How to Craft Romantic Chemistry & Tension Between Characters

How to Craft Romantic Chemistry & Tension Between Characters

If you’re writing a romance novel or a story with a romantic subplot, then you know that the romantic chemistry and tension between your two main characters can either make or break your story.

But how do you create romantic chemistry between two characters in a way that’s authentic and compelling enough to keep your readers on the edge of their seats?

In today’s post, we’re going to explore how to craft romantic chemistry between your characters—and we’re going to use Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros as a case study. By the end of this post, you’ll know how to craft romantic chemistry and tension in your own story. So, let’s dive in!


What is Chemistry?

In its most basic sense, chemistry is how two characters interact with each other. It’s an energetic exchange between two people in a relationship, whether that relationship is romantic or not. On the surface, chemistry might look like:

  • Dialogue that flows well (teasing, witty repartee, etc.)
  • Using affectionate nicknames (middle names, pet names, etc.)
  • Physical attraction (lingering stares, special smiles, etc.)
  • Reminiscing over shared history (going to the same grade school, etc.)
  • Being comfortable in someone’s physical space (adjusting their collar, etc.)

But none of these things MAKE chemistry—they’re a RESULT OF chemistry.

How To Create Chemistry Between Two Characters

To create chemistry, you need fully fleshed-out characters with their own goals, motivations, and inner obstacles. Flat or boring characters will never light up a scene, no matter how many tricks you pull.

Once you’ve done the work to develop your characters, you can capitalize on opportunities for opposition and harmony between them. 

This is important because chemistry is never static! It’s an ever-shifting dynamic of opposition and harmony. 

Even when characters are fighting, there’s a balance—a give and take, a push and pull. Each gives as good as they get, which can result in a certain measure of respect, regardless of their overall feelings.

Look for areas of opposition and harmony in these key areas:

  • Goals and/or motivations 
  • Opinions about relationships (romantic or not)
  • Communication and/or confrontation style
  • Amounts of power and/or control
  • Expectations of themselves, others, and/or situations

This is a great place to start when brainstorming how your characters will show up and interact with each other on the page. 

From there, you can play with traditional character archetypes to surprise and delight readers (and to create some opportunities for chemistry). 

Consider how your characters can push against their assumptions of each other only to be met with resistance when those assumptions are subverted. 

Why? Because unexpected behavior requires a new response—aka change!

For example, Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is “the love interest” archetype, but he’s a bit standoffish and surly. Elizabeth assumes he will act like all the other wealthy gentlemen she’s met, but she’s wrong! And it’s this realization that forces her to grow and change and to open her heart to Mr. Darcy eventually.

3 Ingredients For Sizzling Character Chemistry 

With all of this character work, what you’re ultimately looking for when crafting chemistry between characters are these 3 ingredients: vulnerability, desire, and resistance. 

  • Vulnerability refers to the willingness to show emotion or let one’s weaknesses, insecurities, fears, and/or hopes and dreams be seen by another
  • Desire refers to the strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen (in this case, with another person)
  • Resistance refers to the refusal to accept or comply with something, or the attempt to prevent something by action or argument

If you can identify how your characters will be vulnerable with each other, what they like about each other (both physically, mentally, and emotionally), and their reason for not wanting to be together, this is what will help you create the push-pull dynamic that makes for fantastic on-the-page chemistry. 

Let’s take a look at how Rebecca Yarros created amazing chemistry between her characters in Fourth Wing (spoilers for book one included).

Case Study: Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

In Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, the protagonist (Violet Sorrengail) has two love interests—Xaden Riorson and Dain Aetos. Although her relationship with Xaden is the primary focus of the romantic subplot, Violet has a history with Dain which is briefly explored once she enters the Riders Quadrant. Let’s look at how Rebecca Yarros created great chemistry between Violet and both men.

Violet Sorrengail & Xaden Riorson

  • Vulnerability: Xaden acknowledges Violet’s disability and lack of physical strength. Violet sees Xaden sneaking out and meeting with other rebels—she learns more and more incriminating information as the story progresses.

  • Desire: Xaden is hot, powerful, and mysterious—and for some reason, he seems inclined to help Violet train and get stronger, despite their history. Violet is cunning and has a strong sense of honor—and for some reason, she seems inclined to keep Xaden’s secrets, despite their history.

  • Resistance: Violet believes that Xaden wants to kill her because of their shared history of growing up on opposite sides of the war. Xaden believes that Violet will be like her mother and sister, and lacks evidence otherwise. Plus, Xaden is a Wing Leader, and cadets are off-limits for romantic relationships. 

Given all of that, consider this passage from Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros:

“Even the diagonal scar that bisects his left eyebrow and marks the top corner of his cheek only makes him hotter. Flaming hot. Scorching hot. Gets-you-into-trouble-and-you-like-it level of hot. Suddenly, I can’t remember exactly why Mira told me not to fuck around outside my year group.”

And later on the next page…

“Good gods, I don’t even reach his collarbone. He’s massive. He has to be more than four inches over six feet tall.

I feel exactly what Mira called me—fragile—but I nod once, the shining onyx of his eyes transforms to cold, unadulterated hate. I can almost taste the loathing wafting off him like bitter cologne. 

“Violet?” Rhiannon asks, moving forward.

“You’re General Sorrengail’s youngest.” His voice is deep and accusatory.

“You’re Fen Riorson’s son,” I counter, the certainty of this revelation settling in my bones. I lift my chin and do my best to lock every muscle in my body so I don’t start trembling.

He will kill you the second he finds out who you are. Mira’s words bounce around my skull, and fear knots in my throat. He’s going to throw me over the edge. He’s going to pick me up and drop me right off this turret. I’m never going to get the chance to even walk the parapet. I’ll die being exactly what my mother’s always danced around calling me—weak.

What do you feel when you read this passage? What did you notice about the interaction between Violet and Xaden? Do you see how Violet immediately feels a physical attraction to Xaden but then slowly pieces together who he is and how powerful he seems to be? And how Xaden does not kill Violet the second he sets eyes on her? 

Without understanding the vulnerability, desire, and resistance that exists for both Violet and Xaden, it would be hard to write a scene like this—and to evoke these thoughts and feelings in the characters and readers.

Now, let’s look at Violet’s other semi-love interest, Dain Aetos. We can do the exact same exercise to understand their chemistry (and sometimes lack thereof).

Case Study: Violet Sorrengail and Dain Aetos

  • Vulnerability: Dain knows about Violet’s disability because he grew up with her. He also knows that she’s been training for the Scribe Quadrant and therefore assumes she’s not qualified to be a Rider. Violet believes she needs protection and allows Dain to provide it, despite jeopardizing his place amongst the riders.
  • Desire: Dain is attractive and very familiar to Violet. Plus, it’s clear he wants to keep her safe. Violet is a reminder of home for Dain. She’s pretty and makes him feel strong and important.
  • Resistance: Dain is Violet’s superior, which makes a romantic relationship off-limits. But more importantly, Violet is growing and changing, yet Dain’s words and actions try to hold her back. Plus, her feelings for Xaden are growing.

Given all of that, consider this passage from Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros:

“I stare at Dain, at the scar that defines his jaw and the hard set of his eyes that are familiar and yet not.

“What?” he asks. The voices around us grow louder, and there are more footsteps coming and going.

“You bonded a dragon. You have powers I don’t even know about. You open doors with magic. You’re a squad leader.” I say the sentences slowly, hoping they’ll sink in, that I’ll truly grasp how much he’s changed. “It’s just hard to wrap my head around you still being… Dain.”

“I’m still me.” His posture softens, and he lifts the short sleeve of his tunic, revealing the relic of a red dragon on his shoulder. “I just have this now. And as for the powers, Cath channels a pretty significant amount of magic compared to some of the other dragons, but I’m nowhere near adept at it yet. I haven’t changed that much. As for lesser magic powered through the bond of my relic, I can do the typical stuff like open doors, crank up my speed, and power ink pens instead of using those inconvenient quills.”

What do you feel when you read this passage? What did you notice about the interaction between Violet and Dain? Do you see how Violet is keyed in on certain aspects of his physical appearance—the scar that defines his jaw and the hard set of his eyes that are familiar and yet not? And how Violet seems to be a little bit in awe of her best friend now that he’s a dragon rider? And how Dain works hard to reassure her he’s still the same Dain she had a crush on before he left?

Without understanding the vulnerability, desire, and resistance that exists for both Violet and Dain, it would be hard to evoke these thoughts and feelings in the reader.

Now, you might be wondering… Can chemistry exist in non-romantic relationships?

And the answer is YES! It can and it should. But ut you might need to be a little “loose” with the formula—for example, maybe there’s very little to no resistance (or the reason one or both characters are “resisting” comes down to a preference, not a need).

Some great examples of non-romantic character pairings with great chemistry include:

  • Walter White & Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad) 
  • Michael Scott & Dwight Schrute (The Office) 
  • Kate Mularkey & Tully Hart (Firefly Lane) 
  • Harry Potter & Ron Weasley (Harry Potter Series) 
  • Aelin Galathynius & Aideon Ashryver (Throne of Glass)

So, now that you know how to create chemistry between characters, let’s talk about writing romantic tension—aka, what to do with the chemistry once you’ve created it.

How To Create Romantic Tension Between Characters

Let’s start with a definition... What is romantic tension?

Romantic tension is the suspense created by how two potential romantic partners orbit each other before their union is certain. 

It grows from the question: When will these two characters get together?

And if you’ve already explored the 3 key ingredients of sizzling character chemistry—vulnerability, desire, and resistance—you’re well on your way to writing this kind of page-turning romantic tension.

Desire brings your characters together. Resistance pulls them apart. And vulnerability operates in the middle–bringing them closer together and sometimes keeping them apart.

Now, it’s no secret that building in this kind of tension is one of the most important parts of developing an intriguing romantic story arc. 

You need to make readers care about what’s happening in the story and create suspense by doling out information (aka the answer to the story question—will these two get together or not?) in increments, withholding the full answer until the end.

To do this, you can deliver scenes in which the chemistry and tension increase in frequency and intensity as the novel progresses. 

In other words, each scene should bring your characters one step closer to or farther away from “happily ever after.” This creates suspense for the reader—and the desire to read the next scene, hoping to get the answer they’ve wanted since page one.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. My favorite tips and strategies for crafting chemistry between two characters, whether their relationship is romantic or not!

If you want to master the art of crafting irresistible chemistry and tension, I highly recommend studying your favorite stories. This is the best way to improve your own writing. You can ask yourself questions like:

  • What do I like about the chemistry and tension between these two characters?
  • How did the author play on each character’s vulnerabilities within the relationship?
  • What does each character like (or desire) about the other (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?
  • How did the author create resistance between the characters? Why do the characters not want the relationship to move forward?
  • What can I replicate in my own writing?

And if you need help getting started with your story, check out my FREE Story Starter Kit: 5 Questions To Ask Before You Start Writing. This fillable workbook will help you build out the foundational elements of your story: genre, character, setting, plot, and theme. Grab your free copy here!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →