Thursday, February 11, 2021

Love, by the Numbers

Yes, there’s love in the air this weekend. Well, love and covid. Probably why I forgot to line up a holiday-related post.

Most folks enjoy a good romance because most of us have either been in love, are in love, or want to be in love. It’s a wonderful feeling. Heck those first few months of giddy romance are just fantastic, aren’t they? Love is great because we can relate to it.  We believe in it. For the most part, we enjoy seeing other people in love.

If those three traits sound familiar—relatable, believable, likable—it’s because I’ve mentioned them three or fourteen times as the traits of good characters.  So a good romance can be a powerful tool in a story, because it immediately grounds one or two of my characters.

However...

I’m betting most of us have read a book or watched a movie where, with no warning, two characters start professing their mad love for each other. No preamble, no chemistry, they just suddenly start flirting on page 108 and they’re making long-term plans by 200.

Nobody likes emotional fakery, and few things can weight a story down like a pasted-on love interest. It just feels insincere and artificial. We roll our eyes when it’s in books and laugh when it’s in movies. And probably groan either way.

Anyway, I figure it’s been a while so for this Valentine's Day let’s revisit my patented** Rules of Love that can help you write a wonderful, believable love story.

**not actually patented

The First Rule of Love –As I was just saying, love needs real emotions, and I can’t have real emotions without real people. And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways. Maybe not entirely rational ways, granted, but still believably realistic.

My characters are going to have needs and desires, likes and dislikes.  And it’ll stand out if they make choices that go against those traits. Yes, opposites attract—they even have a lot of fun together—but if we’re talking about real people, odds are these two are going to have more in common than not. Wall Street hedge fund managers don’t usually have a lot in common with mural artists.

Also, how fast and how far my characters take things should be consistent with who they are. They can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward.  Some people schedule every hour of every day, others don’t own a clock. For some folks it’s a major moment to have that first cautious, fleeting kiss on the third date, and some people are tearing each other’s clothes off in the hall closet half an hour after they meet.

Short and simple version, my characters need to be believable if their love is going to be believable.

The Second Rule of Love  --Show of hands—who’s ever had somebody try to push you into a relationship? Maybe it’s friends or coworkers. Hopefully it’s not relatives, because that’s always kinda... weird. Maybe it’s the person you’re on the date with and they’re talking weddings and kids before you’ve ordered drinks. Which is even more weird.

It might just be me, but I think in all these cases the result is we want to get away from the object of our potential affection. Nobody likes feeling forced into something, and so we don’t enjoy seeing other people forced into things. That’s just human nature.

Now, for the record, “somebody” includes me, the writer. Characters need their own reasons and motivations to get into a relationship. I can’t just have them doing things (or people) for the convenience of the plot. If I’ve based my whole story around the hedge fund manager and the artist coming together to save the art school (and discovering their mutual attraction in the process), then I still need a real reason for them to get together, because they’re real people (as mentioned in the First Rule). 

Again, people get together because they want to get together, not because other folks think they should be together.

The Third Rule of Love – This one also counts as real-world advice. We shouldn’t confuse sex with love. We’re all adults, and I’m willing to bet most of us have had sex with someone we weren’t madly in love with at the time. Or at any time later. There are lots of points in a story where it might be completely acceptable for two people to have sex. Sex is fun. It’s a stress-reliever. It can distract us from thinking about other things for a while. Heck, it can even keep you warm.

But sex doesn’t always lead directly to love. In stories or in the real world. If my two characters fall into bed (or into a back seat, or up against a wall, on a desk, etc), I need to be clear what it means for both of them. Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced (refer to the Second Rule).

TL;DR... sex and love are not the same thing.

The Fourth Rule of Love—This one can be hard to grasp because Hollywood keeps telling us otherwise.  How often in movies can you immediately spot “the love interest” as soon as they’re introduced? It doesn’t matter what kind of film it is or what’s going on, it’s easy to pick them out the first time they appear.  You may have heard of a certain moment called the “meet-cute,” for example

But y’see, Timmy, the simple truth is...  romance doesn’t always fit in a story. Somebody might be fighting for their life, in hiding, or so terrified they’re an inch away from a heart attack. Maybe they’re already in a relationship with someone else. Maybe they just have no interest in that sort of connection right now—emotional or physical.

Forcing a relationship in these situations also risks making one or both characters seem very unlikable. If I’ve already established one set of relationships, trying to force new ones can create a lot of... complications.

I mean, we’ve all been there. Sometimes... it’s just not going to happen.


So there are the Rules of Love. Now go forth this weekend and spread the love. Where appropriate.  Don’t be that guy. Really, just don't be that person.

Next time, I promise... Cloverfield. It’s going to be fantastic.

Until then, go write.

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