Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot Mess

chemistry“The main characters had no chemistry together.”

One of the most damning sentences that any creative artist can read in a review. I don’t care if you’re an author, or a scriptwriter, or a producer—the words make you cringe, and strike fear deep in your heart. Lack of chemistry between your lead characters can turn a potential blockbuster or bestseller into a mediocre mess. The opposite is true as well—if people like your leads and love the interaction between them, then they will forgive you just about everything. Plot holes the size of Detroit, incorrect grammar, inconsistent POV…none of it will matter to the reader who loves your characters. The majority of those enthralled readers simply will not see these problems in the first place.

I came across these words recently in reference to one of my stories, and I have to admit, I did a classic cartoon double-take when I saw them. Hey, my flaws as a writer are legion, but people usually like my characters!

How could they have no chemistry together? What about that scene in the basement, that fairly crackled with sexual tension? Or when they are pressed up against the wall—and they can hear someone else on the other side engaged in the same activity?

Granted, one person’s idea of smokin’ hot is another person’s idea of tame, so I usually take statements like this for what they are: one person’s opinion. But this time, I got to thinking about how someone could fail to see the unwilling attraction and heat between these two characters—and then it hit me.

They didn’t fight with each other.

They didn’t yell or throw things. They didn’t slam each other into the wall, or punch each other out. They didn’t say terrible, nasty things to each other. No whiskey bottles were shattered, there were no slamming doors, no one peeled out of the driveway with a squeal of burning rubber and a desire to do self-destructive things.

I find the idea that these things are necessary to show ‘chemistry’ a disturbing trend in romantic fiction. Now, mind you, I understand how difficult it is to tell a story without introducing conflict. It’s conflict that makes for drama, which engages the reader and draws them in. One of the hardest things any television show can do is successfully maintain audience interest once the UST been the lead characters has been resolved. I can only think of a handful of shows that did it well. Why? Because happy couples make for nice endings, not interesting story-telling.

But to me, there’s a big difference between bicker and banter. I’ve seen bickering couples in real life; they’re no fun to be around. Banter, on the other hand, sucks me in every time. Take Castle in the early seasons. Okay, pretty much an unbelievable premise. But because the dialog was so clever and because there was clearly chemistry between the characters, I suspended disbelief and fell in line whole-heartedly with the series.

There’s a scene where Castle and Beckett are standing in a hallway, about to knock on the door of a witness. As Beckett knocks, Castle says something about inspiration. Beckett glances at him with a sly smile and says, “I thought I was your inspiration, Castle.”

“You are, you are,” Castle hastens to assure her.

“Well be careful,” she says, still smiling slightly. “You might find that inspiration will strike you sooner than you think.”

It’s witty, and clever, and she is obviously teasing him, even as she is still being dismissive of his presence in her investigation. It was dialog like this that made me a Castle fan.

Banter is teasing. It can be exasperated, but it is seldom irritated. It’s a quick, snappy trade of one-liners that should have the reader following the thread of conversation like a sports fan at a tennis match. It can be slightly mean, but it is never angry or aggressive. It worries me that aggression is so often seen as attraction in fiction or entertainment. I don’t want to live my life like a soap opera, and my characters don’t want to love like that either.

What’s wrong with depicting healthy relationships?

Nothing, except from a writer’s perspective, it’s a heck of a lot harder. To me, it’s a bit of a cheat to make your characters angrily and abusively attracted to one another for the sake of dramatic effect unless you’ve laid out the background for why these people are so damaged in the first place. And then, if you want me to believe in their True Love at the end of your story, you have to show me that they’ve worked through these issues. You also have to show me why they are worth the effort. Telling me that they are so unbelievably hot doesn’t cut it.

south beach sunsetThere was an episode of CSI: Miami in which Joe Flanigan played an abusive boyfriend that was a suspect in a murder investigation. It turned out that his girlfriend was not the murder victim, and he was cleared to go. However, Horatio tried to convince the woman to press assault and battery charges against him. She refuses, looking doe-eyed and helpless as she walks over to Flanigan, where he is seated on a bench, wearing handcuffs.

Joe Flanigan is incredibly hot anyway, but in this role, with his smoldering anger and his three day stubble, he could have carried the part based on his looks alone. His character has beaten this woman, has threatened to kill her, but she won’t leave him. He’s good-looking enough that as an audience, we would have bought it right there. But when she sits down beside him, this man who’d frightened her so badly that she’d run away from him, turns to her and gently presses his lips against her bare shoulder. For the first time ever, I could understand how someone could stay in an abusive relationship. I got it. But only because Flanigan made me believe it.

But it was not a healthy relationship. It was clear from the start that Flanigan’s character was a bad guy, if not THE bad guy. Lest you think I’m not about Bad Boys, let me tell you, some of my favorite characters are Bad Boys. I adore the Tortured Hero. More than anything, I love watching his path to redemption through finding love with the right person.

And I don’t think fists need to fly for sparks to fly.

Bio: Sarah Madison is a writer with several cats, a large dog, an even larger horse, and a very patient boyfriend. She writes M/M erotic romances in her copious spare time and relies heavily on the smoke detector to tell her when dinner is ready.

Coming this fall, book 3 in the Sixth Sense series: Truth and Consequences.  Also, be on the lookout for the re-release of The Boys of Summer!

10 thoughts on “Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot Mess

  1. Yes! Yes this.

    I love banter. It can be edgy, convey all the passion of belief and opinions balancing the passion of attracted bodies. It should tell us a lot about the characters: what makes them tick, what makes them laugh, what hot topics will get them steaming. It should showcase intelligence and wit. It should sparkle. That’s good. That’s healthy.

    But it doesn’t have to be malicious. It shouldn’t be malicious or spill over into physical violence, because that isn’t healthy. That isn’t intelligent and witty. That’s just rather sad. That’s the chemistry of abuse, not the chemistry of attraction.

    • Oh, very well said, indeed!

      That’s the chemistry of abuse, not the chemistry of attraction.

      It’s a pity that some people can’t tell the difference. Oh, I know, people will cry out, “It’s FANTASY! It’s not supposed to be real!” and I get that, I do. I just don’t find malicious, childish, brutish behavior attractive. That’s not what I want to read about in my romances.

      On the other hand, I know in the hands of some talented writers, they can make even these characteristics attractive–but by far and large, not. 😉
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot MessMy Profile

      • “That’s the chemistry of abuse, not the chemistry of attraction.”
        And,
        “I just don’t find malicious, childish, brutish behavior attractive.”
        Kudos to both of you! Exactly this! If they can’t write something interesting without resorting to abuse, nastiness and the couple always fighting….then they aren’t very good writers.

        • I agree–I think what worries me more, however, is that if enough models make these types of characters their heroes–our readers will not only think this is right and normal, but behind to expect these kinds of relationships as well. 😉

  2. 100% agreement from me. I actually prefer books where the conflict lies outside the relationship, where they might argue over the best way to defuse a bomb or have a panic stricken rant if the other has done something reckless but not the trope where they do that daft Big Misunderstanding thing. And definitely not where one appears to be an abusive bully but the other sees beyond the prickly facade to the warm hearted potential soul mate within. That’s just too 1970s Mills & Boon for me. Mind you, banter can get tiring too if there’s too much of it. I’ve read books where the MCs bantered instead of developing their characters and they were lacking in chemistry too.

    • I actually prefer books where the conflict lies outside the relationship, where they might argue over the best way to defuse a bomb or have a panic stricken rant if the other has done something reckless but not the trope where they do that daft Big Misunderstanding thing.

      This! This! By all means, let them argue about the best way to defuse a bomb! 😀

      And yes to there being such a thing as too much banter. OMG, banter during sex scenes is just excruciating to me. I just want to dope-slap the main characters into shutting up and enjoying the moment. 😉 You’re right, too, about how it can be a substitute for character development, but I’m more inclined to forgive witty dialog for being weak in other areas than I am the abusive bully. I’m a sucker for clever dialog!
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot MessMy Profile

  3. Perfectly nailed the difference between bantering and bickering. (I would love to know how dysfunctional the person is who claimed your characters had no chemistry).

    Fun Fact: I just spent the weekend with 2 couples who bantered with the SOs constantly. How do I know it was banter? My joining in as a neutral party towards all 4 only gave them fuel for their banters.

    One couple has been married for just over 30 years, and the other for just under 29. Did I mention one half of each couple is a sibling? It was awesome to watch them all.

    I know things have been hard for them over the years, but you can’t tell me their willingness to defuse situations with banter and self-deprecation, rather than escalate at the first sign of arguement, hasn’t been a part of their problem solving, and continued attraction for their spouses.

    That episode was disturbing, watching Flanigan (Shepperd) be so evil. He always bantered with McKay. Their interactions demonstrate perfectly bantering, and McShep.

    • I’m so glad you could share with us your experience with your friends! Too often I’ve witnessed the opposite, the worst being right before a friend’s wedding… I wanted to tell them to call it off before it was too late!

      I know some people seem to think Flanigan is a one-note actor, but I think he’s incredibly subtle. There’s a difference. (Kind of like between bicker and banter. 😉 ) He was the one who suggested that he and Hewlett play Sheppard and McKay like Crosby and Hope in the Road movies, and I recall him saying he downplayed Sheppard’s reactions as a counter-balance to McKay’s over-the-top bombast. They made a good team!
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot MessMy Profile

  4. You always have such brilliant and interesting insights into things, thank you for sharing them with us! 🙂 All of this is so true, and I wholeheartedly agree with you on loving the banter, not the bicker. I so love it when people who may be different but on a very basic lever are equals (not talking about rank or anything here) engage in witty banter, and it can be so very sexy too 😉 Having a healthy relationship doesn’t have to mean there won’t be any conflict or occasional moments of discord—it means the people involved hold mutual love and respect for each other even when they aren’t being so lovable 🙂

    This whole subject is oddly appropriate for me at the moment, since I’m contemplating writing a pairing that I can’t see having any kind of happy ending, or even being in love as we would imagine it, but who I can see having a weird kind of relationship that is born out of who they are and what the circumstances are. I want there to be a balance, I want neither of them to be the weaker one, and I want them both to know what they’re getting into and doing it out of their own volition.

    I want to make their relationship healthy, even if it is by not-so-typical standards. I see it as a kind of challenge, an opportunity for me to learn and develop, because making it work and be believable probably won’t be easy. But sometimes that’s what makes it fun 🙂 Only time will tell if I’ll succeed, but at least I will have given things some serious thought.

    • Aw, thank you! I love banter, I hate bickering and it seems to me the two sometimes get confused. 🙂

      I want there to be a balance, I want neither of them to be the weaker one, and I want them both to know what they’re getting into and doing it out of their own volition.

      OMG, THIS. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with M/M romance and yet at the same time, I wonder if I’m doing my gender a disservice. Perhaps there are other women out there like myself who are tired of heroines they can’t identify with. It’s one of the reasons I’m trying something new right now. 🙂 I suspect I’m going to violate a lot of unwritten rules about traditional romance novels, but hey, if I don’t know the rules, I won’t know I’m breaking them, right? 😉

      I think the challenge you’ve set for yourself is a big one, writing about two people when you can’t see it ending well, but I have every confidence in your ability to pull it off. You’ve made me ‘see’ pairings I couldn’t see before, and that takes real talent!
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot MessMy Profile

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