We’ve all read it: boy and girl end up in a book-worthy situation together only to end up in a relationship regardless of whether they’re compatible or whether they hated each other to begin with or whether one (or both) is unlikable.
Why? Why do writers do that?
Well, romance is an easy way to make the reader want to read. I’ll admit that I have ploughed through some pretty lousy prose just to find out if the characters get together in the end. Women’s fiction and YA are bad for crow-barred sentimentality and eye-rolling love triangles but it seems that’s what sells. There are those that have asked me whether Nina and Pax get together in Aurelius but all I have to say to that is beware: I very much of a Louisa May Alcott disposition. For those of you who are Little Women fans, the reason that Jo and Teddy never got married is because so many fans wrote to Alcott, begging her to put them together in Good Wives. Be warned: a pestered author is a vindictive author.
There is a reason that things stayed platonic between my two main characters. I set out to prove it was possible. Since then, I have come to believe that we need more fiction in which our characters aren’t constantly falling in love with each other. Here are three reasons why more protagonists need to keep their relationships platonic.
1. Your Protagonists are supposed to be saving the world.
Unless you are writing a romance novel, the chances are that your characters have bigger problems to worry about than who they have a crush on. Novels like the Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner could have been much shorter if their protagonists hadn’t spent so much time distracted by their supporting cast.
There will be plenty of time after they have saved the world or whatever else it is that teenagers do these days. It’s important for characters care about each other but a snarky heroine crying in the shower over which sulky guy she likes more while the villains plan world domination doesn’t display great priorities. It is, in fact, a little on the selfish side.
Authors, saving the world is the priority, not making your readers fangirl over which set of biceps will get the girl.
2. There are other ways to make your readers care.
There are any number of books in which romance doesn’t feature. Take Danny the Champion of the World for instance, or the first few Artemis Fowl books — both very different.
In both the books I mentioned, the reader cares about the characters and what happens to them. In Artemis Fowl, although he’s an antihero, he’s a lost and lonely boy who misses his father and feels the responsibility of caring for his family. You become so caught up in his quest for obtaining fairy magic and the cunning moves and countermoves of the boy genius and the LEP that it doesn’t matter that not a single eyelash is batted nor a muscle rippled (apart from Butler with the muscles, but he’s more intimidating that romantic).
As for Danny the Champion of the World, he and his father are so endearing and their pheasant poaching plan so marvellous that you care more about whether the village gets away with it than whether Danny’s dad might one day find someone.
In both books, and many like them, it is the strength and depth of the characters that makes the reader care about what happens to them. Satisfaction doesn’t come in a ring or a kiss, it comes in other forms, bigger, bolder, more noble forms. There are a thousand other ways to make a reader care about your characters than whether they find their perfect other or not.
Katniss, Tris, and the guy from Maze Runner all blend into one murky trope but Artemis, Butler, and Commander Root from Artemis Fowl and Danny and his father from Roald Dahl’s book remain in the reader’s mind with clarity and affection. They have other things going for them, struggles and triumphs that made them matter to the reader. Which takes us up to reason number three.
3. It can encourage lazy storytelling.
There are several famous YA (usually dystopian) books which have good premises but poor plot and/or characters. Yet, throw romance in and your protagonist has reason to make stupid decisions and your antagonist has instant leverage. When romance is being used as a crutch for weak characters or a failing storyline, your book needs to take a step back into the friend zone.
Coupling off is often used to excuse selfish or foolish decisions on the part of the lead because they’re distracted. If your characters are dumb, you need to own them, not excuse them. You wrote a selfish or foolish character and you need to admit it and make it work with your story.
Too often, Romance is used as a crutch for poor characters and an excuse for bad behaviour. It’s also a cheap trick for heightening tension. In Gatty’s Tale, tension is held throughout with the overarching question of whether they will reach Jerusalem and with the various dangers of the road. On the other hand, in sections of Divergent where there is no immanent threat, all we see is Tris stressing about how surly but attractive Four is and what the mixed signals he keeps giving may or may not mean.
You are a writer so write well. Don’t crow bar in a sweetheart for your protagonist in the hopes that the reader likes the pairing enough to turn a blind eye to the weaknesses in your book. Write stronger. If needs be, friend zone the two of them until you are sure that their relationship is necessary and not a cover up.
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None of this is to say that romance in books is wrong or that we shouldn’t write it. I am a romantic at heart and my current WIP contains a really sweet romance subplot, but the love story should be a bonus and an enhancement to our books, not a cover-up. This month, being it February, we’ll be looking at the element of romance in fiction but I felt it was important to begin by talking about how we use it badly and why we should have more platonic protagonists.
The first novel I ever finished kept the two main players in it away from any romantic notions. I needed to prove to myself that I was capable of writing without anything to prop up sagging plot and weak characters. But as I thought more about it, I realised that the world needs more platonic fantasy and adventure novels. Not only would it encourage more boys to read more, it also encourages a higher quality of storytelling in which we are forced, as writers, to learn how to make our readers care for more than hormones and to learn how to grow such strong characters and riveting plots that we don’t need something to ship to get us to the final page.
- Do you think we need more platonic protagonists?
- What are the best/worst things about romance in (not specifically romantic) novels?