Lucky me, as I happen to be reading a fantasy novel with three Designated Love Interests at the moment, so I have examples staring me right in the face.
I have this thing, see. When there is romance in my fantasy, I often regard it as someone does a fly in the soup. This is because, like flies in soup, many fantasy romances are not only obvious and barely possessed of the flutter of life, but also make the things around them taste bad.
This does not mean all of them do. But the great majority does. And it’s all because the author cannot the fuck be subtle about the Designated Love Interests. We all know who the character is going to fall in love with. And we don’t know that because the author’s good with chemistry, or it seems like these people would be good for each other, which I consider acceptable reasons. We know that because the author coasts on the reader’s acceptance of genre conventions, to the point of not developing a true person to fall in love with their protagonist; what we get, instead, is a stock character.
I think that’s unacceptable.
1) Give some reason for having the protagonist notice his/her future lover is attractive. It’s really noticeable when every other character in the book gets a description like “the tall, hook-nosed man who never smiled” or “the green-eyed woman with a weary expression,” but the moment the Designated Love Interest comes on stage, he or she has “beautiful blue eyes,” “chiseled, handsome features,” or “hair like a dream of cornsilk blowing in the wind.” (I made up only that last one, and I’m sure there are worse howlers out there. See point 2).
What’s the point of this? Why is the narrator identifying this one character, and this one character only, as beautiful/handsome? And why oh why does the author have to, many times, include other male or female characters who are compared unfavorably to this person in terms of looks?
I want some explanation, please. Does this particular character fit the protagonist’s type? What is his/her type, anyway? And don’t use that as an all-purpose excuse; just because someone likes blond women doesn’t mean he or she is going to be attracted to every blond woman in existence. Why do they suddenly notice features they never noticed before? Why are they just “sure,” without ever having talked to this person, that he or she is clever, interesting, or wonderful, simply based on looks? (Sara Douglass, I am looking STRAIGHT AT YOU).
Quit it. Too often there’s no explanation, shoving the new character into a stock position; it’s sudden, so it’s as subtle as a brick to the head; and it makes the protagonist seem shallow. Have you noticed how few fantasy hero/ines fall in love with someone scarred, or unattractive, or even just plain? They happen to choose someone based on looks, and lo and behold, it’s the right choice.
*golf clap* Wonderful way to make your protagonist seem deep there, author.
2) The language rising towards purple is often a sign of the Designated Love Interest. The author may write in a pleasant style, a pedestrian one, or a laconic one. Either way, it often alters when the Designated Love Interest comes into the room, even if the author doesn’t specifically identify him or her as beautiful or handsome.
Suddenly, emotions are “igniting” in the protagonist instead of “choking” or “rising” or using any less dramatic verb. When the protagonist and the Designated Love Interest look into each other’s eyes, they are “drowning in the [insert eye color here].” (If I were the Supreme Dictator of Fantasy Writing, no one could use that phrase ever again). A protagonist who has expressed himself calmly and clearly starts saying things like, “I am utterly devoted to you,” and other hackneyed phrases that belong on General Hospital. In the worst cases, the author sweeps into paragraph-length descriptions of the way the Designated Love Interest is dressed—especially noticeable when it doesn’t happen for anyone else; this is a subset of Point 1—and says things like, “She brought a freshness into the room with her.”
People? I am going to tell you what is apparently a very great secret now, one I would have thought would have been obvious, but which everyone appears to ignore.
This is my biggest complaint about the purple language, really. It’s not that the language is melodramatic, though it can be, enough to make me snort out loud. It’s not that the author applies that description to the Designated Love Interest only, although that goes with point 1 in annoying me. It’s not even that the author feels the need to insult the reader’s intelligence by tacking about blazing neon signs to indicate who is going to fall in love with who.
It’s that the author warps her own protagonist out of character for the sake of romantic cliché. The protagonist who has been calm and neutral until now goes all ga-ga; there’s nothing of his personality left in his reaction, when, logically, he should be reacting as he himself would even if it’s an emotion that he’s never experienced before. Extreme reactions should still spring from the rooted ground of his personality. (This is going in the “being in character in the difficult moments” rant like whoa).
Similarly, the author often warps her own style. If this is a noticeable departure from her usual level of adjective use, for example, people are going to notice. And, quite often, she’s shifted into a style that she has little skill or practice in writing, meaning these sections are clunky.
Do yourself and your readers a favor, and be subtle about it, hmm? Have the character react the way he or she would to this person. Give the emotions a source. Use descriptions that you could come up with for other people and places and clothes, especially that last. Skill lies in how you use them, not in being amethyst.
3) Don’t create a love interest to “complement” or “reward” the protagonist. Sing it along with me: The hero gets wounded, and the woman who heals him “understands his pain” and falls in love with him, and he with her. The heroine has been betrayed by a man, and makes a vow never to love again, until she meets the one man who values loyalty so highly he would never betray her. The hotheaded young swordsman has a calm, levelheaded woman partner who watches after him and makes him come in out of the rain. The heroine runs away from home because no one understands her desire to be a mage, and the first male mage she meets is completely loving and supportive and appropriately horrified when she relates her life story.
I would like to administer a collective “whap” to the heads of these authors, but there are so many of them that I could never get them all. Besides, then my hands would be sore and I couldn’t type these rants.
By doing this, the author has denied the love interest any status or personality other than being the Designated Love Interest. That’s not a person the protagonist is falling in love with; it’s an automaton whose one or two defining characteristics are exactly the ones they need to comfort the protagonist, erase any flaws he or she has by being the person to run after them and clean up their messes, understand them and forgive them and love them for anything (even those things that should never be forgiven so easily, as with heroines who instantly and effortlessly forgive the heroes who beat them), and “reward” them after a war or other trauma.
This is not a person. This is a stock character. It’s giving the protagonist the equivalent of a cuddly toy bear, except that this cuddly toy bear also can talk back and looks human and is a most willing fuck.
If an author admitted that he or she was doing that, I would not be irritated. (On the other hand, I would also not be reading the story). But let an author try to convince me that her shadow puppet is a person as fully and really developed as the protagonist she’s so obviously in love with, and I fight like mad.
The author obviously does not have an equal commitment and devotion to the characters in such a situation. She does not see the Designated Love Interest as a person, but as a reward or a foil. Her protagonist is so wonderful that he or she deserves it. Uh, no, they don’t. Now go away, or come here so I can give you that slap.
4) Don’t let a Designated Love Interest with different goals and principles subordinate them easily to the protagonist’s goals and principles. One way that authors sometimes try to stir up tension is by setting the protagonist and the Designated Love Interest up on opposite sides of a war, or making them rivals in a particular profession or quest. Will they fall in love against the odds?
Of course they will. You know why? Because the author values the protagonist over the Designated Love Interest, and the moment that they come into serious conflict, the Designated Love Interest capitulates—often with no experience or even persuasive argument to convince him or her—and takes the protagonist’s side.
This is disgusting.
I find it especially disgusting because, so often, the Designated Love Interest is represented as “selfish” for having different goals or principles. Her side (it’s most often a her) is the wrong one, so obviously and laughably so that no one sane or halfway intelligent would stick with that side for a moment. So it’s up to the author to convince me that she has deep, maybe irrational, personal reasons for sticking with that side.
The author doesn’t. Instead, she gives the heroine a short sharp shake for ever wanting anything other than to follow at the hero’s side like a panting dog, and sets her down in the “proper” place.
I can’t suggest a fix for this one other than making the difference or the rivalry real, because it makes me so sick to my stomach to see a character labeled “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” without any recourse. It’s not as though they could help it, you fucking stupid author. You were the one who chose to make them this way, to write this damn story. Now stop punishing the automaton and go write me a real set of rivals or differently principled people who have true, legitimate grievances with each other.
5) Anything damaging said about the Designated Love Interest is an automatic lie. Along with not having true lives and personalities of their own, Designated Love Interests often have no flaws. The author desperately tries to convince the protagonist they do, of course. But because we can’t have the protagonist falling in love with a real, live person who makes real, live mistakes, those flaws get explained away. Anything they do which seems wrong will have a good reason behind it. Anything negative anyone else says is a lie, most often founded on jealousy of the love interest’s beauty or magic or high birth. (Stupid romantic fantasies seem to be the fandom conventions of People Who Are Jealous For Petty Reasons). Anything which might seem a flaw inherent to the love interest, like jumping to conclusions, ends up saving the day instead.
Probably the simplest and crudest case of this, of course, is the hero/ine thinking the love interest cheated on him or her. They always believe it, despite a total lack of the little things like, oh, prior characterization and believable evidence. And in the end the Designated Love Interest is proven innocent, the person he or she is thought to have cheated with gets screwed over (not in the good way, sad to report), and everything is hunky-dory. After all, a teddy bear is not responsible for who picks it up and hugs it.
You know that advice about deep characterization and working with flaws that you’ve applied to your protagonist? Yeah. Now go and give it to the most important secondary character(s), too.
6) Designated Love Interests are not at home to passion or complexity. Oh, they’re at home to the purple, homogenized versions of it where the protagonist “felt need like a tidal wave rising relentlessly from the sea of her soul,” or where the hero/ine does something stupid that’s supposed to prove that he or she belongs with the Designated Love Interest, like killing a dragon that will—uh—I’ll get back to you on how that proves they belong together. Or there’s the “problem,” often in a marriage, that gets solved by something which treats only the symptoms and not the disease, like the Designated Love Interest getting kidnapped and the protagonist rescuing him or her, which of course proves that their love is deep and they understand each other now and they won’t fight ever, ever again, at least until the next time someone leaves the chamberpot sitting in the middle of the floor to get kicked by the first person stepping out of bed.
This is not the aspect of Designated Love Interests that annoys me the most, but it is the one that puzzles me the most. Okay, so you went to some trouble to set this couple up as bonding through fire and rain and being profoundly in love, right? (At least, that’s the way a lot of romantic fantasies handle it). Then why in the world are you crushing that grand romance down to so much pablum that the audience can swallow easily, without noticing it, because they’ve had so much pablum before?
It really, really puzzles me, and in some senses horrifies me. It’s as though fantasy authors think that audiences will accept nothing less than tame marriage and happy smiling couples in the sunshine, even from people for whom that would be completely out of character. I bet you that your readers are stronger than that.
That was invigorating. Now I can go back to reading the book with the three Designated Love Interests, on which there will certainly be a review, and on which in my head there is already much snarking.