How will my characters’ relationship develop?

Just as you’ve explored the conflict keeping your protagonist and the love interest apart, you should also consider how their relationship will develop. Many writers fall into the trap of letting their characters fall in love too quickly, which means they then struggle to make the conflict believable.

Romance readers expect to see the characters gradually come together during the course of the story. Whether or not the characters have a physical relationship right from the get-go, it’s their emotional connection that makes it possible for them to achieve their happily-ever-after. 

Let’s take a look at how a romantic relationship develops from the point of view of the protagonist, though these developmental stages can and should also be considered form the love interest’s point of view. Note, the developmental stages we’ll explore do not necessarily have to occur in the order they’re presented — you need to consider what’s best for your characters and the story — but they should all occur in one form or another in your characters’ relationship.

Stage 1: Physical Awareness / Aesthetic Attraction

For the protagonist to fall in love, the first thing that needs to occur is for them to become physically aware of the love interest. This could happen in any number of ways: the characters might lock eyes across a crowded room; the protagonist might go unnoticed as they steal surreptitious glimpses at the love interest; or the characters might even bump into each other, literally, as they’re making their way down the street. No matter how this awareness comes about for the protagonist, it will be essential to put them in close physical proximity to the love interest.

With physical awareness, or soon after, the protagonist will likely experience aesthetic attraction. This is when they, through the use of their senses, find something about the love interest attractive — whether it’s their appearance, how they smell or the sound of their voice. This kind of attraction may also spark romantic or sexual attraction, but that won’t always and doesn’t have to be the case. (Think of the enemies-to-lovers trope.)

Questions to consider:

  • How will my protagonist become physically aware of the love interest? Where will they be? What will they be doing? How might they react?
  • What will the protagonist find attractive about the love interest? Aim to come up with specific and unique characteristics that they admire.

Stage 2: Admiration of Obvious Virtue

Next, as the protagonist spends more time in proximity with the love interest, whether or not they do so willingly, their attraction should grow a little deeper, beyond the superficial. They should, in some way, witness the love interest at their best, or close to their best. 

This is where the love interest’s positive personality traits or endearing qualities come into play. They should be given the opportunity to put their best foot forward, and in doing so, they are noticed by the protagonist.

Note, the protagonist’s admiration for the love interest does not equate to love. It merely opens the door to the possibility of love blossoming.

Questions to consider:

  • What positive personality traits or endearing qualities will the protagonist admire in the love interest?
  • What situation will I put my characters in to allow the love interest to show their virtues and for the protagonist to notice them?

Stage 3: Courtship

Just like in real life, your protagonist should get to know the love interest before they enter into a romantic relationship with them. Instalove (a.k.a instantaneous love) belongs only in the Disney movies of yesteryear — and even that franchise has seen the error of their ways!

How do people generally get to know each other? They go on dates and talk. So to mimic real life, it’s important to engineer scenes that have the protagonist and the love interest exchanging meaningful dialogue — the kind of dialogue a couple might have in the early stages of dating. However, given all the obstacles keeping the two characters apart, they probably won’t have the luxury of going on dates to get to know each other, so you’ll need to orchestrate opportunities for them to do so in other ways. Kind of like date simulation. These scenes are known as courtship scenes.

Questions to consider:

  • What date simulation opportunities will my characters have to exchange meaningful dialogue?
  • What will each of my characters reveal in dialogue that lets the protagonist get to know the love interest a little better, and vice versa?

Stage 4: Emotional Connection

You know the old adage: “things are starting to get serious”? Well, this stage is where the relationship between your characters starts to develop into something more serious, something more than friendship. 

For this to occur, you should devise scenes that allow for the protagonist and the love interest to form a strong emotional connection. Consider what will bring the two characters together on an emotional level, then put them in situations that allow them to bond over it. Once they do, they’ll find it difficult to walk away from each other.

Questions to consider:

  • Given their backgrounds and past experiences, what will my characters bond over? How will they form an emotional connection?
  • What situation can I put the characters in to allow them to form this connection?

Stage 5: Uncovering the True Self

In forming an emotional connection, the two characters will often learn new things about each other and get to know each other on a much deeper level. They will uncover qualities they admire in each other; their true selves are shining through.

Questions to consider:

  • What new things will the characters learn about each other?
  • What admirable qualities will they uncover in each other?

Stage 6: Acknowledgement of Feelings

Once the protagonist has gotten to know the love interest on a deeper, emotional level, they will realise they’ve developed feelings for them. But although the protagonist might acknowledge these feelings, they might not necessarily be ready to accept them or admit how they feel to anyone else. The obstacles preventing the characters from being together might still be relevent, which means their feelings will likely be causing them a great deal of inner conflict.

Note, too, that the characters might each reach this stage at different times in the story. Often one character knows how they feel a lot sooner than the other; usually, it’s the protagonist who takes a bit longer to come to this major realisation. 

Questions to consider:

  • What happens to make the protagonist acknowledge their feelings for love interest?
  • How does the protagonist react to this realisation? 

Stage 7: Surrender to Feelings

Once the protagonist has had some time to digest how they truly feel about the love interest, they will reach a point where they’re ready to accept those feelings and surrender to them. Often a friend or confidant helps them reach this point of surrender by encouraging them to talk about how they’re feeling. The protagonist realises their desire to be with the love interest outweighs (but doesn’t necessarily diminish) any obstacle still standing in their way.

Upon surrendering to their feelings, the protagonist’s goals may change — they want to be with the love interest. And so they make plans to take action towards achieving this goal.

Questions to consider:

  • What happens to cause the protagonist to surrender to their feelings for the love interest?
  • What action does the protagonist plan to take to help them achieve their new goal of being with the love interest?

Stage 8: Physical Intimacy

Once the protagonist surrenders to their feelings and acts on them, they’re usually rewarded with the knowledge that the love interest reciprocates those feelings. When the characters each realise they both feel the same way, they usually engage in some kind of physical intimacy to express those feelings. 

The nature of the intimacy between your characters will depend on your story’s heat level, which we first explored in Step 1. If the heat level is high, the characters will likely be enjoying a sexual relationship from early in the story, but at this stage in their relationship’s development, they should no longer be focused only on meeting each other’s physical needs and desires. Instead, their physical encounters are an opportunity to express how they feel about each other emotionally.

You should also consider how this intimacy will be instigated and how it fits into the story. The moment should not be forced simply because you’re writing a romance. Rather, it should happen organically, when it’s right for the characters and in a way that’s true to them. Physcial intimacy should raise the stakes and be instrumental in moving the story forward.

Questions to consider:

  • What event leads to physical intimacy between the protaognist and love interest?
  • What’s the nature of the physical intimacy and how will it raise the stakes for the characters?

Stage 9: Lovers in Society

No one lives in a bubble, not even your characters, so at some point in the development of their relationship, the protagonist and the love interest will enter society in some way. They will perhaps meet each other’s families, socialise with each other’s friends or immerse themselves in their community. They may go public with their relationship or try to hide it from everyone; people may be supportive or they may disapprove of the characters being together. Whatever actions your couple takes and however society reacts will need to fit with the story and either help or hinder the couple in their quest to be together.

Questions to consider:

  • How will the lovers “enter society”?
  • How do people react to the characters being together or the possibility of them being together?

Stage 10: Lessons Learned

In order for your protagonist to overcome all obstacles, grow and develop as a person, end up with the love interest and achieve their HEA, they should learn lessons from love interest, and vice versa, as well as from their relationship. These lessons should ultimately be learned late in the story and inspire the characters to fight for what they want.

Questions to consider:

  • What lesson does the protagonist need to learn in order to find true love and happiness?
  • What role will the love interest play in teaching the protagonist this lesson?
  • What is it about the relationship that contributes to the protagonist learning this lesson?