Hello, writers, and welcome to another March day. It’s currently a drizzling, cold mess where I’m at, but what’s that saying about lions and lambs this month? A quick glance at the coming forecast will tell us spring is definitely on the way, and with the coming of spring, there is something in the air…
That’s right: Pollen.
It’s everywhere; on cars, on walls, in my nose. It washes off with the rain, sure, but then it gathers together in the streams of water like some toxic waste in a sci-fi movie. It’s gross, but such is life. Flowers will bloom because of it. Honey will sit on millions of breakfast tables around the world. Pollen, however annoying, is necessary for our survival.
In a lot of ways, pollen is like love. Love, on its own, is just a feeling, an emotion, an often irritating thing floating around us on Cupid’s arrow. But put between two entities, bees and rose buds, responsible people who know what they want in life, something beautiful can bloom.
I’m not trying to be mushy, but I do love love, and relationships, and I love reading books with good examples of that. Though romance is not my genre, I always try and write characters who are… shippable, in my eyes. Like I said, I’m not one for mush, so when I read/write about relationships, it’s key that the characters and the ‘ship as a whole have a few specific qualities:
- Subtlety. This is the overarching quality I look for in a fictional romance. For example, there is a very subtle, yet very poignant romantic connection that plays out on screen in Star Wars: The Last Jedi between Rey and Kylo Ren (don’t throw things at me). Whether or not fans agree that the ‘ship is canon (it is, by the way), there is no denying the… chemistry between the characters in every scene they share. Though neither character professes their feelings for the other in some flowery manner, and they don’t share any overtly romantic touches, the love is there in the tone of voice they use when speaking to each other, the looks they share, the way they move around the other. This really brings into focus the notion that it isn’t what you say or do, but how you say and do it that creates that delicate balance between interaction and attraction. This is, of course, a movie, but I believe the same effect can be achieved just as well on the page as the screen. Readers don’t need to be told by writers that two characters have the hots for each other; some things we just can know.
- Believable Dialogue and Mannerisms. If I took a shot every time a teenage boy professed his love in the most eloquent, spontaneous speech, I’d die of alcohol poisoning before finishing any young adult fantasy novel. You know the type; Twilight hybrids in which characters really seem to have their crap together when it comes to this proclamation of love thing. But unlike Twilight, where the characters are hundreds of years old and thus a bit more articulate with their vocabulary, young adult characters spewing paragraphs devoted to their feelings isn’t very, well, realistic. I mean, if the character reads Shakespeare’s sonnets in his spare time, sure, but I’ve read some very beautiful sentiments expressed by the captain of the football team who admits to watching only shows like Jackass and Impractical Jokers and, I’m sorry, I’m just not buying it. There’s not much to suggest why these characters can go on and on about their love, using such detailed metaphors and poetic language. I mean, where’s the stuttering? Where’s the nervous shifting of feet? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like when you’re telling the subject of your affection what they mean to you, there should be at least a little fear they won’t return the favor. But even if the character is so confident in themself that they don’t need to look anywhere but into the “glistening orbs” that are their partner’s eyes, it still does not hold up that a teenager could recite a perfect love speech so well, in such an emotionally charged moment. I think keeping the dialogue short, nervous, and sweet is the way to go in situations like this.
- Compatible. My boyfriend and I always joke that we are similar enough to be compatible, but different enough to be interesting. I think the same should be true for characters. We’ve all heard that opposites attract, but it’s rare that complete opposites last. There are some things that can be opposite between characters without wrecking their lastability, like interests, interpersonal communication tactics, conflict resolution methods. In a lot of cases, it’s a good thing that these qualities are opposite in two individuals. But I’ve read characters who have opposite worldviews, outlooks on life, definitions of morality, and, often, it doesn’t work out unless someone changes. While big, fundamental differences between characters can work for friction, for passionate arguments, and for added drama, they do not, in my opinion, fuel the kind of love I want to be shipping. When creating characters, I like to focus on opposite qualities that are still functional in a relationship. Like, say, character A is more thoughtful when making plans, whereas B is more impulsive. That is the kind of thing that can influence a plot in a positive or negative direction, based on what decisions are made in certain situations. But, if A is a firm believer in giving second chances and B hates everyone, that’s a pretty big issue they’ll need to work through, and someone will have to come out of it a different person if they have any hope of sustaining a healthy relationship.
- No Cheating. There’s nothing I hate more in a story than when characters cheat, either on or with each other. I cannot stress this enough. I don’t care how “perfect” the characters are for each other, the moment they kiss, touch, or otherwise say something to the effect of “I want to be with you” while committed to someone else, I close out any thought of shipping them. I went through a reading spurt where is seemed every book I read included a main character who cheated on their spouse/significant other, and it really turned me off of romance for a while. In fact, I’m pretty sure the reason I can’t stand The Notebook is because Allie and Noah sleep together while she is engaged to another man. Nothing good is bred from dishonesty. Maybe it is just my own moral objection to the practice that makes it so abhorrent in my eyes, but I’d rather read about character relationships that aren’t disrespectful to the hearts of other individuals; it makes it a lot easier for me to wish them well.
- Same Level of Power. This one is tricky, because I don’t necessarily… hate uneven power structures as defined by society. A big age difference doesn’t bug me, nor does a difference in income. What really gets me is how those societal power structures are used by the character with the most “power.” I didn’t want to call out any specific book or series, but there is one particular story that comes too much to mind. The Fifty Shades series is entertaining on a surface level, but the two main characters, Ana and Christian, have a relationship that begins icky and becomes more and less icky in the succeeding books (and I’m not talking about their, ahem, unconventional bedroom activities). Christian is both significantly older than Ana (I think 27-28 to her 21-22) and most significantly richer than her (cartoonishly so). Neither of these details are particularly detrimental to a relationship, but throughout the series Christian consistently uses his wealth to control Ana. He buys the seats next to her on an airplane so she won’t have anyone to talk to, he pays for security to keep an eye on her actions, and he even buys the company she works for, becoming her boss’s boss’s boss (he has a sort of obsession with getting her to work for him). He also speaks to her as if she’s a child frequently, as if his age and experiences put him on a level above her. There is a lack of respect there, and I think in relationships the characters have to see each other as equals. Otherwise, someone is always thriving as the other shrinks.
Love is complicated, and messy, and often as gross as pollen, but when written well between characters it can be the best part of a story. But these are just the qualities I look for in my ‘ships; what makes you root for a couple, on or off page?