One of the biggest complaints I see in reviews of YA romance novels, or YA novels that include a strong romantic element, is that the reader didn't understand why the MC (main character) has romantic feelings for the LI (love interest). It didn't feel believable enough for the reader to buy into it. And when the reader doesn't believe in their romance, everything about the MC and LI's relationship becomes annoying.
This may seem a trivial thing to quibble over, but believable romance between characters is a story element that falls under the umbrella of Things That Will Make or Break Your Story. It could mean the difference between a reader liking a book and loving it.
The problem is, How do you make the reader see a character's reason for falling in love with someone? When asked for the reasons behind your feelings, the answers don't come easy. If you asked me why I love my husband of 12+ years, I'll give you a different answer every time. And I'm an adult and I know I'm love. It's even harder for teenagers to justify things they might be experiencing for the very first time.
So. I think the better question is, How do you make the reader see how the LI is affecting the MC, making them feel like they're in love? Whether they are actually in a lasting relationship or not is beside the point. In that moment, in that situation, they feel like they're truly in love, and your job as a writer is to make the reader feel what the characters feel. Anything beyond that is too analytical, and over-analysis has a way of souring a story experience.
When I'm reading a YA novel and the viewpoint character suddenly goes into an internal monologue that is quite obviously meant to explain to the reader why he/she feels so strongly about the LI, it always (always!) has to opposite effect on me that the author intended. They want me to know exactly why these two feel the way they do.
But that isn't realistic. Love isn't something you can really explain.
Most of the time, you don't know why you're in love, you just know that you are.
If we look at reviewer comments more closely, we find the heart of the problem. They say things like, I don't understand why the MC is so in love with the LI because...
...he's so annoying.
...he's a user.
...she's always mean to him.
...she's a flake.
...all he does is shrug.
...all she does is whine.
It goes on and on. What the readers are trying to tell us, the authors, is that they don't love the characters as individuals--they don't see any reason why someone else would love them, either. They won't believe in a romantic relationship between two unlovable characters.
So the key to creating a believable romance lies in first making the reader fall in love with the MC and the LI, and showing the reader why these two characters, despite their flaws, are good for each other. Once the reader has been hooked with that sense of wanting the two characters to see what the reader already sees, eagerly anticipating the moment the characters realize they're in love, the romance between them is both believable and satisfying.
The key to making the reader fall in love with your characters and showing how these two characters are good for each other lies in the details of character action, interaction, dialogue, and viewpoint.
To show what I mean by this, I'm going to re-quote the snippet I posted from my own WIP last Tuesday.
THE SEVEN DEATHS OF KAT MONROEToday is a stay-in-bed-and-forget-the-world day.
But still, I go to grief counseling. For the doughnuts mostly. I'm in no rush, though. Not in the mood to even comb my hair. So I get there a little later than usual and there's only one butterscotch-glazed, custard-filled éclair left. Kat walks in just as I'm putting it on a mini paper plate and I remember she likes these, too. Before I realize what I'm doing, I've handed her my plate and she's saying thank you.
She doesn't know that specific doughnut is my favorite, the only kind I'll eat. She doesn't know that my brain is on the verge of Epic Meltdown today. (edit: yet he still lets her have his doughnut! and it was the one thing that got him out of bed!)
I sit next to her on the couch, slouching low. My head feels too heavy. This room feels too bright. And the smell of coffee and sugar that I usually look forward to here is making me sick. Because my stomach is too empty.
It doesn't take long for Kat to notice I'm not eating. Without any inquiry she tears the éclair in half and holds the plate in front of me.
"Take it," she says. "You shouldn't skip breakfast."
I eat my half so fast she has to share her napkin, too. (edit: he accepts the gesture, and her generosity goes beyond a single offering)
©2012 by Lydia Sharp
I could also add to my bold phrases above, her dialogue of "you shouldn't skip breakfast," because this is actually a throw-back to a previous conversation they had about her tendency to skip breakfast. Her dialogue here shows that something that transpired between them earlier has affected her. Now she's telling him not skip breakfast.
But you wouldn't know that just from reading this snippet. What you do see, just in this snippet, is little details that show they are:
1. Getting to know each other.
2. Acting on that knowledge in ways they wouldn't have before they knew each other.
Their relationship is growing, and squeezing them closer together.
Notice that after the MC realizes he's just given away his favorite doughnut, he doesn't go into a long internal monologue trying to figure out why he did it. He just reacts. I think this is true for all ages, but especially in teenagers. They're not one to immediately dive deep into the meaning behind a simple act. In his gut reaction, we see how he feels, even if he doesn't understand it fully himself yet. He basically thinks, "I shouldn't have done that, but I'm not going to take it back now."
That little detail shows a lot about his character. He's not one to retract a gift, even if he didn't really mean to give it. Even if it means his own suffering. The poor boy is falling in love and he doesn't even know it yet.
But the reader knows, and this creates anticipation, which keeps them turning pages.
Yes, it's just a doughnut. But this is where subtext comes into play. The reader will understand (perhaps only subconsciously) that what happened here isn't really about the doughnut. It's about the character dynamic.
And really, who wouldn't love a guy who has a doughnut ready and waiting for you the minute you walk into a room? In turn, her perceptiveness and selflessness also makes her endearing. So in just a few brief paragraphs you can see, in one small way, why these characters are worth loving and how they are good for each other.
This technique works for any type of romantic relationship, whether it's male/female, male/male, or female/female. And yes, you can write believable romance from the male point of view. In fact, I'd love to see more of that (which is why I'm writing it myself). Boys fall in love, too!
Layering details like this throughout the novel builds the romance toward a satisfying ending, no matter what obstacles the couple face along the way. At some point they will realize what they truly feel and how it has changed them, for the better.
No overt explanation required. Just sit back and feel the love.
Who are your favorite fictional couples? What makes you believe in a character's romance?