Rachel Dove, Tara Taylor Quinn and Aja share with us how they create that emotional depth that makes romances so darn satisfying!
Writing romantic fiction is often seen as easy. We get labels such as 'easy read' or 'frothy books' but the truth is, writing a romantic fiction book that makes readers root for the characters, and even fall in love a little, is very hard. What might read as 'easy' and flowing, flows for a reason, because as writers we pour over every word, every glance, every nod of the head.
Think about sitting in a cafe, or an airport lounge, somewhere that people will meet up. What do you see? Love. A woman running into the arms of her man, a man holding the hand of his husband as they arrive at their destination, tugging the luggage along behind them. A woman, bending down to scoop up her child after a long day apart. Gestures are everywhere, the signs of love are there.
As romance authors, we fill this well constantly. We binge on Netflix romcoms, black and white classics filled with dapper men, and feisty, beautiful, trailblazing women. We read books about women who fall through time into the arms of tortured Scotsmen, we cry when a lost love never returns, or leaves the other forever.
It's no coincidence that after a horrible loss of life in the world, the birth rates go up. Humans seek comfort, love, and togetherness in times of need. We take people for granted over time, but the first flush of love never truly fades.
How can we convey these feelings to the reader? Firstly, I think we have to feel them ourselves. To me, the characters are the most important part of starting a love story. I have to know the characters inside out, 'til they speak freely in my head when I am away from the page. What makes them tick? What makes them come together, and stay that way? We know, that more often than not, the ending is the happy ever after, but how do we get there? What makes us desire one human more than any other?
Touch and senses come into it for me with my writing. A whiff of perfume, a man passing me in the street, something I overhear on a train. These little snippets of life, combined with the story, help writers to get the readers in that room, falling in love right along with them. The flicker of candlelight, the smell of aftershave on a stubbly neck as they get closer on the dance floor. The last look they give each other as they part, their fingers entwined in each other's till the moment they absolutely have to part. It's trust, and lust, and love. The idea of another, out there in the world, thinking of us as we think of them. People watching can tell us a lot, first hand experience is all the better. It's more than a sensation, it's a physical change in our bodies. The moment the electricity changes in the air when they walk into the same room.
Knowing our characters, and loving them ourselves is important. They don't have to be perfect; after all who is? They don't even have to be perfect for each other. The important thing is, that we feel what they feel, almost taste the moment they fall, whilst taking the leap right along with them. Christian Grey or Basil Fawlty, everyone wants love, and to experience these highs and lows. If we as authors can make the reader feel half of that, it's a job well done. I fall in love with every book boyfriend I write, and they all have a place in my heart. True love never dies, and the book hangovers are so worth it.
Next time you are in a cafe, or waiting for a bus, look around you. See what you can see around you. I bet you'll find, as the song says, that Love is all around you.
Tara Taylor Quinn
How difficult is it to sell the love fictional characters feel for each other to a reader? How do you describe what they feel? Are there things you consider to be key ingredients? What is emotional depth and how do we deliver on the promise of an emotionally satisfying read?
I have to come at this from a different perspective. I can’t answer these questions because I don’t ask them. In the first place, I don’t ‘sell’ the love fictional characters feel for each other, or any other emotions, either. I believe that these emotions are real and ‘sell’ themselves. That is, the reader either relates to them personally, or they don't. This doesn’t mean the reader will have felt every emotion every character feels, but if the emotion comes from a place of truth, the reader is lead to that place and experiences that emotion. I think finding that truth is emotional depth.
A writer can sit down to describe a pre-determined scene, and to describe love-making and say words that are meant to depict real desire all from learning and by rote, but to me, that scene would be like two cardboard pop-ups having sex. Just as each individual on earth is different, each person’s story is different. I think the way to get to the emotional depth—whether sexual or otherwise—is to live the experience through that character as a writer, just as the reader will experience it when she reads the book. The character’s truth, as opposed to a writer’s contrived ideas or words or ingredients, is what ‘sells’ the emotion.
I write from the heart. It’s the only way I know.
I mentally and emotionally go to a place deep inside my psyche and I travel with the people as they live through their experiences. I feel what they feel, and I describe what I’m feeling, what they’re showing me, as I type. I’m in her head and I’m typing what she’s thinking. What she’s feeling. It’s like I’m inside her, living her life, watching it unfold as she does. As one thing happens, as my characters say or experience something, other things present themselves, my thoughts, theirs, co-mingle into something completely different, and most times unknown to me. I can’t make them do things. I have to let them do their own thing.
After ninety published books—and another five written awaiting publication—I feel I have enough proof to attest that if you write from a place of truth, character truth, the book will work. It might not be what you planned, or thought it would be, but it will work. The reader will engage and feel. Not every reader. Not everyone is willing to let me touch their heart that closely. Not everyone can, based on things they might have experienced, or not experienced, in their lives. But overall, the book will work. I have to trust this process every single time I sit down to write. I am not a plotter. I honestly don’t know where the people are going to take me. I start out with a situation and then my characters show me the rest as we go. I might think they’re going to feel something, or say something, but when we actually get into the situation, something else comes up that I might not have thought of, or known, and it changes everything.
It’s an emotionally exhausting business. And it requires that I give up self, not just while writing, but as I go through my days sometimes, too. I might come to the dinner table so emotionally drained I have nothing to give but a blank stare and chewing. I might come on the verge of tears. Or feeling kind of panicky. I might not be hungry. Sometimes I have to sleep it off – to let my psyche quiet on its own. But always, when the book is done, I’m filled with a sense of having spoken a truth that will touch another human being in a good way. And that has changed my life, my perspective, too. I learn more about life with every book I write. My stories might be larger than life, they might provide escape and entertainment, but at their core, they speak from a universal heart.
Time and again I’ve heard from readers who tell me that I’ve helped them. Uplifted them. Not just in the moment, but in a way that they can take with them. I believe this is because I haven’t given them a fairy tale, I’ve given them truth. Emotional truth.
Before I became a writer, I was only a reader and even once I began to scribble out short stories, I still considered myself a reader, not ready to admit that I was like the people I read. The writers' work that I seemed to gravitate the most towards were the ones that made me feel something deep and yearning in each story. The ones that made me care. As a writer today, I work to deliver on that same promise and connection, of course in my own way, and according to my readers, I do that time and again.
I was once asked how I do it, how do I show love because I truly think that's what must be done. I have to show it to my reader so they can experience it. Who cares if the characters murmur sweet nothings to each other when there is nothing to be felt?
I wouldn't say it's easy for me but it's not exactly difficult. It comes down to this for me: what do I experience when I'm digging someone new... What do I feel when I'm falling for them and falling fast... What do I feel once I'm a goner?
I have the answer to those questions and then I write them. Maybe experiencing love and passion daily provides me with the constant experiences I need to recreate it in my stories or maybe my imagination is just that great. I only know that I have emotional depth, and I open up in my writing to give it to my characters. Describing not just their thoughts or their feelings but also showing how they respond to each other when they share their space and the air. How they avoid eye contact and their pulses race as they move closer to one another. How their lips part, how their eyes well up with unshed tears when something so profound is shared. I want my readers to experience the tension my character felt when his jaw clenched and his nostrils flared with jealousy.
As the story builds, the reader should know your characters, and each move they make, and word they speak, then it all becomes their own, and now they are invested in the emotions taking place in your story. They are a part of your story, they are now your characters. It’s a dangerous game because once they are pulled in, they either love you or hate you for what you’ve done to them.
Here’s a brief excerpt from my latest story, Love’s Required. In it, I do my best to pull my readers into Camille’s emotions. She’s experienced serious heart break and her “hero” wants to help her heal. It’s still too early to know if I connected with everyone who’s read it, but so far, the reviews are telling me I hit my mark.
“These just came out of the oven. Maybe you can take them in to work with you. Maybe share with your partner. She helped you when you were here … with me?”
She started to look away when he told her, “Don’t do that. Don’t ever be ashamed for needing help. We all need it. I’m just glad we got there in time.”
He watched as she nodded before pushing back her shoulders to recover and this pleased him.
“And yes, my partner, Montane was with me. She’ll gobble these up and any sweets you bake.”
Smiling, she asked him, “But, will you?”
“I’ll gobble up whatever you give me, Camille.”
Her face warmed at the double meaning whether he intended it or not and she was sure she was blushing noticeably, but it didn’t make him uncomfortable. Just as she allowed herself the warmth of feeling desired to take hold, the memory of how it ended the last time assaulted her.
And just like that, she felt sad and rejected again and just as her blush had, she was sure her trauma began to show on her face. She was ashamed and didn’t want Logan to see her this way and hoped he’d get the hint and just leave. Instead, he decided to enter the kitchen and reached for her. This should have creeped her out. This affection from him so early on, but it didn’t. In fact, as she nuzzled into his embrace, she felt what he was giving her.
It wasn’t sexual. It was platonic, but it was the hug she apparently had been needing because suddenly she was shaking and crying. The kind that turned into hiccups; the kind that wet his sweatshirt. He didn’t seem to mind, he just held her until the storm inside of her was over.
After a while, his voice vibrated against her ear when he said, “Like I said, never be ashamed of needing help. We all need it and I’m here whenever you need it.”
How do you create emotional depth in your writing? If you have any tips for writing success, please share below in the comments or on social media #TheWriteThing. We'd love to know!
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