What is romantic? It’s an age old question that has plagued men and women for millennia. Whether asked by a young man trying to impress a young woman, a couple long married that desires to recapture that old spark, or a writer trying to mix that perfect combination that satisfies the reader and makes the characters seem oh so real, it promises a hundred answers. Most of them prove unsatisfying or mere examples rather than clear definitions. So what is the essence of romance? What makes an action, event, or scene romantic?
Merriam-Webster defines romance, in the context we’re discussing, as: an emotional attraction or aura belonging to an especially heroic era, adventure, or activity; love affair. But that doesn’t satisfy those of us trying to create it. Emotional attractions are not forced, nor do love affairs spring forth at our slightest whim. Even in fiction, if you try to force two characters together that were never meant to be, they retaliate in every way possible from making the writing seem forced to keeping you up at night with their complaints about each other and your deficiencies as an author.
Unfortunately, the question is further complicated by the fact that men and women think differently. In a recent conversation with my husband, we sought to define romance because, as he put it, “Guys don’t get this stuff.” So I thought I’d share our conclusions with you to tempt your thinking and shed some light on the mystery of creating that perfect date or writing good romantic plots.
Something can be romantic because of two reasons. Association is the first and easiest to grasp. Roses, wine, and diamonds are romantic because they’ve been paired in our consciousness as a society through movies, stories, and advertising. Beaches are romantic because they are commonly associated with retreats for couples. Lots of people go to a seaside resort for their honeymoon. In subtle and glaring repetitive ways, society and media mold our views of romance.
Other associations are more individual. If on your first date with the guy or girl you fell in love with you ate Nilla Wafers, whenever you eat a Nilla Wafer after that, it’ll have a romantic touch. So if your significant other surprises you on your fifth anniversary with a bowl of Nilla Wafers, especially coupled with recounting those fond memories of that magical night, it’ll be special. For that couple, it can be romantic. Yes, I know, some of you think it’s corny, but I’m sure you have your own associations that others might find surprising.
Associations can be powerful, but they can also become overused, a romantic crutch. So be forewarned when using them in life or fiction. It’s the associations that become cliché and turn into husks of romance rather than the rich substance that strengthens relationships. Only a few have managed to transcend the trap and become classic like the first confession of, “I love you,” but even that courts overuse in fiction. For writers and lovers, if you pick an association, give it a personalized twist to make it special.
The other element that makes something romantic is a little harder to define. For you guys out there, this comes primarily from the feminine point of view, but really, it’s girls that most define romance and desire it in their lives. Romance writers all over the world have this to thank for their bread and butter.
Romance is the reminder or building of the special relationship you have with someone you consider a current or potential mate. I choose not to use the word love here because it has so many variable meanings, many of which are not romantic, and because romance can exist without love.
So how do you make something romantic without resorting to associations?
The romantic element must be unique to the one it’s intended for. For example, my husband, like many, works hard to earn his money. If he takes some of that money to buy me my favorite candy bar on his way home from work, to him it is romantic because he is giving me a part of his life. For you girls, this means that he took a portion of his life to labor and produce something: money. He then took that money and spent it on you. Thus, he is giving a part of his life. Now, a candy bar is small compared to a diamond ring, a car, or one of those gifts you never give a girl to be sweet, an appliance, but the principle is the same. My husband gives a small part of himself in that gesture, and to him it is romantic.
But this generally isn’t romantic to a girl; though, the misunderstandings it can create in fiction can be great fun. Money is mundane, and anyone could buy a candy bar or a dishwasher. What changes something to romantic is the time and emotional effort taken to come up with and give that special gift of time, place, trinket, or self. It should either show how well you know your SO (getting the pretty vase with daisies on it because she happened to mention a year ago that daisies always cheer her up when she’s feeling down and you remembered the fact after all that time) or how special she and your relationship are to you (taking the time to be vulnerable enough to write a love note from the heart).
To put it in caveman terms, we cavewomen need to know that our particular caveman values us and considers us more special than all other potential females that he could drag back to his cave. We need to know we merit his time and effort and that we’re worthy enough for him to share himself with. Knowing all that, we feel secure in the relationship and are more willing to give our faithful caveman what he wants, like the best mammoth brisket he’s ever tasted.
So when writing scenes to help along the romantic plot, remember to think about what makes the characters unique as individuals and as a couple. Think of ways they can demonstrate and perceive, intentionally or otherwise, that the other is special, precious, and fulfills them. In each consecutive scene, peel back another layer and let their corresponding romantic lead see the real person beneath.
When working to make something romantic for your SO, put time and effort into choosing a gift, local, event, or whatever it is that is special to you and your SO and that demonstrates the uniqueness of your relationship. And never forget, a few sweet words to explain why such a thing is special can make the difference from mundanity to something wonderfully romantic. No one can read minds after all.
Remember that everyone feels love and experiences it in slightly different ways. For more on that, I highly recommend Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages. Take the quiz in the back before you read the book.
So what makes something romantic to you? What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever experienced or read?