5 Huge Mistakes Ruining the Romantic Relationships in Your Book

5 Huge Mistakes Ruining the Romantic Relationships in Your Book

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a serious problem with romantic relationships in literature nowadays.

And worse, this issue seems to be overlooked by the large majority of writers — until it’s too late, that is.

The problem: The unrealistic and unhealthy portrayal of romantic relationships.

There. I said it and now people can take notice because yes, there is a serious lack of realism when it comes to the romantic relationships in books..

Authors are writing relationships that are meant to be exciting and intense, but their execution of those couples can be flawed in sometimes very harmful, although unintentional ways.

There’s nothing wrong with writing romance. In fact, adding a romantic relationship to your book can do it some good. The dynamic of love can:

  • Up the stakes
  • Make readers more emotionally invested in the characters
  • Create contrast in emotions, adding to the coveted “roller coaster” of emotions
  • Give your readers another reason to root for your main character

All of these powerful elements can make your book a lot better, but only if you can create a relationship that isn’t problematic for the readers.

Which means you’ll want to avoid these mistakes many writers might not even realize they’re making when it comes to the romantic relationships in their stories.

1. Glamorizing abuse

This might be the biggest, most overlooked issue in books. There are way too many authors writing abusive relationships and passing them off as romantic, particularly in the young adult genre, though this can be seen in all types of books.

If you’re not sure what this looks like, it’s when writers portray abuse as love.

They write about a person being overly jealous and verbally abusive to their partner and have the main character justify it by narrating that the other person “just can’t live with the thought of losing” them. So the main character is written as seeing this abuse as true love.

This romanticization of abuse is simply harmful to anyone reading it. Young people might turn to books when it comes to learning about romance. If they don’t have a healthy relationship to learn from in real life, they might think the relationships in books is how it’s supposed to be.

Therefore, they accept abuse and pass it off as the person just “caring about them too much” because that’s what they’ve seen in their favorite books.

In order to avoid these types of mistakes, make sure your relationships are written consensually. Think about how you’d feel and act given the situation you’re putting your characters in.

A general rule is, if you’d be appalled by someone being treated that way in real life, it’s not right.

2. Instant romances

Think about the romantic relationships you’ve been in or have seen around you. How often do you hear two people locking eyes across a restaurant and falling madly and immediately in love with one another?

Not often. Because it’s not realistic, and that’s not the way love works.

For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it’s just as it sounds. An instant romance is when two people meet and are in “love” and in a committed relationship instantly. Or within a very, very short amount of time, which is not remotely accurate.

However, there are many novelists who write romances this way with the intention of creating an intense moment, but it sends a very harmful message to young readers and  takes away from the realism in your book.

You can write intensity without making your characters be “in love” right off the bat.

Relationships take time. You have to get to know one another first, build the chemistry and allow that spark to ignite before you can begin that romantic journey.

Why should your book characters be any different?

If you want the relationship to be realistic and keep your readers fully immersed in it, you have to give it the appropriate amount of time to grow and evolve.

3. Making a single person passive in the relationship

Relationships aren’t about one person seizing control of the other and making all the choices.

Both people should be equally as active in the ongoings of the partnership. Because it’s just that — a partnership.

This makes it a little concerning when writers make a single person who just goes with the flow and doesn’t really care about much. This person doesn’t initiate anything, make any choices for the sake of the relationship and when going gets tough, they sit back and let the other person do everything.

This is both unrealistic and just plain boring. It doesn’t add anything interesting to the dynamic of the relationship and readers won’t root for them.

Make sure you’re writing a romantic relationship between two people, not between a person and a passive robot.

4. Writing relationships without commonalities

If two people are in a relationship, they should have things in common. They don’t need to both like the same food, movies, books and activities, but they should have similarities at their core.

If you have two characters who are moral opposites and don’t share the same values, your readers are going to question why they’re together in the first place.

And if you can’t really answer why they’re together other than the fact that they need to be for plot reasons, you’ll have to do some adjusting. Characters can’t just be involved for the sake of the story’s conflict.

If those two people need to be in a relationship for your plot to work, then you need to put just as much effort into their dynamic as a couple as you do for the entire plot.

Otherwise, the plot won’t matter because readers won’t care about the relationship.

5. Never allowing for vulnerability

In order for your characters to bond on a deep enough level for love to be in the air, some vulnerability needs to happen. They need to open up to each other and express more emotions than lust and longing.

How else will they be able to grow closer? Allowing for moments of vulnerability shows their weaknesses. Not only will this be important for crafting a stronger emotional connection between characters, it’ll also help your readers connect with them more.

Here are a few ways you can create some vulnerability:

  • Have one character get injured
  • Create conflict involving something one is particularly sensitive about
  • Make a character break down from the stress of your plot
  • Have them share secrets

Even strong, tough characters need moments of vulnerability and weakness. Not only does this make the relationship stronger, your readers will also like the character a lot more because they’ll be able to relate. Two birds, one stone.

Adding romantic relationships to your novel can up the stakes, add a layer of interest and give your audience all the lovey-dovey feels, but in order to have those effects take hold, you’ll need to write them correctly.

And writing them correctly means avoiding these mistakes that can take your fictional relationship from realistically impactful to harmfully impactful.

Are there any mistakes you’ve noticed other authors making when it comes to romantic relationships in books and what tips do you have for writers trying to avoid these pitfalls?

Filed Under: Craft
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14 comments

  • Such a great article! I really liked how you pointed out that while writing we should think about if we, in our own lives, would tolerate certain behaviors from others.

  • I have girlfriends who go through strings of bad relationships. Your list makes me think of the choices they keep making.

    They are physically aroused by a hot guy and when he responds they think he’s The One.

    They think his jerky and controlling behaviors are cute.

    They have nothing at all in common.

    They become emotionally vulnerable after moving in together. If then.

    If you read romances like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, the stories are interesting because they don’t do the “love at sight” and other nonsense this article mentions.

    • Bella says:

      Hi Rachel!

      Yeah, sometimes our friends can make poor decisions in relationships. Personally, I used to settle for AWFUL relationships – because I read WAY too many YA books as an early teen that taught me those types of relationships were “great” and “normal.”

      Hopefully, this article can help people bring back the right types of relationships!

    • Ruchama says:

      I fell in love with Mr. Rochester myself when I was about 15 and saw the film with Orson Wells as Rochester and then read the book. However, after reading the book several times as well as reading some critical articles, I find Rochester-Eyre romance troubling. He shows little or no empathy and only seems fit to marry anyone when he becomes blind and helpless. Not a good romantic relationship model.

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    “…The large majority of writers…” That bad?

    I must say I neither read nor write much romance, except incidentally in novels focussed on other things. I must also say I did not realize novels, particularly YA, which I both read and write, could be THAT influential, and that readers took them so seriously.

    Clearly, such flawed YA novels are popular, and therefore ‘successful’ in the limited commercial sense. But that does not justify them. An author can, and sometimes should, break any or all five rules, but portray the sad outcomes accurately.

    • Bella says:

      Hi John!

      YES, YA books are SUPER influential on young readers. I, myself, was one of them. These tips apply to all genres featuring a relationship in some form, too, not just romance.

      As far as breaking the rules, they absolutely can be broken. If they’re narrated as being WRONG, it’s totally fine. Horrible, unhealthy and abusive relationships can definitely be written but the point is that they’re portrayed as such. If you’re writing about someone physically abusing their partner and claiming they just got mad cuz they “love them so much” and there are no repercussions, that’s a problem because it’s sending the message that it’s okay to be abused and it just means your partner loves you.

      Thanks so much for your input! It can be easy to overlook the fact that young teenagers are VERY impressionable and if they don’t have a healthy relationship to look up to (as I didn’t) it can be very harmful to them.

  • When I drafted my first suspense novel, my husband helped me craft the plot, which was a blast. We had so much fun doing it. Then he goes, “We need a love interest.” I created a new character, and the whole book changed, from a suspense to a suspense/romance, with romance being a component of the story. That aspect helped me layer in higher stakes and deeper POV. HOWEVER…since I didn’t read the romance genre per se, I had to give myself a crash course on writing it. My local chapter of RWA is helping me do that. I joined up and learned a whole new world of writing! Plus these people are so much fun! They are helping me craft my romance. (Just learned about heat levels. Wow, and WOW). Thank you for this article, really helped me!

  • A great post. There is romance to some extent in all my books, so far. This is a greatbhelp. Thank you.

  • Great tips Bella. In old movies you always saw abuse being portrayed as love. The hero put some sense in the heroine by a few choice slaps and she fell in love. This attitude led to acceptance of abuse by women of that generation and their daughters and sons who saw acceptance of this abuse and considered it normative.

  • Tanya Goffy says:

    Thank you for the passive robot part! I’m writing a mystery, not romance, so I’m unsure of how to write a Watson-holmesisn relationship without one being passive…

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