In the spirit of this weekend falling on Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d wade into the sticky (oo er missus) business of writing love. Not all stories need a love interest, but, equally, not many lives are untouched by love, even if it’s unfilled. As a writer, a love interest can be a great source of conflict. It doesn’t have to be central to your plot, unless you’re writing romance (in which case, duh!), but giving your protagonist someone to care about, ensures they have difficult choices to make at a crucial point in the plot. Plus, everyone likes a bit of romance, even the most hardened action hero – what would Star Wars be without Leia and Han?
So let’s get to it, how do you write a love interest without your hard-boiled detective, space thriller going all mushy and icky? First, let’s deal with the main love interest themes:
- The love/hate relationship – TV shows and rom coms love this one. It’s the romance that might as well have a neon sign announcing “they get together at the end”. It can work, but you have to have a good reason for the love/hate that serves the narrative and also adds depth to the characters. It’s great if you can create a romance that is unlikely, yet feels inevitable.
- The brooding male love interest – The Bronte sisters specialised in brooding romantic leads and did it so well, that they’ve become a bit of a mainstay. I love a bit of brooding and mystery, but only if there’s something behind it all. Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, gave us Patch, who brooded in the beginning, but was actually a bit of a letdown because his mystery didn’t actually amount to much, even though he was a fallen angel. Nice set-up, but no pay-off. In contrast, the BBC’s Musketeers gives us a brooding Athos, who I think works well. He’s the strong, silent type, with a past that gives him good reason to be a bit morose, yet he’s not completely joyless and adds gravitas to the group dynamic.
- The bad boy or girl – The bad boy can crossover with the brooding character mentioned above, but doesn’t have to. The bad boy or less often, girl, are usually cocky, fly in the face of authority and represent everything the protagonist isn’t. If they’re well written, the bad boy/girl are free spirits who can lead the protagonist astray, act as an antagonist and make them question their choices and the status quo. If they’re badly written, they just wear leather, drink and smoke and then fall in with everyone when the plot demands and all the badness melts away.
- Geeky/loyal side-kick – this is almost another facet of the love/hate relationship, because the love interest is right under the protagonist’s nose, but they don’t see it until they reach a certain point in their character arc. It’s tried and tested, but proceed with caution, as your readers may see it coming a mile off.
- Star-crossed lovers – This one is basically Romeo and Juliet. Two people fall in love across social, class or other divides. Everyone’s against them, but they can’t help their love and carry on, often leading to their demise, if you’re being true to the archetype. Having two lovers fighting against everything, can feel forced, so make sure your characters have a strong connection or reason for betraying everything they’ve believed in up until this point.
…the nitty gritty of writing a love interest that doesn’t suck
With the main love interest formulas at your disposal, I suppose we should get to the nitty gritty of writing a love interest that doesn’t suck. Here are my pointers:
- Autonomy – make sure your love interest is their own person and not just there to serve the main character’s story. People can’t fall in love with a cardboard cutout. Your readers need to understand why the MC is in love with that person and you do that by making the love interest the hero in their own story. It’s pretty much the same as making a villain, except adding love instead of hate. Don’t have a love interest who just pops up to serve the story and then disappears again; your reader will feel like the relationship is hollow and won’t be invested, even if you kill them. They might even cheer, and we don’t want that.
- Flaws – don’t make your romantic interest a bronzed Adonis or supermodel, who also volunteers at the local homeless shelter and is super talented at the violin, but yet finds time to brood a little too, despite having a happy and fulfilling home life. That’s a way to make your readers hate your character (or not, if you consider Edward Cullen). They can be beautiful, but don’t go on about it. And they can be talented, but maybe not both. Give them a character flaw that makes the relationship complicated – see Jane Austen on how to do this (ahem Mr Darcy *cough*), she’s a master. I don’t need to tell you that your protagonist should have flaws too, right?
- Conflict – without conflict, your romance is going to err into ‘mushy and icky’ territory. Your lovers are going to be annoyingly happy and nobody wants to read about that. This is where brooding and the star-crossed stuff can come in handy. Maybe your couple is separated by a war, disease, governments or religion. Maybe one of them isn’t ready for the commitment (boy, we’ve all known that one) or they have to leave for whatever reason. Make the conflict matter and make it relevant to the overall story, even if it just acts as another distraction for your protagonist and another thing to deal with, at a crucial point, with the final cost being that they could lose their lover, but save the world (literal or metaphorical).
These are the basic building blocks of a successful love interest character, for a sub-plot. And remember, your romance doesn’t have to be heterosexual, so look beyond the obvious male/female lovers, if you’re trying to decide who your character is going to fall for.
What are your tips for adding a romance sub-plot? What did I miss? And are there any books you can recommend that do it well? Let me know in the comments.