Look, in a single book, there’s only so much time that two character has to fall in love with each other. Books take place in a single time-frame, and often, it’s one that spans days, weeks, or maybe months. Rarely years. Even Wheel of Time, a massive fourteen-book series, only takes place over the course of two years. It makes relationships somewhat difficult to cultivate with any credibility. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well.
Instalove is plot device. It begins with two characters meeting each other and immediately fall in love with them. Usually, there is something that keeps the two characters from becoming a couple at the beginning. Secrets are most common, as the unearthing of that secret serves the function of “getting to know” the love interest. Propriety is often another. Regardless, even before the two characters become a couple, it is usually made obvious that they are going to end up with one another by the end of the book. Some event occurs, breaking down their inhibitions, and once they are together, they are considered soulmates and often go to extremes to protect their love interest.
Exactly how the instalove plays out can vary dramatically, most importantly in the rate at which the romance progresses. It can take all book for the characters to finally act on their feelings, or they might be a couple be the end of the first act. Instalove’s defining feature, rather, is the presupposition that infatuation is enough to drive a romance, and does not give its characters nearly enough time to get to know each other before they are willing to go to those extremes for the other person.
Considering we’ll be talking about romance plots/subplots below, it’s only fair to issue my standard warning: spoilers abound.
Perhaps one of the most infamous examples, Bella Swan falls in love with Edward almost instantaneously. He, too, finds himself inexplicably drawn to her. When she finds out he is a vampire, they continue to play cat and mouse from the “danger” of being together, but Bella is more than happy to take that risk, and Edward himself goes out of his way to be overly protective of her. Eventually, she is nearly killed because of it, and only Edward’s quick thinking is able to save her. They don’t spend time getting to know each other; the only thing important for the narrative is that she knows he’s a vampire. All of this takes place in a three-month period.
As a fairy-tale retelling, it’s no wonder that the Lunar Chronicles have several instalove relationships. Kai and Cinder, the primary couple, have only have a few short interactions with each other. Yet, when he must decide if he can trust her or not, Kai is certain that Cinder is a good person. Their relationship is more rocky and uncertain than most, but by the end of the series, they’re still dating one another.
Shadow and Bone.
Alina’s feelings for the Darkling are inexplicable and tied to their opposing magics. While they do not end up together–quite the opposite, actually–it’s worth noting that she did internally explore her feelings for the Darkling. They had no connection besides their magic, but Alina very nearly lost her true romantic partner because she got swept away by the Darkling.
The Goose Girl.
Ani meets her love interest rather late in the narrative, but both of them fall in love with a lie. Ani, a princess whose name has been stolen by her lady in waiting, has hidden as a goose girl to keep herself safe while she plans out her next move. Geric, the prince she was betrothed to in an arranged marriage, first meets Ani while she’s tending to her geese, and pretends to be the prince’s guard. They do get to know each other somewhat, but it isn’t until the very end of the book that their identities are revealed to one another. The lies play no role on their romance, and they are still more than happy to get married to each other.
Wheel of Time.
While the series does not put instalove as a focal subplot, Wheel of Time is still guilty of the trope primarily in that it does not give the budding romance enough page time to warrant characters’ feelings. However amazing Nynaeve is when it comes to her relationship with Lan, the foundations of their love happened off page, and thus makes it seem they fell in love too quickly to be believable. Thom and Moiraine are two other such characters.
A Matter of Pace
Love at first sight is a problematic concept when it comes to story-telling because it is not a romantic, long-term emotion that the characters are feeling in those first moments. Rather, they’re experiencing infatuation, an emotion that burns hot and can pass as quickly as it arrived. That’s not to say that it cannot develop into something more long-term; of course it can.
Crossing the line that turns a crush into a romantic relationship usually involves a single, intimate moment in which some major secret is revealed. The secret is such a major part of the love interest’s identity that having it laid bare, to be known and accepted by the other character, suddenly makes them feel like they can trust each other completely, and thus they become a couple. This can be seen in Twilight, when Edward is willing to breach his idea of propriety once Bella admits to knowing he’s a vampire and not caring a single iota.
In The Goose Girl, Ani and Geric both spend some time together and get to know each other to a certain extent. They share experiences with an untamable horse, he brings her books, they talk. Their feelings for each other are founded on common interests and understanding, to some capacity, the conflicts they’ve both dealt with. However, their lies are not revealed until the finale, and they do not talk to each other about how those lies might have affected their relationship.
Moreso, both Twilight and The Goose Girl stumble in two key areas. In both books, the characters are insanely protective of each other before any stable connection has been forged. The female protagonists finds themselves put in danger, and the love interest goes crazy with the need to get them safe. The protagonists in turn act the same, showing their intense loyalty and love one way or another–in Ani’s case, using her magic to save Geric, and in Bella’s case, wandering the woods aimlessly when Edward leaves her. And, in both books, this intense feeling of “love” is also pressuposed to be enough for the couple to get married and live happily ever after.
Instalove as Foundations for Lasting Romances
Cultivating believable romances, as I said earlier, takes time… time that may need to be used for the main plot or character arcs or a dozen other things that are required to make a decent story. Getting the characters in the same room, giving them a reason to like another character, and then allowing that relationship to bloom may be a bit difficult to make realistic when, in the real world, true love doesn’t happen every day.
It’s possible to use the tools that insta-love provides to hurry up the meeting process, but it can only be half the journey. Fantasy allows for supernatural forces to help bring two characters together. The nature of Alina’s and the Darkling’s magic are polar ends of a magnet, drawing the two of them together, aided by the fact that it’s clear Alina does not actually love the Darkling. And whatever she felt for the Darkling, Alina grew from the experience, as a person, a friend, and love interest to Mal.
Likewise, the concept of fate or divine intervention can pull two people together. Lan and Nynaeve were brought together by the Pattern–Wheel of Time’s concept of destiny–when Moiraine brought Lan to Nynaeve’s village in search for the Dragon Reborn. The Pattern did not need the two of them to become a couple, but swept away as they were in the ta’veren nature of the three Emond’s Field boys, it gave them the chance to get to know each other and to fall in love, however hesitantly on Lan’s behalf.
Insta-love provides two avenues for success. The first is that it does not, ultimately, work out. That’s not to say the two don’t end on good terms. They just realize that their feelings were somewhat superficial, and that at a more long-term level, they just weren’t meant for each other. This option is not a very popular choice, as readers can often feel like they’ve been cheated out of a payoff. But break-ups are far more common than finding one’s soulmate in the first person they fall in love with, and there’s nothing wrong with our literature reflecting that. If they do break up, however, especially in the middle of the book, understand that readers will expect them to kiss and make up, and it’ll need to be made clear if that is not in the realm of possibility for the characters.
The second route is to pay more attention to the relationship. It’s not enough for the love interest to reciprocate the feelings just because the protagonist has a crush on them. What values they share, what sense of humor they have, what they’re looking for in a romantic partner should all be considered when developing the love interest and the relationship you’re trying to cultivate. Even if the reader really only sees them bonding first-hand in a few quiet scenes, added with the implication that the bonding continues as the journey progresses, even if the reader can’t always see it, will make it far more believable should they end up getting their happily ever after at the end.
If you wish to write a less conventional romance, it’s also worth contemplating the idea of taking out a romance subplot completely. Established relationships are rarely utilized, despite getting most of the hard work out of the way already. Additionally, friendship subplots are just as rare and wholesome as established relationships, and can provide a nice reprieve for the reader. Friendships often last longer than your average relationship, and are just as important. Or, if you want a romantic subplot, at the very least recognize that your readers will be less incredulous of the implied happily ever after if the couple see each other as friends as well as lovers.