Kay: Are Your Characters Meant for Each Other?

I’ve been making pretty good progress with my WIP, the third and final story of Phoebe’s escapades. This is the book where Phoebe marries her hero, and I want to show why she waited until book three, instead of tying the knot in book one. I’ve been writing mostly just the action scenes first and tying in some feelz afterwards, trying to connect the themes and show why Phoebe and Chase are meant to be.

In this trilogy, Chase is divorced from a marriage that he rushed into, and now he wants to rush into this one with Phoebe, too. Phoebe wants to wait. And I want readers to know that just because Phoebe wanted to wait doesn’t mean she doesn’t think Chase is the perfect guy for her.

What can I have them do for each other, say to each other—or say to other people—that shows their commitment? I’ve been struggling with this, not because I can’t have them do things for each other (the “air conditioner” test, as we like to call it—the perfect gift that Shane brings Agnes in Agnes and the Hitman), but because I need these actions to be stronger and more convincing than they were in books one and two. I want readers to believe in the success of their marriage.

It turns out that science can predict divorce. No one can say with 100% certainty that a marriage will fail, but social scientists can take a pretty good stab at it. Couples doomed for failure share commonalities.

  1. Getting married in your teens or after age 32

Phoebe is 25, and Chase is 32. Whew! Dodged a bullet there. According to the social scientists, the best time to get married is when you feel ready and when you’ve found someone you think you can spend a lifetime with. Thank you, Phoebe!

However, couples who marry in their teens or their mid-30s or later are at greater risk for divorce than couples in their late 20s and early 30s. The risk is especially high for teenage couples, but after age 32, your odds of divorce increase by about 5% every year.

Some research shows that among heterosexual couples, the odds of divorce increase with the age gap between spouses. A 10-year age difference makes them 39% more likely to divorce.

  1. Having a husband who doesn’t work full-time

In my book, not a chance. Chase is an overachiever and he’s made a bundle off the sweat of his brow. But it’s not a couple’s finances that affect their chances of divorce, but rather the division of labor. Among couples where the husband doesn’t have a full-time job, there’s a 3.3% chance of divorcing the following year, compared to 2.5% among couples where the husband does have a full-time job. Wives’ employment status, however, doesn’t much affect the couple’s chances of divorce. Doesn’t matter to my guys: Phoebe’s an overachiever, too.

  1. Not finishing high school

More than half of marriages of those who didn’t complete high school end in divorce, compared with 30% of marriages of college graduates. This may reflect that lower educational attainment predicts lower income, which in turn predicts a more stressful life. And stress reduces the chances of having a productive, happy marriage.

Not gonna happen for my kids. Both Phoebe and Chase finished college. Phoebe’s still paying off her school loans, but that’s another story.

  1. Showing contempt for your partner

Some relationship behaviors predict divorce with scary-high accuracy:

  • Contempt: Seeing your partner as beneath you.
  • Criticism: Turning a behavior into a statement about your partner’s character.
  • Defensiveness: Playing the victim during difficult situations.
  • Stonewalling: Blocking off conversation.

My people are good here. Both my characters are pretty impressed by the other.

  1. Being overly affectionate as newlyweds

Couples who divorced seven or more years after they married were, as newlyweds, giddily affectionate, displaying about one-third more affection than did spouses who were later happily married. Evidently those who begin marriage in romantic bliss are particularly divorce-prone because they can’t maintain the intensity. Marriages that start out with less “Hollywood romance” usually have more promising futures.

Not to worry with my two. They’re affectionate, but right now they’ve got a house full of company, and it’s all they can do to snatch a minute to be alone together.

  1. Weathering daily stress

Stress is tough on a marriage. (See point #3.) Seemingly trivial experiences like forgetting an appointment or missing the bus create tension between spouses. The accumulation of everyday stress is a more relevant divorce trigger than falling in love with another person, partner violence, or even a specific major life event.

Well, my guys are having major daily stress. They’ve got a houseful of company, one of whom is a Russian hacker trying to defect. And now they’ve got a Russian assassin after him, and by extension, all of them. So it’s not all rose petals and gravy at their house. On the other hand, they’re handling it pretty well. And they’re trying to get the defector turned into the FBI. Damn that government shutdown.

  1. Withdrawing during conflict

Either partner can shut down rather than discuss something difficult, but a recent study found that husbands are much more likely to engage in this behavior. “Withdrawal behaviors” predict higher divorce rates. And couples that engage in “demand/withdraw” patterns—that is, one partner pressures the other and receives silence in return—are less happy in their relationships.

Yeah, my guys don’t do this. They both approach their problems in a heads-on way.

  1. Describing your relationship in a negative way

In talking in groups, the way partners talk about their relationship or each other demonstrates the strength or weakness of their marriage and can predict their likelihood for divorce. The measures include:

  • Fondness for each other
  • “We”-ness: How much each spouse emphasizes unification in the marriage
  • Expansiveness: How much each partner elaborates on what the other says
  • Negativity
  • Disappointment in the marriage
  • How much the couple describes their marriage as chaotic

Phoebe is having trouble with “we-ness,” although her concerns are mostly about money (she’s in big debt). She’s having trouble accepting an idea of shared resources. Also, they don’t elaborate on what the other says. So far, they each let each other speak their piece and that’s it. Otherwise, they’re pretty good on these fronts.

Where to go from here

How does my pair stack up? I think pretty well. They have some areas that aren’t great by these measures. On the other hand, what’s a couple without a conflict? Now all I have to do is translate these concepts into the daily details of my characters.

Getting right on that.

8 thoughts on “Kay: Are Your Characters Meant for Each Other?

  1. This is so interesting, Kay, thank you for sharing! I strongly prefer romances where the h&h work together to defeat the bad guy, because I think it makes for a more convincing picture of what their life together will be like after the end of the book. So much easier to believe in a HEA if you’ve seen the characters dealing with stress together and developing their model of ‘we-ness.’ Often when there’s a big declaration and commitment right at the end of the book, I have a hit of happy followed by a niggling doubt about whether their new normal is sustainable.

    Most importantly, sounds as though Phoebe and Chase are in a good place, and likely to stay there for the long term. I am very excited to read these books. No pressure. Just sayin’ 😉

    • I’m with you about liking the team-building aspects of jointly pursuing a bad guy, because one does feel that the couple has a better chance of making it. Those final chapters of romances where the only problem is an internal one, when the couple has spent pages sighing over their lips or hair or breasts or whatever—yeah, not as convincing.

      I think this third book has a lot of ground to cover. Here’s hoping I can squish it all in so it’s believable.

  2. It sounds like the two places you have room for growth are in the areas of Phoebe accepting financial help (and I totally sympathize with her need for independence) and in expanding on each other’s statements. The second one, especially, sounds like a great opportunity to demonstrate that they get each other.

    Bookmarking this for future reference!

  3. Action-wise is really hard, IMO. But I think if you show the characters having a choice between the relationship and a non-relationship, and they always choose the relationship despite the spoken doubts, then you might be on firm ground.

    Who do they go to first when they are in trouble? If it’s partner, then that’s a good sign, too. Maybe it’s OK to have trust issues in the first third of the story (not book per se, but story), but by the middle third, they both should be realizing what an ally they have in the other person.

    This is really something I need to think about.

    (-: The giddiness of early love being a predictor of early breakup is kind of troubling to me! But . . . odds are odds, and romance readers will accept a story that wins against the odds.

    Kind of makes me want to write about middle-aged high school drop-outs who find love despite everything. (But no matter what, I don’t think I can make contempt between partners work. That’s a deal-breaker for me. Gas-lighting, ugh.)

    • Middle-aged high school dropouts who find love despite everything—that can totally work. One is always reading about people who meet or date or something and then reconnect 30 years later, stuff like that.

      You’re totally right that romance readers will accept a story that wins against the odds. In this trilogy, we’ve got a rookie CIA agent hooking up with a recently retired NFL quarterback. I mean, what are the odds of that? I’d say zero, if I weren’t writing the book myself. 🙂

      • What are the real-life odds, or what are the romantic fiction odds? SEP had a recently retired NFL quarterback and a hyper-brainy astrophysicist with a ticking biological clock in search of a good-looking but stupid man to father her child (Nobody’s Baby But Mine). Compared with that, a rookie CIA agent heroine is positively mainstream 😉

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