Valentine’s Day Special: Six Steps to a Sizzling Subplot
Storm the castle, defeat the dragon, rescue the princess, land a proper smooch and—BAM—instant romance and happy endings for everybody! Right? Call me jaded, but I think that story is missing a little something. Sure, the dragon fight might be interesting, and of course I’m appreciative the lady wasn’t eaten by a dragon, but is that really the right way for a hero of that proportion to find a soul mate? And does that mean that once you get married, your heroic deeds are at an end? I mean, either you’re going to have one seriously disappointed second princess, or else your first princess is going to have one helluva surprise! And then, your hero will be engaged in a fight of an entirely different nature—and far less heroic.
But the problem here isn’t that a damsel is being rescued and that they fall in love—the problem is that, for all intents and purposes, there is no damsel. There’s only a golden, damsel-shaped statue in a lockbox of a castle surrounded by the cutting edge security of the day—I mean, it doesn’t get much hotter than dragons, now does it?
And while the damsel-shaped statue may be sparkly, don’t be fooled: it won’t keep you warm at night! (Also, it’s not fooling anyone—seriously.) Take it from me, if you can do a search-and-replace for a love interest with an inanimate object, and the story remains essentially the same, then it’s not love--it’s property. And dating your legos? Totally unsexy.
So, how do you keep your romance riveting and your damsels animate? Here are a few tips, just in time for Valentine’s Day, to help you heat things up for your characters.
1. Play Hard to Get. Falling in love is an exhilarating affair shot through with enough adrenaline to hopefully help you survive the crazy-stupid decisions you’ll make. Add to that the fear-based adrenaline of the dangerous and the forbidden, and you have one hell of an electric romance. So, while most of us don’t pray every night that someday we’ll be lucky enough to be a part of a treacherous love triangle, that's precisely what makes these situations so interesting for a novel. So have an angel fall for a devil, have a woman who craves a rough touch fall for a chaste man, or even turn the whole notion on its head and have a society where love is considered a dangerous disease—and have your character fall for someone. Not only will that keep things interesting, every sacrifice made in the name of love will make the love ring truer.
2. Keep it Complicated. Unlike at home, in a book, relationships are only interesting when they’re complicated. Without some tension to keep things interesting, your characters are happy, and happy characters are boring characters. Granted, the complications don’t have to be in the relationship, but the complications should affect the relationship. It certainly complicates matters, for instance, if you’re disguised as a boy so you can do things forbidden to girls, and suddenly find yourself smitten with this one boy who is quite sure you’re his bestest bro.
3. A Match Made in Metaphors. People are drawn to each other for a reason—and in a book, that reason should tell us something about your character’s inner arc. That’s the classic symbolism behind the love triangle—which side of the main character will triumph? The side that represents the character’s darker instincts, like Kitiara the evil but sexy, in-command dragon highlord, or the side that represents their good instincts, like Lauralanthalasa, the golden general and elf princess? Of course, there is always the option of a romantic interest that is a perfect match—one that can hold their own with the both the virtuous and wicked sides of your main character. That is super hot. One of my favorite pairings is actually the platonic Winchester brothers in the TV series Supernatural. What a fantastic couple they would make, were they not related! They balance each other perfectly, each with their own dark side and better instincts.
4. Keep it Real. Good lovers, particularly when first meeting an object of their affection, are totally not perfect. They crush badly and keep secrets, they lie to save face and then get caught, but most of all, they just try so endearingly hard. These imperfections allow them to accomplish amazing things while still retaining their humanity. Perfect, logical creatures are so emotionless as to be completely undatable. How much cuter is Sam because he’s afraid to go dance with Rosie at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings? (And at the end, only gets the courage with a mug of beer?) Give me imperfect and endearing any day.
5. Get a Life. Who is hotter, the wasp-wasted stunner in the skimpy dress who purrs everything she says or the woman with a wicked sense of humor, who has elf-trained skill with a bow and arrow, loves raising and training war hounds, and who would never turn down a good cup of black tea? Even without a description of her appearance we are drawn to people with character, particularly if they work well alongside the main character. Your love interests all need lives, dreams, and hobbies of their own if you want us to care about them getting together with the main character—and no, “looking pretty” doesn’t count as a hobby!
6. It’s The Little Things. Sure, in a novel, you have the ability to make your love fantastic. Your hero can risk his life and limb to save his loved one. They can always be spontaneous in their romantic gestures, and always say and do the right things. But the best, most romantic things in a book aren’t the grand gestures, which are usually more about the main characters than their romantic interests anyway, but the little things. I remember being struck by the Martin in The Riftwar Saga, and how he would give a half-smile to those he really trusted. And how much I wanted someone to have a little half-smile they reserved just for me. These little things—these signs reserved for special people—are fantastic ways for a character to be romantic. In a world in which so many people feel so terribly alone, they make all the difference.
Take a character from a piece you’re working on. Try designing three distinctly different romantic interests for them, each of which reflects them in a different way. Remember: interesting is almost always better! And this isn’t going in your actual project, so feel free to go a little wild. Now, what do you like best about each pairing, and why?