How to Write People in Love – a Practical List

RamonaGravitarIn Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Laurey and Curly musically list all the don’ts necessary to keep their neighbors in the wide open spaces from “suspecting things” about the cowboy and the farm girl.

“Things” means love, of course.

In the song, folks in love who don’t want to appear in love should not praise charms, take arms, stand in the rain, or look vain; they ought not sigh, gaze, laugh or glow; and they must never throw bouquets, dance all night, or squirrel away each other’s roses and gloves.

That’s an awful lot of don’ts to remember and, despite the list, the neighbors got the gist. Laurey and Curly fooled no one–except maybe Jud, but what he thought was love would have to be a different post.

If you are writing a mystery, a down low love affair may be necessary. Sleuths have a bad habit of falling for the wrong person. Like the young lovers in the Oklahoma territory, the sleuth and the amour have to hide their feelings for professional, personal, or (let’s be honest) plot purposes.

Mysteries don’t provide a musical score to guide lovers on how to hide their loving behaviors. Open or illicit, a love affair under wraps is a challenge because people in love act like it.

And, they should. Have you ever read a novel where you’re told two characters are wild about each other, but on the page, they act like the last two people on the planet to indulge in the don’ts listed above? Sometimes writers are so focused on the hiding part that they forget to write the loving part.

How do you show affection between two characters? How do people in love act like it, even if they are trying to hide?

To borrow from the lyrics, here’s a practical list of what lovers feel and do:

1. Intimacy – Not sex, but the sharing of thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. If you trust someone with your heart, don’t you share your secrets and wishes with them too?

2. Habits and quirks – Lovers who spend time together get to know who likes long showers or short, if he’s a bear before his morning coffee, if she refuses to walk around in bare feet. They know because they notice the little things that make their partners annoying or adorable.

3. Togetherness – Lovers desire time together. Togetherness may not be possible, and it need not be constant, but being apart for too long should appear somewhere on the spectrum of painful to wishful.

4. Desire – How overt or hot desire runs depends on genre and the author’s comfort level, but if a person leaves you physically cold, you’re probably not in love. If two characters exhibit zero sexual tension on the page, they’re probably not in love either.

5. Hurts – You always hurt the one you love. Why? Because you can. Because you are sensitive to your lover’s opinions. Because old lovers make you jealous or insecure. Because forgiveness is hard, and trust is fragile. Because a story needs tension.

6. Expectations – Your lover should have your back. That means listen when you believe a death is not accidental, and no one else agrees. It also means they show up when you need them, they pull their weight in the relationship, and they may even call on the way home from work to find out if you’re out of milk again.

7. Friends and family – Laurey cautions Curly about being too much of a good thing to her family because, naturally, they’ve met him. Or maybe his friends have picked up on the googly eyes he makes at her. Friends and family are not blind or stupid. A normal human will bring a lover to Thanksgiving dinner, and so should fictional humans, because characters don’t live in a bubble.

8. Thoughtfulness – This means kind acts and the occasional surprise box of chocolates, yes. But thoughtfulness is also considering the other person when making plans– whether those plan are dinner, life-changing decisions, or dangerous acts that could make someone dead.

9. Support – Your lover wants the best for you as a person as well as the best for the two of you as a couple. In fiction, these two “bests” may be on a collision course, which makes for good drama and troubled relationships. But, a person who really loves you will see your side, even if they don’t agree or can’t go along with it.

10. Care and feeding – Curly may say he doesn’t want Laurey to bake his favorite pie, but get real, cowboy. If you care for someone, their physical happiness and well-being is important. Sometimes, that means pie.

With this list of how lovers act, examine characters who are supposed to have fallen for one another. Do they want to be together, know and enjoy one another, feel pain at separations and small (or big) hurts? Does he SHOW his affection to her? Does she slip up and give it away?

Do your fictional lovers behave like they love one another? Are they aware that, despite their best efforts to hide, someone is always watching? Even if it’s this guy:




16 thoughts on “How to Write People in Love – a Practical List

  1. Nice. Of course one of my characters really doesn’t want to be in love with the person who is falling for him….so he waffles. In a good way I think, but at some time I’m going to have to make him decide. He’s been hurt before…and it makes him rather skittish. His brother is no help because of his own burgeoning (and unlikely) romance. What to do? What to do? thanks for some of the basics, Ramona. And the pie thing…maybe it’s quiche?


    1. LOL, catsmom, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post: Does your character eat pie or quiche?

      This post focused on hiding a love affair, but I could do another one on fighting love. Characters have baggage, interfering relatives, all that good stuff that provides conflict. What to do, in deed!


  2. This is great! This has nothing to do with your post, but last week on Twitter, there were a few of us talking musicals, in particular Rodgers & Hammerstein. Someone started it with a line from South Pacific, then I posted a YouTube clip of a scene in Cinderella. Remember that one? We moved on to The King & I, then finally a line from Oklahoma.

    In my WIP, there’s a guy my protagonist has known since she was a child–he’s her brother’s best friend. She’s had a crush on him forever and she thinks he’ll always think of her like a little sister. I’ve been leaving little hints that his feelings have changed, but she thinks it’s wishful thinking on her part. It’s not easy to do! And since I’m writing a mystery series, I don’t want to reveal too much too soon. On the other hand, I don’t want to drag it out too long and annoy readers. Sheesh.


    1. Joyce, I listen to musicals when I clean my office. I listened to the Hugh Jackman Oklahoma! but I think Shirley Jones and Gordon Macrae can’t be beat.

      Dropping hints is hard. You want them to be subtle, but you don’t want to sound like they are middle schoolers–does he like me? Should I let him know I like him? Argh! And the dragging it out, oh yes, that’s a great way to annoy readers. Once people hook up, however, there are a million ways a love affair can go wrong, just like in real life!

      Thanks for your support, esp on Twitter.


      1. I forgot to mention that in my last book (the police secretary one) there’s a character named Curley. He got his name because he was conceived after a performance of Oklahoma…


  3. “Sometimes, that means pie.” — my favorite sentence of the week. Thanks, Ramona, as usual packing a lot of good advice into a small space!


  4. This is such a well-timed post for me, since I am at the beginning of my third mystery. In it, the protagonist is now free and doesn’t recognize she’s been courted by her brother-in-law in the previous book. Now things get serious, and you’ve given me some serious good help!


    1. Great to hear, Noelle! It’s tricky to write a courtship, esp. when one person doesn’t realize they’re being courted. They can’t come off as clueless, even if they don’t have a clue. Good luck!


  5. Another great post, Ramona. Of course, in my WIP, Sally’s pretty up front with her feelings. It’s Jim who’s got the baggage. Having screwed up (in his mind) before, and really liking Sally and not wanting to screw up again (in his mind), he’s trying to fight desire. Like Joyce, I’m trying to drop hints and move the relationship forward. But I don’t want him to wake up one day and be a Romeo after all this hesitation. Fortunately, I think events at the climax of the current WIP push him to realize that she’s more important to him than “just a friend.” But yes, tricky tightrope indeed.


    1. Mary, even the most confident man is not necessarily a smooth operator when it comes to love. And for the tension in your story, he shouldn’t have it too easy. Make hims squirm and suffer, and your readers will sympathize with him. 🙂


  6. Great list, Ramona – helpful tips for making the realization of love come alive in a reluctant heroine (which I’ll use in my WIP).. Love Rogers and Hammerstein. Hammerstein was brilliant at condensing a lot of meaning into a few words and Rogers music added just the right emotional tone. Perfect blending of talents. Feel like watching Oklahoma tonight.


  7. I don’t want to turn my murder mystery into a romance, but Pete’s a real man. So when the sister of the vic seems interested, he’s interested right back. At first I was just letting it develop, but now I’m wondering. The poor guy had both parents die, his brother took off, his wife was killed two weeks after the wedding, one possible “love interest” was murdered in a previous book and another went back home to Ohio. I’m thinking that makes him hesitant — or does it?


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