There are many types of relationships a character can pursue during the course of a novel. Oftentimes, they tend to be more romantic pursuits than platonic, as romance is seen having higher stakes with a higher payout than anything platonic. While I would highly discourage the concept that the only worthwhile relationship is the romantic one, if you would like to pursue the traditional romantic route, there are generally four different romance subplots you can follow. Knowing which direction you intend to go will allow you to better tailor the love interest for the main character.
1: Love Triangles
Oh, what’s not to love about love triangles… If you’ve seen them once you’ve seen them half a hundred times. Usually, the protagonist (female) will find herself in a situation where, for reasons unknown, two boys cannot help but fall in love with her. Quite frequently, the two boys are on opposing sides, but almost always, they’re complete opposites from one another. One is dark and brooding, the other is kind and beautiful. The often-unacknowledged beauty of a love triangle, however, is not really in the way it makes the female protagonist seem likeable and special, because it should not fall to the boys to determine her worth. In truth, a love triangle is essentially just the opposite of soulmates, because it reminds the reader that you can connect with different people over different things, and one is not more real than the other.
One of the best examples of a love triangle I’ve ever seen belongs to the Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare. I think in large part the reason it works so well is that all three characters are connected by some form of relationship, but the one that connects Jem and Will is an impossibly strong best-friend relationship known in their world as parabatai. As friends, the two boys balance out the faults of the other. Will is rash but also fiercely loyal, which Tessa finds herself drawn to. He loves her because she’s read all the books that he loves, except I think one that she reads because he suggests it to her. Jem is quiet and considerate, yet passionate for his family. He loves her because she is incredibly kind and selfless. And Tessa loves him too. It wasn’t just that Tessa had to choose who she loved best; the two parabatai also sacrificed their own happiness at one point or another, wishing only to give their friend a chance at happiness.
If you want to write a love triangle, it’s first imperative to avoid any cliché characters. It’s not a simple recipe of “one bad boy,” “one good guy” and “one girl with self-esteem issues.” Know what it is that each character likes about the other. They don’t all have to be involved in some sort of relationship or another, but keep in mind what everybody brings to the table. And remember, the main character doesn’t necessarily have to choose either boy by the end of the story. Sometimes you just have to walk away completely.
2: Do They/Don’t They?
These plots generally present two characters who feel some form of immediate attraction towards the other while likewise presenting some major conflict that makes them hesitate to act on their feelings. The dividing line may be that they’re technically on opposite sides of some political conflict, or they worry that acting on their feelings will be a distraction from the important task at hand. Whatever it is, there’s some ethical wedge keeping them apart.
One of the most admirable examples of this type of subplot can be found in Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Its main cast is comprised of six characters, all of whom have a love interest pairing within the group itself. Kaz and Inej are a perfect example of the do they/don’t they trope. Their characters are never sacrificed to play into the romance–the two are always cool and collected, guarded yet also clearly care for the other–and it makes the conflict work well. Their dubious ethics make them great at the job they do, but also acts as a barrier for this type of happiness.
If you’re going to follow the do they/don’t they romance model, make sure that whatever it is that keeps them apart is a legitimate reason. Better yet, the character traits that help or hurt them with the main plot is also what makes it so difficult for them to act on their feelings. In that way, you connect the main plot with the subplot, and the story as a whole will feel more unified.
3: Short-Lived Romance
The short-lived romance is one in which the main character and their love interest really hit things off, but by the end of the novel, it’s become pretty apparent that they don’t belong with each other. This romance plot is, I think, grievously underutilized, especially when we’re talking about young adult fiction, where the main characters are too young to be making big life choices such as “who do I consider to be my soulmate?” The characters in question may still have feelings for each other by the end, but there’s some dividing line between them that simply cannot be overcome. June and Day in the Legends trilogy almost complete this romantic subplot, except they wind back up together in the end.
Instead, an even better example of this type of romance can be found in Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue. The titular character is a queen who, tired of being stuck in her castle all day, sneaks out at night to learn more about her people, and winds up bumping into a character named Saf, and his buddy, Teddy. They have some really interesting chemistry, but for at least half of the novel, Saf and Teddy don’t know Bitterblue is a queen; they think she just works in the castle as a baker girl. While they do reconcile before the end of the book, they do not end up in a romantic relationship. Bitterblue has a kingdom to run, and Saf is not to be some peasant-turned-prince. Although that was the relationship that the book was building towards, the author deftly drops it, weaving throughout the narrative a secondary, potential partner that Bitterblue may in the future choose to marry.
The key to using this form of romance is making it clear, either slowly throughout the book or perhaps in one big epiphany, that the two characters do not belong with one another. The most satisfactory versions may include a reconciliation at the end, but only if the pacing allows for it. The above example would have fallen much flatter if, in an epilogue, the two characters bumped into each other one again and made up, as if it was an afterthought.
4: Happily Ever After
This model is the most traditional out of all four. The protagonist meets her love interest, and throughout the course of the novel realizes that she’s fallen in love with the other character, and by the end, they’re officially together. The two characters parallel each other nicely, and theoretically, this is a person they can be happy with for the rest of their lives.
One of my favorite romances of all time is found in Fire, again by Kristin Cashore. It is something of a love-to-hate romance, as Fire’s love interest, Brigan, thinks she is everything wrong with the world. Once Lady Fire’s caretaker secretly reveals to Brigan one great sacrifice she had done in the past, however, he begins being kind to her. Throughout the novel, their interactions and conversations lead Fire to realizing that she actually has feelings for Brigan, and eventually it becomes clear that the feelings have become mutual. Two things made the romance work especially well: first, her long-term relationship with Archer made for a good contrast to the relationship Fire ends up having with Brigan. Secondly, the book weaves through subtle hints that Fire has always been somewhat enamored with Prince Brigan, if from afar, hinting that she committed her secret deed to protect Brigan’s life.
Out of all of the different tropes, this one is overtaken with clichés, especially ones whose “happily ever afters” are assumed after only a short period of knowing each other. They work best if a length of time is established. Perhaps the main characters knew each other (or knew of each other) before the book, and its subsequent romance, began. Or perhaps the end of the book does not necessarily wind up with them together, but suggests that a happily ever after is very likely. Disney movies may have given us unrealistic expectations about how quickly one might fall in love, but as even the most recent Disney movies suggest, quick love doesn’t usually result in long-term love.
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Which romance model is your favorite to read or to write? What’s the best romance (subplot or otherwise) you’ve ever read, and which model did it follow?