Gay romance fiction

First Glance… on meeting characters and making impressions

by Damon Suede

Romance audiences show up looking for love.

Before they even crack the cover open, their antennae are attuned to the slightest hint of romantic bandwidth. Once upon a while ago, that meeting between potential lovers might be delayed for a large chunk of the story, but in popular romance as it currently exists, editors prefer authors to get those lovers on deck and in trouble, pronto.

With good reason! Woe betide the romance that leaves their lovers apart for half the book, or that dithers about which pairing readers should root for. Modern audiences have been suckled on television and film; there’s not a moment to waste. The longer you leave your primary relationship offpage, the greater the risk that you’ll irritate the audience and overstay your welcome.

In essence there are two kinds of character meeting in a romance, the moment readers meet each of your lovers, and the moment the lovers first meet each other. Depending on your story, those moments may be separate scenes or simultaneous…but each of them carries enormous power in directing a narrative arc and deserves serious care and focus.

Readers instinctively begin sussing out exactly who needs to fall in love and why that will create problems. Of course they’re looking forward to that HEA, but the pleasure in a book is in the difficulties surmounted and the problems solved. This is why so many romance readers balk at adultery or uncomfortable live triangles. They crave the certainty.

Jennifer Crusie compared this reader bond to ducklings imprinting on their mother…or any convenient source of warmth and affection from golden retriever to lawn mower. Like ducklings, your readers wobble onto the landscape of your story, unsteady and eager, and lock onto a protagonist with fierce, unrelenting focus. Given even casual hints that this character deserves their attention, they will follow them with blind and passionate devotion.

Never, but never, underestimate the need for the ducklings to imprint on your primary couple. Not only does this anchor their emotional ride for the rest of the story, it sets up a complex relationship in which their emotions and the characters’ overlap. Your readers want to give a damn, and you want to help them give as many damns as possible.

Important to note is that readers don’t only want to know why your lovers are perfect for each other, but why they’re also the worst possible choice. A great character introduction begs all kinds of questions, inspires emotion, and forces your audience to keep turning the pages. Ideally that introduction establishes a status quo and simultaneously indicates how it has been or might be disrupted. The first time your readers lay eyes on any of your characters can anchor an entire plotline.

Not for nothing was Pride & Prejudice originally titled First Impressions. Not for nothing does Lizzie meet us first standing slightly apart from her silly family and Darcy sneering at the Assembly Hall. Their introductions to the audience, and also to each other set the stage for everything that follows.

A great entrance for a lead character used to be one of the prerequisites for any star turn because it took pressure off the actor and practically forced audiences to empathize with this loud person they’d spend so much time watching. A kick-ass protagonist introduction is worth its weight in gold because it flags this particular person as the one who deserves the bulk of your time, energy, and emotions.

When you’re constructing the perfect first encounters, obviously the options are infinite, but if you’re stuck for hooky intros, theatre and film overflows with time-honored “meeting” tropes which add extra sizzle and thrust to a character’s intro. A couple classics you might consider:

  • HOT OPEN: a chase, a fight, or any other tense action scene that throws the audience into the heat of conflict immediately. (especially prevalent in action subgenres like paranormal, romantic suspense, and adventure)

  • MEET CUTE: a charming, awkward collision between two characters in the best/worst possible way which hints wittily at why they would be perfect together if they weren’t so rotten apart. (A rom-com and chick lit staple)

  • ESTABLISHING SHOT: a panoramic introduction of a situation with an ironic contrast between appearance and reality, a startling or seductive image, an intriguing perspective on a world worth watching. (This gets used quote a bit with sci-fi and fantasy, or any subgenre that revels in spectacle and worldbuilding.)

  • LUCKY CATASTROPHE: a stroke of terrible fortune or personal betrayal that ultimately turns out for the best because it knocks the character(s) out of a comfy rut.

  • STRANGE INVADER: the arrival of a disruptive or distracting character who manages to challenge and upend an entire community because of their ideas, opinions, or abilities.

How you introduce all of your characters matters, but your lovers that much more. Give them a fascinating “establishing shot,” a gripping “hot open,” or a hilarious “meet cute” and your audience will forgive a multitude of sins.

That first glance which links reader to character across a crowded page of possibilities sets up all kinds of implications, connotations, and context. Imagine the difference between a protagonist introduced while:

  • crying in a posh jewelry store.

  • sprinting through a blizzard of money.

  • resetting a dislocated shoulder.

  • milking a starved cow.

  • picking pockets in a ballroom.

  • climbing out of a fresh grave.

Each of those situations indicates drama, irony, and a sense of context that asks to be unpacked. Each signals to the ducklings that this person is worth watching, this character deserves their attention and empathy. The way the character navigates those (or any) situation establishes a trajectory and begins building a meaningful world around them.

Your audience wants to care! Like eager, happy, trusting ducklings, they want your book to lead them in the direction promised, to give them the romantic ride they expect and deserve. From page one they are tottering towards any likely protagonist, noting the possibilities and imprinting as fast as they feel comfortable. Give them the fuel and let them burn, baby.

That trust cuts both ways. Betray their hopes and instincts at your peril. By all means create uncertainty or love triangles, but help the audience see WHY the HEA couple needs and compliments each other.  Pull a bait-n-switch and give your protagonist to a love interest who hasn’t earned the readers’ loyalty and you will pay the price in flames and pans. Signal who deserves that trust and devotion and then make sure you keep deserving it.

Ensure that your characters make the right first impression and your loyal fans and new readers will follow them through sick and sin, quacking happily all the way.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2018. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as a lecture for Romance University.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.