So you’ve written a love interest who is gorgeous, clever, and…completely unpopular with readers.The main character is totally into them, but your critique group isn’t. Here are four big reasons why love interests fail to launch and what you can do about it.1. They don’t understand boundaries.
Consent is sexy. Radical consent—the idea that everyone’s bodily autonomy should be respected, and that no one should have any kind of physical contact forced on them—is even sexier. Ditto for generally respecting space and boundaries. A lot of times, this is forgotten about in fiction, because ignoring radical consent allows the writer to push the relationship forwards quickly while allowing the (usually female) main character to remain a passive object of pursuit.
But consent is a way of showing that you care. When you care deeply about someone, it’s important to you that they feel safe and that they’re comfortable with your relationship. When the love interest charges past the MC’s boundaries, what this says is that they’re more concerned with their own gratification than their partner’s well-being. I can’t think of anything less romantic.
First, this makes your character look like a creep. Ignoring boundaries is one of the big things that cause readers to denounce the love interest as abusive. Second, trying to pass this off as romance sends the message that disregarding someone’s boundaries is a compliment rather than a red flag.
The best way to fix this is to go back through the story and examine the love interest’s behavior. Check their motivations, and check the way that people react to them. Are all of their advances welcome? If they cross the line, do they realize what they’ve done and take a step back? Do they consistently respect the main character?
2. They’re effectively flawless.
There are two ways that this happens. Type one is when the love interest actually is flawless and can do no wrong. In this case there’s a good chance you’ve got a five-alarm Mary Sue wreaking havoc on your plot, tension, and character development.
Type two is when the love interest is incredibly—or even just realistically—flawed but is treated as perfect throughout the story. When they do something wrong, the narrator reminds us that they’re nice and none of the other characters get offended. No one acknowledges that they aren’t perfect, and the way that the story reacts to them runs counter to how readers react.
A lot of writers get attached to their characters. Flawless love interests often stem from a writer getting too attached. Over-attachment often makes it difficult to portray your characters fairly, to treat their flaws as flaws, and to let them fail. If you have a crush on any one of your characters, you can and should continue to write about them, but you also need to take a step back and proceed with caution. (Let’s not lie. We’re all book people here, and most of us—the alloromantics, at least—have had a crush on a fictional character at some point. This is not as weird as it sounds and it happens to the best of us.)
The other reason why flawless love interests show up is insecurity. When the writer is afraid that readers will reject their love interest, they tend to skimp on flaws or remind readers of how perfect the love interest is as a crutch. This can be fixed with a bit of confidence and the application of “show don’t tell.” Trust that readers will like your character better for their faults and shortcomings, and that your writing is good enough that readers know how to feel without being told. Your story will be better for it.
3. They treat the relationship like serious business
The relationship is treated like the be all end all. This is the love to end all loves. This sort of romance tends to involve a lot of whispering and dramatic gestures. But the couple/polyamorous arrangement doesn’t actually seem to enjoy each other’s presence. If you could ask them why they’re together, the answer would have to do with fate, destiny, and true love. They’re portrayed as the perfect couple yet they never have any fun.
Serious business is a problem because the readers often run out of reasons to root for the couple. Instead, they begin to question what the couple will do when they aren’t being thrust together by plot. This is especially true if they have an instant fate/destiny connection to each other.
It also tends to get uncomfortable because the intensity is often unsuited for the situation. Think of Edward and Bella whispering, gasping, and muttering across the lunch table in Twilight. Think of the constant declarations of love. Throw in a dash of brooding anti-hero, and it becomes hard to keep a straight face. When intensity is overdone, it stops being tense and it starts to look silly.
Fixing serious business starts with making sure that the characters have agency in their relationship and are there because they choose to be. Strike all mentions of fate and destiny, or at least give readers some latitude to be skeptical of them. Pick your favorite declaration of love and cut the rest. Figure out what actually draws the characters together and why they would want to be together in the first place. Show us this. And don’t be afraid to let them have a bit of fun; that’s what keeps most real couples together.
4. They come with the wrong amount of complication
When it comes to romantic drama, there’s a sweet spot. Too much looks contrived and gets in the way of the actual plot. Too little renders the romance uninteresting because there’s no conflict.
There should be some kind of a roadblock to the two (or more) characters getting together. Whether it’s a social stigma, a plot obstacle, personal issues, or a matter of political allegiances, something must complicate the relationship. Otherwise there’s no arc. However, this roadblock should follow logically from the circumstances of the story. What’s at stake should follow logically from the roadblock. Saying that Alice will dump Jane if she loses the pie-baking contest is an example of false complication, because even though it raises the stakes, there’s no logical connection between the cause and the effect.
It’s also worth noting that two people falling in love and hanging out together isn’t a story. It’s the first 374 pages of Twilight. A story requires a conflict. Having a strong non-romantic plot will improve your romantic plot because it gives your characters something to do while they fall in love with each other. Also, it provides them with common experiences that they can bond over, external conflict that they can face together, and a way to get to know each other deeply without sitting around chatting.
Writing like a boss: Intersectional feminists do it best
I might have a bit of a bias here, but let’s be honest. There are few things more romantic than someone who’s willing to stand against the social order and fight beside you. In the words of Evelyn Wyndham, “I don’t need a hero. But I could never love a man who would not be my ally.” (These Vicious Masks, Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas).