5 Tips On Romance and Love Interests

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I feel compelled to point out that I don’t like the Romance genre at all, namely because I find too many of the protagonists to be bitchy, unrealistic hypocrite shrews.  Shipping is serious business for fandoms, but not so much for me: I could care less that Harry got together with Ginny and not Hermione.  That’s not to say I don’t have and don’t write romantic relationships, but I definitely examine it from a Hero’s Journey POV and really, really try to stay away from the tried-and-true Harlequin cliche’s.  I just thought a disclaimer was in order, since so much of the following is A) the meat and potatoes of the Romance genre, B) subjective, and C) full of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenarios.
Also: Twilight WILL be skewered in the following passages.

1.  Beware the Unfair Sex. Let me go ahead and set up a scenario for you: Bailey and Sam are together, married, maybe with some kids, but Sam is feeling wistful, increasingly unfulfilled and unhappy about the relationship.  Oh, Bailey’s nice enough, but drab, a milquetoast: just not the kind of companion that sets the world on fire.  Then Sam finds Dana, and oh!  Rainbows and unicorns frolic every time Dana appears!  Sam falls into Dana’s arms, delirious with joy, and damn the consequences!  Who’s the bad guy in this?  Well, it depends.  Who’s the woman, Sam or Bailey?  I can just about guarantee you that if Sam is a woman, her journey will be cheered by chick-lit feminists the world over, for breaking loose and chasing her heart’s dreams.  But if Sam is a guy, he’s a cheating bastard leaving his poor, loyal Bailey and cheating on her.  The Unfair Sex is a very specific kind of Double Standard; it occurs when one gender (usually the woman) is allowed to perform certain actions and get away with it, but if the other gender tries it, they’ll collect negative dividends.  This trope is unfortunately prevalent in real life; just try gender flipping the Twilight Moms and see how many 40-year-old men would be lambasted as perverts on the 9 o’clock news (especially if you gender flip Bella and Edward!).  Fiction, especially romance, tends to ignore the fact that infidelity is just as emotionally harmful for men as it is for women.  The Unfair Sex is the reason I can’t read romance, because I see women lie, cheat, and physically abuse their male counterparts without the kind of repercussion a man would get for doing the same.  Case in point: in Graceling by Kristin Cashore, the female protagonist loses her temper and smacks the crap out of her love interest’s face.  This is excused, hand-waved by feminine wiles, the girl’s admirable passion, and praise for curbing her plot-driving supernatural ability to kill people by just smacking him instead.  If the guy did that ... oh, man, if the guy did that ...we’d just ... we’d never hear the end of it  Make sure that if your hero or heroine is in a relationship, they attempt to curb their hypocrisy.  Or make sure that you, the author, are not saying in your head “It’s okay, because she’s a girl!  It’s okay, because he’s a guy!”  Abuse is abuse, jerkasses are jerkasses, and cheating is cheating.

2.  Healthy relationships aren’t made of two people whose self-worth depends on the other’s approval and immediate presence. In fact, if you have this kind of relationship, you’re probably headed for the rocks.  “I’m nothing without you!” is scary shit, that thin line between love and hate, and the kind of thing stalking and crimes of passion are made of.  Seriously, ask
any therapist about their biggest crazies, and odds are it’s someone who defined their self-worth this way.  Clingy partners tend to be so because they have self-confidence issues, see themselves undeserving of a happy relationship, and as such are paranoid about it ending.  These are the kind of people that blow up over nothing in real life, like “We’re you looking at her? Were you looking!?” And yet, a lot of romance is written this way!  That if (let’s face facts: most romance is written by women for women) the girl just finds the right guy, she can overcome all her crippling self-doubts and have her Gonna Fly Now Montage!  I mean, this hardly needs to be said, but you know Twilight does this.  In real life, social relationships are an admittedly large part of the chemical and biological needs of happiness and fulfillment, but there are other things like careers, philanthropy, or various “life dreams” that a person might also need to achieve satisfaction.  Shallow relationships are usually shallow because they break this rule: the characters in question have nothing else going for them but their relationship.  Which begs the question “What does so-and-so see in this person!?” Make sure your character is capable of being a decent person on their own before you bring in a Love Interest to solve all their problems.  Unless, of course, you’re writing romance, which does that anyway.

3. Arbitrary break-ups need not be arbitrary. Remember Friends?  No?  Good, me neither.  Because Ross and Rachel may well be single-handedly responsible for my hatred of stupid romances, or at least a good part of it.  I hated the “Will they?  Won’t they?”,  I hated the “We’re breaking up!  For real this time!”, and the “We were on a break!” that all boiled down to one thing: neither of them were capable of communicating.  Real love and long-lasting relationships are built on communication.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because with half the households in America now considered dysfunctional, there are a lot of folks growing up thinking that emotional abuse and drunken screaming is normal.  The Mister Perfect in a lot of romances isn’t perfect enough to read your mind, and that’s where the relationship gets into trouble.  (Not because of anything the woman did, like being batshit crazy unreasonable, see Rule #1.)  In fact, most of the guys in romances remind me of the Romanticorp robot in Futurama, where it says “My two biggest turn-ons are commitment and changing myself.” (And it still doesn’t save romance guys from the arbitrary break-up!)  Lack of communication is responsible for a lot of unnecessary conflict in a story, kind of the same unnecessary conflict Too Dumb To Live brings to horror movies.  People get stupid and we’re supposed to gasp and care.  If someone cheats or smacks you around, that’s a deal-breaker.  If someone tripped over your cat and didn’t apologize to it or inadvertently insulted your mother, that’s not.  

4.  Beauty shouldn’t always equal goodness, you know. This has to be addressed, just because of the overwhelming “facades-are-everything” message that Hollywood, advertising, and a good chunk of literature express.  (I dare you to look up Cracked.com’s Dating Advice from the Disney Princesses; I DARE you.)  I personally ascribe to Johnny Depp’s quote from Sleepy Hollow: “Evil wears many faces, and none so  dangerous as the face of virtue.”  When looks become the sole reason for a relationship (Man, do I even have to invoke the most egregious example here?), you may as well dip your toes, because you’re somewhere shallow.  A lot of times I find myself reading books with hot guys or girls and wondering “Would the hero/heroine have looked twice at this guy/girl if he/she were hunchbacked and covered in boils?”  I can admit that ugly isn’t fun, but it just seems that looks are pushed too far in the other direction.  That it’s not enough for someone to be inoffensive to the eyes, they’d better be a freaking adonis.  The opposite of this, when authors try to make an overweight housewife desirable, tends to move into Mary Sue or Anti-Sue territory if they’re behaving like the Unfair Sex.  (A hot chick would still be the Unfair Sex, but we’d forgive her for it, right, guys?) A perfectly pleasant homely looking person is really hard to find!  Again, look to Rule# 2 to avoid this pitfall as best you can; it’s not like we’ll all start wanting to read and write about the uggos and fatties getting their true loves.  (Indignant as I can get over this, I know I wouldn’t!)

5.  The relationship should parallel the main journey of the hero. Remember the last blog entry, where the hero’s goals have to be clear and so on?  The romantic journey should serve as the reward for the hero overcoming his inner and outer obstacles.  The girl didn’t want to be with the guy when he was a drunkard, but now that he’s gone through AA, he respects himself and her, and they fall in love.  (Or something.)  A lot of stories don’t do this; that the relationship is everything, it is the journey, and well ... you know where you end up. (Coughcoughtwilightcoughcough.) The movie Rocky is actually a good example of this done right, because Rocky overcomes physical and inner challenges to reach his goals, but his ultimate reward and satisfaction is Adrian’s presence in his life.  (For that matter, Shaun of the Dead does a great job of showing how the girl is the Hero’s Elixir, his ultimate reward for his zombie ordeal.)  A relationship should add to the character, show us a side we haven’t seen before.  A good chunk of fanfiction is this concept alone, usually sadly and hilariously executed.  This should also be true of the Love Interest, who, I’ve noticed, tends to be a cardboard jigsaw piece that, held correctly, neatly fits into the main character’s flaws to make a wonderful, wonderful whole.  Except that it’s flat and stupid and we all know it won’t last.  The relationship should last because we’ve seen the hero become someone different and worthwhile, both having earned and being worthy of the relationship.
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TheWhiteJewel's avatar
THANK YOU. I am a firm lover of romance but not without these 5 rules. You've no idea how many times I have yelled at the screen when watching chick flicks or whatever or gritted my teeth while reading a lurid book. WHERE IS THE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. 

Also, I've never really like character who were just there to be "Love Interest". Characters who are in a relationship should still be a character in their right. Which is a shame because I don't see it as often as I should. If there is no development or that much interaction between them how am I supposed to care whatever the outcome of their relationship is? Why are they even together in the first place? What will keep them together beyond "they're hot" or "they were the first to approach me romantically"?