[Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series about writing romantic subplots. Yesterday’s post featured Part 1.]
The Fluffy Romantic Subplot (Heroes of Olympus, Black Panther)
Also: Subverting the Trope
Let’s say you don’t want your romantic subplot to be that important. You just want something cute to show your audience. Take a break from the monster-bashing, sword-fighting, and political drama to see their two favorite characters fall in love. That’s fine. I live for fluffy romantic subplots, so long as they’re done well.
In Black Panther, they could have easily had Nakia and T’Challa not be an item. You have a handful of characters speculating on the fact that they’re exes, Nakia tearfully admitting that she loved T’Challa once she thinks he’s dead, and a kiss at the end. All total, maybe five minutes of screen time is dedicated to their romance. Most of their time together is them figuring out how to save their country from a madman and arguing over whether or not Wakanda should go public.
Now, if this isn’t necessary to the story, why is it in there? Part of it is cuteness. These characters have been to hell and back, and they deserve a reward. But most of it is trope subversion. Nakia and T’Challa are exes. In any other movie, they would be incapable of working together, their minds reverting back to spiteful sixth-graders as they forget how to adult. Yet in this movie, despite their romantic history, it’s obvious that they’re still good friends and know how to work together. There’s also the race factor: most movies and shows that have a black couple make them dysfunctional, feeding into the stereotypes of jezebels, missing fathers, angry black women, etc. Black Panther presents a healthy, realistic portrayal of black love.
Another story that includes fluffy, romantic subplots while subverting that very trope is Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series. He goes a little overboard with the romances, in that every major protagonist but one ends up in a relationship (and FYI: there are nine major protagonists). I give him a pass because he writes them well and they don’t take up too many pages. Of all those relationships, we’re going to be examining Nico di Angelo’s.
Nico’s internal struggle is his belief that, because he’s the son of Hades, everyone hates him and no one wants to be his friend, never mind his significant other, so he isolates himself. To a lesser extent, he also has to come to terms with the fact that he’s gay. Now, these issues did not have to be solved with a romantic subplot. And in fact, they weren’t! Nico comes to terms with his sexuality on his own, with Jason as cheerleader. He also slowly comes around to the fact that maybe not everyone hates him, or even finds him all that weird, and that he can have friends, even a boyfriend.
Well, I say “slowly.” It’s more like Will Solace (son of Apollo) screams it at him in frustration because he’s likely had a crush on Nico for a while now, or at the very least wants to be friends with him, and Nico quickly falls in line after that. But the realization itself is, like, 60% Nico.
And that’s it. The series ends on possibility and hope, which is something Nico never really had before. We don’t get a Big Kiss or even see him asking Will out (or vice versa). In fact, when we see them again in the first Trials of Apollo book, it skips ahead to when they’ve already been dating for a few months. And they’re absolutely adorable together!
The romance in this case isn’t even icing on the cake. It’s the decorative frosting flowers on top of the icing. Arguably unnecessary, but still good. And the Solangelo relationship subverts the romance trope just by virtue of being a same-sex relationship. Let’s face it: most romantic subplots happen because authors believe lead male and female characters are incapable of existing in a platonic relationship if they’re not biologically related. Getting some LGBTQ action in there is a breath of fresh air.
Final Tips and Thoughts
How do you know if your romantic subplot is essential to your story? Make a copy of the document and delete every romantic scene. You’d be surprised at the results.
How do you make sure your fluffy romantic subplot doesn’t grow tiring and annoying? Highlight the romantic scenes and make sure they’re in a thin minority. And see if you can subvert any stereotypes while you’re at it. Doing that generally makes the audience much more forgiving if you do end up being a little heavy-handed with it, because at the very least, you’re giving them something they don’t expect.
Honestly, before you even start with the romance, ask yourself these questions:
- Does this story really need it?
- Is there another way to show that these characters care about each other? (e.g. best friends, adopted siblings, family members, personal hero, mentor/mentee, etc.)
- Do these characters naturally gravitate toward each other, or am I forcing the issue?
- Do these characters conform to stereotypes that have already been written a million times?
- If I’m just trying to create tension between characters, is there a more original way to do it?
Follow your gut, not the well-worn path. Good luck, lovelies!
P.S. For more tips on the romantic subplot trope, I highly recommend watching this video on YouTube. And all other Trope Talk videos. She’s awesome.