Romantic subplots can be difficult to pull off, especially in contemporary stories. The dynamics of the relationship can be so varied and have their own audiences that will enjoy them. It’s very much a matter of subjective tastes as, for example, I detest love triangles but I know some people love them. Love is a complex and varied thing in life and especially now with so many variations and opinions on what constitutes a relationship. The challenge, however, is that in many stories the characters playing the love interest role are often shallow characters only serving that purpose.
To understand and construct a traditional romantic subplot, there needs to be an established connection between the two characters involved. Often it’s usually the protagonist and another character, either a supporting character or maybe an antagonist depending on the story. An antagonist love interest is usually the trope of “enemies to lovers” which can have an interesting dynamic depending on how it’s handled. But the love interest that is a side character can be more challenging and often in danger of being a very shallow character who exists for the sake of the relationship existing.
In last week’s review of Harley Merlin: Harley Merlin and the Broken Spell by Bella Forrest, I had made a point of describing a fear I had regarding Wade’s character development. It’s pretty clear, almost from the very first book, what Wade was being made out to be and it was concerning as I’ve seen books ruin characters solely for romantic subplots. It’s created an almost irrational fear in me reading as I never know what to expect. Part of the reason for this fear is that some writers will create out-of-character moments or decisions that contradict everything up to that point simply to have some kind of romantic payoff or tension.
What can make writing a romantic subplot difficult is having the individual characters having their own identity while still having a part of themselves focused on the relationship in the story. In real life, relationships can be complex or they can be simple. There is no “standard” when it comes to love but in literature there are tropes and trends we tend to see depending on the genre you might focus on. A lot of times there can be a character whose sole purpose is to be the “partner” to the more developed character. The “partner” character can have their own goal or character but their actions and motivations are almost solely focused on the other character, diminishing their own character.
It’s not to say they need to be as developed as the main character, but I think nowadays people want more from the romance that they find in stories. Even in Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, there’s typically a romantic subplot where the secondary character is still important to the main plotline and serves a purpose outside of just being the “partner”. My favorite two examples of this would be The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson and The Shadow of the Fox series by Julie Kagawa, the latter being one of my all-time favorite series surprisingly due to the romance. I don’t read Romance novels nor do I write Romance stories, but I absolutely love seeing healthy relationships and romance for those sweet and tender moments despite my genre preference being Fantasy and Science Fiction for the high pace action and worldbuilding.
I wish I could provide a solid answer for how to always write a love interest but, just like real life, love is varied and subjective. There are so many variations on what love and a relationship is that writers are given so much freedom to explore. But this freedom does still need to be tempered with other concepts of writing like character development, character driven plot, and consistency within the world and character decision making. I imagine, so long as none of the important elements of the story are sacrificed to make the romantic subplot work, almost anything can work and be appreciated.
P.S: While writing this article, Overly Sarcastic Productions released a fantastic and detailed exploration of love triangles. It’s really well done and I recommend checking it out!