Writing Romance: Avoid These 5 Mistakes When Crafting Relationships

Writing Romance: Avoid These 5 Mistakes When Crafting Relationships

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 help you write a good story. 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

Pitfalls to watch out for when writing romance

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.

Here are a few traps to avoid when writing romance.

1. Glamorizing abuse

This might be the biggest, most overlooked issue in books. Way too many authors are 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 conflict in a story.

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

5. Never allowing for vulnerability

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.

What have you found works for you when writing romance in fiction?

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Filed Under: Craft


  • Ruchama says:

    I have to agree with you that it can be detrimental to promulgate the idea of love at first sight. In my community’s experience there are a lot of single men in their 40’s who are waiting to feel that “lightning strike” of love at first sight. They reject women without getting to know them because they don’t immediately feel what they call “love at first sight.” It’s probably actually “lust at first sight.” And one problem is that a man in his 40’s is just not going to get the same thrill looking at a possible mate as he did when he was in this 20’s. So they keep looking and talking about how lonely they are and how they want to start a family but…..

  • Koji says:

    Perhaps it is not believable, but that was not the point of the article- the point was that writing it is harmful because it makes people go out and try to get a relationship that doesn’t exist, often settling for mediocre or bad relationships instead.

    So, believably aside (which I would argue instant romances can be written with layers and complexity that make them believable), I still disagree with the idea that expressing instant relationships as one possibility is harmful.

    again, it might be over-represented, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to drop it.

  • melissa clarke says:

    I agree with some of your comments, but i also think your missing the point of a romance. It’s fiction. We’re not talking Non-fiction. Superman flying around the world isn’t very realistic either. Do you think woman are waiting to actually be rescued by him? Or do you think maybe it’s more of how parents nurture and raise their children to believe in themselves in their gifts that teach them how to persue love. I could see the point if you were talking about NonFicton, but again, this is fiction.
    Oh, and also. That instant love connection that happens in an instant does exsist. I know because the moment my soul mate and i met it was love at first site. 17 years later still tells me to the detail our first encounter. From the puffy sleeve poet shirt i was wearing to the clip i wore in my hair. There was no one from else for either of us from the day we met. That you don’t believe in that kinda of love actually makes me sad for you. Your encouraging others to not believe it i find irritating. There are many magical things in this world, if only we open ourselves to them. I wish you growth in this area.

  • Koji Daggett says:

    I would actually disagree that “instant romances” are not realistic. Uncommon, maybe, but they can be just as valid as a slow burning relationship.

    My husband and I met at summer camp as volunteers. We “zapped” on our first interaction and were inseparable after that. A month later we moved in together and four months later got married. We just celebrated our five year anniversary this January.

    Some relationships are instant. These also deserve representation.

    Instant relationships are perhaps over represented. But please don’t invalidate the real relationships by calling this impossible or unrealistic.

    • Ruchama says:

      My parents met on a blind date. Before the evening was over my father was indicating they would be together. They were engaged three days later; married a month later and loved each other passionately until he died. My mother never recovered from his death. So yes, it’s possible. However, I believe in the old adage: truth is stranger than fiction. Just because something really happens, does not make it a believable story.

  • Bobby Paul Allen says:

    i’m working on a fantasy/scifi adventure that play with the idea of ‘love at first site’?
    the idea i’m trying to portray is ‘should it be’?
    the characters will fall in love…eventually?
    but the question asked is, is it because they love one another?
    or is it because of the psychic bond they now share
    my idea is they first are facinated? but then are like.
    ‘why am i turning my life upside down?’ followed immediately by ‘what if it’s just this weird sensation?’ followed by ‘do i really want to see where this is going?’
    ending with the bond actually being fed by real feelings for one another.

    what do you think of these ideas?

  • 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…

  • 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.

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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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