For our purpose this week, the typical Love Interest exists purely to motivate and prop up the main character. All their dialogue is either romantic, or asking clarifying questions as an excuse for exposition.
Romance is an awesome way to infuse high-stakes interpersonal conflict into your story. The more the characters care about one another, the more likely we are to care about them when the action intensifies.
The challenge comes when the Love Interest is only a paper-thin motivation for the hero. They have no life of their own apart from invoking an anguished, melodramatic “Noooooooo!!!!” when their life is threatened. These flat damsels and dudes in distress become little more than set dressing, footnotes for the main character. Unlike other overused tropes, which may be bad writing, but are not harmful, I honestly believe it would be better to leave these characters out than to write them poorly.
Because of the history of gender dynamics in western literature (the only context I can speak to), most main characters in fantasy and sci fi are still men, and most of their love interests are women. Scientists have demonstrated that what we see on screen or read on the page influences how we feel about ourselves. Poorly written, flat female characters do active harm to women. It is our responsibility as writers to combat this trend. Also, note that writing women well means more than just making them kick ass. Ok, climbing down off my soapbox…
What are some options for a well-rounded Love Interest?
The Real Character
In past articles in this series, I have not felt the need to say this, but for this topic it is worth stating directly: Make them a real character. If you invent a Love Interest specifically as a plot element, then of course you’re going to struggle to bring them to life. You’re asking the wrong questions. Start out asking the same questions you would of your protagonist. What motivates them? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their unique mannerisms? Where are they from, what do they believe, and how does that background influence their life?
Without this, none of the suggestions below will work.
The Triangle (Or the pentagon…)
This is a tried-and-true twist on the romantic subplot, but not one we see as often in fantasy and sci fi, probably because romance is rarely the main plot driver. But why not? People’s feelings change in unexpected ways in stressful situations. The scenarios we see in most speculative fiction might easily drive unexpected pairings together or drive emotional change.
The Slow Burn
Love is boring. Mutual love at first sight offers no conflict, no tension. It does not resonate with the way most of us form deep, lasting relationships. It would do our readers a service to reflect this on the page. Do both lovers feel the same way in the beginning? Does the same event draw them to one another, or different? Does their attraction grow steadily, or are there bumps along the way?
Most readers have a set of assumptions when it comes to foreshadowed romance. If the main viewpoint character is drawn to another, they will probably get together by the end. Why do they have to? A journey from longing, to loss, to acceptance could make a compelling subplot.
Solid Committed Relationship
Finally, often romance plots are all about the status of the relationship. Once the couple gets together, we act as if the tension is lost. Romances with a capital “R” end with a kiss, an engagement, or a wedding. If the plot touches on the relationship at all after that point, it tends to threaten the status of the relationship. Why? Relationships can go through all sorts of non-existential conflicts. What if two of your adventurers are in a happily committed relationship throughout their quest? How do the challenges they undergo shape their relationship? Are their roles at home the same as their roles on the mission?
What makes your love interest a living, breathing character? In the end, these are just suggestions, but I hope they encourage you, reader/writer, to pair your protagonists with well-rounded love interests.
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