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How To Write Romance in a Webcomic by Meaghan Quinn

I've been watching a lot of westerns lately, and my favorite so far in terms of "watching over and over again until I know the lines by heart" is easily Tombstone, with Kurt Russel sporting a fantastic moustache. After watching a movie, particularly one with a self-congratulatory "making of" feature, I like to search around for old reviews to see what other people thought of it. Consistently, what I came across for this particular movie was one particular complaint – the romance was distracting, not well done historically or otherwise, and just plain bad. This rocked me back in my seat. I LOVE the romance! Sure, it's just a little side part and distracts from the main story, but isn't romance itself just a side part of our lives and a distraction from the mundane?

I don't know about you, but I'm in love. And one thing I've learned from it is that real love is the anti-thesis to drama. Sure, drama may be great fun, but who wants to live dramatic ups and downs and quarrel then make up? Soap opera characters, but that's it.

So why is it that when we think of romance we think immediately of drama? Why is it that when asked to name a great romantic couple, we think of Romeo and Juliet, who never got a chance to do anything but give long duologues and pine for each other before kicking the bucket? Why is romance in stories exactly what we don't want it to be for ourselves?

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In webcomics, it's become increasingly notable that when romance is introduced, it's as tension. Will they get together? Will he figure out it was she who sent the letter? Will she figure out that now that she's going out with this other guy and resigned to him not loving her, that he does love her? And now is he ever going to figure out that she loves him after he accidentally sent her to another dimension? When the heck are they going to get together, already?!?! These are the same questions asked in forums across the webcomics spectrum (except maybe the dimension thing)... but this isn't romance – this is tension, drama, melodrama. Just a little bit is good to engage the reader's interest. Too much is overkill; you can't whip your readers around like that, it starts to get silly.

If a story's driving force is not romance, there are certain "do's" rather than "don'ts" to mind. Like any other relationship between people, romance adds depth and background to a character. However, surely no one acts the same around their mother, best friend, and their romantic love. These different sides to a character help propel their actions, give them spontaneity (rather than telegraph predictable actions in a given situation), and make for a better-rounded story.

So let the romance distract the characters. Use it to inspire plot and give reason to actions. Love and romance fuel people to do things they would not have considered, because of the strength of the emotion involved. Use it to show an immediate difference between characters – dispassionate Bond always plays well against swooning Bong girls. In Odd Jobs, David DiAngelo has a female friend he seems taken with, but how he handles himself around her and the sheer lack of his pursuit of her company tells volumes more about his personal character than his professional, pragmatic thinking when on a job. Even small moments of romance, or in this case non-romance, add much to a story.

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One of the major flaws in webcomics when it comes to romance is conveniently-inserted topical romance in a non-romance comic – where the overall theme is not mainly romance-related, but a storyline may occasionally highlight that aspect. After the story is done, the characters get back in their groove, either single or now attached, all depending on how things went in said storyline.

General Protection Fault, for example, is by no means a romance comic, but love comes up memorably enough. Just when things get boring at the office, one character will get a crush on another and that portion of their lives will become the main focus for a while. Then the characters will go on to another storyline and no more development happens. If a character ends the romance storyline with her crush still untold, she keeps it until the next storyline devoted to it. If two characters get together, they stay together with no conflict until a storyline devoted to their relationship crops up.

Treating romance as something that only matters when it's the focus really disconnects the story from reality, no matter how well it is treated when addressed. Art doesn't have to be realistic, gadgets don't need to be realistic, but when dealing with such a common human experience, you DO need to be realistic.

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In the case of a comic devoted wholly to romantic or romance themes, there are more "don'ts" to keep in mind. Everyone should be familiar with soap operas, whether they have actually watched them or not. Within a small cast of people in a single location lies enough spouse-swapping to account for any rise in divorce rates all by themselves. When the main draw is romance, a couple settling down and loving each other for the rest of their lives is often interpreted as the "end" of a tale – to continue the story, bad romance writers typically resort to the entirely-too-easy 'breaking up' solution, whether it is in character for the couple to do so or not.

The great romance stories end in death or with the wedding. Cinderella gets her prince and no one cares anymore. So if you are going to write romance, give it an ending so you don't have to submit to soap-opera storytelling. After overcoming so many obstacles to get together, it's disheartening for the reader to see a pair split up, no matter how much they may appreciate the drama of heartache. Don't manipulate the cast just to maintain interest. If you want to continue with a pair in love after the wedding, where normally you'd fade to black and have "The End" come across in fancy script, romance can no longer be the focal point. However, it can still become a supporting member of the cast. If stories can be about a pair of friends overcoming obstacles together, why not a pair of lovebirds doing the same?

Obstacles are the word of the day everyday when writing romance. The inspiration is in seeing two people love each other so much they will overcome anything – class, money, parents, wars, feuds, different species, etc. Even when no such grand obstacles exist, there are still the personal hurdles. Having two people in love but unwilling to see it because of pride, prejudice, sense or sensibility, or any other of a host of reasons is a much more subtle way to interest the reader. After all, it really isn't any fun if the couple engaged by their parents since birth grow up as best friends and love each other. Lucky for them, but not much fun for us. Now let them be separated and find each other and fall in love, but believe they are engaged to other people.

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There's a factoid going around that Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow, and people have taken that and stated that we should have the same for love.

Just as no one acts the same around his parents and his lover, he certainly doesn't love them the same way. Even when talking about strictly romantic love, you hit upon many different levels, methods, and ways of loving. People love selfishly, selflessly, intimately, physically, mentally, to name a few, and all have different ways of showing it and expectations of what kind of love and actions they receive in turn.

The conflict between two people who do love each other but have to sort out the particulars is a great basis to build a story around. One comic that showcases many forms of love, romance, and friendship all in one sexy package is Boy Meets Boy. With the added conflict that being homosexual brings with it (Mik's ex-boyfriend can go after his current boyfriend. You can't do that in straight-land convincingly. Oh, you thought I meant bias against homosexuality? That's a whole ‘nother topic!), this comic tackles everything – unrequited and untold loves, sexual attraction without romantic feeling, sexual attraction WITH romantic love, friendships and their effect on other relationships.

Even so, all this variation on romance and relationships wouldn't be as much of a draw without the wackiness of everyday life thrown in. Even in a story primarily based on relationships, you simply can't keep the reader interested in just that one part of life and achieve a real connection between them and your characters.

Whether in stories dealing primarily with it, or those that merely include it as they would any relationship, romance is a really useful tool to convey characters to a reader. It is a universal thing among people of different cultures and backgrounds, in at least some form, and it really serves well as a connection between fictional characters and real people – which is why it is so important to use it as realistically as possible.

After all, romance is a grand distraction from the mundane.

Re: How To Write Romance in a Webcomic by Meaghan Quinn

Great essay! You gave voice to a lot of unformed thoughts I've had - especially to what happens after "they lived happily ever after" flashes on the screen.

So many dimensions to human behavior, so little time...

Regards, Tim Broderick