Creating Romance Characters Readers Will Fall in Love With
Love stories are nothing without great characters.
In romance, if the characters are dull and unrelatable, what do you have? A guy with a big bookstore emailing a lady with a little bookstore? People practicing their embroidery in parlors? Two people debating male/female friendships for like a decade?
We read romance to fall in love with the characters and cheer for their relationship. Plot matters, but getting emotionally invested in these fictional human beings is the whole point.
If you write romance, you’ve got to know how to write complex, engaging characters with relationships that get those hearts thumping. A lot of pressure, but you can handle it. You’re about to learn:
- The process for creating complex characters
- How to build great character arcs
- How to craft your love interests for maximum romantic tension
- Common mistakes to look out for
- Tips for creating your supporting cast
Let’s get this party started.
Creating Compelling Characters
The rules for writing great characters are the same in every genre. That means there’s already a wealth of information in DabbleU to help you write riveting romance characters.
Our focus in this article will be on how you can use the ingredients that make up any compelling character to enhance the romantic tension in your love story.
Your love interests are about to get a lot of attention. But that doesn’t mean your supporting characters don’t matter. We’ll bring them into the party later. For now, let’s flesh out your lovers.
Developing Character Goals
Your romance novel might feature one protagonist, in which case their love interest is a secondary character. Or maybe your romance features two protagonists, giving each lover’s story and perspective equal weight.
Either way, there’s something you should know.
The love interest is always an antagonist.
I bring this up now because we’re talking about goals, and the antagonist’s entire job is to get in the way of your protagonist’s goal.
Sometimes they do this by having their own opposing goal. You see this a lot in enemies-to-lovers romances. They’re going after the same promotion or one wants to build a subdivision on the other’s goat farm… that kind of thing.
Other times, the love interest’s mere existence makes them an antagonist. Falling in love with them would seriously interfere with your main character’s career goals or commitment to bachelorhood.
So to get the maximum romance potential out of your character’s goals, ask yourself questions like:
- How can the love interest get in the way of their objective?
- What deeper need do they have that they can’t see because of their goal?
- How will their relationship with the love interest reveal that need?
- What do they believe they’d risk by falling in love with this person?
Now, to really sell this dynamic to your readers, you’ll need to pair your characters’ goals with solid motivations.
Understanding Character Motivation
A goal is what your character wants. Their motivation is why they want it.
In Before I Let Go, Josiah’s goal is to maintain an emotional distance from his ex-wife Yasmen, even as they co-parent and run a business together. Why? Because she broke his heart when she asked for a divorce and he doesn’t want to get hurt again.
Character motivation often looks like that: self-protection rooted in a traumatizing backstory.
Motivation can come from a happy place, too. Josiah is also motivated to make this emotionally disconnected co-parenting thing work because he loves his kids with every inch of his soul.
But when it comes to your character’s dogged determination to resist the beautiful relationship that’s available to them, the underlying motivation is probably fear-based. At our core, we’re all twitchy prehistoric squirrels trying to guard our nuts and stay alive.
Character motivation is crucial because it helps your reader connect to the story emotionally and understand the terrible decisions your characters make. And when you’re writing romance, motivation is extra important because, as Gwen Hayes puts it, these characters “must be unable to stop themselves from falling in love.”
Your challenge as romance author is to make that gravitational pull too powerful to overcome while also giving your characters a really compelling reason to fight it.
That brings us to:
Creating Believable Character Backstories
Your character’s backstory includes all the life experiences that have made them who they are when your story begins. As you create your lovebirds, you want to consider things like:
- Family dynamics in childhood
- Cultural and religious influences
- Economic class
- Social situation (Did they have friends? Did they feel like an outsider?)
- Physical environment
- Physical ability
Let these details inform everything from the way your characters speak to what they believe.
Your love interests’ backstory should also include a Ghost (also known as a Wound). This is a traumatic experience that haunts them and makes them resist the thing they need most. (Which is love because this is a romance.)
For a masterclass in backstory, check out Giving Your Characters a Compelling Backstory.
Weaving in Flaws and Weaknesses
Every character in your romance must be flawed, especially the lovers.
We think of romances as aspirational, and in many ways they are. It’s also really important that you make these characters lovable and give the protagonist(s) a Save the Cat moment. But you don’t want to idealize the love interests to the point of perfection.
Perfection isn’t sexy. It’s dull, predictable, and makes it really hard to work compelling conflict into the plot.
So give them some flaws and make sure one or two of those flaws is something they’ll actually have to apologize for at some point. After all, your romance characters have to grow.
Don’t hesitate when it comes to weaknesses, either. Show us the moments when these people struggle to find strength so they’re all the more heroic when they conquer their shortcomings.
Layering Character Traits
Finally, when you’re creating any character, you want to think in layers. By that I mean:
What would a stranger notice about this person when they first meet? What would they notice about their physical appearance, voice, and mannerisms? What assumptions do people make about them?
How about close friends and family? What information are they privy to? Which habits, ambitions, fears, and pet peeves are only known to your character’s inner circle?
What traits do they try to keep totally private? Do they have any dreams, fears, or resentments they’d never say out loud? Any bad habits, guilty pleasures, or dark secrets?
These layers make your characters feel more realistic and give you the opportunity to play with perception. Do any of the traits a stranger would notice hint at what’s happening beneath the surface?
Plus, your story’s love interest should have the unique ability to see the protagonist for who they truly are. Might as well figure out what that means.
Building Character Arcs
A character arc is your character’s journey of growth. They start out with one perspective, confront challenges that force them to face their fears and weaknesses, then ultimately change for the better.
(Unless you’re writing a negative arc where the character changes for the worse, but that’s not really a thing in romance novels.)
The Importance of Character Arcs
The arc matters in romance because this is the “love conquers all” bit.
Your love interests know that the easiest, safest, most comfortable option is to not be together. In fact, they can’t have a relationship until they acknowledge their shortcomings and face their fears. Choosing love means choosing to change, and the part of the story when they decide it’s worth it… that’s what your reader is here for.
So how do you make it all play out in the swooniest possible way?
Crafting Compelling Character Arcs
One of the best ways to craft a compelling arc is to nail your story structure. Your main character’s inner journey of transformation should naturally follow the outer journey.
To see what I mean, check out our character arc template, which follows the three-act structure. You’ll also want to check out this romance beat sheet to make sure your protagonist’s growth progresses alongside their love story.
In the meantime, the short version is this:
- Your love interests meet at a time when the last thing they want to do is fall in love.
- Circumstances keep drawing them together, and that proximity creates greater conflict.
- Ultimately, that conflict forces them to make a choice: choose the relationship (which means having to change) or reject the relationship and maintain the safe-and-cozy status quo.
At least one of your love interests will make the wrong choice at first. This will probably make the other one feel ultra vulnerable, freak out, and make their own wrong choice in response.
Either way, whichever one is in the wrong is going to have to make a fearless grand gesture that demonstrates their growth and delivers the mandatory HEA (happily ever after).
Crafting Dynamic Romantic Relationships
Now for the big question: how do we make sure readers want to see this romantic relationship succeed?
And how do we get those same readers to worry that it’ll never happen?
Building Romantic Tension Through Character Relationships
As you create your characters’ relationship, ask yourself things like:
- How does each character inspire or motivate the other to be a better, happier person?
- In what ways do their backgrounds make it possible for them to connect on a deeper level?
- How does each character’s personality or perspective trigger fear in the other?
- Can you mine conflict from their conflicting goals, motivations, or perspectives?
You have to pull off a tricky balance when you write romance. In the first half of the book, you need to establish that their connection is so life-changing they can never go back to the way things were.
But you also have to make the conflict compelling enough that your reader understands why it takes so friggin’ long for these people to solidify their relationship.
Let’s look at how you can master that depending on the type of romance you’re writing.
Tips by the Trope
Here are some questions to ask yourself when developing love interests for these popular romance tropes:
Enemies to Lovers (They hate each other. Then they don’t.)
- How might their differences actually challenge one another to be better?
- What do they unexpectedly have in common?
- How could a revealed backstory change the way they see one another?
Friends to Lovers (They never saw each other “like that” until…)
- What do they understand about one another that no one else does?
- How has their shared history shaped who they are now?
- What do they think they want? What will it take for them to see that their perfect romance has been in front of them this whole time?
Starcrossed Lovers (They’d be all-in if it weren’t for…)
- It’d be easier to give up on this relationship. Why can’t they?
- What does each person risk by staying together? What must they sacrifice?
Second Chance (They tried it and it was a disaster. But now…)
- How has each person changed because of their break-up?
- What will it take to repair what was broken?
- How will their future relationship be better because of what they’ve been through?
Love Triangle (Two equally qualified love interests. What’s a protagonist to do?)
- What qualities do each of the love interests bring out in the protagonist?
- How do these two relationships influence the main character’s sense of identity?
Instalove (They’re immediately all-in, but then…)
- These characters are probably at their absolute best when they fall in love. What does that look like?
- What hidden flaws surface as the story unfolds? How do those flaws feed the other character’s fears?
Writing Believable Dialogue
We’ve got all kinds of tips and tricks for writing realistic dialogue, and you can find them here.
But one thing that’s extra tricky when you write romance is coming up with swoony dialogue that feels true to the character. You can’t always have your love interests declaring their ardent admiration and love, Darcy-style.
Instead, you have to figure out how your character would express things like “I love you” and “you’re hot.” These tips on refining your character’s voices will help you find the right words.
The nice thing is that when you take the time to flesh out your characters, your readers will fall in love with them, too. As a result, their honest confessions of love in their own voices will get the swoon effect you’re looking for.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
You’ve created your characters, given them loads of romantic tension, and fine-tuned their voices. Now let’s do a quick audit for a few mistakes that come up a lot when writing romance.
The Trophy Love Interest
This happens when the love interest has no inner life. Instead of being an engaging antagonist and the other half of a fascinating relationship, they’re an objective the hero(ine) eventually achieves.
Make sure the love interest has their own thing going on.
The Harmless Flaw
Again, your love interests’ flaws should be something that spark conflict—something they’ll eventually have to answer for. “Adorably clumsy” and “charmingly type-A” are quirks, not flaws.
The Banter Burden
Charming banter shouldn’t carry the full burden of convincing readers that these two people belong together. Make sure their actions and inner lives also demonstrate a deep connection. You cannot build a relationship on wit alone.
The Nice Guy Nightmare
Beware the Nice Guy (or Girl)—the love interest who supposedly deserves the love of their crush as a reward for being nice to them. Build this relationship on a genuine connection, not an exchange of favors.
Creating Memorable Supporting Characters
We’ve focused a lot on your lovebirds. But what about the rest of the folks who fill out this love story?
The same rules of character development apply. Your supporting characters should feel like real human beings with backstories, goals, flaws, and all that fun stuff. Some side characters require more development than others. This article will help you figure out how deep to go for each one.
In terms of romance-specific tips, here are the characters your readers might expect to see:
The protagonist almost always has a best friend, trusted sibling, close coworker, or whatever. This character is endlessly supportive and knows the protagonist better than anyone. They can tell when the protagonist has a crush and call them out when they're letting stupid fears ruin what could be an epic love story.
Similarly, if the love interest has a bestie (and they often do), this character can fill in the blanks for the protagonist. They might drop hints that their chum is interested or reveal the childhood trauma that explains the love interest’s weird behavior.
Not every love story requires a romantic rival. And not every rival has to be evil. They can be. It can be satisfying to take that route. But also consider this:
Likable rivals are often the most threatening kind. No one wants to see their crush in a relationship with someone they admire. It’s devastating and confusing and brings every insecurity bubbling to the surface.
Foils are characters who highlight something about your protagonist by displaying opposite characteristics.
For example, if you wanted to shine a spotlight on your protagonist’s terrible track record with love, you might give them a neighbor who’s in a ridiculously happy marriage with their high school sweetheart.
Any supporting character can be a foil, including BFFs and rivals. You can check out our complete guide to writing foil characters here.
Take It to the Next Level
I just dumped a lot of information on you, but this is really only an introduction to creating great romance characters. There’s so much more to this author-character relationship.
If you’re ready to further your studies, I recommend these articles:
- 14 Common Character Archetypes You Should Know
- How to Create Romantic Chemistry in Your Novel
- How to Hint at Love Between Characters
- How to Create Characters Your Readers Will Simp For
- The Best Character Template Ever
And of course, Dabble is always here for you when you’re ready to start creating your characters and plotting their destinies. This writing tool has everything you need for every phase of the writing process, including story notes where you can store profiles, character interviews, and more. They’ll be right there at your fingertips as you draft and revise, all in one program.
If you don’t already use Dabble, you can check it out for free for 14 days. You don’t have to enter a credit card. Just click this link and start dreaming up a love story for the ages.
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