One of The Beatles’ most famous song lyrics tells us, “All you need is love, love is all you need,” but sometimes love is exactly what a story doesn’t need.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not denigrating the concept of romance in fiction. Over the course of penning more than thirty novels, I’ve written more than my share of romantic subplots. Romance is, at its heart, one of the key drivers of stories of all genres. It springs from the nature of human relationships, which are central to most narratives. Romance novels comprise the majority of the best-selling titles of all time.
Romance is a good thing.
If Your Characters Resist Romance, Don’t Force It
That being said, not every story is well-suited to incorporating a romantic subplot for its principal characters. I learned this the hard way while writing — or, to be more precise, while rewriting — my new World War II-era fantasy novel, The Midnight Front.
In its original incarnation, as well as through two of its subsequent versions, The Midnight Front contained an awkward romantic subplot linking its male and female lead characters, Cade and Anja. I had intended for there to be a strong vibe between these two characters, almost a dangerous attraction between people who might in other circumstances have been enemies. As I tried to execute that idea in my manuscript, however, it kept hitting obstacles.
The Best-Planned Lays of Mice & Men…
My first draft overplayed the attraction between Cade and Anja. I had intended for her to be someone who could intimidate Cade, and I didn’t want her to reciprocate his infatuation too quickly. After all, I thought, characters should have to earn a good romance. I did my best to create a veneer of conflict between them while also planting the seeds of a future romance.
In the middle of the book I had their romantic subplot blossom in the aftermath of a great trauma. However, the needs of my story also dictated that this coupling, and the feelings of vulnerability that would emerge from it, would drive Anja away from her allies and set her on her own path to self-discovery. During her time alone she would experience feelings of regret for having left Cade behind.
In the outline all of that had made perfect sense. Sharing extreme experiences often helps bond people and can lead to heightened feelings of attraction and connection.
Imagine then, my surprise, when it all seemed to backfire at the manuscript stage.
No Sex, Please, We Hate Each Other
As I read through the first draft and compiled feedback from my beta readers, agent, and editor, I realized that my romantic subplot for Cade and Anja had done my female lead a massive disservice. I had made too much of her character development contingent upon her relationship with Cade, and making her flee from that connection—and then pine over it after the fact—made her seem weak.
The relationship also had not sparked enough action, reaction, or change in my male lead. The outcome of their romance didn’t feel any more germane to his journey than it did to hers. In short, their romance hadn’t done either of them any good, and it wasn’t helping the story.
During the last major rewrite of the novel, I transformed their relationship from one of attraction to one of bitter rivalry and antagonism. The moment I did that, their dynamic came into focus.
There’s Nothing Wrong With the Friend Zone
Cade and Anja had never been meant for love at first sight. Cade and Anja were destined to be competitors for the attention and approval of their shared master in the art of magic, like two adopted children both vying to be the parent’s favorite.
Instead of using hostility to mask affection, Anja now owns her feelings. She treats Cade with hostility because that’s how she really feels. She resents him, his advantages, his privilege, his arrogance, and most of all his bond with the man she has come to see as a surrogate father. When she breaks away from her allies it is not a reaction to vulnerability but because she has reached a breaking point in what she considers an emotional betrayal on Cade’s behalf.
After my revisions were done, I saw a new path for Cade and Anja. Their journey in book one is about learning first how to be allies, and then how to be friends. That’s a foundation on which a future romance can be built in books two and beyond.
Making lovers out of bitter rivals is hard, but as a Rodgers & Hart lyric once said, “the world discovers / as my book ends / how to make two lovers / of friends.”