Creating Romantic Chemistry in Young Adult Literature
Hello, WriteOnCon participants! My name is Clara Kensie, and I write dark fiction for young adults, including the super-romantic YA psychic thriller Run to You series, Deception So Deadly and Deception So Dark, and the dark, ripped-from-the-headlines YA psychological thriller Aftermath.
Run to You Book One: Deception So Deadly won the prestigious 2015 RITA Award for Best First Book (and finaled for Best Young Adult Romance) from the Romance Writers of America. That’s a pretty big deal, and winning that award is one of the highlights of my writing career, and my entire life. So, I guess you could say that I know a thing or two about how to write a romance. That’s why the lovely folks at WriteOnCon asked me to show you how to create romantic chemistry in your young adult novel! Let’s get started.
Physical vs. Emotional
The first thing you should know is that romance isn’t sex. A romance novel doesn’t need hot and heavy sex scenes to be romantic. Your characters may be very chaste; they may stop at hand-holding and kissing, but they can still have an amazing, swoony romance (case in point: my Run to You series). Conversely, you can have a novel with sizzling hot sex scenes that are not romantic at all. Why? Because sex is physical. Romance is emotional.
Romances in fiction can, and often do, start with an initial physical attraction — a spark of sexual chemistry. But you need more than sexual chemistry to have a romance. Physical attraction by itself is superficial and stagnant. A story in which the love interests are together only because they find each other super-hot leads to cardboard-cutout characters and a romance that is as flat as they are.
In a good romance, the hero and heroine (or the hero and hero, or the heroine and heroine — henceforth we shall call them the h/h) are attracted to each other beyond the physical. They are emotionally attracted to each other.
Now we know that in order to have romantic chemistry, your h/h must be emotionally attracted to each other. Next, let’s discuss how to turn that emotional attraction into a plot.
The Protagonist’s GMC
To develop your main character and the plot, a good starting point is to figure out the character’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict.*
- Goal: what the character wants.
- Motivation: why she wants it.
- Conflict: what’s stopping her from getting it.
Seems simple enough, right? But let’s dig deeper.
Notice the description of both Goal and Conflict begin with “what:” what the character wants, and what’s stopping her from getting it. What is usually something physical. The goal of your protagonist — let’s call her Polly — may be to be elected class president, and the conflict is that she’s never held a leadership position before, and a classmate who is more experienced and qualified is running against her. Easy peasy. Goals and Conflicts — the whats — are usually pretty simple to figure out.
Now here’s where things can get tough.
The description for Motivation begins with “why:” why does she want to meet her goal? Why is abstract. It’s internal. It’s emotional. It’s usually pretty detailed. Dig deep. Keep asking why until you get to a pure, raw, primal emotion. I like to think of motivation as an emotional wound.
- Polly wants to be class president because the class president gets to go to a leadership conference in New York City.
- Why does she want to go to New York City? Because that’s where her estranged deadbeat father lives.
- Why does she want to see her deadbeat father? Because she wants to get him to finally pay alimony and child support.
- What Polly may not realize (but you as the author do) is that the real reason she wants to see her father is because she feels angry, resentful, and betrayed, and she wants to confront him about why he abandoned her and her mother so she can finally get some closure and forget about him.
Ah, do you see that? Her emotional wound is what motivates her goal. Anger, resentment, betrayal. Pure, raw, primal emotions. Motivations are harder to figure out, but it forms the base of your character.
Goals and Conflicts are physical. Motivations are emotional. The goals and conflicts may change, and they probably will, as the character grows and learns throughout the book. But for now, here is Polly’s GMC:
- Goal: To be class president and go to New York, where she can find her deadbeat father and confront him
- Motivation: Because she feels angry, resentful, and betrayed
- Conflict: She’s never held a leadership position before, and a classmate who is more experienced and qualified is running for class president against her
There you go! But we’re not done yet. We’re writing a romance, and in a romance — a good romance — it’s important for the love interest to have a GMC that’s as well-developed as the protagonist’s. Both characters must grow and change throughout the story.
The Love Interest’s GMC
For Polly’s love interest — though she despises him at first — is the guy who is running against her for class president. His name is Leo. Leo is running for class president, but what he secretly wants is to be on the football team. His conflict is that he’s afraid to try out for the team, and everyone expects him to be class president because he’s always been in student government and he’s good at it.
Now for the hard part. What is Leo’s motivation? Why does he want to be on the football team and why is he afraid to try out?
Let’s dig until we uncover his motivation — his emotional wounds.
- Why does Leo wants to be on the football team? Because at his school, the football team gets all the glory. They get the pep rallies and the trophies and the articles in the local newspaper. The football players are celebrated and remembered.
- Why is he afraid to try out for the team? He’s not athletic. He’s afraid of failing, whereas he knows he can win the class president election.
- Why doesn’t Leo want to be class president? He enjoys student government, but he’s kind of lonely because the student government kids are overlooked. No one even knows who they are. He’s afraid that if he stays in student government, he will remain invisible and be forgotten.
There it is! Do you see it? Leo’s emotional wounds: he feels invisible. He’s lonely. He’s afraid to fail. He’s afraid of being forgotten. Pure, primal, raw emotions.
- Goal: To be a football player and be celebrated and remembered
- Motivation: Because he feels invisible in student government and he’s afraid he’ll be forgotten
- Conflict: He’s not athletic and he’s afraid he’ll fail if he tries out for the team; everyone expects him to be class president because he’s always been in student government and he’s good at it.
Hooray! We have the GMCs of both Polly the protagonist and Leo the love interest.
GMC + GMC = Romantic Chemistry
Now here’s the secret to using the GMCs of your h/h to create romantic chemistry. Lean in close and I’ll tell you.
Your h/h must each do something that helps heal the other’s emotional wounds — their motivations — thus helping the other solve their conflicts and meet their goals.
For example: At the start of our YA romance, Polly and Leo argue and bicker with each other as they campaign for class president, but as they spend more time together, they each feel less lonely. Polly sees him in the hallway and knows who he is — he is not invisible to her. Leo catches Polly Googling her father and realizes she’s upset. He confesses that he has a bad relationship with his father too, so Polly knows he can sympathize with her feelings of anger and betrayal toward her own dad. Polly suggests Leo try out for the kicker position on the football team, and comforts him when he gets cut in the first round. Because of Polly’s support, Leo realizes that it’s okay to fail. Polly loses the election. She’s crushed, but she knows that Leo has the experience and the ideas necessary to make the school better as class president, so she helps him with an idea that will leave a lasting legacy — neither of them will be invisible or forgotten. As class president, Leo asks Polly be vice-president and brings her to NYC with him to the leadership conference. He helps her finds and supports her as she confronts her father and gets closure. They fly home, and as the plane lands, they have their first kiss. The end.
Polly helped Leo heal his emotional wounds, and Leo helped Polly heal hers. That’s romantic chemistry.
I have an assignment for you. Grab a pen and notepad or open a new Word document. Figure out the GMCs of your h/h. Remember: goals and conflicts are physical, and motivations are emotional. Then figure out how your h/h helps the other heal their emotional wounds, thus solving their conflicts and meeting their goals. Your last step is to share your work in the comments. Show me whatcha got!
*For more on GMC, I highly recommend you read Debra Dixon’s book GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. For some reason it’s always super expensive on Amazon (the price as of this writing is $47), but you can get it directly from the publisher for less than $20.
* Note about my Run to You books: I recently got my rights back to the series, so as of this writing, the books are not available for purchase. I’m working very hard to get them back on the market as soon as possible! Follow me on social media and subscribe to my newsletter for info about Run to You, my latest release Aftermath, and my next books.
Clara Kensie grew up near Chicago, reading every book she could find and using her diary to write stories about a girl with psychic powers who solved mysteries. She purposely did not hide her diary, hoping someone would read it and assume she was writing about herself. Since then, she’s swapped her diary for a computer and admits her characters are fictional, but otherwise she hasn’t changed one bit.
Today Clara is a RITA Award-winning author of dark fiction for young adults. Her super-romantic psychic thriller series, Run to You, was named an RT Magazine Editors Pick for Best Books of 2014, and Book One, Deception So Deadly, is the winner of the prestigious 2015 RITA Award for Best First Book.
Clara’s latest release is Aftermath, a dark, ripped-from-the-headlines YA contemporary in the tradition of Room and The Lovely Bones. Aftermath (Simon and Schuster/Merit Press) is on Goodreads’ list of Most Popular Books Published in November 2016, and Young Adult Books Central declared it a Top Ten Book of 2016.
Clara’s favorite foods are guacamole and cookie dough. But not together. That would be gross.