When it comes to writing romance, some of the most powerful scenes come out of moments in which characters show their feelings for their significant others. But this does not limit itself to profound speeches or getting down on one knee.
People express their love in various forms, so with Valentine’s Day on the horizon, I thought it serves as the perfect opportunity to explore the little ways these feelings might be made known.
This might be a phrase as simple as “I love you” or something more unique to the couple like “As you wish” in The Princess Bride or “I wolf you” on Netflix’s You or, in the case of my own works, the reoccurrences of “I swear it to you” in Guises to Keep and the way the phrase itself builds up alongside the relationship.
However, it’s not just about saying “I love you” or whichever twist you give those three words. It’s also important to show the characters expressing their feelings. To paraphrase one of my favorite tidbits of advice for beginning romance writers, if your characters have to kiss for the reader to know they are in love, then either their relationship is not being portrayed strongly enough or the characters are not actually in love.
It’s another instance of the classic “Show, don’t tell.”
Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
This goes for writing romance. Don’t just say the couple is in love, but show it.
One way for writers to approach this is through understanding the five Love Languages and which your characters might gravitate to more.
When I say “Love Languages,” I’m not referring to what are known as Romance Languages such as French, Italian, or Spanish.
Love Languages is an idea based on a book by Dr. Gary Chapman titled The 5 Love Languages.
Written in 1995, Chapman’s book looks into the way people both feel love and how they show it, noting five “languages”:
- Words of Affirmation
- Acts of Service
- Receiving Gifts
- Quality Time
- Physical Touch
When writing a romance, whether it’s the focus of the story or a subplot, understanding your character’s Love Language can help guide you. This can also apply to platonic relationships, like those found between close friends.
Words of Affirmation
When a person’s primary Love Language is Words of Affirmation, it can be important for them to hear nice things or have their partner express their affection verbally. In contrast, critiques might hit a little harder.
While telling a person whose Love Language is centered in Words of Affirmation that you love them is important, it is also important that what is said is said genuinely and sincerely.
Acts of Service
Acts of Service relates closely to phrases such as “Actions speak louder than words.” It’s not so much what say, but what you do to show your partner you love them.
This might be part of a routine like making coffee every morning before your partner leaves for work or something more spontaneous like making breakfast in bed.
For those whose dominant Love Language is Receiving Gifts, they feel most appreciated by their loved ones when they are gifted small presents.
While this may seem materialistic, that’s not always the case. Instead, I feel this particular Language is based on the sentiment of the present itself.
Let’s say, for example, your characters’ first date was to the zoo and they have an inside joke about the penguin exhibit that came out of that. Come Valentine’s Day, one gives the other a penguin keychain.
In this instance, it’s not so much the fact that they gave the recipient something, but something of significance that ties to a specific moment of their relationship.
It’s not just the gift itself, but what it means to the person it is being given to.
Quality Time might seem as simple as spending time with your loved one, but there’s more to this Love Language.
It’s about being there in the moment. Watching a movie without looking at your phone during the slow scenes. Planning a specific time to hang out rather than doing on the spur of the moment (although some people may enjoy spontaneity on occasion).
People who feel loved most through Quality Time prefer to share the moment with you and without much distraction.
The Physical Touch Love Language isn’t just about sex. It’s about intimacy and can be as simple as holding hands or a hug.
This can be among the most direct way to express your affection, but it’s important to make sure you understand and respect your individual boundaries as well as your partners.
I cannot emphasize this enough, consent is key.
Blending the Lines Between Languages
Occasionally, there are areas where these Love Languages might cross paths.
For example, purchasing concert tickets for your loved one’s birthday would fall under gifting but also quality time by gifting an experience you can share with them.
It is absolutely possible to identify with more than one Love Language. It is suggested that everyone has a primary and secondary Love Language, and that might be true for your characters, too.
When I write romances, I find myself playing with more than one Love Languages, though I tend to favor scenes based in Acts of Service and Receiving Gifts.
In Bound to the Heart, Zach is a gift-giver, and his gifts for Eve are often accompanied by a letter; these traits are combined towards the end of the story when he sets out to make amends with her through a letter bound as a book small enough to carry in her reticule (harkening back to how they first met).
In Against His Vows, William surprises Miranda at Christmas by dressing up in a kilt. I would consider this as the Gifting, but also Words of Affirmation as he references their eloping to Gretna Green after his father disowns him and assures her that he hasn’t forgotten the promises he made when they married. Let’s just say a steamy bit of quality time follows.
Creating characters with more than one Love Language can give you more options to play with when approaching romantic moments.
Another interesting approach is when your characters’ Love Languages conflict. Say you have a character who primarily expresses love through gifts. They might find it challenging to express themselves to a significant other would rather hear words of affirmation than receive a good luck charm ahead of a major job interview. Seeing these characters work together to find a balance in their relationship and understand each other on an intimate level can make for an interesting story arc.
This can also be reflected in why things didn’t work out between the protagonist and their ex or with Lucky Corner Number Three of the story’s love triangle.
I’ve referenced Titanic a handful of times here on the blog, but it’s a perfect example of this.
We all know Jack and Rose, and Rose’s fiance Cal.
Anyone familiar with the film might recall the Heart of the Ocean, an expensive necklace Cal gives Rose aboard the ship. This scene demonstrates Cal’s Love Language of giving gifts, likely because that’s how he was raised. Based on what information we have about Cal’s past, he comes from a wealthy family, which means it is possible that they are the sort to either throw money at their problems or attempt to buy happiness. He gives Rose a lavish necklace because that is how he has been taught to show his feelings for other people.
However, Rose’s Love Language appears to be centered more around Quality Time and experiences.
Jack’s mantra of “Make it Count” and living life to the fullest is more appealing to her. This is evidenced even as early on as they walk around the first-class deck and talk about life on a general basis instead of who is worth how much. Just spending time with each other on a casual level makes for a more intimate relationship even though they have only known each other a few days. Dancing with him down in steerage and running around the ship to avoid Cal’s valet become memorable experiences for her, bringing them closer as a couple, and what makes Jack be the one her heart belongs to after eighty-four years. This is evidenced by the end of the film where the camera pans over the photographs on Old Rose’s nightstand. We see her having lived out all of the things she would have wanted to do with Jack after landing in New York including learning to fly a plane and riding a horse in the surf “like a real cowboy, none of that sidesaddle stuff.”
Rose is more interested in memories than material objects.
Jack also demonstrates his love through Acts of Service as early as they first meet and he talks her out of jumping from the ship’s stern, but also as the ship is sinking from making sure she gets on a lifeboat to protecting her after she abandons it to stay with him. Jack, as we all know, ultimately dies sacrificing himself to save her life (let’s not go into the “there was room for two on the floating door” argument here).
Being aware of your characters’ Love Languages can help you explore their relationships when writing your romances.
Being aware of your own Love Languages can affect the romances you write. I tend to write characters who show their love through Acts of Service and Receiving Gifts, as those are the Love Languages that resonate most with me. I tend to feel awkward giving and receiving compliments and honestly don’t tell people I love them as often as I should (apart from my cat who hears it whenever I leave the house or when I go to bed for the night), so that shows in my writing. Because of this, I often worry that a character’s declaration of love might be too grandiose or cheesy, even though I’ve been told the dialogue is sweet and romantic. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the other Love Languages in your writing!
Familiarizing yourself with the different Love Languages can help shape your characters and inspire scenes to help move the relationship forwards, allowing your readers to fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other.