Have you ever read a thriller and known as soon as a character walked onstage that he or she was the “obligatory” love interest? Or read a sex scene that seemed like a placeholder between pieces of the mystery? Or maybe felt like a character’s love interest was introduced only to give him or her motivation to come home at the end of a dangerous mission/investigation? Or thought perhaps the character’s love interest was a way to show the hero or heroine had a “real” life outside of work, but seemed to serve no other purpose?
It can be easy to fall into the trap of creating a romantic interest for your hero or heroine simply to fill space between action scenes. But just like any other piece of your story, the love interest and any romantic scenes need to serve a purpose. If they aren’t moving forward the plot or the arc of the main character, they don’t belong in the story.
I write both a psychological suspense series and a romantic suspense series. Both contain some level of romance; one is low and the other high. But what the romantic elements have in common is that they’re integral to the story. So, how do you create love interests and romantic scenes that propel the story forward instead of being a crutch?
You can start by asking yourself these questions:
- How can I use a love interest to further a theme in my story?
- How can I use a love interest to create a twist in my plot?
- How can I use a love interest to teach the hero(ine) something new about him- or herself that will be important in the course of the story?
The more you can integrate the love interest into the rest of the story, the stronger that element of the book will feel. If you can find a way to make the love interest crucial to both the growth of the main character and the plot, even better.
In a romantic suspense novel, the mystery and the romance have to be so intertwined that you shouldn’t be able to pull one out of the story without dislodging the other. While the romance in a straight suspense novel probably isn’t going to be as prominent, you can still use some of the tricks from romantic suspense:
- Consider creating conflicts between your hero and the love interest that tie into the plot – the same reason they can’t (or shouldn’t) be together is impacting the mystery itself. Maybe the love interest is a witness and the hero is a cop (conflict of interest). Or the love interest knows something about the case (s)he can’t (or isn’t willing) to tell, but the hero needs that information to solve the case. That push and pull between the characters impacts not only how their relationship will progress, but also moves the plot forward.
- Consider creating a love interest that causes a problem for your hero in their personal life, someone who will push the hero out of their comfort zone, force them into new situations or into making decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make. Developing a love interest who challenges the protagonist to change impacts the arc of your character, helping to give you a hero at the end of the story who is different from the one introduced at the beginning. If you can connect these changes back to the plot at the same time, even better!
- Use a love interest to increase the stakes – and the tension! A hero with nothing to lose often isn’t as interesting as a character who has something to live for, and love is a compelling motivator. You can put the love interest in danger, or you can create a hero who is finally finding stability and happiness in their (love) life, and the plot of the story threatens it. The more your protagonist has to lose, the harder (s)he will work to save it.
When it comes to scenes involving the hero and the love interest, remember:
- Love scenes can be a break from the tension of a mystery (or create a tension of a different kind), but they still need their own internal movement. If the scene doesn’t advance the character arc or the plot (or both), it doesn’t belong in the story.
- The love interest can be a great tool to show a different side of the protagonist, perhaps one that his or her colleagues wouldn’t see at work, and that the reader wouldn’t see without the love interest.
- Being emotionally invested in the character is important to keep a reader involved, and it’s especially important for books in a series, where you’re counting on the reader wanting to read multiple stories about this person. The trajectory of a romance over the course of one book, or over the course of a series, can be a great way to hook readers.
- It isn’t really about how much you show (if you stop at the bedroom door or not!), but about investing your reader in the protagonist and his or her life, and in the mystery of the moment – that “will they or won’t they” kind of tension that works so well in TV series.
Adding a love interest to a mystery can be a great way to amp up tension, provide your protagonist with growth, and move along the plot…as long as you take the time to develop it and make it as strong as any other component in your story. So, with your next book, consider adding a little love.
Critically acclaimed author Elizabeth Heiter likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.
To learn more about Elizabeth Heiter’s books, click on the covers below: