Finding True Love For Your Character – by Laura Ingermann

Love.

It’s such a mysterious thing.

And it isn’t any easier to find in your own story, which is kind of odd, isn’t it – after all, you’re the plot god; it’s your world, your creatures, and if you say ‘Now kiss!’, sparks should be flying, and rainbows should be shooting out of… clouds, and everything should kind of dissolve in a golden haze of bliss and-

Well, I don’t know about you, but in my stories, that never happens.

I had one character who I tried to hook up with every nice girl that came along in the story, and he steadfastly refused, because he was faithful to his one true love back home – until I gave up. Then he fell in love with the woman I had actually intended to become the lover of his best friend. She and the buddy became best friends instead, and I was standing on the sidelines, tearing my hair out, What is wrong with you people??

Said friend, by the way, successfully escaped any impending serious relationship. He has nothing against a whirlwind affair, but talk about settling down, and he’s gone. Now I could leave it at that, but there is this nice girl, and they’d just be perfect for each other…

… I’m sounding like his mom, ain’t I?

Now, of course you, the author, can just decree that your heroine and your hero fall in love. And I’ve read a number of Romance stories that had been written in this Barbie-and-Ken style, but I couldn’t finish any of them. I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief that this character would react to that character in this way – and on page 3, to boot.

(I hasten to add that not all Romances are like this! I’ve also read excellent Romance stories, which makes the difference all the more glaring.)

Now, I’m not writing Romance (I already struggle with my romantic subplots, I’m not deluded enough to think I could pull that off as the main plot), but I do try to incorporate romantic relationships into my story, because people have them in real life, even if their relationship isn’t always their main focus. And in my struggles, I have thought long and hard about the central question of any relationship, be it fictional or not:

Why is this character falling in love with that character (and, hopefully, vice versa)?

And your answer better not be, Duh, because I write them that way.

We don’t do Barbie and Ken here, remember?

A lot of articles have been written to answer that question (I should know, I googled them), but for simplicity’s sake, I’ve condensed it to four factors – and I even have them all start with ‘A’, for better memorization.

Attraction

This is the physical level. He is hot; she is hotter. It’s his eyes; it’s her smile. She always had a thing for men with beards; he always falls for redheads, but the relationships never work out.

There are two things at work here: one is a biological program that makes us vet potential partners for their suitability of preserving the species. Things like symmetry, proportion, body type, health markers like smooth skin, etc. make that program ping your brain and point out that this one here would be excellent for making babies.

Which means that if your character scores low on that biological attractiveness scale, they need some other factors working in their favor. Luckily, everyone also has a personal selection pattern – a ‘type’.

The theory is that one’s personal preferences in partner selection are determined in our childhood, via the primary relationships we had then. This doesn’t mean that a boy is sexually attracted to his mother (unless you’re a Freudian), but that she and other women he had close or frequent contact with (like his first teacher, for example) formed his impression of what women are like in general, and what kind of women he likes best.

What this means for you as the author

It’s Backstory Time! Yay! What were your character’s parents like? How was their relationship with their siblings? Peers? Teachers? Anyone else who made a lasting impression on them? Who was their first crush? How did their first relationship start – and end? Do they have a ‘type’? Can you describe the type? What are relationships like with these men or women who fit the ‘type’? Is your character aware of having a ‘type’? Do they wish they could stop falling in love with the ‘wrong man/woman’?

And so on.

Affection

This is the emotional part of the equation – that soft, squishy feeling of fondness, as your character’s love interest pets the dog, or the sudden overwhelming protectiveness when they are sobbing in a corner (your character needs to comfort them, now that they’re so deliciously vulnerable!).

It’s my personal theory that, just as physical attraction has its roots in the selection patterns we form during childhood, affection takes its cues from our first relationship, too – that parent-child relationship. So, when we see someone displaying parental traits – like kindness, nurturing or comforting gestures, attentiveness, concern, offering advice and/or support (emotional or practical) – we usually react to that with affection. It could be that the biological program kicks in – they’d behave like this with our babies, too, they’ll be a good parent! – or it could be that on some subconscious level, we (or our character) wish to be the receiver of that good, protective, nurturing energy.

The same goes for a character who is showing childlike traits. Not childish, mind you, but being open and vulnerable in a way that most adults are careful to avoid. Playfulness, a sense of wonder, unbridled enthusiasm, trust, or vulnerability – emotional openness, innocence (as in a lack of cynicism or calculation) also soften the hearts of people (if they aren’t irredeemably jaded). Here, the reaction of the other person is usually a sense of protectiveness – because we know how easily you can be hurt when you’re this open to the world.

What this means for you as the author

Where is your character and their love interest on this parent-child axis? Do they show more nurturing, protective traits, or more innocent, vulnerable behavior? Or a mix? How was that preference formed in their past? Were they forced to grow up too quickly? Were they an overprotected child? What was the atmosphere at home – were they encouraged to express their emotions, or to control them?

These things aren’t always black and white – maybe their parents were really soft and encouraged emotional openness, but the character’s peers crushed them mercilessly at school, and as a result, they decided that being emotional makes you weak. Maybe they have hidden fault lines in their psyche, and will break down – or lighten up – quite unexpectedly, surprising the other character (and you).

 

Admiration

We admire traits that we value, but feel don’t possess, or haven’t mastered ourselves. Or maybe traits that we long for, but believe we’re incapable of, or that are unaffordable to us. Gentleness may seem off limits to a traditional man, or only possible under certain circumstances, or with certain people.

Projection may play a role here, especially in the beginning, when the love interest seems to be nothing but perfect in every way. But if there exists at least a bit of the actual trait that your love-struck character is seeing in their love interest, admiration will grow into respect; and as we all know, R-E-S-P-E-C-T is the basis of any relationship.

What this means for you as the author

What does your character admire and respect in others? What trait do they wish to have or master (for example, patience? Self-control? Hope when everything seems hopeless? Look where your character needs inspiration – where they need a guiding star for their growth. And try to find something they can provide in exchange for their love interest, so that the relationship stays balanced. It’s not advisable to make one of them perfect, and the other needy in all respects – it robs both of them of their dignity.

Alignment

This is the agreement of the core values and basic attitudes of two people. It’s recognizing that the other values the same things as I.

There are always things at the periphery, and things at the very center of one’s life plans – and while opposites can attract, they better be opposites residing on the periphery of the character’s worldview, attitude, and life script. If one partner absolutely wants children, and the other absolutely doesn’t want children, for example, one of them will have to amputate a part of their soul for the sake of staying in the relationship. And in most cases, that won’t work in the long run.

What this means for you as the author

You need to know the values of both your characters – and you need to know which of them are central to them, and which can be negotiated, or compromised on. ‘Values’ sounds lofty, but remember that some things of utmost importance to your character can also be fuelled by fear – by beliefs that formed after some traumatic experience, for example. A character might believe that they are doomed to endanger or damage anyone they bond with, and avoid forming deeper relationships because of that erroneous belief. In order to know if the character’s love interest has any chance to get behind their defenses, you need to do what?

… right, dig into their backstory. It all comes down to backstory, to knowing what makes both of your characters tick – and if they tick in harmony.

And now excuse me – I have a ball and chains that I need to fasten on some defiant character…

 

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