Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Party Members, MacGuffins, and Fetch Quests - The Sad State of the Love Interest

I don't like romantic sub-plots. Never have - I think they're over-used, repetitive, and usually feel detrimental and extraneous to the narrative. I understand why they exist in theory, but in practice, every time I see the tell-tale signs of a budding romance (usually between the male lead and the only female character present), I groan and give the author a mental smack across the knuckles.

The worst part is, all the things I hate about romantic sub-plots - and romance in general, really - could be resolved pretty easily. Mostly through diversifying the roles, genders, sexual orientations, races, priorities and characters of those involved.

Sounds like a lot of beans to heap over one piece of toast, doesn't it? And no one likes tokenism - it's like those nasty little cheap weiner-sausage-yuckies that sometimes sneak into the mix and leave a bad taste in your mouth.

But it's all much, much simpler if you think about it in more empirical terms. Ask yourself one question.

Is my love interest a Party Member, a MacGuffin, or a Fetch Quest?

Confused? Allow me to explain.

A love interest who is a Party Member is exactly the sort of love interest you want - a character with motivations and a personality of their own, who would have a role in the story even if the romantic element was removed. Want a good example? Hermione Granger, from the later installments of the Harry Potter books. Her romantic attachment to Ron is brought up only when relevant, and it is built up organically through their engagement as characters, friends, and fellows in their mission. She's a Party Member first, a love interest second.

Meanwhile, a MacGuffin love interest may have a big role in the story . . . but it's nothing to do with them, really. Like the object for which I have named them, a MacGuffin love interest serves as a motivation and endgame for the protagonist, but in a passive way. This character has no more use to the narrative than that which is imbued by their status as love interest. A prime example would be Edward Cullen in the Twilight saga. Whatever he may otherwise be doing, his purpose in the narrative is to be a goal for Bella, dangled before her like a carrot on the end of a stick. She may have other things to prove and resolve along the way, but all Edward gets to do is sit at the finishing line, making sure he's at his very sparkly best for when the conquering heroine finally rocks up to claim her prize.

On the other end of the scale, we have the Fetch Quest love interest. Like its cousin the MacGuffin, the Fetch Quest love interest has no purpose in the narrative other than being the love interest - but this time they're not so much an endgame as something to do when the rest of the plot needs a break. Think Peeta and Gale from The Hunger Games - particularly the latter two books. Katniss has a much bigger goal and better things to be getting on with than deciding who she wants to snog, but the narrative obliges her, occasionally, to break flow and sit down and have a little romantic moment with one or the other, just for the sake of keeping that pot boiling, never mind that whatever's inside has evaporated, burned, and stuck to the bottom to annoy the heck out of whoever finds it in the middle of their delicious supper.

As you may have recognised by now, the literary world is full of MacGuffin and Fetch Quest love interests. The MacGuffin is usually more the domain of the female-targetted market - a symptom of another unfortunate endemic in the book world, wherein female protagonists may be as kickass as they like, but their final epic purpose cannot escape being bound up with romantic fulfilment. The Fetch Quest, meanwhile, dominates across mediums - from the oldest form of video games, rescuing kidnapped girlfriends and princesses in 8-bit, through to the bajillion-and-one Not Another Dirty Harry detectives sweeping up sultry temptresses and earnest-but-sexy reporters as they chase down Not Another Russian Stereotype.

I don't know why this is - industry demands, lack of creative freedom in authors (or maybe just lack of creativity altogether) - but, as I have said before, and I will no doubt continue to say until I demand it carved on my headstone in my cantankerous, rattly death-throes, it does not have to be this way, and it should not. Diversity and development are central parts of the literary tradition - it's a simple matter of doing what we always do, and digging in to undo and reform parts of the old engine that need to be updated if it is to continue its progress into the modern world.

Let's leave the old tropes in the past, where they belong. We are entering a new age - one where your gender, race, and sexuality should have nothing do with your worth as a person, or your role in the world around you.

Let's make every love interest a Party Member - one book at a time.

~ Charley R


  1. Party members... okay, got that. Alex is a person before she's a love interest. But now how do I write the freaking romance?!

    1. I don't know, man. I still haven't worked it out. Romance is weeeeiiiird. Also, it's really hard not to steal lines from The Princess Bride all the time, but maybe that's just me ;)