Too often romantic relationships are inserted into movies to tick the boxes, to try and tweak the perception of a film to reach a wider audience. Unless the romance is adding to the characters and the plot, it shouldn’t exist. This is true of any plotline, character, or relationship. For a romance to add to a movie, it needs to show why the people involved care for each other (from both sides) and how this relationship changes them. Characters falling in love just because they’re in the same film wastes time and money. Let’s look at some tips for creating engaging romance.
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Reveal Who Both Characters Are Through Their Relationship
A recent example of this is in Ryan Coogler’s Creed. Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson’s characters are revealed through their actions, and some of those actions are in relation to one another. Each is shown to be passionate and driven in pursuit of their goals. Thompson’s first active scene is ignoring Jordan’s requests to turn down her music. Their relationship mirrors their work struggles. Thompson has to maintain a good image, so Jordan’s temper is a problem. Jordan wants to find his place in the world in relation to his legacy, so he hides his parentage from Thompson. Their scenes together allow the audience to discover them as individuals, as well as a unit.
Show Why They Want Each Other
Romance, particularly in action, adventure, sci-fi, and fantasy stories, is taken as being beside the point. It can be used to make the (usually male) protagonist seem cool, or desirable, or funny, or smart, or brave, etc. One-sided character attraction usually leads to the protagonist being a complex heartthrob and the love interest being played by a conventionally attractive actress. In place of character, the love interest is physically desirable. This is shallow and objectifying, and it doesn’t get the audience engaged in the romance. If anything, one-sided romances like these lead to the love interest being sidelined, kidnapped, or killed so that the main character is even cooler. Instead, consider how we will invest more in both characters if there are clear reasons why they each care for the other. If we can see why two people like each other, we can empathize with that attraction.
Partners, Not Sidekicks
Positive relationships require respect, and the same is true for character relationships. If the characters involved don’t treat each other as equals, their relationship won’t provide the warm and fuzzy feelings you’re looking for. Without some measure of teamwork and partnership in story elements as well as character elements, the relationship won’t be captivating. Of course, if the story is portraying a negative relationship, feel free to flip this tip on its head.
Avengers: Infinity War involved two relationships at different stages of maturity that were compelling enough that we cared about all the characters more. Each character had an equal stake in the other’s survival, safety, and success. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts have been together for years and are considering taking the next step. If one of them dies, they’ll never start a family together. Peter Quill and Gamora’s burgeoning relationship may be tragically cut short if either of them is hurt. Both characters are invested in moving forward and each has a say in what happens next.
Show How They Have Changed
For better or worse, being in a relationship usually changes people. Perhaps they adopt new habits, perhaps they mature. They might loosen up or feel more secure because they’re being seen for who they really are for the first time. In Aladdin, Titanic, and other upstairs-downstairs relationships, characters get to see a different side of life than what they’re used to. They can use this new perspective to evolve or to reaffirm their essential character. Young love in coming-of-age stories reflects the characters back at each other and makes them decide who they’re really going to be. Sandy in the third act of Grease is markedly different from Sandy in the first act. Character development in movies is beneficial because we invest more in characters that grow and change. If a relationship drives that change, we will invest in the romance. Even if the relationship ends badly, positive character change can come from it. This is the unity of dramatic action and the core message in movies like 500 Days of Summer, The Break-Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Romance is a story tool. Like any tool, if it’s not used correctly, it will make things worse. As with any character or character relationship, don’t add a tangential romantic storyline and detract from the rising dramatic action. Serve the script and serve the characters. Consider romance as an element of drama, not a default box to be checked. Whatever your story, romance can add another layer.
Shaun Leonard is an experienced writer, editor, and assistant. He is available for story consultation and script editing. Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_leonard