Write Better Romance
Writing a romance can be limited by an overwhelming focus on the fit of the two main characters. Their thoughts focus on each other, themselves, the obstacles in the way of their love. The author’s thoughts, however, have to be on a far wider, comprehensively huge world in which this drama of two tiny human beings takes place. Couples are nested in their relationships with family/friends, talked about by others, and influenced by groups and institutions in a position of influence over them. While these are all controlled by specific individuals, there are larger spheres that exercise power over a story and provide a path to sculpt the couple’s future together.
Where do they fit? – Macrosystem / Demographics
Culture. Big bad intimidating word for anyone who has incorporated it into their work. Unfortunately, this discussion will also include threatening terms like economy and politics. These three global influences (and others not listed) have a very real effect on people, even if the shifts in power are gradual, far removed, or dependent on unpredictable forces. These intangible forces are what social scientist, Urie Brofenbrenner, called part of the macrosystem in his socio-ecological model of human environment. This model has been used for years in social science to track risk factors and sources of negative influence in the lives of people in treatment for everything from adult substance abuse to childhood learning disabilities.
When using it as a tool to develop romantic fiction, this particular group of influences has a lot to do with what the characters are… demographically speaking. What groups do they belong to? What beliefs to they have? What is there economic level? In what area/country/region do they live? Etc. After questions like these, which are relatively common identifying factors, it’s up to the author to ask the next level: What do others think of the groups the characters are in? What do outsiders think of the beliefs they hold? What is out of their reach financially? What do people that are wealthier think of them? How aware are the characters of regions/cultures/areas outside of their home?
The final questions to ask are focused on the story at hand. If the information gathered in the previous questions is irrelevant, then don’t include them. However, most romantic fiction relies on these types of questions to expose crucial obstacles between the lovers, disparities in social status, and tensions from the individuals’ upbringing. The goal of digging for sources of conflict is to show the couple navigating trials together, growing strong enough to overcome the obstacles between them.
Then vs. Now – Chronosystem
A crucial element in this progression has to do with where the characters once were and where they are at the present point. The changes and influences on an individual change over time, altered by age, maturity, layered experience, and major life changes. This form of influence was called the chronosystem by socio-ecologists.
This can be simplified with an example. Consider a young man in love with the girl next door. When they’re young teens, perhaps she isn’t that interested in him. He’s kind of scrawny before his growth spurt, his parents have him on acne medicine and orthodontic treatments, and his mother believes he’s too young for girls anyway. Only time can make a difference here. Other influences compound over a few years, including a change in his father’s job to where he moves to a better part of town. His growth spurt kicks in, and he starts bearing a remarkable resemblance to his grandfather who played professional rugby. The braces come off, he works hard in school, and he crashes and burns a couple of times over other girls in his new school. Still, he picks himself up and grows confident in himself. Now, reintroduce the girl from his early days. Whatever her reaction is, he is now in a much better position with himself to overcome rivals, and his own nerves, in order to better pursue her affection. This doesn’t mean there are fewer obstacles. All the time has done is change the obstacles and the character’s source of major life influences.
The chronosystem is a tool used by many authors, especially in classic romantic fiction. Take Jane Eyre as a prime example. When Mr. Rochester first meets Jane, he may have strong feelings for her, but he has one extremely large obstacle in his way; his first (and crazy) wife. Jane, too, has leagues to go in her life before her lack of support, orphan status, and insecure prospects are resolved. While neither of them can make any headway on the obstacles to their romance, they part ways and pass time apart with their own difficulties. After time passes, Jane learns her random rich uncle has died and left her fabulously wealthy, finds a friendly family of her relatives, and is offered future security in a marriage of duty. With all of these things taken care of, she’s in a strong position to refuse the marriage of duty and return to Mr. Rochester in the hope of love. There, she finds what time has done to him. His crazy wife burned down his house with her in it, leaving him physically scarred, but alive and free. The power in the relationship has drastically shifted, but in such a way that their obstacles are overcome. It’s often in the chronosystem that Fate (or fortuitous plot twists) can work out the troubles for the couple.
This week has been a fun one, combining social science with creativity. Human Development studies are a wonder when it comes to fleshing out a story with realistic conflict, and systems like Brofenbrenner’s model of social ecology, can highlight tensions already present at the start of a story. This is hardly a new idea, but the depth of romantic fiction is easily lost with the focus too close on the couple. These thoughts are intended to expand the scope of a couple’s story by including the network of social influences that connect them to their world.