Thursday, 14 March 2013

In Defence of the Love Interest

. . . Now there's a title I bet you never thought you'd see me write.

Romance is a squicky business in writing - namely because it's one of those things where, if you don't know what you're doing, it will show up brighter than a giant jelly elephant that swallowed a combusting nuclear reactor.

Romance. At it's worst, it's boring, cliche'd, slows the plot, undermines the action, and seriously inhibits the development of characters as independent, self-reliant people. It's no wonder, really, that when I discuss my favourite books with my friends, much of our character-related wrath will be directed towards three main archetypes:

1) Creeper Creeperson Creepy III - the character that makes our skin crawl so much that it carries us under the desk, where we retreat into deep dark pits of ick-induced loathing.

2) Angsty McAngstyPants - who really needs to lighten up before we gouge our own eyes out just to make ourselves feel better.

and 3) The Love Interest.

Good characterisation is essential to a story, so when this particular individual shows up in the midst of the melee and proposes themself as being of equal importance, despite doing nothing more than screaming, demanding explanations, and snogging their other half's face off, the reader is understandably annoyed. A character like this is highly unlikely to generate any sort of interest - it would be a bit like David Attenborough encouraging us to focus on the presence of the leech attached to the rear end of the lioness, insisting that this pulsating parasite's bowel movement is somehow just as important as the two-hundred-pound mass of golden-coated awesome who just hurled herself at a wildebeest big enough to snap her in half with one toss of its head.

On the other hand, I don't think that the archetype of the love interest character deserves as much flack as it often gets. Romance and relationships are a great way to explore aspects of a character that we might not neccessarily see otherwise, and romantic development is worth no less than, say, development via courage, tutelage, or very painful life lessons. Love interests can also make their other half far more interesting in their own right: where would Robin Hood be without plucky Maid Marian to keep things under control at home, and be on hand with the plasters and bruise ointment after one feat of derring-do too many? And, let's face it, James Bond might as well be Jack Reacher without the epic lineage of Bond girls to showcase his trademark charm. When they're not snarking, sabotaging, saving, or attempting to assassinate him, that is.

That said, treating a character as a love interest alone is never helpful. If you want people to care about your characters, creating one whose sole purpose in the story is to be a satellite to another is a pretty backward way of going about it.

Furthermore, you're wasting so much potential! Sure, you need the love interest for various reasons - they're very versatile plot-wise, though you may not believe it - but why not also incorporate them into the rest of the story, giving them other roles outside their romantic attachment? It certainly makes the story more economical, as you won't have to spend so much time keeping track of secondary characters who are covering relatively unimportant bases, such as certain talents, expertise, and discoveries necessary to the story that could just as easily be fulfilled by someone else.

On that note, there's another bonus here, which may be of particular interest to those authors like myself (i.e. those of a more sadistic persuasion). By connecting the love interest more strongly to the world, and to the story, thus making them more interesting in their own right, the inevitable strain and stress in the relationship that may feature as part of your story will be more tangible and emotionally compromising for the reader.

For example, when I read Laini Taylor's "Days of Blood and Starlight" (the spectacular sequel to "Daughter of Smoke and Bone", the review of which is in the right-hand sidebar), the breakdown of the relationship between the two main characters was made incredibly powerful through the author's - and subsequently our - sensitivity to presenting both characters with equal amounts of heart-wrenching pathos. This connection to their individual physical and emotional difficulty nearly reduced me to tears on a number of occasions.

Conversely, I have also been known to roll about on the floor in fits of hysteria at the same attempted level of emotional manipulation in stories where the love interest is about as interesting as a cardboard cut-out. Language and emotion that might have been anything from touching to soul-destroying now appears merely over-wrought and melodramatic. By extension, the emotional crux of the story is undermined, and the whole novel, like the offending love interest, begins to decompose into a soggy, apathetic mush.

So, the moral of the story is this: be fair to your love interest. A character's a character, whatever their purpose, so make sure you treat them as such. Give them lives, ambitions, dreams and sorrows; give them the same time and attention you put into your heroes, your villains, and that one character that you like too much to kill off just yet.

Because nobody deserves to be written off as an over-glorified plot point.

~ Charley R

15 comments:

  1. Very good, Charley! Your right about not writing them just for the purpose of love.
    My charries and their future loves are all 13/14 (except one, but her age is complicated). So none of them are being written for love yet, other than the fact that I have to make sure that some of them are at least friends now.
    Nobody deserves to be written as a over-glorified plot point and nobody deserves to read those charries, either... in fact, let's go blow up the Twilight section of the library, shall we? *whips out flame-thrower and giggles crazily*
    ~Robyn Hoode

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *produces a large mace* Right behind you!

      Delete
    2. *crazy giggles turn into mad laughter* Oh, this will be enjoyable! Quite fun, indeed! I don't suppose you have any extra fuel for my flame-thrower? I'd also like to take out a few other *chuckles evilly* little books.
      ~Robyn Hoode

      Delete
    3. Depends on the books you intent to turn your malice on ;)

      And who needs flamethrowers? I'll let you borrow a dragon.

      Delete
    4. I am sorely tempted to take out Les Miserables... but I won't until I've finished it... I'm just a little upset with Hugo. Can I torch a Dickens book... one I had Great Expectations for? Other than that... anything that sounds like Twilight and other paranormal romances.

      Ooh! A dragon! I love dragons! Don't need this, anymore. *flings flamethrower over shoulder, cat yowls, Robyn winces* Sorry, Tempest!
      ~RH

      Delete
    5. Ehehe, I've not read Les Mis yet, but I would save torching it until i have - then we will see whether we shall torch it. We can certainly torch the majority of Dickens, with the exception of Great Expectations because I actually rather like that book. As long as we get Oliver Twist. That book owes me a good chunk of my life back.

      *winces at the noise* Oh dear.

      Delete
    6. YES! I AM NOT ALONE IN MY ADVERSION TO DICKENS!!!
      We can leave Great Expectations, I suppose. But WE must get rid of David Copperfield! I would like to leave Little Dorrit... it's Dicken's second chance, for me. And I guess that A Christmas Carol must stay too... it's not too bad.

      Don't worry about Tempest. The flamethrower didn't actaully hit him. It fell perilously close beside him. He's fine... physically. Do you know a good minion therapist? (though, Tempest isn't really a minion. More like a sidekick... the one that thinks he's in charge instead of me.)
      ~RH

      Delete
    7. Errrr . . . minions? Therapists? Don't make me laff! xD

      Delete
    8. All right, I'll calm him myself.

      Here, kitty, kitty! Who wants a gingersnap?

      (*Tempest typing* How about a saucer of milk and a gingersnap and you evict the brownie that's tresspassing?)

      *rolls eyes* Tempest, I am not sending Harry away. He's not tresspassing. But you can have the milk, I suppose.

      Excuse me while I spoil my companion. I'l be back to torch bad excuses for literature in a bit.
      ~RH

      Delete
    9. I'll join you in blowing up books. Sounds dreadfully fun. Which sounds silly for a reader to do, but, who cares. There are some books that don't deserve to exist.

      Dickens included.

      Delete
  2. Stupendous post! Some love interests irritate me because they were obviously stuck in there because the author thought YA should have romances or whatever. But sometimes love interests are great characters and then everyone dismisses them.

    Hmmm, now I'm trying to figure who would be Creeper Creeperson Creepy III, Angsty McAngstyPants, and THE LOVE INTEREST. I mean, in LotR, clearly Gollum is the love interest. *nodnod*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed - it all depends on the character's presentation and treatment by the author. Then again, some love interests are disliked because readers can get a little jealous of characters they happen to like, and take out their resentment on the love interest as usurping the reader's place, such as it is. Other times they just dislike them for the character they are, which is, of course, perfectly reasonable.

      Ehehehehehehe, good luck! Be sure to tell me of your thoughts when you work it out ;)

      Delete
  3. I like this post! I never realized how much I like the active love interest, nor how much I need it. Brilliance, Charley; brilliance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. D'awww, thank you! Your approval means an awful lot to me :)

      Delete