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?