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!