Kat: Making Sparks Fly


David O. Selznick’s Gone With The Wind Clark Gable & Vivian Leigh

When you think of on-screen chemistry between movie or television characters, who immediately springs to mind?  Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind do it for me, despite the fact that I’m only a casual fan. Which has me wondering. What exactly is chemistry and how can I write my characters so that readers can “see” it. That is key. We know chemistry when we see it.

Chemistry has a physical and biological component, but it’s not about looks. It’s about emotion, passion, a connection–a rightness–that can be seen and felt. When a couple has chemistry (Clare & Jamie in Outlander), things click, and sparks fly. When they don’t (Jennifer Aniston & Matt LeBlanc during their brief romance on Friends), the romance becomes unbelievable and falls flat.

Lately I’ve been working on the romance between Cheyenne and Reed. I’ve tried to telegraph chemistry between my characters through their thoughts, feelings, and actions, but it’s not enough. Something is missing and to find out what, I looked to the old adages:

  • Opposites Attract: Each character brings something unique to the relationship that the other finds attractive and needs.
  • She Has Met Her Match:  The strength of personalities must be fairly balanced and equal, yet different enough that they appear to be opposites. Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler was wry, laid-back, and had a devil-may-care attitude, but he knew exactly who he was and what he wanted (an interesting, challenging, strong woman). Scarlett’s temper ran hot. She was spoiled, impetuous and came off as something of a man-eater, but she was strong–stronger than most men–and she needed a man who trumped her strength, while valuing it.  Rhett was that guy.

So where does that leave my story? For some time I’ve been concerned that Reed is coming off weaker than Cheyenne. He’s a single father who puts the needs of his daughter first which means he can’t afford to do/say/react in the same hot-blooded way Cheyenne can (and does).  I need to take a page from Rhett’s book where Reed is concerned.

I consulted a wonderful little tome by Billy Mernit entitled, “Writing the Romantic Comedy”. In it he has some advice for writers trying to convey chemistry in a relationship:

  • The couple has interlocking needs (two halves of a whole). “What lies beneath the obvious affinities is often a dynamic stoked by dueling “incompletes”.
  • They work well together and “represent a triumph of good teamwork.”
  • They have an emotional connection that “support the pheromones”.
  • They fit together which he describes thusly: “Your protagonist should come equipped–like interlocking puzzle pieces–with just the right-shaped edges to match each other’s profile.

Good advice, but I got really excited when I found this:   “Leads who spark and combust also share an innate unconventionality. They are misfits who fit only each other.”

And there it is. The missing something from my romance. But it’s all good because I’m half-way home. Cheyenne and Reed aren’t so much misfits (although they will be) as renegades. With a tweak here and there, the chemistry will be oozing from the page.

I leave you with this last piece of advice from Billy Mernit:

Create two incompletes who complete each other, seeming opposites who unite in a belief that love comes first–that’s the key to crafting a chemical equation that’ll set off sparks.”

The relationship between Dain & Jessica in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is my favorite example of on-page chemistry (I need to reread that book!). What’s yours and why?




8 thoughts on “Kat: Making Sparks Fly

  1. My favorite on-page romance is the one between Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin Vorsoisson. I love it for so many reasons. Part of it is there’s a strong sense of “this is never gonna work.” Miles has had semi-successful but failed relationships with women “of her type”, and he’s also physically handicapped and very aware of the strangeness of his body. She’s not of his social class, and has had a very, very bad relationship that would have failed if her husband hadn’t died first. But they both share smartness and kindness and honor, and a sense of service — and when it works, it works so great. Their first “love scenes” don’t even involve kissing, but there’s such a hot chemistry between them that it absolutely causes heart palpitations.

    They belong together. They just have to figure out how to get over their self-imposed obstacles. And we cheer when they finally do.

    Writing love is tough.

    • I had to google the characters to find out the book title (books it turns out). I don’t read much Sci-fi but this sounds intriguing and it seems to adhere to what Mernit says about misfits. I definitely will have a look at this series.

      • I’m sorry — it’s the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I rave about Bujold so often that I’m afraid people will see the B-word and turn off. (But she really is fabulous. The Vorkosigan series has a definite Heyer flair to it, with some space adventure and the pure Bujold underlying it all.)

  2. A book I remember for a relationship that really worked for me is “The Defiant Hero” by Suzanne Brockmann. I’ve read all her SEAL books and enjoyed most of them a lot, but this one I liked especially because the hero and the heroine more or less exchange roles throughout the book. The heroine kidnaps a diplomat or crime lord (or someone—the McGuffin) to gain some leverage in negotiating with terrorists who’ve kidnapped her mother and daughter; but to get out of that fix, she asks for help from a SEAL she used to know. He helps her spirit away the McGuffin, but then she dumps the SEAL because the terrorists told her to come alone. She’s now in trouble herself, on the lam with the McGuffin, trying to make the meet with the terrorists, and the SEAL comes after her. And then he finds her and makes her agree to do X, but she gains the upper hand when…and so the book goes on. What I liked about it was the agency of the everyday heroine in a book that’s essentially about SEALs and terrorism, and I liked the vibrancy of the relationship. It built relatively slowly over the chase when they try to deliver the McGuffin, and in so doing, they developed a deep knowledge of how the other would act, even though they don’t necessarily trust or believe that the other will do as s/he says (because of the conflicting goals). So on the surface they might be lying to each other (“of course I’ll wait for you!”), but in fact, they each knew what the other would actually do. I bought into the story completely. And then of course eventually it all comes out in the end. 🙂

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