On Writing a Believable Love Interest
Most guys don’t have rippling muscles and abs of Corinthian bronze. Most girls don’t have glossy raven/golden/fiery hair that either falls softly around her shoulders or is tied up with a single loose curl at the nape of her neck. True love doesn’t come at first sight though awe, wonder and some form of attraction can. Relationships aren’t a montage of beach walks, picnics and hugging as the sun sets, they’re hard work.
The majority of love interests in fiction today (Christian and non-Christian fiction alike) are pretty unrealistic but that’s why we like them – they’re the ideal. So for those of us who worry about the unrealistic expectations that too high a dose of sappiness can produce, how do we go about writing a realistic love interest? There are three main things to remember, really.
THEY’RE GOING TO BE AWKWARD AT FIRST
Even if a girl knows that a guy is interested in her, the actual conversation in which he says it out loud is always awkward for both of them. Every single time. Personally, some have been less awkward than others but it’s always ever so slightly uncomfortable. For the guy, he’s taken time to work up the courage to speak to the girl and he’s likely to have all sorts of doubts as well as the fear of rejection. For the girl, there is the weight of expectation of an answer and the anxiety of either how to let him down gently or whether it’s right to say yes.
Generally, one of the two will be (or act) more awkward than the other, so write it in. If you have a guy that likes a girl but isn’t sure whether she feels the same, have him be friendly, chatty, helpful but slightly awkward about it. It’s an all-round awkward stage when it gets to the point where something needs to be said but nothing has yet. Make your character’s interactions with their love interest less than smooth. If they flirt, make sure they say something stupid too. If the girl doesn’t know he’s interested yet, make him more clumsy around her or have him ask silly questions like ‘so how’s your dog?’ when trying to make small talk because he just wants to talk to her. If she knows he’s interested but is also sort of freaked out by the idea, have her reply to him a little more bluntly (in an attempt to keep him at arm’s length) but also want his company at the same time.
Make your love interest and/or your MC awkward about the whole thing, whether in obvious ways or in more subtle forms. There are those super confident types out there that will just breeze in, drop a charming one-liner then invite you to dinner, but the majority of us are awkward ducklings struggling to navigate our emotions and the strange world that is romance and we need to have characters remind us that that’s ok. We say dumb things then worry that they’ll hate us forever and we lend people our favourite books or invite them to a football match then worry whether that was too forward. If you want a believable love interest that people can identify with, don’t make them too smooth.
THEY’RE PROBABLY GOING TO BE PRETTY NORMAL LOOKING
There are supermodels and then there is everyone else. Some of us are at peace with our nondescript appearances and have realised we’re going to get old and haggard one day. If your character is going to have something particularly noticeable about them then make sure that it fits with the story. The chances are, a farmer or a warrior would be fit and well-toned because of the nature of their job. Princesses are more likely to be pretty and paler skinned because they have time and help to spend on their appearance and they aren’t out in the sun all day. But there are a disproportionate amount of raven-haired, forest-eyed, furrow-browed young men in fiction at the moment, along with the fiery-haired (I’ll admit, I love ginger hair), willowy, high-cheekboned young women.
For the sake of the youth reading these books, we could do with a few more normal looking characters. We need girls with mousey hair that always falls out of a ponytail and grey eyes that don’t set your heart pounding. Let’s see more boys with dark curls and round faces who get out of breath when they’re running. If you want your reader to like the love interest and be rooting for the relationship, make the characters look less like supermodels. It both clears the way for the character’s personality to shine through, and gives the reader hope that they don’t have to be stunning and super fit to have a chance to be happy. If you want a believable love interest, don’t make them eye-candy, make them normal but make them mean all the world to the person who loves them.
By this, I don’t mean they must have a scar on their pretty little face or they have to be brooding and sarcastic because they came from a broken home, I just mean that they’re not perfect. Maybe they don’t listen very well, maybe they’re not very confident, maybe they get so caught up in other things that they neglect the person they love. Or maybe they grew up in a home where their father didn’t take the lead like they should and now they have a distorted view about how things are supposed to work between men and women. There are a thousand and one flaws that human beings have and it’s good to pick flaws that are relevant to the story and up the tension.
Look at Hester Shaw from Mortal Engines, she has the superficial flaw of a scar on her face. This would make her a shallow character but that her flaw is actually her self-sufficiency, born of necessity in the past. She simply doesn’t know how to accept help and struggles to learn to love and rely on others. Interestingly, this causes problems at various points even after she is married, which I really like. Her scar is an outward sign of why she is flawed, it is not the flaw in itself.
Bear in mind that romance doesn’t fix a person’s fault(s) and love is in fact hard work. Many fiction books (particularly Christian fiction) can make it seem like being in a relationship or getting married can miraculously fix your issues but it’s simply not true. Unless you are Sauron, there is nothing magic about having a gold ring on your finger. For well-rounded and deep characters, the deeper issues take time to deal with and overcome.
ON ROMANCE IN GENERAL
Just to note, I’m a big fan of Austen, Persuasion being my favourite. I also enjoy books like The Book Thief, North Child, Precious Bane, and I Coriander which have elements of romance in them. Two out of four of the books I’ve reviewed so far have been straight-up romances and a third had a strong romantic theme underlying the main plot.
There is a time and place for idealism but it is important for us to be honest in our writing too. Stories shape the way we think and feel and there are too many wrong expectations about romance out there because of the unrealistic portrayal of couples. Romance is a very peculiar thing, it can sweep you off of your feet and make you do silly things but it’s also important that we have at least some characters who portray a more realistic version of how these things work (or don’t).
- What do you look for in a guy/girl?
- What is the most cringe-worthy romance you’ve ever read?