How to Convince Readers That Your Characters are Really in Love
A Session with Emily Sue Harvey
What is this thing called love? It is sometimes one of the most difficult things for writers to convincingly define. According to some, it is so powerful that it makes the world go round. Franklin P. Jones’ argues that love doesn’t make the world go ’round, rather love is what makes the ride worthwhile.
We know that the course of true love is seldom smooth, and neither is the task of writing a persuasive story about it. One of a writer’s greatest challenges is conveying to readers what denotes love between the main characters.
Undergirding that challenge looms the neon-flashing cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell.”
As a voracious reader myself, I find that a little romance lends spice and enhancement to any plot, regardless of genre. What would the world be without love? We know that just as flowers need sunshine to blossom, man cannot live without love. Dostoyevsky goes so far as to say, “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
Not to be outdone, Tennyson laments, “Tis better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.” Some spurned folks may argue the point, but there you have it.
Rarely have I read a book where love is not at least one minute aspect of the plot, whether it be adolescent crushes, budding infatuation, May/December affairs, the adventurer’s wife or girl friend back home, or all-consuming intimate marital love. If the writer is a romantic, he/she gets the universal connection. Other less quixotic writers usually have to work harder at it.
Regardless of an author’s leanings, credence must go to the claim that most everybody has been bitten by the love bug at some time or other to some degree. Even Gandhi has a take on it, declaring that, “Where there is love, there is life.”
Nothing twangs a reader’s emotion and senses more than a great romantic scene between vital characters. By “vital,” I mean full of life. Rounded. Three-dimensional. Warts and all. If the characters are believable, then the plot is more prone to seem genuine.
In my novel, Homefires, the characters are real and flawed, yet they each manage to gain the reader’s sympathy. As I always highlight when teaching writing nuts and bolts, creating sympathetic characters is a must for novelists. Readers cannot accept less.
Distilled to the bare essentials, the author needs to present three progressions of love. The first is the meeting and initial attraction of the characters. Chemistry must come into play. Energy writing also comes into play. We must convey to the reader that electrical-awareness that is felt.
Homefires’ heroine Janeece tells of the slice of time when she becomes aware of, then soon is attracted to, Kirk Crenshaw. It all begins when he and two mutual high school friends, stop in front of her mill hill house and park on the curb to chat. Their vehicle is a Beverly Hillbillies’ version A model peach flat, a contraption that later becomes symbolic of the hero’s love. When Kirk, the “Quiet One,” persists in ignoring her, outgoing Janeece will have none of it.
*** “Who’s he?” I asked Moose, not caring what the other guy thought since he wasn’t even trying to be polite. Least he could do was speak to me, concede that I existed. So my question was in the same pretend-he’s not-here category as his disregard.
“Kirk Crenshaw,” Moose offered, glancing curiously at his buddy.
“He’s in my homeroom.” I’d just recognized him. “Hey! You’re in my homeroom.” Let him ignore that. A thing that truly nettled me was disdain. It pounced against this thing inside me that simply must placate everyone. Fact was, I felt compelled to befriend every danged person I met and would, in fact, have taken them home with me had
Daddy been more social oriented.
For the first time, the wheat blond head turned to acknowledge me and his hard mouth curved slightly as if in amusement, or annoyance, I couldn’t tell which. “Yeah?” he muttered, as in “so what?” Little did I realize that he waved a red flag before me, with his Elk majesty and male mystique. I knew so little of myself in those young days that it was much later before I recognized what that flag represented.
In the next scene, attraction blossoms and chemistry, that mysterious, indefinable phenomenon occurs.
*** Monday morning in homeroom, I watched Kirk Crenshaw’s brisk entrance just before the bell. His carriage bordered on cocky. But wasn’t. His energetic presence affected me, as did his crisp, freshly pressed shirt and slacks—slacks that showcased firm buttocks and long slender legs. It wasn’t that he was all that good-looking, though with wavy sun-bleached hair, his rugged features weren’t bad. Kinda nice, I decided, in a tousled, inexplicable way. It was something in the way he moved, like harnessed steam, smooth yet forceful. Even the way he shoved his hands in his pockets, infinitely male, held me rapt.
Later, a prickly ‘being watched’ sensation moved me to suddenly swivel in my desk to face the back of the room, catching Kirk’s study of me. Spring-green eyes, set amid olive-complected features, startled me with their intensity, making my stomach turn over as a warm feeling trickled through me like summer branch water.
I smiled. He smiled back, his gaze never wavering. Then a strange phenomenon occurred. The tough guy blushed. Yeah. He really did, though his eyes never left mine. And that blush changed my whole perspective of Kirk Crenshaw. ***
Here the reader sees and feels through Janeece the blossoming attraction. And days later, the relationship takes an abrupt upswing into the starry skies, as only intense young adoration can.
*** County Fair time. Excitement and thrills. Being a majorette with the Byrnes High Band required me to ride the official Band Bus to the fairground where our band participated in the afternoon High School Band competition.
Afterward, as dusk fell and the bright lights cast a magic glow over side show performers and public alike, I saw a familiar figure approaching as I stood at a hot dog stand with some band member friends.
My heart did a little flip. His gaze held mine as he moved through the throng and they continued to mesmerize me as we stood touching. My eyes drank in the rugged face, the sandy-hued, slightly curly hair. My fingers knew its texture by now, as well as the contours of those broad shoulders and lean narrow waist.
“I’ll need to catch a ride back with you on the Band Bus,” he huskily informed me.
“How did you get here?”
“I drove the peach flat.”
He had permission to drive his car to band activities. “But…So?”
He saw my confusion. “I sold my peach flat,” he stated. “I drove it to the junk yard just down the road. I walked over here from there.”
“You sold your—A model peach flat?” I frowned. “Why?”
He flashed me that magnificent smile of his that lit up his eyes and pulled joy from deep inside me. “That’s the only way I could get money to—you know…for the rides. And I wanted to show you a good time.”
But to sell his peach flat? It was like a part of him. I felt a knot form in my throat.
And that’s when I knew, for the first time what love really was.
To Kirk, my happiness rated right up there above his.
“Come on!” He grabbed my hand, “time’s a’wastin’.” ***
Kirk’s sacrifice shows his love for Janeece. This is powerful.
Ah, but conflicts continue popping up, keeping the story moving.
Years later, Janeece Crenshaw tells of how she was blind sided by her husband’s “High Calling” and how she wrestled with this cataclysmic uprooting of her quiet, private, peaceful life.
The second phase a great love story is when that love is tested.
In this scene, the Crenshaws and their three children have just left church on Sunday when Kirk begins to speak:
Just that, my name tumbling from Kirk’s lips, snared my focus. He’d been silently contemplating during the drive. Now, I felt something happening inside him.
“I’ve got something to tell you. Something terribly important to me—us.” My ears, my senses lurched.
“I—I hardly know how to say it.” His broad shoulders shrugged, heightening the suspense.
“What, honey?” I touched his arm, growing alarmed.
He darted me a look I’d never seen before. “I’ve received the High
Calling on my life,” he softly declared and turned his attention back to the road.
I stared at him for long moments while confusion, like an angry waterfall, rolled over me, then blurted, “The what?”
“The call. To the ministry.”
“Oh.” My lips remained in Cheerio position as I stared at his set profile, his “mind made up” stamp already in place. And for a moment, his blurred silhouette was vintage Abraham Lincoln. The unexpectedness, the blow of his words made him seem a stranger. I struggled to dispel my befuddlement by facing the front and concentrating on what day it was. Sunday….
“Wh-when—“ I whispered, cleared my throat and tried again. “When did this happen?”
He looked incredibly serene, as lucid as I was addled. “I’ve felt it for awhile now. It was just this morning, at church that I knew for certain. As I prayed.” His brow, between green eyes, creased. “I hope you’re happy about this, Janeece.”
I shifted my numb body until he vanished from my perimeter, until all I saw was the expanse of rolling hillside passing . Yet, I could not escape the appeal in his statement. I felt it with every bone, every atom that comprised me. My vocal chords refused to give the words he yearned to hear.
Dear Lord. He had received the High Calling. Where did I fit? Why hadn’t Kirk prepared me, at least given me a small hint that my—our lives were about to do an abrupt left flank? No—an atomic rearranging.
With rising dread, I envisioned the fish-bowl milieu of the Cheshire family…and that of Pastor Hart’s family before them. Scrutiny. The very idea rained terror on me. All my struggles to keep me tucked away from prying, pitying interference and hatred, only to now watch my privacy dangled over a keg of nitroglycerine.
Privacy. I gulped back hysteria. My self-exile was a luxury to be short-lived, like a wickedly sweet milk chocolate bar in the dimpled hands of Chrissie. I took a deep breath, trying to get a grip. The High Calling—nothing could be more wonderful. Could it? More honorable?
Then why wasn’t I feeling wonderful about it? Why this crazy sense of splitting off from my husband and being set adrift while he sailed ahead like a highborn porpoise?
Into His sunset. Not mine. His. And what could be more incredible than Kirk, the howling loner, thrusting himself into humanity? Would he still be Kirk? My Kirk? For complex as it was at times, I’d found my place at his side.
I was overwhelmed. But not with awe. Mrs. Kirk Crenshaw, after six years, fit. Preacher’s wife was a whole new frontier. I honestly didn’t know if I had it in me. ***
Janeece’s love for Kirk faces the supreme test.
The reader follows Janeece’s war with herself as the day passes. On the drive home from church, a hailstorm of emotions pummel her, the first of which is helplessness.
*** The passing landscape blurred as the enormity of it all hit me again. My peaceful little world was about to somersault. God only knew where it would land and I couldn’t do doodly-squat about it.
Then came anger.
Kirk—why didn’t you prepare me for this? A vague sense of betrayal swelled within me. While he was The Loner, I was the Dug-In Kid who loved the day-to-day tranquil flow of life.”
Then came vulnerability and a loss of self.
“Who could argue with the High Calling and Whither thou goest I will go?”…. “Get past it, Neecy. It’s out of your hands.” ***
By now the reader gets it. Janeece’s love for Kirk is in jeopardy.
In a perfect world, Janeece would gush with joy over Kirk’s calling.
A love plot needs conflict. Paint yourself into corners to keep your story on the edge, whether writing romance or heart-pounding, adventurous escapes. Do the unexpected. Create lots of trouble, seemingly unsolvable dilemmas. Write helter-skelter at times, like life sometimes is. Throw in the proverbial monkey wrench at unexpected times when even you, the writer, have trouble finding a solution. Take the story’s hero and heroine through the maze that makes it hard for them to get back to the original road. Then, when you find your way back, throw in another conflict. In doing so, the writer creates a “page-turner.”
One of the problems with romance writing is its predictability. The hunky love interest is going away forever, but we know he’s coming back. In Homefires, Janeece’s initial balking at Kirk’s High Calling is not expected. The back-story to the book sets up her history in a way that allows the reader to understand her distress.
Is her reaction loving? No. She is not perfect. Neither is Kirk, because he failed to forewarn her, thus giving her no room or time to prepare herself for his final decision to blast her from her warm, comfortable alcove – tear her from her roots, following a lifetime of her being emotionally abandoned. His insensitivity is not loving.
As the day passes, Janeece’s struggle continues as her family gathers at her house for Sunday lunch.
*** “Let us pray,” Kirk said and all around the table we joined hands. “Father, thank you for this for which we are about to partake. And thanks too for the high call on my life. Amen.”
I felt that jerk in my plexus region again as a frozen silence struck the family. We look like a Norman Rockwell painting was my first inane thought.
Dad spoke first, ‘when?”, then Anne, ‘you don’t mean it, Kirk. Really?’, then Trish, flashing her dimples, ‘I can’t believe it—my brother-in-law—a preacher!’
Then everybody was talking and rushing to embrace Kirk, who took it all with a little boy grin on his face….
I sat glued to my chair, emotions gyrating, but managed a wide smile when his eyes searched mine. My acting skills kicked in for the remainder of the meal, which seemed interminable. I needed to be alone….
After they left, I escaped to my bedroom. Kirk had gone for a walk, no doubt to enjoy his new status, one already fitting him like a soft elastic suit that breathed and caressed. I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on our white chenille bedspread, hearing the girls in their room’s big climb-in closet, enlarged by their Daddy, doing a play-like scenario of church. Heather was the song leader, of course, with Krissie sitting on the bench, actually a twelve-inch high shoe shelf stretching along each side of the closet floor. When they pushed back the hanging clothing to one side, presto, they had a sanctuary, or house…or whatever.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax, to let my mind go. Lord, help me. Several deep breaths later, I felt the tension begin to loosen and I uncurled my fingers and pictured an enormous vat of Jell-O, sitting beside a still lagoon, where a soft breeze wafted over my skin, cooling and soothing.
Rationale kicked in. I handled the facts. Tradition and religion dictated that a man dislocate the universe, if necessary, to follow the High Call—a wife and children never being mentioned in the variables. Only thing I’d ever heard was that a man forsake all to take the gospel to the world. And woe unto that wife who dared to interfere or come between her husband and the Hand of the Almighty.
My eyes popped open. I, Janeece Crenshaw, walked on shaky, Holy ground. Was I questioning God’s will? I closed my eyes again and searched my heart the only way I know how. Honestly. No, I did not question the purpose of Kirk’s decision. It wasn’t that.
So what was bothering me?
I sat up in bed, having seen the mountain. I needed it moved.
First, however, I had to know what the mountain was. The front screen door slammed and I saw Kirk walk by the bedroom to the kitchen. He looked so darned noble, already different. Why can’t I switch channels so easily? I gazed out the window, through drapes stirred mildly by a breezed. Our friends across the street, the Nelsons, sat on their porch, fanning and rocking I would soon leave all this—my roots. That fact stared me baldly in the face.
‘Pwaise de Lord,’ pealed Krissie as Heather’s sermon warmed up. ‘How-de-youu-yah!’
From the mouths of babes….
And in that moment, I felt a warm, warm presence and slowly, like a jammed door screaking open, something inside me shifted and certainty flooded me that I could, when the time came, cope with whatever faced us.
Deep down where it counted, I was happy for Kirk and tickled by his sense of fulfillment already so apparent. And I knew that, even if I could, I wouldn’t lift a finger to change things back to the way they were yesterday.
‘Oh Vic-to-ryyy in Je-sus,’ chorused my daughters from the closet, ‘My sa-vioorr for-eber. He punched me to Vic-tor=reee—‘
I clapped my hand over my mouth and laughter spilled through my fingers. Moments later, as humor ebbed, it came to me what this was all about. For the first time, I had to sort out things without Kirk. This time, I must come to grips without involving him. It was a new role: protector.
The bedroom door opened. Kirk stood there and I saw it in his hesitancy, his guarded eyes. He’d noticed.
“What you doing?” His voice was soft, husky, tentative.
I got up off the bed and moved to stand toe to toe with him, my fingers playing with his shirt buttons. “I was just lying here thinking Lordy, imagine us—a preacher’s family.” I laughed then, a genuine belly one and we slid into each other’s joyful embrace.
Over his broad, strong shoulder, I glimpsed beyond the window a world clothed green by springtime and made vibrant by the sun. A new chord, with clear, precise harmony, struck inside me. Heck, I could handle this new role. Kirk would be happier then he’d ever been. And if Kirk was, so was I.
So Janeece’s marriage passes one of the ultimate tests. This is the third phase of true love, when love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
Writers face a real challenge when trying to convey, in word pictures, how true love passes the test.
What is my secret to painting a savory word picture of what love really is? Writers have different ways to go at it. In my case, I always relate to real-life situations. Through the creative melting pot process, the story and characters evolve into fiction. Always. But in my ongoing cerebral video, which I employ at will, they are not characters to me. They are real composite pictures of the story’s hero and heroine, and I address them as such. Janeece is no longer a character in my mind. I address her as Janeece. And Kirk lives and breathes and moves in my mind. And the romance is one that I have lived and felt. Even the smells, tastes, and touches are familiar.
We write what we know. Right?
It never fails.
Neither does using three primary principles for convincing readers of your characters’ true love.
Exercise: Using the following principles, create a scenario between two characters, progressing through each to a solution that proves their love.
1) Using energetic, colorful text, tell of the initial meeting and attraction.
2) Set up conflict after conflict that seem impossible to overcome.
3) With each resolution, show that love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
Do Janeece and Kirk live happily ever after?
Time to throw in another monkey wrench. The conflicts have, as the song says, “only just begun.”
About the Author…
Emily Sue Harvey’s writing to make a difference. Her upbeat stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies including “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” “Chocolate for Women,” “From Eulogy to Joy,” “A Father’s Embrace,” “True Story,” “Compassionate Friends Magazine,” and “Woman’s World.” Emily Sue served as president of Southeastern Writers Association in 2008-2009. Her first novel, Song of Renewal, published by Story Plant, was released in the spring of 2009. http://emilysueharvey.com