Finding the Plot

Getting Started

When we start reading a story (or watching one), we usually have some idea what it’s about.  Chances are we picked it up based on a back-cover blurb or advertisement, or a review.  But the blurbs and ads are often “teasers,” aimed at drawing us in and getting us to start the story.  They may not really tell us where the plot is headed.

The genre may also give us a clue.  If the tale is presented as a mystery, we expect a crime (generally a murder) which will be solved.  If it’s a thriller or action epic, we’re prepared for physical challenges and victories.  In a romance, we anticipate a successful love affair.  But the details are unknown.  And in stories without a strong genre identification, we may be less sure about where the story is going.

James Bond dives from an airplane

Consider the James Bond movies.  Typically the film opens with an action sequence that may have little to do with the main plot.  We can get quite a few minutes into the film before we know what the real plot is.  There’s no danger of deterring us from watching; we all know what a James Bond story is like—that’s why we’re there.  The action sequence is merely a genre-appropriate appetizer while we wait to get into the main story.

What I’m interested in here is the reader’s developing sense of what the main action or conflict is:  what goings-on will make up the main business of the story.  It’s not as intangible as the theme or “meaning” of the tale.  It’s more concrete than that:  the overall shape of the plot.

Sequential Plots

Some stories start out with one kind of plot, morph into another, and then take off in a third direction.  This can result in a certain amount of reader whiplash, though an adroit author can carry it off.  She may even gain points for taking the reader on a ride through unexpected twists and turns.

The Lives of Christopher Chant, cover

Diana Wynne Jones’s The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) is my favorite example.  The first segment of this children’s fantasy novel is reminiscent of Dickens:  the young Christopher, neglected by his parents, is used by a scheming uncle to bring back forbidden goods from alternate worlds.  In the second phase of the book, Christopher is sent to a boarding school, where magic is one of the subjects routinely taught.  This section recalls the classic British schoolboy tale, with the addition of magic; it’s a sort of predecessor of (and perhaps inspiration for) Harry Potter, which Jones’s book predates by about twelve years.  The third part of the novel develops into a high-fantasy epic conflict.  At the end Christopher is selected for the future role of “Chrestomanci,” a Sorcerer Supreme position in the British government.

On first reading, I found it a bit of a swerve to go from the narrative of a difficult childhood to that of a genial school-days story.  When this evolved into a magical conflict of epic proportions, I was surprised again.  But the story held together through the continuity of the strongly sympathetic character Christopher (and his alternate-universe friend Millie).  The shifts in tone seemed natural concomitants of Christopher’s growing up and grappling with more mature problems.

In fact, starting on a small scale and gradually building up to grander events made the grander events more plausible, as in The Lord of the Rings.  While the opening section of Christopher Chant wasn’t exactly realistic, the issues were more limited and personal.  You had the sense of gradual expansion as the story went along.

C.S. Lewis provides a more pronounced example of this effect in the last novel of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945).  The novel starts out with extremely mundane matters of domestic ennui and academic politics.  This establishes such a sense of realism and naturalness that the later fantastic developments, involving everything from cosmic entities and biological abominations to Merlin and Atlantis, gain plausibility from being built on so familiar a foundation.

Uncertainty About the Narrator

Another kind of story where it may be hard at first to make out the nature of the plot is the tale with an unreliable narrator.

Among Others, cover

Jo Walton’s Among Others (winner of the Best Novel Hugo Award in 2012) is a fantasy, but it’s set in the present day and much of the action is mundane.  The main character, Morgana, is convinced that her mother is a witch.  But for most of the book, I wasn’t entirely sure that was true; there was a distinct possibility that Mori was an unreliable narrator who was imagining the whole thing.  Nor was it clear how the threat was going to be addressed.  I only really grasped what the narrative arc was around p. 291 out of 302 pages—that is, at the very end.

The uncertainty didn’t impair my enjoyment of the story.  Mori is an extremely sympathetic character, especially for those of us who loved F&SF back when those genres were considered odd and fans were regarded as uncool nerds.  And the events of the tale are fascinating even when you aren’t quite sure they’re real.  But the ambivalence of the plot kept me from forming a clear opinion about the book until the end.

The Nested or Layered Story

Occasionally a story will contain one or more other storylines—not like the explicit play within a play that occurs briefly in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but more subtly interwoven.  This structure can make it hard to detect where the real plot of the overall story is.

In Patti Callahan’s Once Upon a Wardrobe, an Oxford student’s younger brother, who doesn’t have long to live, asks her to find out where the idea of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (then just published) came from.  The student, Meg Devonshire, tracks down the author, C.S. Lewis, and is drawn into hearing the story of Lewis’s life from Lewis himself.  Sequences describing Lewis’s personal history are thus sandwiched with Meg’s reports to her brother.  With the informal reportage building up to a kind of epiphany, one almost doesn’t notice that Meg’s own story is building toward a romance with a fellow student.  The intertwined narrative arcs make it hard to guess in advance where the book will end up.

Or What You Will, cover

Much more complex is Jo Walton’s 2020 book Or What You Will, described in Wikipedia as a “metafictional fantasy novel.”  The first-person narrator is a kind of character archetype in the mind of fantasy author Sylvia Harrison, the basis of characters in many of her stories.  (The similarity of the imaginary Harrison’s oeuvre to that of the real-life Walton adds a further recursive layer to the story.)  Fragments of Harrison’s personal history are intermixed with chapters about the story Harrison is writing, and also with the (fictional?) narrator’s plan to deliver Harrison from a fatal illness that may make this her last writing.  Given these very different types of story, coexisting in the same book, it’s hard to know what kind of resolution we might expect.  Yet in the end, as with Callahan’s book, the story works.

The Side Quest That Takes Over

We also see cases where what originally seemed to be a minor side trip or interruption turns out to be the main plot of the whole story.  This can be irritating if we’re invested in what we thought was the original tale, and are waiting with mounting impatience for the interlude to conclude so as to get on with it.  At some point we need to realize that the apparent side trip or side quest is the point.

I had that reaction when first reading Howl’s Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones, 1986).  Near the beginning, the young heroine, Sophie, is magically transformed into an elderly woman.  Somehow I didn’t expect that transformation to last long.  But in fact Sophie continues as an old woman for almost the entire novel.  It took me a while to stop waiting for the transformation to be reversed and to accept it as a central feature of the plot.

Off Armageddon Reef, first book in Safehold series, cover

Sometimes this is a matter of mistaking the main preoccupation of the author.  David Weber’s Safehold series starts with the premise that alien invaders, attracted by Earth’s burgeoning technology, have wiped out the human race, with the exception of a secret colony planted on a distant Earthlike planet in hopes of growing back to a level capable of dealing with the invaders.  The refugee world Safehold is deliberately kept under a rigid theocracy which suppresses technology, originally to avoid detection by the enemy, but later going far beyond that motive to a permanent proscription.  One might expect that the main plotline of the series would involve reacquiring high technology and re-engaging the invaders.  But so far the series has progressed through ten bulky books devoted almost entirely to detailing the military and political campaigns of a sort of Protestant Revolution to overthrow the dominant theocracy.  I’m still waiting for the lengthy storyline to wrap around back to the plotline I want to see developed.

Similarly, John Ringo’s “Council Wars” series starts with an intriguing premise in which a high-tech near-future civilization on Earth collapses into a kind of pseudo-medieval chaos due to a conflict among the ruling council.  In the initial high-tech utopia, people have entertained themselves by (among other things) participating in live-action game-playing, which involved biologically engineering dragons, randomly hiding useful minerals in artificial mountains, and so forth.  The opening conflict thus sets up a situation in which the main characters need to operate in something rather like a D&D game or fantasy world, dragons and all, which they’d initially created themselves but no longer control.  What baffled me as this story developed (four books so far) was that Ringo was more interested in military-SF preoccupations—what would combat be like using aircraft carriers with dragons instead of aircraft?—rather than riffing on the fantasy tropes themselves.

Defying Narrative Conventions

In some cases, writers seem to be determined to depart from traditional narrative conventions in ways that make the storyline obscure.  I’m generally skeptical about such attempted departures—they often seem mannered or artificial—but there’s no denying they sometimes produce interesting results.  Or What You Will, cited above, is an example of an odd approach that nonetheless presents an engrossing and satisfying tale.

This Is How You Lose the Time War, cover

This Is How You Lose the Time War, a Hugo-winning 2019 novella, is a peculiar kind of epistolary story that consists of deliberately obscure messages left for each other by two time-traveling agents of opposing empires.  It’s not clear at first where the story is going, and the message-writing format deprives the reader of the background information that might normally help establish what’s going on.  But Time War eventually develops into a kind of romance, as well as a meditation on war and politics, that’s definitely worth reading.

There Is No Plot

Finally, there’s a class of stories that don’t actually have an overall plot at all.  This isn’t necessarily a fault, but can be a virtue:  “a feature, not a bug.”  In these kinds of stories, our natural tendency to look for a plot is bound to be frustrated.

A fellow writer on Critique Circle, reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, expressed puzzlement about the plot of the book.  I responded that it’s like Winnie-the-Pooh:  a collection of linked but separate episodes that don’t actually have an overall plot.  There is a sort of overall character arc for Christopher Robin, but it’s not really a plot—just as The Wind in the Willows develops a coherent plot only toward the end, within the background created by a set of separate episodes.  My fellow writer, who was quite familiar with children’s stories, grasped the point at once from the Pooh analogy.

"There Will Come Soft Rains," illustration
“There Will Come Soft Rains”

We also find the occasional short story that’s essentially a mood piece, evoking an emotion without actually depicting a sequence of events.  In the science fiction canon, good examples include Arthur C. Clarke’s “History Lesson,” a meditation on the transience of the human species, and Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a moving story depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war.  In these short pieces, however, there isn’t enough time to build up much readerly expectation to be frustrated; it quickly becomes clear that the point of the story is to express a mood rather than to tell a tale.

When the plotline of a story doesn’t immediately become clear, or is subverted, the best advice may be simply to roll with it and see what happens.  And I give myself that advice occasionally when I’m puzzled with a tale.

Conclusion

This does, however, require us to trust the author.  Knowing an author’s work can give me confidence that taking the time to read will be worth it in the end.  Hearing that an author or a work is highly regarded by others may, to a lesser degree, give us a similar confidence.  If the author is new to us, though, that trust may be harder to come by.  Lacking a sense of direction, we may give up on a story prematurely.  If a writer isn’t going to meet the reader’s ordinary expectations about where a story is going, they’ll need to find other ways to reassure the reader that the tale is worth the investment of time.

The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.

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.