What Really Makes Romantic Chemistry?

This is a strange post for me to write, because in all honesty, I'm not a romance writer. I don't even have any completed works with romance in them (though my WIP has an important romantic subplot).  However, after thinking deeply about some books I've read recently where the chemistry between the MC and their love interest didn't really cut it for me, I think I'm starting to get some idea of what works and what doesn't.

(Disclaimer: I read mostly YA, so I can't really speak for adult romance. My guess, though, is that it's pretty similar in general terms)

First, I'm going to pull a Socrates and begin not by saying what romantic chemistry is, but what it isn't.

Romantic chemistry is not witty banter.

Yes, witty banter is an integral part of flirting, but flirting by itself is not romantic chemistry. Plenty of people flirt just because they're bored.

Romantic chemistry is not lots of kissing.

Sure, people who are in love generally kiss each other, but kissing by itself doesn't equal love by any stretch of the imagination. Smushing your characters' mouths together and leaving it at that is lazy, and will leave your readers feeling very unsatisfied. We have to see why your characters want to kiss each other in the first place.

Romantic chemistry is not goosebumps and tingly feelings.

I've read plenty of books where the main character feels positively electric when their love interest is around ... but for some reason, I don't buy it. Again, goosebumps, sweaty palms, and a racing heart are all things that can occur when a person's loved one is near, but that alone isn't enough to create the chemistry required to satisfy a reader. Besides, anyone who's been in a relationship longer than three months will tell you that the feelings of euphoria don't last long at all. Clearly, something else is required.

Romantic chemistry is not the main character constantly swooning over how hot their love interest is.

Yes, people who are in love tend to think their significant others are gorgeous -- and their physical attractiveness may even be what caught their attention in the first place. But there has to be a deeper connection beyond that. As the well-documented Pretty Mean Girl and Hot Jerkface Jock stereotypes demonstrate, people are not always as good as their looks.

So how exactly can we as writers establish romantic chemistry on the page?

By establishing a true connection between the characters.

Any relationship expert will tell you that, for a relationship to be successful, the two people must be best friends first. They have to have the sort of connection that transcends mere physical attraction, and get along on an emotional and intellectual level. They have to like each other. The same applies to fictional characters.

Ideally, your fictional couple should:

  • Support and care for each other
  • Have fun with each other
  • Be able to be serious with each other
  • Share some kind of interest
  • Have a similar value system
  • Be somewhat involved in each other's lives outside of their relationship
All the witty banter and kissing and goosebumps and whatnot is just icing on the cake.

To sum up: true romantic chemistry is actually more like friendship chemistry. No matter whether your couple is serious or silly or somewhere in between, their relationship must be built on the fact that they deeply care for one another. Above all, that is what you must convey to the reader.

(Unless your plan is for the relationship to fall through in the end. Then you can totally ignore everything I just said)


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