Unlikable Lovers

It’s hard to root for a romance if you don’t care about the characters.  We generally sympathize with the main character (“MC”).  But that’s not always so for the MC’s romantic interest (the “RI,” let’s say).  What happens when we don’t like the person the MC’s supposed to be interested in?

There’s a variety of types of problematic lovers, and sometimes a particular type is called for by the nature of the plot.  Let’s look at a few.

The Friendly Enemy

Much Ado About Nothing book coverThere’s an entire category of plotline in which the eventually happy couple start out at odds with each other.  TV Tropes captions this “Belligerent Sexual Tension,” and has a splendid list of examples.  They range from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with the feuding Beatrice and Benedick (here’s the Tropes page) through F&SF examples like Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall in the Lensman series, Taran and Eilonwy in the Chronicles of Prydain, Aravis and Shasta in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.

A subcategory of these turnabout stories involves characters who fight in one context while falling for each other in another.  1998’s You’ve Got Mail, and its predecessors such as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), fall into this group, as does my forthcoming novella The World Around the Corner.

Frank and Kathleen across table in You've Got MailSometimes the turbulence between the main characters is based on some conflict in their characters (scoundrel and diplomat in Empire) or their interests (rival businesses in You’ve Got Mail).  Sometimes it’s almost a matter of their own combativeness or aggressive attitudes, as in the romantic comedy Laws of Attraction (2004).  But the writer has to walk a fine line here.  If the relationship is so strained as to become hostile or nasty, we may begin to wonder whether the RI is that great a catch after all.  Would Leia be better off with a “nice man”?  (Other than Luke, of course.)  In You’ve Got Mail, is Frank disqualified by his willingness to take unfair advantage of the fact that he knows who Kathleen is and not vice versa?

In a fight-then-flirt scenario, the romantic interest has to be sufficiently flawed that his tension with the MC doesn’t seem contrived—yet not so flawed that the attraction seems implausible.  The tension must be difficult enough to pose a challenge, and to keep the romance from concluding too quickly.  But the RI has to be admirable enough to be worth winning.

Winning Over the Bad Boy

There’s another class of plots that depend on making the romantic interest disreputable, troubled, or outright wicked.  Not too wicked, of course; they’ve got to be capable of reform—by the right lover.  We see this predominantly with female MCs and male RIs, but not exclusively so.

Clark Gable as Rhett ButlerTake Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.  His appeal seems to lie especially in the fact that he’s a smuggler who defies the gentleman’s code of the antebellum South and pokes fun at their romanticized ideals.  Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t set out to reform him, but she does find him fascinating.  And she does reform him, as we can see but she can’t.  Interestingly, in this case Scarlett herself is pretty problematic too:  she’s a difficult, self-centered, domineering woman, with whom it can be hard to sympathize—though we do sympathize, mainly because we can see her inner thinking and where those traits come from.  (Personally, I always liked Melanie better.)

Edward Rochester of Jane Eyre barely escapes crossing the line into unacceptability, to my mind.  He’s brusque, domineering, and frighteningly deceptive.  We’re willing to approve him mostly because Jane is in love with him, and we love Jane.  And his comedown at the end both chastens him and engages our pity.

In my view, Wuthering Heights Healthcliff does cross the line.  I’m unmoved by his harsh and erratic behavior, and I don’t respect Catherine for her mad attachment to him.  He lacks redeeming qualities.  On the other hand, his very flamboyant unlikability is the basis for a hilarious imaginary counseling session held for the novel’s characters in Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots (2003, chapter 12)—so I guess there’s some justification for his existence, at that.

The Proud, the Crude, and the Gothic

Few of these undesirable, yet desirable, RIs are as comprehensively intolerable as Heathcliff.  Generally one or two off-putting traits are enough to create the necessary tension or conflict.

Elizabeth and Darcy look askanceThe archetype of the proud or arrogant RI, of course, is the much-loved Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy has some unpleasant attitudes and makes some dreadful missteps, but Austen succeeds in convincing us that he’s admirable for all that, partly through his delayed but ultimately sincere devotion to Elizabeth.  Darcy retains such a hold on romantics that he’s even been successful as an artificial intelligence (AI) in Ashlinn Craven’s contemporary story.

Our era’s fondness for the earthy and outrageous gives us a procession of crude romantic interests, whose vulgarity or rudeness may represent a  barrier to be overcome by the Right Woman or merely a species of candor and bluntness—especially in romantic comedies.  Mike Chadway in The Ugly Truth (2009) has made a profession out of cynicism and outrageousness, but comes around in the end, after we’ve seen that his attitude stems from a past rejection.  The main character of Andy Weir’s 2017 novel Artemis sails perilously close to this edge.  But in this era we’re tolerant enough of crudity that the merely indecorous RI doesn’t usually pose a problem.

The brooding, Gothic or Byronic hero can also win readers’ hearts—witness Edward Cullen in the Twilight series.  But his kind of moodiness can so easily slip into annoying self-indulgence that it’s highly vulnerable to parody.  We may be more inclined to snicker than to sympathize, as we see in much of the critical response to Twilight.

The Misguided Romantic Interest

One of the easiest ways to generate conflict without wholly compromising the RI is to make them simply mistaken or wrongheaded.  This aligns neatly with a plot in which the MC shows the romantic interest the error of his (or her) ways.

Pretty Woman dinner scenePretty Woman (1990) is a fine example.  Edward Lewis (the third Edward on our list so far—coincidence?) is a repressed workaholic who uncaringly buys up business operations and sells them off in pieces.  Lively Vivian Ward not only loosens him up personally, but goads him into “using his powers for good” and working to save a company rather than break it up.  Edward’s change of heart in business parallels the more obvious romantic softening and emphasizes the completeness of his transformation.

A character—particularly a female character—working for the bad guys is especially subject to this kind of change.  For example, the atypical Disney heroine Megara in Hercules (1997) aids the scheming Hades, albeit for initially noble reasons.  There’s an entire category of such repentant subvillainesses, documented by the ever-vigilant TV Tropes.

Because the merely misguided RI is only superficially unworthy, this trope is a favorite of Hallmark Christmas romances, where either the MC or the love interest is often a big-city character who wants to turn some idyllic country spot into a soulless commercial enterprise.  This kind of relationship works equally well for either gender.

Overdominance

Genre romance with a female MC has a certain fondness for the strong, dominant male RI.  (If you belong to Critique Circle, here’s a lengthy forum discussion on the “alpha male” from mid-2017.)  But this can easily go awry.  What sounds romantic at first blush may be creepy or distasteful once we think of it in real life.  Many of the male leads discussed above can be classified as dominant types, but there’s a fine line between dominant and domineering.  When this is taken to extremes, we can drift into the dubious territory of the Fifty Shades books.

But we don’t have to go that far to encounter difficulties.  Heinlein’s juvenile SF novel The Star Beast features a somewhat passive hero, John Thomas Stuart XI, and his bratty high-school girlfriend, Betty Sorenson.  Betty is laudably active and independent, but she’s so brash and overbearing that she rather gets on my nerves.  We like to see both strong women and strong men—but we don’t like to see them demonstrate their strength in ways that are tyrannical or overbearing.

Beauty and the Beast soundtrack coverThe various iterations of Beauty and the Beast illustrate the difficulty.  The Beast has to be fearsomely harsh and threatening; that’s the point.  But this quality can’t be so exaggerated as to undermine his potential for transformation into a caring lover.

Excuses

A romantic interest’s bad behavior can be offset when the author provides information that makes the actions understandable, or even sympathetic.  An io9 article by Charlie Jane Anders makes the general argument that there are “10 Ways to Make Everyone Root for Your Amoral Protagonist.”

Anders is a good source on the subject:  her Hugo-nominated 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky features male and female protagonists who are each highly stressed and at times hard to love.  But the ending, to my mind, is very satisfying.  Part of the reason is that we see so much of the characters’ prior experiences and difficulties.  We comprehend how they got to where they are.

One technique that can help us excuse a character’s faults is to let us hear them speaking in first person at least part of the time.  The romance technique of telling the story by alternating the two principal characters’ viewpoints does the same thing.  It’s rare that characters seem evil to themselves, and letting us in on their thoughts gives us a useful perspective.

Female Variations

We’ve noted that the “bad boy” characters are generally, though not exclusively, male RIs for female MCs.  There are other potentially troublesome character types that tend to skew female.  One is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl:  as TV Tropes puts it, “She’s stunningly attractive, [e]nergetic, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness) . . . She’s inexplicably obsessed with our stuffed-shirt hero, on whom she will focus her kuh-razy antics until he learns to live freely and love madly.”  An example that seems to go too far is Sandra Bullock’s character in Forces of Nature (1999).  Possibly this is why, unusually, the hero ends up marrying someone else, although he benefits from the Dream Girl’s free-spirited attitudes.

the-black-flame-2Another primarily female archetype is what we might call the Siren, the mysteriously fascinating and unattainable character with whom the male MC is irresistibly obsessed—frequently capricious and even cruel.  My favorite example is the title character in Stanley Weinbaum’s SF classic The Black Flame.  Here, as with the equally melodramatic Byronic hero, the character type has been so overused that it’s easy for it to become either unbelievable or unlikable.

When It’s the Main Character

Less common, but not unheard-of, is where the main character is the one whose romantic suitability is in question.  We’ve noted Artemis as one such case.

I recently got around to watching About a Boy (2002), starring Hugh Grant, which came highly recommended by Connie Willis.  While it’s been observed that Hugh Grant is inherently irresistible, I found that in this case his character was so aimless and shallow that I felt the women in the story would indeed be well advised to steer clear of him, until almost the very end, when he finally shapes up a bit.

The 1999 romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (a modernization of The Taming of the Shrew) also successfully makes the main character just sympathetic enough to sustain our interest.  It’s essential to the Shakespearean plot that Kat be so prickly and abrasive as to be a questionable romantic prospect.  But the excuses we hear, and the perfect fit of the actress’s persona to the dual requirements of abrasion and attraction, give us just enough to go on.

Conclusion

In gauging the acceptability of a character as a romantic partner, even more than in most such judgment calls, “your mileage may vary.”  But we can all recognize that just as there’s peril in making the romantic interest too perfect, there’s a corresponding set of pitfalls if the object of our MC’s affections pushes imperfection to the point of no return.

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9 thoughts on “Unlikable Lovers

  1. Ah, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows not …

    Very interesting post, but it strikes me there’s another elephant in this room, which is that fundamentally judgements of romantic suitability are irrational.

    Very few people would go about with checklists in their heads, tallying consciously articulated scores when looking for a match. And to whatever extent moral qualities affect whatever replaces that checklist, they are not the be all and end all. Even Charles Manson got groupies.

    Which does, of course, pose a problem. Stories involve communication, so the obligation comes with the territory to find some communicable “why”, or “why not”. And “stories” includes gossip here. What does s/he see in him/her is a common question– whatever the “reason” is, it’s not accessible to the rest of us.

    Even when a communicable reason exists, it’s not always persuasive, but the situation here is even worse: there is no communicable reason. So there will always be, for any relationship, a few of those onlookers going “what does s/he see in him/her”.

    So there can be all sorts of combinations of flawed protags and romantic interests (and some patterns/roles, such as the beast taming, or the vamp, are certainly common), but I don’t think it’s the flaws that jeopardize a reader’s belief in the relationship. I’m not sure what that is, either. There’s probably no clean answer for that.

    Cheers!

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    • Let’s ride one elephant at a time . . .

      What I was focusing on in the post was whether the reader (or viewer) finds the romantic partner attractive enough to care about whether the romance succeeds. In other words, if it weren’t mind-stretching enough to try and figure out what one person sees in another, we now have a third party making the evaluation. It’s an issue parallel to the one about “likable” main characters — a topic for another day.

      For our purposes, though, the essential thing is that a reader will lose interest if the romantic interest doesn’t have appeal for the reader, rational or not. We give a certain benefit of the doubt when the author tells us the MC has mysteriously fallen in love with the RI — but not an unlimited benefit of the doubt.

      Changing elephants in mid-gallop, there’s the famous mysteriousness of why one falls in love, as you say. I’m not sure I’d jump to the conclusion that it’s quite as irrational as we often think. People sometimes give resoundingly good reasons for loving someone. Here’s one of my favorites (though you don’t get the full effect unless you’ve read the whole story up to that point, which I highly recommend: Lois McMaster Bujold, Beguilement, Vol. One of The Sharing Knife).

      Yet it’s true that we don’t feel such excellence fully accounts for the particular attraction of romantic love; there’s something ineffable left over. My theory is that the something extra has to do with complementarity — with “fit,” you might say. But that’s really a topic for a longer discussion another day. 🙂

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  2. From what I’ve seen, nearly every piece of fiction, science or otherwise, is just a romance novel with either rockets or Teddy Roosevelt, depending upon whether it is science fiction or historical fiction; moreover, most dramatic tv series are essentially soap operas… even the super hero series. Two different types of people at first hate one another, then fall in love… then fall OUT of love. Misunderstandings galore…

    I don’t know if I’m complaining or explaining… It’s complicated…

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    • There’s something to that. Of course, those that don’t have Teddy Roosevelt sometimes have vampires instead.

      I read that Oscar Hammerstein II ultimately concluded romance was the only thing worth writing about. That may not be entirely true (though it may be true for musicals). But I’d agree that romance can turn up in the unlikeliest places. Genres of stories, I mean.

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