Avoid the Pitfalls of the “Preservationist” Theme in Romance Writing

ShyAs a book reviewer with Coffee Time Romance and More, I read a lot of romance books. In so doing, I have the opportunity to see the classic themes that we all know and adore of our love stories, written over and again, in different ways and from different angles. No matter how overdone a particular theme may be (and I say that tongue-in-cheek; none of the good themes can ever truly be overdone), with each book, it feels like I’m being introduced to that theme for the very first time.

It sounds wonderfully romantic, doesn’t it? Well … unfortunately there’s a downside to this phenomenon. There are some themes I see again and again which … dare I say it … shouldn’t be attempted.

Let me clarify: certain themes should not be attempted unless the author is prepared to do them really, really well.

Dear readers, I give you … the “preservationist” protagonist.

You know who she is. Girl is best friends with boy. They’ve been inseparable since childhood (or at least for many years), and they’re always together. But boy loves girl. The thing is, girl loves boy, too, but she’s so determined not to ruin the friendship that she denies her love in the name of “preserving” the special connection she has with boy.

The book I’m reading right now for CTR deals with this theme. And I have to admit, I find it frustrating to read, because this is a theme I simply don’t buy without a lot of persuasion. In the book I’m reading, the young lady’s reasons for keeping her best friend at a distance are simply not strong enough.

Unfortunately, this happens often with this theme. The basic groundwork of a preservationist theme is simple to set up, yet the author doesn’t developed it enough, doesn’t justify it enough. As a result, the plot ends up being … not believable enough.

Yet, when it is done right, the preservationist theme can be absolutely amazing. Want an example? Think Pam and Jim from The Office. In my mind, one of the best love stories ever. Jim is clearly in love with Pam, and Pam is in love with Jim, too. But she doesn’t want to ruin her friendship with him, and she denies her feelings for him. Why? … Well, she’s engaged to someone else.

That reason, dear readers, I get. I believe. I buy.

So, that being said, I’m not suggesting you forego a preservationist protagonist altogether. If you’re dead set on writing this theme, then best of luck to you. But, if you are going to attempt it, then here are three things you need to keep in mind as you set out on your writing journey:

  1. There had better be a darned good reason why one half of your love-birds-slash-best-friends doesn’t want to ruin a perfectly good friendship. Like Pam and Jim. Or perhaps there are societal pressures keeping your leading lovers apart (such as culture or class).
  2. You have to, have to, work in that burning ache that’s hidden beneath the surface for whichever of your main character is the preservationist. Let your readers see how much your main characters love each other. Let them hurt when one or the other is seen with a potential new suitor.
  3. Give your lovebirds plenty of opportunity for close contact. Kisses almost had, soft, accidental touches that set them on fire. Here is a heart stopping kiss-almost-had from Matthew MacFadyen and Kira Knightley’s Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett if you need some context (specifically at just past 3:00):

The preservationist theme can be written well. And when it is, woah mama! But if you’re going to use it, then a word of warning: it must be written well. So to all those who want to embark down this road I say … proceed with caution, and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of plot development.

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