Writing Excuses Season Two Episode Nine: Romance
Key points: Start with characterization. Fulfill the fantasy of what romance should be like. Tie the conflicts together — internal development, romance, plot/setting, theme. Make every character the star of their own story. Romance is terrifying, and people stumble through it — write it that way. Be terrified.
[Brandon] And I’m back. Yeah.
[Motley group] Yeah.
15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we are not that smart.
I’m Brandon, I’m Dan, I’m Howard, and I’m Dave.
[Brandon] Yes. Today we have special guest star David Farland/David Wolverton/David Farland/Dave Wolverton…
[Dave] Stop slashing me.
[Brandon] He’s a very special guest star because Dan and I and our producer Jordo were all three in his class at BYU five years ago and now Dan and I are both published full time writers so Dave probably told us…
[Dan] He claims all the credit for it, too.
[Dave] That’s right, I raised them from puppies.
[Brandon] So we’re going to spend three podcasts here listening to the wisdom of Dave because he really does know an awful lot about this. This podcast we’re going to talk about romance — how to write romantic fiction.
[Howard] Oh dear.
[Uncertain] Howard’s specialty.
[Brandon] Howard, we’re going to start with you.
[Howard] How do I write romance?
[Brandon] Do you try to be truthful to the way life really is like or do you try to give people what they feel like they want to see with romance or do you walk a line between…
[Howard] I got an e-mail from a guy a while back who said, “I’m sorry. I have to stop reading your comic because I cannot for one more minute believe in a world where a woman who has had her sights set on one man would suddenly change your mind and pursue another man instead.” I just said, “Oh, sorry to have lost you.” I try and write like I remember dating being — which is miserable.
[Brandon] Okay. So you try and write the brutal truth…
[Dan] Which is you being left [inaudible] go after other guys.
[Brandon] Wait a minute. In your comic, didn’t she leave the tall, strong leader of the crew for the kind of short, little bit overweight bald guy?
[Dan] The computer savvy mad scientist? With glasses?
[Howard] She did, and I get accused of Mary Sue-ing that a lot. I assure you that’s not the case.
[Brandon] Dan? Romance?
[Dan] Romance. Well, you know, writing horror… I try to always keep my characters in the teeth as much as possible and so… I think a lot of romance is wish fulfillment and should be a little unrealistic because I think actual romance in most cases is a little unrealistic so it can often be, you know, “oh I can’t believe this is working,” and then of course it doesn’t work out in the end because this is a horror book.
[Brandon] Dave, how do you approach romance in your books?
[Dave] The first thing that I worry about is characterization. I always look at my characters and my goal…
[Dan] Oh sure, give a real answer.
[Dave] is to make the audience feel in love with that character. In other words, it doesn’t work unless you fall in love with the person. So you know… a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were watching a movie and I went upstairs and started going to bed and she said, you know, aren’t you going to stay and watch this? I said, you know, I don’t really like that lady, and I don’t care if she dies alone.
[Laughter] What show was this?
[Uncertain] The news.
[Dave] I can’t remember. It was just some romance movie that just was not working because the lady was just such a loudmouth and so into herself that it just didn’t work. So I look at that. But as far as… I agree with Dan, romance shouldn’t necessarily be realistic, at least when you’re dealing with, you know, the feelings within the characters. I mean, you know, a lot of what this is about… there are those guys, the rare guys, that, you know, put your name up on the screen at the football game and, you know, ask to marry you or come up with some… and nowadays it’s becoming far more common for kids to say man if I get into this date, what are we going to do, so, yeah, I work at trying to fulfill any woman’s fantasy of what the romance should be like.
[Brandon] When I was writing my very first few books — ones that never got published and never should be published — I had a lot of trouble writing the female protagonists. I think I may have talked about this in a podcast before. The reason being is — I later realized — I was putting characters into the book simply to fill the role of romantic interest. I think this would’ve been a recipe for failure if I’d been doing it either with guys or with girls. But with me being a guy, I was putting the women in to be fallen in love with. And it was terrible. It was dreadful. The characters were really, really flat characters. And I think that for me, what Dave said is really important for me. Make them characters first. If the reader likes both of them a whole lot, there will be a natural desire for them to get together. In fact, you’ve already got something working for you, by giving a viewpoint to one character and a viewpoint to another character. Simply because of the viewpoint characters, readers are going to want them to get together. And if you don’t screw it up, it’ll probably be okay. It’s not going to be the best romance, but it’s going to be okay if they like both of them.
[Brandon] But what makes romance work in books? What makes it… when you read the book or you read the story where you’re reading the comic, what just makes you say, “Wow, I love this story.” We’re wanting to tell compelling stories — what makes it compelling?
[Howard] It comes back to… it always comes back down to identifying with the characters and either agreeing with the point of view they’ve adopted or disagreeing but understanding why you disagree with it. It feels like it makes sense, it doesn’t feel forced, it doesn’t feel like the plot is driving it. It doesn’t feel like these people have to fall in love because, well, he’s the male whose viewpoint we’re getting and she’s the female whose viewpoint we’re getting…
[Brandon] And see, that’s taking it too… more than just not screwing up, how do you do it well rather than just not screw it up.
[Dave] You have to have something that drives the two apart at some point. Whether it’s family matters or religious differences or feeling like we’re not have the same social class or something. There has to be something tearing them apart, but there also has to be, generally speaking, some other attraction. A woman who has two or three options, especially if she’s trying to settle between two guys, there’s that…
[Howard] The classic love triangle.
[Dave] The classic love triangle.
[Dan] It’s a lot like trying to plot a mystery. If there’s only one obvious suspect, no one is going to care about how your mystery ends, and a love story is the same way.
[Brandon] Well, yes [garbled] which character A walks on stage and then character B walks on and they say, “Oh, I want them to fall in love with this person.”
[Dave] That’s part of the fantasy, too. I want to recognize immediately when I fall in love so I don’t have to go through all of that beating your head…
[Brandon] To say what’s good… to give a thumbs-up to Dan… in a mystery we know what we want to happen. We want the mystery to get solved. And the bumps along the way are, “oh no, they’re not going to solve it.” In the same way, a romantic plot is we know we want these two to hook up together — oh no, they’re doing what we don’t want them to, conflict.
[Dave] Very often, there’s a question of identity too. If you’ve got a young man, for example, and a woman who’s falling in love with him and the father is saying, “don’t marry him, he’s from a bad family. All those McCoys are jerks, we’ve been shooting them for 100 years.” And she says, “yes, father, but it’s time for us Hatfields to end this war.” There’s that question of who this character really is on the inside that has to be discovered through the ongoing plot. And I think that as authors very often we just want to make them characters for each other to fall in love with and we don’t really take the time to have the fun with the character and start discovering who this guy really is and what’s his internal landscape, what’s he like when you get to really get to know him deep down — and that’s when you should fall in love with him.
[Dan] I would further add to that watching those characters become better than they were at the beginning is what’s going to make you fall in love with them.
[Dave] It’s when that guy makes that decision — or the girl — makes the decision that I’m going to be a better person, I’m going to be different from what I was or from what other people take me as.
[Brandon] This gets back to what we’ve mentioned a lot which is tying the conflicts together. Not just the romance, it’s the internal development of the character tied to the romance hopefully tied somehow to the plot or the setting as well so that we get all three working together. Complain that you will about this person, but Terry Goodkind actually did a really good job of this in Wizards First Rule where he tied the romance between the main characters to the magic system and it was the magic that was keeping them apart. And when they figured out how to make the magic work in the right way, it kind of came together in a climax which removed the barriers between them. It was a fantastic climax to a book. Everything came together really well for that because of how tied together they were.
[Dave] Can I take it one step further? Tie together your plot, your setting, your characters, and your theme. Tie them all together as one little bundle, and that’s when it really pulls off, I think.
[Howard] Store it as a can of worms, but what’s a theme?
[Dan] Can of Worms.
[Brandon] We’ll talk about theme later.
[Howard] I haven’t been in one of Dave’s classes before.
[Brandon] Well, we can’t have you on the podcast.
[Brandon] I’ve said it before. Stories are about promises and fulfilling those promises, sometimes in unexpected ways. I think this works for romance too. Different types of romantic plots can be the — he sees her, she sees him, we know they’re bound to get together — that’s a promise, and we’re going to fulfill it. You don’t actually have to have them end up together, but if you’re going to fulfill that promise in a different way, it better be just like the mystery, it better be fulfilled in a way, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming, but this is way better.” Some romantic comedies may actually pull this off, give you a big majestic red herring.
[Dan] Some of them do, and it’s very hard. I think because it’s so common that at this point you can look at the underdog that she obviously will never end up with and go, “Well, naturally.” It can be done.
[Brandon] It can be done. While You Were Sleeping is a classic example of the bait and switch — the promise is fulfilled in a way that says this is better off.
[Brandon] What’s the difference between a romantic story and a romance? Is there a difference?
[Howard] oh yes.
[Dan] Favio is on the cover.
[Brandon] What’s the Difference?
[Howard] The glistening, shirtless man on the cover is appearing in a romance.
[Brandon] You mean Jordo?
[Howard] Oh dear.
[Dan] That is one of the most horrifying things…
[Howard] When I think of a romantic story, I love the works of Lois McMaster Bujold because she weaves the romances into the science fiction setting.
[Brandon] What’s the difference between that and a romance?
[Howard] The difference is that I care about the characters and the plot instead of just… the action, the crisis… the crisis goes beyond their personal lives, their romance.
[Brandon] Okay. Anything else on this?
[Dave] I would say that every story aims at generating an emotion and if you’re trying to write say fantasy than that emotion typically is going to be wonder so that might take a little bit of precedence over the romance angle. A romance story is a story that aims primarily at arousing romantic feelings and therefore maybe the setting isn’t as important or a magic system is completely unneeded because that’s not what we’re doing here.
[Brandon] Last question. Do you approach writing females and males differently in romantic situations and how do you approach this difference — without getting us killed by our female listeners.
[Dan] Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I do it well.
[Brandon] Okay, what do you try to do, then?
[Dan] Boy. What I have learned is first of all I am just not very good at writing from a female perspective. And second of all — it goes back to what you said at the beginning, that if the girl is only in there so she can fall in love with the hero, it’s gonna be obvious. And the way to write the girl so that she works is to just really let her be the star of her own story. Make her a full-fledged character who may or may not end up with the guy and has all of her own concerns and her own things going on and then if that works, hurray.
[Brandon] Would you say that women worry more about relationships than guys do, or not?
[Dan] I think guys do as well, just in very different ways.
[Brandon] Okay, how do they do it differently?
[Dan] Oh. Now you’re putting me on the spot.
[Brandon] Anyone want to answer that? Is there a different approach to doing this for males and females?
[Dave] I think there is. If I’m dealing with a female character, and I’m working at building a romance, I tend to have her maybe fantasize about the relationship — think about it a little bit more than the men do. I think that I probably do that because as a male you are often taught to just sort of wing it… you are, you’re on a date and you’re winging it half the time. And very often when I was out on dates, I would find that the women had been plotting for days or weeks as to what we were going to do and you better darn well fulfill my fantasies or live up to them or whatever.
[Howard] There is a conflict you can write right there. She’s got a fantasy about how the date’s going to go and he’s winging it. For the men in the audience, “Yeah, looks like he’s doing pretty well.” For the women,oh no, he [garbled] this thing into the mountain about 20 minutes ago.
[Dan] One thing I do do — I mentioned before we started this podcast that I was just working on a romantic chapter of my book today — one of the tricks that I use — maybe this is reading too much of my own life into it — is that I really make the guys a little more oblivious about the whole thing — that they will kind of pine after a girl without really taking any steps in that direction. They think they’re not good enough, or they think that she probably already has a boyfriend anyway because she’s so pretty and things like that that I think are more in line with how guys in my experience tend to think about women.
[Dave] Not just pretty. If they’re talented and smart, they’re also intimidating. You put the whole package together, women are downright terrifying.
[Howard] That’s a great note to end the podcast on.
[Brandon] If there’s anything to say, that would be it. But I was going to say, the whole process is terrifying, generally, to all parties involved and that’s something to remember. There are very few people who actually think they are good at this. There are a lot of people who act like they think they are good at this, but very few who actually believe it. And write it that way. It comes out better. People stumble through these things. It never works out the way you expect it to. And that’s good for writing because it keeps the conflict moving. All right. Any last words? Be terrified.
[Dan] Writing Prompt: your main character walks into a room and sees three people whom he or she could end up with and you don’t know which one it will be at this point.
Current Mood: romantic
Current Music: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Leann Rimes