Tag Archives: writing romance

Q&A: More Demystification of Martial Arts and Romance

autumnimagining said to howtofightwrite:

I just read your excellent response to the question about the martial arts romance. I was wondering if one way forward to help increase a sense of sexual or romantic tension would be to have the couple slowly go through the moves together, rather like a couple learning to dance. Slow, soft touches and gentle placements of each other’s bodies around each other. It would eliminate the intense physicality of sparring while still being consensual and might resemble a fight without risk of injury.

The irony is that the violence of the sequence doesn’t matter so long as the individuals are on the same page and the audience understands the context. The romantic tension doesn’t come from the activity itself, it’s about two people engaging in an activity they both enjoy separately together. Here’s an example of a character dynamic that, in isolation, doesn’t seem romantic but is within context.

In the 2010 action comedy R.E.D. (Retired, Extremely Dangerous), the KGB agent Ivan (Brian Cox) explains his longstanding, complex romantic relationship with the MI-6 assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) to Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) who is retired CIA officer Frank Moses’s (Bruce Willis’s) new girlfriend drawn into the plot’s craziness of Frank going to war with the American government after they put out a hit on him.

Ivan shows Sarah the scar on his chest where Victoria shot him as a parting gift when they parted ways at the end of the Cold War. A scar Ivan is still fond of to this day. Sarah visibly recoils, not understanding how Ivan could perceive Victoria attempting to kill him as romantic, and Ivan says (and I paraphrase), “she shot me in the chest, she could’ve shot me in the head.” What he means is, Victoria chose the maybe kill instead of the certainty. Giving herself cover to say, “well, I tried my best” when reporting in while giving him a chance to survive. This, for Victoria, was an expression of love and it’s one Ivan understands because he knows her well. They’re bonded together by a mutual shared understanding, respect, and admiration for each other’s skills even when they are, technically, enemies on opposite sides of a conflict. Ivan is one of the few individuals in Victoria’s life who knows and loves her for who she really is, a ruthless, badass, highly skilled, and extremely successful assassin. And his competence is a major reason why she loves him. (Enemies to Lovers, but We’re Still Enemies in the End.)

The problem is you’re still looking at it from the perspective of the physical interaction being what makes the interaction romantic, what shows the romance to the audience, but it isn’t. Violence isn’t romantic and martial artists physically touch each other all the time as a matter of practice. So, there’s nothing special or unique about them touching a specific person. What makes the interaction special is the context, what each character emotionally brings to the scene and their motivations.

If you’ve got two characters who really enjoy fighting and enjoy testing their skills against each other, you have the grounding for a scene where the fighting itself could become an expression of love (whether that love is romantic or platonic.) The street brawls of Yusuke Uremeshi and Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho are a good example of platonic fighting that forms a foundation friendship. It’s not the fighting itself but the enjoyment of fighting for its own sake, the pride both characters take in their skills, and in testing those skills against each other which creates the bond.

Kuwabara comes back time and time again for another sound beating because he enjoys fighting a challenging, superior opponent. Kuwabara respects Yusuke’s raw, scrappy fighting talent (long before Yusuke ever dies and gains spirit powers) while Yusuke comes to respect Kuwabara’s bullheaded tenacity and realizes that his rivalry with Kuwabara wasn’t antagonistic like he thought but rather a gesture of friendship. This friendship wouldn’t work if both characters didn’t genuinely love fighting rather than using violence as a tool of domination or a means to take power over another individual.

One of the problems for some authors (mostly American authors) is that some cultures (American culture, especially for boys) are extremely touch-starved or engage in touch-starvation due to more rigid social mores and restrictions. So, the act of touching another person gains more importance, often being read by the audience as sexual even when there are other important connotations at play. The problem they face (which acts as a form of culture shock) is that martial sub-cultures are extremely touch-heavy by necessity, you can’t train without constantly touching someone else and being touched, so the expectations that might be perceived in the mere act of touching just aren’t there.

Example: the only characters who get really excited by an instructor laying a hand on their stomach to remind them to tighten their gut and breathe from their diaphragm is the neophyte and constant training quickly disabuses them of that romantic notion unless they choose to cling to it.

Now, the same action could become romantic. However, it’s the sort of the action which requires both characters to be on the same page, when screwing around instead of focusing becomes mutual as opposed to the same action detracting from the lesson.

What I’m saying is that it’s not martial arts that brings people together, but their individual love for the martial arts that brings people together.

The act of training is cooperative interaction, but we ultimately train because we want to become better. It’s difficult to focus when you’re thinking about how much you like (or would like to bone) your training partner. The martial arts trainee usually learns to compartmentalize and put aside those feelings for the duration of training. Romance becomes a secondary consideration dealt with in the before and in the after, rather than the moment. For romance to work it’s way into the scene, it has to be what the scene is about with both characters on the same page with both ultimately okay when it comes to screwing around.

The irony is, the same is true with characters in an all out battle against each other while on opposite sides of the conflict. If you can define your characters as idealogues who separate their personal interests or romantic feelings from their work, there’s nothing inherently abusive in them trying to kill each other. They love each other, yes, but there’s this belief or code or aspect of themselves which they love more. It’s when the romance is tied to the violence and the pain they inflict on each other that situation and romance becomes abusive.

Writing your character taking it too far in a training exercise, harming their romantic interest as a means to realize they have feelings, and using one character’s injury to justify them growing closer with the person who hurt them? That’s where the asymmetrical power structure and abuse are.

Two characters who really enjoy sparring, who especially enjoy sparring with each other, sparring together? That’s fine.

Characters training together? So long as they can put their feelings aside in the moment and knuckle down, it’s cool.

For romance to work at all, your characters need to be characters. What violence is useful for is creating challenging circumstances which push characters to grow, evolve, and change. The choices we make in response to violence and in committing violence can reveal us for who we truly are, stripping away the false notions and preconceptions common in the infatuation phase of a relationship. It’s very common for people to fall in love with who they perceive someone to be or who they decide they are, the person they create within their own heads, rather than the actual person themselves. (Ironically, it happens more commonly in the romance genre and fiction in general than most authors would enjoy to copping to.)

If you’re going to sit down and write a romance, regardless of whether it’s a romance with characters who are warriors or martial artists, ask yourself some specific questions:

  1. Why do they enjoy being with this person?
  2. What is it about them (beyond the physical) that they like?
  3. What hobbies and interests do they have in common?
  4. What are the quiet moments in your story where each of these characters looks at the other and goes internally, “I really like you.”
  5. What do they admire about the other character?
  6. What annoys them about the other character? (Not hate, annoys, irritates, gets under their skin.)
  7. Are the aspects that they admire and which irritate real or they are perceptions the character has that aren’t exhibited by the other character on the page? (Is what your character sees in their love interest representative of what the audience sees?)
  8. What do they believe in, in absence of their love interest?
  9. If they are a warrior, why do they fight? Who, or what, do they fight for?
  10. Are those feelings compatible with their lover interest’s goals?
  11. What do they respect about their love interest?

-Michi

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Q&A: A Healthy Relationship Is Not Cliche

Is there any way for a reasonably smart girl to be involved with a dangerous rich boy? I really hate the trope of that kind of ‘healthy’ relationship, and I’m afraid to fall in that cliche. I apologize if this kind of ask doesn’t fit the blog’s specialty.

Well, the reasonably smart girl and the dangerous rich boy as presented usually isn’t healthy. It can be, but you’ve got to work at building the relationship and address the inherently lopsided power dynamics arising from the boy having all the resources and the girl having none.

As for reasonably intelligent girls making dumb choices? Intelligent young women don’t always make the smart choice. In fact, we all make stupid choices when we’re young. No one is going to be perfect 100% of the time. That isn’t a moral failing, that’s life. This is especially true when it comes to romance, and why its important to be forgiving regarding mistakes. Take into account what the mistake was, rather than the fact it happened. People make choices, sometimes they’re the wrong ones. Sometimes, they knew better and others they seemed right at the time. Mistakes are part of how we learn and grow. Sometimes, it takes sticking your hand into the fire before you learn not to do it anymore. This is especially true with intelligent young people. They may know the choice is bad, but they still think the outcome will be different for them. Sometimes, they’re right. More often, they’re terribly wrong.

We don’t always get to control who we’re attracted to, and sometimes we pursue them even when we know it isn’t a smart idea.  That’s human nature across the board. Doesn’t matter if the spark that started it is physical attraction, mental attraction, or emotional attraction. Smart girls and smart boys make dumb choices because the heart and libido aren’t driven by logic or reason, and sometimes the brain isn’t either! Ego gets in the way. Most teens don’t have the life experience to know the early warning signs of dangerous relationships. Or they lack the ability to tell a culturally pronounced “dangerous boy” who doesn’t fit the societal mold from one who actually is dangerous. There’s the appearance of bad and actually bad, and it can be difficult to tell the difference. These young people know what they’ve been told, but the experiences of another and your own are very different. Still, sometimes even when they consciously know and all the intelligent parts are telling them this is a terrible idea, their hormones are still in overdrive and off they go.

Don’t let anyone fool you, girls stumble around in the dark when it comes to romance just as much as the boys do and they make many of the same choices. Unless they luck out, girls don’t really get smart about relationships until they’re in their mid twenties  and by that point they’re women. Even then, intelligent women still make terrible choices when it comes to love.

The dangerous rich boy is one of those stunningly attractive stereotypes that young women have been conditioned to want even when they know they should know better. Or they’re in their late teens early twenties and a no strings attached summer relationship on a rich boy’s yacht could be the definition of a good time. (Remember, sometimes, the guy falls first in a no strings attached.  Girls get play too, often more. For all girls interested in this boy, there’s likely more than a few interested in the girl too. Rich boy probably has friends.)

It really depends on what ways this boy is dangerous and whether the risk he represents is worth it to our hypothetical female character. If it’s dangerous in the classic “I’ll break your heart” or “threat to virginity” way, then he may not be so bad and just is a player. (The virginity part is worth considering, because the idea of “purity” is still a fixture in most romantic tropes and it’ll ambush you in all its societally regressive nastiness if you’re not careful.) If it’s “I take out my anger issues on anyone who is close by and lash out, creating a codependent relationship where you feel responsible for me” or “threaten with physical violence” type, then that’s nowhere near a healthy relationship. If it’s the “I’ll get you addicted to designer drugs and alcohol” then that’s a little more serious. Lastly, if he’s the “I’m dating you so I can dump your drunk body in the ocean and watch you drown” type then chances are he’s murdered before and we’re in an I Know What You Did Last Summer scenario.

The romance genre is built on unhealthy relationships, unhealthy dynamics, power imbalance, and unattainable fantasies by choice. It’s wish fulfillment, a fantasy where the man society conditions us to want actually turns out to be the best choice. (Rather than an abusive, controlling trash fire.) That’s not all it has to be, but that’s what the genre often boils down to. The fantasy by itself isn’t bad, and if you want it that doesn’t make you bad either. The princess fantasy is incredibly appealing. In the classic sense, the dangerous rich boy is just another version of the Beast from Beauty & the Beast. He’s the princely hero here to be redeemed by the heroine’s good heart, then he carries her away from all her troubles to a life of safety and luxury. He is not, however, a Mr. Darcy. If you want a Darcy, you’re gonna have to work for your dinner.

The way to avoid cliche is to acknowledge the cliche, and remember that cliche is only a cliche in broad strokes. If you can get away from generalities and into people, then you escape its deathly grip.

Unhealthy relationships spawn for all sorts of reasons, and healthy ones do too. The major difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship is that the healthy one is shared growth while the unhealthy one tries to force the other person to change. Two people, together, who mutually respect each other and share a partnership is a healthy relationship.

Love is both inherently selfish and incredibly selfless. The difference between them is desirous or possessive love for your own sake, when you seek the other person for the fulfillment of your own happiness. That’s often an imaginary love, driven by your idea of who the other person is or should be. The other is sacrificial love, where the object of affection’s needs take precedence. Often, when we’re young, we can’t tell the difference. Are you nice to the object of your interest in the hopes they’ll notice you? Or are you nice to them because you genuinely care about them? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. When you reach a point where you realize you’d continue to do nice things for them because you want to and not for any potential outcome or relationship reward is the point where we’ve reached sacrificial love.

Unhealthy relationships are built on the bones of possessive love, on selfish love. It is not a give and take, it is often all one way. One gives and the other takes, one sacrifices their comfort in order to sustain the relationship and the other refuses to change. The emotional labor is entirely in one corner rather than a shared burden. Sacrifice for their partner revolves around whims, not needs. Demanded to fit the image their partner envisions for them or imagines them to be, rather than trying to understand them.

Behind Unhealthy Relationship Door Number One is the pedestal, and this is the one you’re most likely to fall prey to when writing romance. The pedestal is a fantasy construction and it is sexism, but it is also very attractive, extremely flattering, and safe. It tricks us into thinking we’re beautiful, treasured, and valued. The truth about the pedestal is its the realization of a societal construct where women have not only have no power over their lives but actively give their power up in pursuit of the fantasy. They are pretty objects who exist to be looked at and adored, much like a statue. This happens easily if you believe the pedestal is love, which it isn’t. The pedestal and the emotions it evokes often feel like they’re love, but true love is a relationship of equals. True love cannot exist when one person is set higher than the other and their value lies in objectification. (Men and women can both end up on the pedestal, but it is more common for women.)

The fantasy version of this trope is the prince or rich man who comes to carry the girl off. She is safeguarded, protected from the world, and her needs provided for. The best a young woman can hope for in a world where she cannot chart her own destiny. For all the perks that arrive with the pedestal, the trade off is power and freedom. It is easier to let others make the decisions for you, but the trade off is reduction into an object. The one who sets another on a pedestal doesn’t truly love them, they love the statue. Silent, voiceless, existing solely serve the whims of others and be admired. Safe, perhaps, but without control.

When you’ve got a male or female character talking about how beautiful someone is and never mentioning who they are and what they do, you’re halfway to the pedestal. Oh, those looks may be the first indicator of attraction (or not), but if the relationship never moves beyond it and if one character begins making all the decisions for the other then we’ll end up barrelling toward that pedestal.

Real love is mutual respect and partnership, it is a relationship of equals. The pair are a unit, keeping their own opinions but working together to become more than the sum of their parts. The relationship is built on a foundation of trust and good communication, rather than insecurity and jealousy.  They won’t be perfect. There may be drama, but the drama is built on real, external issues or internal issues and not the perception of wandering eyes. They work together to solve the problems with come up, and grow stronger as a result. They know they are loved. If a girl or boy starts flirting with their significant other, the answer is not going to be a jealous rage. They’re going to look at their SO, wryly raise their brow, and go, “really?”

Believe it or not, when someone tries to break up a solid, healthy relationship the member that’s being hit on goes home and tells their SO about it. They don’t hide it, or if they do they eventually fess up and the fact they didn’t say anything is the source of the drama rather than the person hitting on them. Trust is allowing another to make decisions for themselves, and decide their own feelings. Protecting someone from the truth, even with the best intentions, isn’t a love of equals. Jealousy is the result of insecurity. It is often an early warning sign of trust issues, healthy relationships work those kinks out through communication. Respect is based in honesty. It does take courage to be honest, to give up control. If you’ve got a character who can’t give up the idea they don’t control how their partner feels or is trying to control them, then the relationship isn’t healthy.

The healthy version of the “dangerous” rich boy and the smart girl is taking a trope card out of Pride and Prejudice to run with called, “Challenged to Change.” (Encouraged to Change is more appropriate, no one is making ultimatums.) This is the card where two people bring their personal flaws and foibles to the table and their experiences with each other open up the opportunities for them to grow. Their joint character development occurs as a direct result of their interactions or relationship, allowing them to see themselves, their surroundings, and their potential in new ways. The most groundbreaking conclusions occur as self-discovery, they realize their behavior needs to change. They then take the steps to do so, often independent of their romantic partner. Or, with them, not out of fear of losing them but because they want to be better. They learn to communicate, they listen, and they compromise.

They may fight, but the fighting is key to character development. They go away in a huff, they reflect, they come to new realizations, and ultimately they change their behavior (with no promise of reward). They see themselves through new eyes, with new perspectives, and understand why what they did was wrong. They apologize. They don’t change for the other person in order to please them.

Remember, Mr. Darcy’s most groundbreaking character development happens when he is absolutely certain that Elizabeth has rejected him. He doesn’t help her family in the final act out of any desire to win her over, in fact he doesn’t want her or anyone in her family to know. He helps them because he loves her, he sees the damage done by Wickham to the Bennet family, and recognizes his culpability in allowing this event to occur. He shoulders the burden and the expense, in part because he cares for Elizabeth, but mostly because Wickham is his responsibility. Elizabeth’s rejection of him caused a realization of his behavior (which according to social traditions of Victorian England should not have happened), and encouraged him to change as a result. He didn’t just change toward her or her family, his behavior changed toward everyone. He got mad, yes, but he realized she was right. Upon reflection, she realized he was right about her family too.

It doesn’t need to be as drastic as Pride and Prejudice or start in dislike, the part where they encourage each other to change, act as catalysts to character growth, and pursue their dreams is what’s most important. The balancing of power dynamics so they learn to approach one another as equals, with valuable opinions, and respect each other is key to developing a healthy relationship in your fiction. The process where they come to this realization as they fall in love is your story.

Don’t be frightened of cliches, every relationship can be a healthy relationship or an unhealthy one. The narrative is defined how you explore the romance between these two, whether you paint in specifics or broad strokes. Do you follow the formula? Or do you carve out your own unique path based on your characters’ personalities?

At this point, perhaps, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may seem cliche. However, what is so enduring about her novels is their challenge to Victorian social structure and defiance of those expectations. Her heroines are struggling against the realities of the world they live in, trying to decide their futures beyond just their future happiness. Marriage for love was a revolutionary idea in Victorian England, a privilege accorded only to the very rich and sometimes not even then. For Elizabeth to refuse marriage to someone like Mr. Collins is, in itself, revolutionary considering her social situation. Refusing Darcy on his first offer is mind blowing, marrying him would secure both her and her family’s future.  The idea she said no out of a desire to pursue her own happiness was, for her time and for a woman in her financial situation, revolutionary.

Similar problems exist now, today. They are different, in their way, but taking into account the social requirements, expectations, the family members, and friendships surrounding your characters will help you path the external challenges as well as the internal ones between them.

What is it about this boy that attracts this girl? Why is the relationship a stupid choice? (Is it?)

What is it about this girl that attracts this boy?

Why is he considered dangerous? And by whom? Who is he dangerous to? Her? Girls like her? How did he come by this reputation? What are the rumors surrounding him?

What are the social circumstances surrounding him? His relationship with his parents? His family? His friends? What responsibilities does he have? Or will be expected to have? What is the danger in pursuing a relationship with her? What is it about this relationship that might disrupt his future prospects or his family’s plans for him?

What are the social circumstances surrounding her? Her relationship with her parents? Her family? What responsibilities does she have? Or will be expected to have? What is the danger in pursuing a relationship with him? What about him might disrupt those future prospects?

These characters are going to have flaws, foibles, backgrounds, and possibly morals which will cause them to conflict. Working through those conflicts is part of their relationship developing.

Let me tell you, I hated Starke when I first met him. I did not like him at all. He was this really annoying guy in my American Film class, who always asked questions that distracted the whole lecture. After every question it took forever to get our professor back on point. Those segues were interesting but after they happened five times in a single class, it got super annoying. Sometimes, we didn’t even get to finish the whole lecture. Every time I heard his voice, I wanted to smack him. (Not the cute kind of ‘attracted to him’ either. No, it was “not this guy again.” I just wanted to hit him.) Then, one night, we got paired up in a group to talk about the film we just watched. Then, we started debating the film. (It was 8pm.) After class finished we went out to my car, continuing to talk about the film, and ended up standing by my car talking about it until 1am. After the first night, this became a routine. We started hanging out together more and more. We talked about all sorts of things, and I discovered he was a very interesting person to talk to. Eventually (a year later), we started dating. And that is one (small) part of the story behind why this blog exists.

The moral of this story is relationships start for all kinds of weird reasons and they’re not always convenient, which is why we roll with them instead of constantly trying to justify their existence. Anything can be the catalyst, what happens after is where the story is.

-Michi

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