Building Believable Love Between Characters
Strong characters are at the foundation of any successful novel, and making sure that readers can see the emotions and feelings that your characters are experiencing about themselves, or for each other, will ensure that your story stays with them long after they finish the book. That’s why so many stories include some aspect of love between characters. With love being such a strong and universal feeling, including it is rarely a bad idea, regardless of your genre.
That means even if you aren’t writing a romance, or if romantic sub-plots just aren’t your thing, you can still include other types of love between characters, such as the love between family or very close friends. Regardless of the type you include, for it to work it has to feel real, which means that – just like in life – it’s not enough to just say the words. Luckily, there are many different ways that people express love, and as Ginger explains below, by picking and choosing what works best for the characters in your book, you can create authentic feelings and emotions that will leave a lasting impression on your readers.
Love isn’t just for romance authors. From thrillers to science fiction, a character’s love is often one of the driving forces of a story, and many of our most timeless books and movies became that way because they centered around a believable love story.
What would the Star Wars movies be without Han and Leia, for example? Or the Indiana Jones franchise without Indy and Marion? Or any of countless other fictional romances, including those involving characters not played by Harrison Ford?
Love works – especially if you write it right.
But what makes for a believable love story? Well, one non-fiction book that’s proven to be a really useful reference for me is The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman. It’s actually a self-help book about understanding the different ways in which people express and appreciate love (the five ‘love languages’ he speaks about) but it’s also a fascinating reference for writers who really lean into the belief that we should ‘show, not tell’ when it comes to love stories.
This is because there are infinitely more ways to say “I love you” than with words – and this book pretty much outlines each of them in turn.
The Love Languages Theory
Despite giving its name to a series that now spans 11 different books, the theory of ‘Love Languages’ is pretty straightforward and logical. Gary Chapman outlines the belief that people express and appreciate love in five different ways – and the source of a lot of the frustration between couples is that one partner expresses their love in ways that their partner doesn’t appreciate, and vice-versa.
The classic way of expressing love, as in just saying it, falls under “words of affirmation.” Making your partner scrambled eggs in the morning and giving them a foot massage is described as “acts of service.” If you feel loved when your partner buys you jewelry or new clothes, that’s “receiving gifts.” Going to the movies together or having regular date nights counts as “quality time.” Finally, there’s “physical touch” – which can range from showing your kids you love them by snuggling on the couch to demonstrating your love for a spouse or partner through, ahem, intimate stuff.
From a psychology perspective, it’s a fascinating theory that resonates with a lot of people. I’ve definitely observed in my own relationship that my wife and I express love differently. She’s about “acts of service” and “receiving gifts” while I appreciate affection through “words of affirmation” and “physical touch.” That’s why she’s upset when I don’t buy her something pretty on our anniversary, and I get frustrated when she says “not tonight, dear” for what seems like the hundredth night in a row.
So, the theory of the love languages is a great one for tackling friction in your real-life relationship – but it’s also a great way to figure out how your characters can demonstrate their love for one another without having to rely on those “three little words.”
(That’s “I love you” by the way.)
Show, don’t Tell (unless your love language is “words of affirmation”)
If there’s a love story in the tale you’re trying to weave, let your characters demonstrate it by using the classic ‘love languages’ rather than just words.
If your hero is starting to fall for your heroine, let him show it by making her breakfast in bed, or by repaving her driveway. His love language is “acts of service.”
If your heroine is about to risk her life at the climax of the story, let her demonstrate her love for our hero through one, last night of steamy passion. That’s “physical touch” right there.
Whether it’s a priceless diamond necklace or a dog-eared copy of your heroine’s favorite book, if your hero shows his love through the power of his pocketbook, that’s “receiving gifts” – whereas a weekend in the mountains or front row tickets to the ballet involves the hero and heroine spending “quality time” together.
Finally, for the hero who makes an impassioned declaration of love at the end of the novel, that’s “words of affirmation” – and the first love language that actually requires words.
There are so many different ways to demonstrate how your characters love each other without having to outright say it, and the beautiful thing about that is how you can use ‘love languages’ to communicate love for each other even when the characters aren’t ready to admit it themselves.
Using Love Languages in Stories
You don’t need to be writing romance stories to use love languages effectively in your writing, and one of the best ways to do that is to use them to show growing affection between characters even when they might outright deny such a thing to themselves or others.
Alternatively, you can create tension in a love story by having mismatched love languages. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Mr. Darcy expresses his affection for Elizabeth through “words of affirmation” – or as close as his inelegant declaration actually turns out to be! Elizabeth, however, appreciates “acts of service” as an expression of love, and therefore only returns Mr. Darcy’s feelings when she puts aside her prejudice and learns about the kind and generous things he’s done.
However you want to use them, love languages are a highly effective way to show how characters love each other in your stories, and that’s what makes for the most memorable and believable fictional relationships.