely half of a love story but that are whole and complex creatures in their own right.
A lack of believable romantic chemistry exists when readers don’t understand why two people would be attracted to one another. In these cases, authors likely spent more time worrying over their romance than their romantic chemistry, crafting a piece with all the hallmarks of a love story that fails to create a foundation for love to blossom.
To avoid this misstep, it’s vital to craft fully-realized characters that can exist outside the confines of your plot. When you do, you’re able to define what each character would believably find attractive in a romantic partner, then continue to shape your characters into a great romantic pairing.
To do so, you might find it helpful to first identify the general type of love story you want to tell or the particular bond you wish to create between your love interests. This will allow you to craft characters that are best suited to your story and to one another without sacrificing genuine characterization and romantic chemistry.
For example, let’s say you want to write a rags-to-riches romance. A cash-strapped young woman meets a wealthy rockstar. They fall in love and get married. She’s no longer poor. Happily-ever-after. Sound good? Now let’s take a look at how you can use this foundation to develop whole and complex characters, beginning with your rockstar.
What could lend a little depth and nuance to this one-dimensional character? Perhaps your rockstar is disillusioned with the wealth and fame he’s experienced.
When he first began his career, he thought money and attention would fill the emptiness left behind by a traumatic and unstable childhood.
But when success only leaves him more lonely and depressed, it’s a shared cab ride with one particular young woman that turns his world upside down. It’s not long before he’s hopelessly attracted to her down-to-earth attitude and appreciation for life’s simple pleasures.
Your romantic storyline certainly doesn’t have to mimic a Hallmark movie as closely as this example. But can you see how easy it is to craft genuine romantic attraction when you first develop your character as an individual? In just a few short lines, I defined our rockstar’s lifestyle, world-view, notable backstory, and the lie he believes.
Knowing all of this, it wasn’t difficult to determine what he might genuinely find attractive in another person. And from here, I can continue to deepen his characterization, internal arc, and romantic storyline.
If I were to repeat this process with our rockstar’s love interest, I’d be sure to develop a character that found him equally attractive because of her unique characterization. In fact, let’s go ahead and do that.
So our young woman is down-to-earth and appreciates life’s simple pleasures. But who is she as a person?
Well, perhaps she enjoys the simple things because she was raised by a single mother who lived paycheck to paycheck. Despite this, her mother made sure to create special moments with her daughter, especially in the kitchen.
As an adult, our young woman now loves to bake. In fact, she even runs a bakery out of her kitchen. But the business is falling on hard times because she’s too reserved to seek out catering gigs and vendor opportunities at local events.
But then she meets the rockstar. He’s grumbling and groaning about his dissatisfaction with his career. But when she asks him why he got started with music in the first place, she’s inspired by (and attracted to) his passion and ambition — something she also sees within herself.
Again, see how easy it is to develop a genuine spark between characters when you first consider who they are as individuals?
As you craft your own characters and the romantic chemistry they share…
Remember to bear in mind the four types of attraction that can combine to create the spark that readers are looking for: physical, intellectual, social, and emotional. Great chemistry can exist with two or more of these types of attraction, so long as your characters find one another attractive in the ways that are most important to them.
Take special care to show this attraction playing out on the page rather than telling readers what you want them to think or feel. The growing depth of your characters’ connection should be evident in the ease and comfort that develops between them; in the ways that they feel seen, known, and understood; and in the joy (or challenge!) they find in being in one another’s presence.
Earlier this week, I read an excellent article written by K.M. Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors on crafting chemistry between characters in any sort of relationship: friends, enemies, lovers, and beyond. And I love what Weiland says about how you’ll know you’ve built believable chemistry between your characters:
“ [Stories with great character chemistry are] the ones where you just can’t wait for two particular characters (whether they’re romantic or not) to get together on stage because you know the results are going to be electric. ”
The love interests in your stories should always be complete and complex characters in their own right, and developing them first as individuals can help you craft genuine attraction between them. But when your characters’ shared scenes are some of the most dynamic and engaging to write and read, you’ll know you’ve created romantic chemistry your readers can believe in.