Fiction Focus 9- Pitfalls of Love Interests
Ah. The love interest. The humble boy or girl standing on the sidelines of your sci-fi/fantasy story, waiting to be taken into the arms of your protagonist. It will be romantic, it will be epic, it will be sweet, it will be altogether wonderful and they will ride off into the sunset together and everybody will sigh in appreciation.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen. I see it happening in my own work, I know other writers to whom it happens. So here is my list of things to avoid when you’re creating this person. They’re pretty simple things. The books that I include are all books that I love (that’s why I remember them)- there are definitely examples more at fault than these! But it’s also a testimony that even the best writers do this.
- 1. They’re too perfect
You know that feeling when somebody is cut out just a little too well? That they’re just too perfect at being “the other half” of your protagonist. You probably can’t put a finger on it- but the romance doesn’t feel right. And the reason for that is that you cannot base one character upon another. You can’t go, “Well, she’s happy all the time, so he should be happy all the time” or even “Well, she’s happy all the time, so he should be sad all the time”. The reason that well-written romances are appealing, in my opinion, is because they are two separate people falling in love and feeling like they are complete. Writing two characters and cookie-cutting them out to be exactly perfect for each other is not the same thing.
Example: Graceling by Kristin Cashore. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it- but I never fell for the romance in it. I felt like Po was just a man who had been built around what the author felt Katsa needed. While he contributed to the story just fine, I felt like he was a bit of a sham the whole time.
- 2. They’re a pop-up person
Here, it’s not just their personality that seems a little flat, but their entire raison d’etre. A lot of the time, the love interest’s main actions are standing near the protagonist or touching the protagonist or looking at the protagonist or bringing the protagonist up in conversation because they’re concerned about the love interest. Every action they do screams “LOVE ME” to the protagonist. Which is sweet, I guess. But it’s not a real thing. What is their point of being there, other than eye-candy? What is their role in the group, are they the smart one, the mother hen, the strategist? (Being the sexy sarcastic one is not a role). You know how sometimes you get the feeling that the only reason they ever got involved in this story was so that the protagonist had someone to kiss? It’s not an okay thing to feel as a reader. Another thing is their history- the classic “we’ve been friends forever” when you’re explaining how they and the protagonist know each other is a bit of a cop-out- what is their earliest memory of one another? What major events have they suffered through together? These are simple things that we should ask about every character in every situation, and yet for love interests they seem not to feature.
Example: Ginny Weasley in Harry Potter. I love HP an awful lot, but did anyone else get this sense off Ginny? Everything she did- being sassy and being good at Quidditch all seemed a little like she was built for Harry. We never saw Ginny with friends that weren’t Harry’s friends- but were they even her friends? What was her function in that peer group, and why didn’t the kids in her own year like her?
- 3. Your own preferences shine through
Me, I do this all the time. I have a type, and my characters seem to have the same type. In theory, if you and your protagonist are similar enough, then your taste in love interest is similar enough. And while protagonists generally resemble their authors in some respects, they shouldn’t be you (but that’s a tale for another day). They should be their own person. And maybe that person isn’t the type to fall for the guy they’ve known their entire life. Or maybe he’s not the kind of guy who likes girls that snort milk out their nose for fun. Just because we admire those things doesn’t mean our protagonist will. Worse still is when the author is in love with the love interest just as much (if not more) than the protagonist, and it becomes a bit of a vanity project.
Example: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. Jace Wayland is a golden-haired bad boy based on Clare’s original fan fic imaginings of Draco Malfoy. He wears leather and fights demons for a living, he’s deeply troubled yet caring, and he has a very dry wit. Yes, he’s very attractive, but I would say too attractive- there are a lot of moments that seem a bit like wish fulfilment and the author living vicariously through her protagonist.
There are a lot more things I could add to this list, but for the sake of length I’ll stop here. Perhaps there’ll be a Part Two!
I especially agree on the third point! It’s far too easy to make a male you would fancy, but also to try and tell the reader that they must love this hero because the heroine does and therefore he is perfect. No! Instead, the reader needs to be able to choose to love or hate him in their own time and not because you say they’re the perfect love interest.