The first flush of love is so fun to write. Chests heaving, hearts pounding, minds reeling–it is all so wonderful and tantalizing. As I begin a sequel to Megan’s Christmas Knight, however, I find that I want to take Megan and Nick’s relationship to the next level–to move it from being a one-shot, simple fantasy romance to something deeper and more enduring. With that in mind, and given my current obsession with Outlander, I am pausing to reflect on what distinguishes a great love story from a simple romance and how I can take one and move it to the other.
I believe time is the first ingredient necessary for a great love story. Certainly many love stories have been written about that wondrous first flush of infatuation, some even resulting in truly desperate acts like those of Romeo and Juliet. I can’t say that I consider Romeo and Juliet a great love story because it is never tested by the fires of everyday life. Their relationship is founded on the impetuousness of youth, and their ill-conceived plans the result of teenage hormones and immaturity. It doesn’t make the play any less moving, because that kind of romance is its own story, but it does make it different from the relationship I am trying to capture.
Characters need time to learn each other. It takes time–time within the setting of the story–to allow the protagonists to reveal themselves fully, to show them reacting to a variety of situations, and to offer the occasions for them to have experiences together. In the Outlander series, Jamie and Claire go through a wide variety of adventures before they admit their love for each other, but when they do there is no doubt that theirs is a love for the ages. Outlander gives new meaning to the term epic, and the elapsed time in the realm of her stories is far beyond what most of the rest of us are capable of creating. I do still find her writing instructive, however, and hope that the concept can be carried through on a much smaller scale.
Next I think the lovers must experience character growth together. When a person becomes part of a couple, his or her essence fundamentally changes. She carries that other person with her all of the time, so that when she is standing in one place, there is a second person occupying the space with her. In order for this to happen, the characters have to grow through shared experiences, meaning that the memories that inform their actions and reactions exist only in terms of two people together. Jamie and Claire’s wedding, for example, takes place under very unusual circumstances which from that point and on through the rest of the books bind them to each other in a way that is palpable by anyone who meets them. That wedding night changed them forever so that they would not ever be the people they were before.
The third essential element is commitment. This is shown (not told) by the previously mentioned events/adventures/happenings, some of which make it hard to stay together. This is so closely aligned with the fourth essential element, trust, that they can only be dealt with together. It is only when characters see each other at their worst and stay together that they can come to trust each other at a level that does not exist with anyone else their lives. This degree of trust can be particularly hard-won if the characters have a lot of disappointing or disillusioning life experiences before they find each other. Commitment is the key to achieving this kind of trust–deciding (because commitment is a decision, not a feeling) to stay around for the long haul, truly without regard for “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Obviously in Outlander, Claire literally makes the decision to stay with Jamie and give up her life with Frank. Her commitment to him is absolutely uncompromising, and she only leaves him when she must in order to protect their unborn child.
Without question, however, there also has to be that indefinable chemistry, that physical attraction that transcends those first days of perfection and carries through to the times when a person might not be as obviously attractive to anyone else. Jamie and Claire are beautiful people, both in the books and on TV, but the characters also love each other when they don’t look (or smell) so good, particularly in the books. They touch, they kiss, they embrace no matter what the circumstances.
So where does this leave me as I face the first page of what I hope will be a great love story? A great love has to be carefully crafted by giving the characters time to get to know each other, to grow together and to decide willingly to stay forever.