The writers of this blog met in the McDaniel College creative writing (romance) program. Not all of us are primarily romance writers. For some of us, a romance plot might be a secondary element, or even just a hint on the horizon.
Whatever space the romantic plot occupies in our books, we all want to make the love story believable. For me, the key question when I write my hero and heroine is, why these two people and no other? What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?
It turns out that two University of Chicago neuroscientists know how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo decided to study whether people look at potential mates differently if they perceive a long-term companion rather than a temporary sexual partner. The scientists speculated that their findings could benefit therapists who do couples counseling.
They showed their research subjects (heterosexual college students) black-and-white photos of members of the opposite sex. Tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements, and the researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust.
The results, published in Psychological Science, probably won’t shock you, or even surprise you. The researchers found that you look at people differently if you’re thinking long-term or short-term. People interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but because women have better peripheral vision, the scientists speculated that they may seem less obvious about it.
This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, whereas sexual desire lights up its posterior. “Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses,” the researchers write, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in relatively abstract, integrative representations.”
The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And romance writing is nothing if not interpersonal interaction. How characters should look at each other is good to keep in mind when your heroine is telling her deepest secrets. That’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re going dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.
What about you? Are there obvious (or not so obvious) behaviors that help you show your characters’ deepest (or most shallow) feelings?