Over the past few months, I’ve talked about heroes and villains. While they are important, most of us have a pretty good idea of what makes a memorable one, and most writers get there eventually. What fewer get right is the Love Interest.
Here, our familiarity with stories and the most common tropes and shorthand and the basic DNA of traditional storytelling actually can hurt us. We all know our hero has to engage us, our villain has to oppose the hero and provide the conflict. But often the love interest is just … there because they have to be.
The princess has to be rescued. We need to give the hero a reason to fight the dragon and scale the tower, so we put a princess on top. Maybe, especially in crime noir or action movies, the girlfriend is murdered, which is used both to show that the hero has failed to protect her, and to give him a need for revenge. It paints the villain in a darker light and gives the here license to kill, or to be more violent that we might otherwise be comfortable with. At its worst, it’s an excuse to write torture porn and then feel virtuous about punishing somebody for it. In some stories, she’d a prize for succeeding. It’s less common these days for the king to offer his daughter in marriage to a hero who completes a quest, but the dynamic is there, unspoken maybe, but we all know that saving the kingdom is pretty much guaranteed to nab our hero some royal virtue.
This is a disservice to the character. This reduces her to a McGuffin. This just makes the love interest the carrot to the villains stick. A way to spur him to act.
As with most things, women tend to suffer more from this, but not exclusively. A romance with a female protagonist might use the man as motivation. She needs him, not for himself, but for whatever he stands for. Protection. Power. Fulfillment.
This doesn’t even touch on stories with same sex relationships or a reversal of traditional roles.
If you want to be better than that, you have to write the love interest as a fully realized character. Give them a reason for the protagonist to find them attractive, and a reason they reciprocate, other than the fact that you’ve reached the third act. A good tactic is have a beta reader of the opposite sex who can look over your work and smack you when you resort to lazy stereotypes. I have been blessed to have several. In fact, you should read their stuff.
This isn’t to say that every relationship has to be healthy and fair and progressive. Love and sex and attraction can be a tangled web. But as a reader I have to believe that the characters have their reasons, noble or twisted or broken or as those may be. In other words, human as they may be.
The good news is that the readers want to be convinced. They’ll follow you on that journey.
The bad news is, it looks like you’re going to have to actually write a character, not just a plot point.