Below, I’ve put together a (semi) comprehensive checklist of  behaviors that tend to make love interests read as creepy rather than charming.  These behaviors range from the unattractive to the outright abusive, and yet many of them remain common place in fictional relationships. This means that they tend to get normalized, and to seep into otherwise well-executed stories.

The goal of this checklist is to provide writers with a quick litmus test for how their love interest will be received. This is a test for love interests who are meant to be received positively. If you intend for your love interest to be toxic and unlikeable, this test does not apply to you.

Level 1: Off-putting

These are behaviors that often make the love interest appear maladjusted, but may have a reasonable explanation. They raise some red flags, and suggest potential issues for the relationship.

Does the love interest:

  • Become incredibly social with the MC, in spite of the fact that they (the love interest) have a reputation for being a loner?
    • In spite of having no friends at all?
    • In spite of having no connections whatsoever? (level 2)
    • They warm up to the MC immediately, the very first time that the two meet?
  •  Pointedly ignore the MC after a date?
    • Or disappear entirely?
      • Without explaining the situation?
      • For a three days or more?
    • And then act like nothing happened?
  • Refuse to discuss their past?
    • At all?
      • Even when asked point blank?
      • Even to relatively benign questions?
      • And alludes to a vague trauma or lurking danger rather than providing a reasonable explanation?
    •  But insist that the MC give them a full disclosure?

Level 2: Unsettling

These are things that tend to make the love interest read as obsessive, or else suggests that something is off. While no one is calling the cops, these behaviors are usually enough to put people on their guard.

Does the love interest:

  • Confess their undying love within two weeks of meeting the MC?
    • Within days?
    • Before actually going on a date?
  •  Stare at the MC for longer than a couple seconds (or some other socially appropriate time frame) in a non-intimate situation?
    • For an extended period of time, such as an entire class period?
  • Appear everywhere that the MC goes?
    • And have chance run-ins with the MC multiple times in the same day?
      • Even though there’s no clear reason for this?
      • Even at places like the MC’s home, when they don’t have buisness being there?
    • On purpose? (This is a level 3 offense)
  • Demonstrate an intense knowledge of the MC’s personal life, when they haven’t been together for long?
    • Before they’re close at all?
    • Even things that they haven’t been told?
      • Including things that they’ve learned through snooping, stalking, and mind-reading? (Level 3 offense)

Level 3: Disturbing

Things in this category make the love interest seem predatory.

Does the love interest:

  • Make vague statements about how dangerous they are?
    • Without explaining why they think that they’re dangerous?
    • Alluding to having done something unforgiveable in the past?
      • While alone with the MC in a secluded location?
    •  Do these statements ever include veiled threats like, “You’d leave if you knew what was good for you?”
  • Make specific statements about their capability to hurt the MC?
    • Or make statements about how delicate and easily breakable the MC is?
  • Have the effect of making the MC supernaturally weak or speechless in their presence?
    • Speechless and physically weak?
    • And this effect is both intentional and non consensual? (Level 4 offense)

Level 4: Abusive

These behaviors are abusive, invasive and/or illegal. These are the most difficult to justify, and make it difficult to redeem the relationship, especially if the violation isn’t addressed in-universe.

Does the love interest

  • Disregard the MC’s boundaries?
    • Disregard personal property and privacy boundaries?
      • By digging through the MC’s things?
      • By uncovering information about the MC’s past, that the MC would not be willing to give them had they asked?
      • By reading the MC’s mind?
        • Without consent?
        • Without the MC’s knowledge?
      • By secretly following the MC?
        • To private spaces like the MC’s home or bedroom?
        • Repeatedly?
    • Disregard the MC’s sexual boundaries?
      • By refusing to allow the MC to break up with them?
      • By coercing or guilt-tripping the MC into a sexual encounter?
      • By continuing or attempting to initiate sexual activity after being told no?
        • In spite of signs of unwillingness?
        • In spite of an active struggle?
      • (Note: If a character says no and their love interest then initiates or continues a sexual activity, even if the compelling force of the love interest’s sexual prowess “changes the no into a yes,” a violation of consent has occurred. Consent is mutual and continuous.)
  • Assume that they understand the MC’s wants and needs better than the MC does?
    • Including physical needs (For example, ordering the MC to go to sleep)?
    • Even though the MC has made it clear that they can make their own choices?
    • Even though the MC has actively resisted their love interest’s orders?
  • Get really angry and break things in front of the MC?
    • And endanger the MC in the process?
    • Do they break things as a direct result of the MC’s behavior?
    • If they don’t break thing in front of the MC, do they later allude to the episode in order to explain how angry they were? (level 3 offense)

Uncatagorized: Apologies

The importance of addressing the behavior becomes exponentially more important as the severity of the offence increases. As such, failure to apologize is hard to categorize.

Apologies can be mitigating factors if accompanied by character development, but they don’t automatically erase creepy behavior. It also bears mentioning that if a Alex does something seriously creepy on page 30 and apologizes during the climactic battle on page 430, that leaves 400 pages in which the reader is uncomfortable with Alex. Timing matters.

Does the love interest:

  • Shut down the MC, should the latter attempt to call them out on their behavior?
    • By dismissing the severity of the MC’s complaints without addressing them?
    • By saying that they do these things because they love the MC?
    • If it’s a magical setting, do they blame their problems on a supernatural condition?
    • And don’t ever adjust their behavior?
  • Never apologize for their actions?
    • Or apologize but never try to fix their behavior?
    • Or only apologize for minor non-issues?
  • Refuse to acknowledge that they’ve done anything wrong?

Side Note: Power Dynamics

The power dynamics of the relationship are also important. If there is a notable gap between the two partners,  small violations become more noteworthy because the weaker partner may not be in a position to stand up for themself, or to defend themself from predatory behavior.

Some examples of unbalanced relationships:

  • One partner has way more experience
    • Especially if one side is mortal and the other is immortal
  • One partner has way more (plot-relevant) information
  • One partner could easily overpower the other
    • They could rip their Significant Other in half without really trying
  • One partner is substantially wealthier and better connected.
    • Especially if that partner controls their significant other’s income or employment status

Imbalanced relationships can be fun to write. Just be mindful of how the dynamic affects interactions, and think about ways that the partners can meet each other on even ground.

My love interest failed the checklist! My book is terrible!

No, it isn’t.

The checklist is here to flag creepy behavior. If your character’s behavior lines up, it doesn’t mean that your book is necessarily bad. It also may not mean that you have a bad character. What it means is that your character raised some red flags and that there is a chance that they won’t go over well with readers. It’s worthwhile to go back into your work and examine your love interest’s behavior. Look at what they do, how they do it, and how their actions are handled within the story. It may also be useful to ask a few trusted beta readers to pay attention to your love interest so that you can get a sense of how that character is received.

My love interest failed the checklist! The checklist is terrible!

Yep. You caught me.