Stories Are Read (Clichés Are Too)
Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought today was as good a day as any to write a post about the tricky business of creating a half-decent love interest for your story. Even if you’re not writing a full-blown ‘romance’, there’s still a good chance you’ll want to include one. Oxford Dictionaries defines love interest this way:
1 An actor whose main role in a story or film is that of a lover of the central character.1.1 [MASS NOUN] A theme or subsidiary plot in a story or film in which the main element is the affection of lovers.
For the purposes of this post, by ‘love interest’, I am referring mainly to the first definition given above; that is, a character whose main role is to be the lover (or would-be lover) of the protagonist.
The biggest danger in creating your romantic (sub-)plot is clichés . Clichés are something all good writers should strive to avoid (though rules are made to be broken, as one cliché clearly states) and in my opinion, there is no time in the story writing process where you are more in danger of creating a cliché than when you come to create your romantic sub-plot. Naturally, this also means that writing a full blown romance story is a minefield of cliché (you never wondered why rom-coms are so often lame?). Perhaps the most important thing to remember when creating your love interest is this:
YOUR LOVE INTEREST MUST BE A FULLY-FLEDGED CHARACTER IN THEIR OWN RIGHT.
If his or her sole purpose in the story is to be a love interest, then you have just created a shallow and worthless character. Being a love interest should only be a part of their role in your story, but it should not be their whole reason for being.
Have you ever seen the original Spider-Man movies? Mary-Jane served absolutely no purpose in those stories whatsoever except to be someone that would reject Spider-Man’s initial advances then swoon when he rescued her from whatever tall building she was about to be thrown off.
Real life ain’t like that. Real people are individuals; the protagonist of their own story. Simply giving them a back-story isn’t sufficient either, though it is important. They must have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (in this case, directly related to your story) besides being involved with your protagonist. I find the best way to construct a good love interest is to first develop a full cast of characters without creating any kind of romantic sub-plot at all. Make sure all your characters have both substance and independent roles within the story and then, and only then, if you believe your plot would really benefit from a romantic sub-plot, you can start to add this dimension to your characters.
Ask yourself: what is the purpose in creating this love interest? Does it fit with the overall theme or plot of your story, or are you just putting it there as a cheap way to end on a ‘happily ever after’ note? I would be cautious about doing this because it is simply not true to life, even in the most successful of relationships. In The Count of Monte Christo, by contrast, the love interest was essential because it formed the catalyst for the whole story. The protagonist, Dantès, is falsely accused of being a Bonapartist traitor. Why? Because his accuser is also in love with Dantès’ fiancée. There you have it: a plot, a theme and a love interest all working together in perfect harmony to create one of the finest novels I have ever read.
Another thing to avoid is making your love interest the most beautiful of all God’s creatures, not least of all because it’s not terribly realistic. If you’re wanting to write a story with any substance, your narrative really should reflect the fact that beauty is (to use another cliché) in the eye of the beholder. Rightly or wrongly, in every generation there is always a certain ‘type’ of man and a certain ‘type’ of woman which is deemed to be more attractive than others. Certain body shapes, hairstyles, clothing and so on are deemed to be attractive, while others are not. If you make your love interest read like something you saw on the cover of a magazine, it cheapens the whole plot because we all know that real people just aren’t that polished and makes your protagonist’s affections seem a little shallow.
If, however, you do decide to make your love interest fit whatever your society tells you is physical perfection (and even if you don’t!) you absolutely must not break the golden rule of writing: SHOW, DON’T TELL. Words like ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ are all very subjective terms. It’s okay to tell us that John thought Jane was beautiful, but that’s his opinion. Instead, describe all your characters using objective terms: tall, short, fat, skinny, blonde, brunette and so forth. In particular, tell us what is is about the love interest that your protagonist finds attractive. Maybe John is attracted to Jane because, despite of her plain features and dour countenance, she paints every one of her nails a different colour and he finds that indicative of a well concealed vibrant and eccentric personality. Often it is the distinguishing features which make a person stand out so try to focus your protagonist’s affections on these, rather than nice eyes (a subjective term, by the way!) and a dazzling smile.
This is, of course, all just food for thought (with a candle on the table!). It’s a notoriously difficult thing to get right and it depends very much on what you’re writing. I mentioned earlier, for example, that you should be wary of creating a ‘happily ever after’ style of ending, but if you’ve been commissioned to write a film by Disney, you might want to think twice about that. The two main things to remember is that while each character in the story has their own role to play, no character should be fully defined by their relationship to another and that your love interest must exist for a purpose. The best stories all reflect the fact that life is full of millions of different people who are compatible in some ways and who chaff in others. If you can work that into your narrative in a way which compliments the main plot and theme, you probably won’t go too far wrong.