Character transformation is important in all fiction, although some genres are more plot-focused, where external stakes & plot gyrations take center stage. And sometimes, protagonists doesn’t arc a tremendous amount—they mostly have to be smarter, tougher, more reckless, or have more endurance than the bad guys.
But romance is all about well, the romance. Which means character.
Romance readers are character hounds. Seriously. They hunt down great characters. Ignore that at your peril.
But great characters aren’t enough. Romance readers want their leap-off-the-page characters to be twined together with an equally powerful romantic story.
It’s hard work!
In romance, you want amazing characters, powerful romantic conflict, and big arcs of change for every (or at least one!) romantic lead.
I want to break out three simple, powerful strategies to give your story nice, big juicy arcs & storylines that center the romance.
You’re probably already doing a lot of this, but my hope is that these strategies give you a useful reframe of some tried and true techniques, & maybe spark your creativity.
1) Don’t plot plot; plot character tests
In a romance, the story is all about arcs. It’s about the characters(s) transforming in service of the romance.
Obviously, this transformation serves them personally too, because (one hopes) they become a better, more complete person as a result of the change.
But in a romance, the reason they change, the thing that triggers their change & motivates their actions (especially later in the story) is the other romantic lead(s).
So when you’re thinking of plot points and where your story should go next, don’t just think, “Hmmm, what can happen here?”
Think: What could happen here that will test my character & force a change?
What sorts of change am I talking about?
You’re looking for change in three areas:
- Change in their core beliefs about the world (and themselves)
- Change in the way they ‘do’ emotions
- Change in their behaviors
You want to be testing & challenging your romantic leads’ core beliefs. Find 3 core beliefs each lead had about the world or themselves (anything from “He who has the most toys wins” to “I’m unlovable.”)
Now brainstorm plot events that will smash up against those beliefs and either reinforce them (for a time) or require your protagonist to reassess.
Force your romantic leads to experience emotions they don’t want to/aren’t used to. How? Engineer situations where their usual M.O. doesn’t work, where their ‘superpowers’ fail. ‘Trap’ them in situations they usually avoid, situations they don’t want to be in, and force them to experience the resulting emotions.
Authors often give their characters a lot of ‘outs’. We’re pretty darn creative at it, actually. Characters go to sleep, or the phone suddenly rings, or someone walks in, or a hundred other things occur that are nothing but ‘escape hatches’ for emotional intensity. Stop that! Put your characters in hot water and turn up the heat. Watch their emotional barometer go off the charts and ask yourself: what would they do now?? This is what readers want to see, and it’s what will force them to change.
Force them into moments that require choices—maybe spur of the moment choices–about what’s right, about what truly matters. Show how their choices change over the course of the story.
Big or small, you want situations that offer them opportunities to act (or not act, which is, of course, an act). As the story progresses, have their actions change. When plotting, focus on how any particular plot event is going to demand/offer a moment of decision, wherein they can do something…or not.
In short, transforming your characters means pushing them way out of their comfort zone.
In a romance, guess who’s usually doing the pushing?
Yep. The other romantic lead.
2) Romantic leads push each other out of their comfort zones
Make your romantic leads cause plot twists & character tests for each other.
There are loads of ways to do this, but one often-overlooked strategy is to assign plot-important tasks/roles to the other romantic lead(s), rather than minor secondary characters.
Of course, sometimes that’s not going to work. So when you can’t have the romantic leads cause or trigger a those plot twists/character tests, make sure they’re adding obstacles to the ones that have already happened…or adding unexpected solutions!
Basically, have the other romantic lead make the reversal/twist worse…or better.
Make them either stand in the way of the other person accomplishing a goal, or let them be the secret sauce to solving it. i.e. They have some knowledge, skills, access, or resource the other person needs to achieve their goal.
If the latter, remember: they don’t have to be happy about it! The ‘unwilling allies’ set-up is super fun in romance.
The heroine whose plane is grounded and now needs a ride to get to an all-important job interview on the west coast doesn’t want to take a three-day road trip with the hero, but if it’s the only way to get there, well…
This is a super common (& powerful) romance set-up, but don’t limit yourself to using it only early in your story. Try using it later too, when the world is hitting hard, and the only (unexpected, possibly unwelcome) respite comes from the least likely source…the other romantic lead.
3) Make the romantic development incremental
You have to show incremental change or the reader won’t believe in their Happily Ever After/Happily For Now ending.
I don’t necessarily mean gradual change, although it can be. I mean the change should be incremental and inevitable.
You can’t just have people argue for 220 pages, or be suspicious of each other, or act in ways that cause mistrust or anger, then boom, at 90%, they’re suddenly happy together.
Readers won’t believe it. They shouldn’t believe it.
So, what’s the best way to do incremental, inevitable change, where one things leads to the next, always escalating, always centering the romance?
That’s what turning points are for!
There are generally several places in the ‘big story’ where the protagonist changes in big, significant ways. These ‘turns’ happens at a scene level too, and while we won’t have time to get into that here, know this: every scene must ‘turn’ the story and make it different than it was before.
The ‘big story’ turning points happen at about 25%, 50%, and 75%.
Ensure that at each one of these points, your romantic leads change in some fundamental way(s).
- They think something they wouldn’t have before, &/or;
- They feel something they haven’t before &/or;
- They do something they wouldn’t/couldn’t have before.
These moments (25%, 50%, 75%) are basically more explosive ‘big bangs’ of what we talked about in #1: character tests (aka: plot twists) that force them (allow them??) to change in fundamental ways—beliefs, emotions, and actions.
These changes occurs in relation to:
- The other romantic lead(s);
- Their external story goal
Do this and you’ll keep readers glued to their seat, flipping pages.
Connect with Kris
I hope these techniques & reframes help! I love talking story with writers, so if you run into problems or have questions, feel free to drop me a line at [email protected]. And I hope to see you in my upcoming Keys To Romance Fiction class here at Savvy Authors!
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- Check out her author websites too!
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