This is something I found myself asking recently. Who are my favorite fictional couples? Why? Do the characters I write measure up to the same standards?
Friendship (or enemyship) First
Insta-love has never done it for me. Here's why: a good relationship is always based on a strong foundation. Sure, "love at first sight" can exist, IRL as well as fiction. But that instant attraction will soon wither away if it isn't cultivated with a reason to stay connected. Do your characters personality types fit well together so they form a friendship quickly with subtle flirtation? Or do they clash and form a bond of mutual resentment? Sometimes we cover up uncomfortable feelings like attraction with negative feelings, and that's okay for fiction. Think Lady Mary and Matthew Crawly from "Downton Abbey".
Odds Are Stacked Against Them
A good love story, whether the center of your writing, or in the background, could always use a dash of angst. Give your characters a reason they have to stay apart, at least for a time. Is one trapped in a not so great relationship? Is one going to move to a third world country for two years to give medical attention to sick orphans? One of the reasons I loved Richard Cypher and Kahlan Amnell from The Sword of Truth is because they loved each other deeply and stayed faithful despite the fact that Kahlan's magical gift prevented them from being intimate. When a problem insists on keeping characters from being truly happy, you feel their pain and want them to be together even more.
Overcoming Crisis Together
Okay. Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games weren't exactly friends at first, but they still had somewhat of a history before being thrown into the Games together. If they were going to make it out alive, they had to work together. Give your characters something to work towards. Easy. In fantasy, have them save the world together despite outrageous odds. If you like more contemporary, have them fight a terminal disease together. Nothing defines and tests the bounds of a relationship like adversity and hardship. Give your readers something to root for.
Banter (but don't over do it)
Obviously, a good couple has chemistry. That chemistry should always be reflected in your dialogue. It's not just about the narrative of oh he's so hot with his pressed white shirt and stubble on his chin. What is their tone when they speak to each other? Sarcastic? Flirty? Is one character kind of awkward? What emotions are evoked by what the other just said? Kingdom From Ashes is a great example of good couple banter with Bennua and Zahid.
Also with banter, make sure you have the right amount. Too much back-and-forth can get awkward and boring. Like when you're hanging out with friends and two of them will just not stop flirting and openly admit they like each other already. You know it. Everyone else knows it. Let's move on.
One of my all-time favorite fictional couples is Jim and Pam from "The Office". Why? They're nothing special. They don't have magical powers and they aren't royalty. They flirt over a reception desk and get caught up in office shenanigans. They are good, well meaning, everyday people. Anyone could be Jim and Pam and that's why everyone likes them as a couple.
Just so we're clear: magical powers and secret royal heritage are great in the right concept. I truly love it. Even if you write fantasy. you can still make sure your characters are well rounded. What are their flaws? What's holding them back? What do the other characters not about them? Have believable characters and you'll have a believable romance.
Love and War
Couples fight. Everyone does it. And if Romeo and Juliet had lived long enough, they would have fought eventually, too. No matter how compatible two people are, they are not the same, and sometimes their differences will cause problems. Think about what would cause a rift in your characters' relationship. How do each of them react to the fight(s)? Does it affect the overall goal they are trying to accomplish? How do they resolve it?
Give and Take
It's important to understand what each character gets out of they relationship, and for your readers to understand the motivation as well. One reason I never liked a very popular couple was because I could never pin-point what it was that attracted them to each other. Besides of course their smokin' good looks. But a real relationship is more than just looks. What is the glue that holds the couple together? Without it, you don't have a couple. You have a fling.
If you're having a hard time with this, think about your own current or past relationships. Why are you with the person you are now? What do they do for you? If you're currently between relationships, think about someone from the past that didn't work out. What more did you need from that person in order to have made the relationship work? To get a little personal, one of the reasons I ended up with my husband (besides his smokin' hot good looks) is because I need his positive energy in my life. Seriously, I can't live without it. He is usually always upbeat and making me laugh and we have so much fun together, even if we are just cutting his hair or getting the oil changed in the car. He is the perfect balance to me, who battles depression and constantly worries about everything. What does he get out of the relationship? Well, I have my guesses, but really you'd have to ask him. ;)
I hope this helps someone. I am a Lover of Loving Love and an advocate for healthy relationships. If you have any other points as to what makes a dynamic fictional couple, I'd love to read them in the comments!