"I love you" are pretty powerful words to say—and to hear. But there are usually a lot of words before your characters hear those words, and maybe even more words before they believe them. There are plenty of things our characters can do, actions they can take, to build the emotional level for their love interest to really hear and accept those words and feelings. The cool thing is, you can think of more by thinking about how—and why—you've fallen in love, because every one of these suggestions "works" in real life, too. That's why your readers will connect with them, and why they will fall in love with your characters.
Random surprises improve mood and relationship satisfaction. The surprises don't have to be costly or labor-intensive. Let me give you a real-life example. When I started having to travel for my job, I bought special "cute" post-it notes. One had a dotted line down the middle with "good gnus" (they had halos) on the left and "bad gnus" (they had horns and pitch forks) on the right. The title was "Good gnus and Bad gnus." Under the good news side I wrote "I love you" and under the bad news I wrote "I'm not here." I stuck it on the mirror my husband used every morning to shave. He didn't usually call the first couple of days I was away, but he called that night to say, "Somebody put a sappy note on my mirror." I asked him how he liked it. "I had to pull it off so I could shave." Yes, a real romantic. In the future I put notes in his underwear drawer, in the freezer, tucked inside a book he was reading, just to bug him. Years later, he'd asked me to look for something important in his filing cabinet, and in an unlabeled folder was every single note I'd written him.
Expressing concern for someone's safety promotes solid friendships and encourages healthy behavior. It also boosts self esteem and fights depression. One more from-Fae's-life example. My husband's got a thing for clean, well-maintained cars. I found this out soon after we got married. He came into the house after he'd washed his car and told me I needed to wash my car. I told him it was fine. After a few, okay more than a few, heated exchanges he stamped outside saying it was dangerous to drive with a windshield so dirty (it wasn't that bad), and he washed my car. When I complained that I needed to remember to stop and get gasoline or I may not make it to work the next morning, I'd get in the car and the tank (that I'd forgotten about) was full. [I hear you sighing ahhhh, but trust me, he is not a romantic.]
Remember the details of something important to the other character. Since we only remember seventeen to twenty-five percent of what we hear, paying attention to the details of what our partner is concerned about is important. Dialogue can be initiated, whether it is to commiserate or problem solve. But there can be no back and forth if your character doesn't know the important details. Questions can pull out other, perhaps secret, facts or emotions or backstory to make this suggestion do double-duty for your writing. The act of listening is powerful. In real life and for our characters.
Really caring about your day. Now this may sound mundane. Of course you're going to show your characters caring about what happened to each other. But did you know that this particular type of show-of-caring is ninety-three percent non-verbal communication? This is not the lip-service, "Oh, honey, that's too bad." This is the "knowing look," however you've detailed that look for your character, the light touch on the arm, or the long, silent bear hug. It's the stretch out on the sofa and put your feet in my lap foot massage. Or the slow walk to the wine storage and pouring a glass of their favorite before any verbal response. It's exactly what you would want someone who loves you to do for you.
Hand-written love letters. This is different from my post-it notes above. This is a full out, (maybe) carefully constructed letter proclaiming an undying love. It lists the hows and why of falling in love. It professes forever and that HEA. Maybe it was written but never intended to be discovered and read, and that discovery can make it a turning point in your story. It could be on the back or inside of a purchased greeting card. Its impact can be profound when the character who writes it has not verbally professed love before this point, and probably hasn't physically shown such softness to the other character.
Totally relaxing physical affection increases trust and stronger bonds. Yes, this one has big immediate payoffs for both characters. Hand holding for the first time, particularly if the walking is a little slippery, indicates a caring desire to protect. Rubbing the back of the neck requires trust and tenderness. From a hand or foot massage, to massaging the shoulders and back… well, you get the idea. Physical interaction that takes the everyday tension down to a relaxed sigh is the goal here.
Making your character feel included because they are important. Remember the first time you met the parents? It went well if your beloved included you in the conversation. Better if there was physical contact between the two of you, either seen or unseen by the others in the room. We've all been in situations where we went somewhere and wondered why we needed to be there because no one made an effort to interact with us. To someone who loves you, you are the center of the event and, even if your interaction is mainly with the one who brought you, you'll have a positive experience. How do you make someone feel included? You introduce them to the others, show them the important places: the restroom, the exit to the patio, the bar, the food, the people they'd most likely get along with. And you don't abandon them afterwards. Hovering isn't necessary, but visible checks are mandatory as are occasional personal check-ins to assure their well-being. If one character is the type of person who will slink to a forgotten corner, the other character will stay with them and move about the room as their escort.
Checking in to be certain of the other's well-being, mental health and status. Friends do this; lover's should, too. It begins as a courtesy, but when you love someone, you care about how they are doing. Communicating with them on a regular basis shows that love and also deepens the connection between two people. In historical fiction, it can be accomplished by a daily ride to the other person's home. In a contemporary, a text works, but other ways to check-in are needed to show a commitment to the relationship. A phone call or a quick meeting, even a surprise visit, all show a desire to be involved in the well-being of the other person.
What other ways do your characters show their love?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong. She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told. Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.