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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The Good King

I began to wonder some years back about the curious preference for monarchy in futuristic settings.  In the world at large, monarchies have been retreating in favor of republics and democracies, at least in theory, since 1776.  Why are SF writers so fond of equipping future societies with kings, emperors, and aristocracies?

Star Kingdoms

We can pass lightly over the old-time, pulp-type stories where royal rule is merely part of the local color:  Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings (1949), E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) with its Osnomian royal families.  Here, like flashing swords and exotic costumes, monarchy is simply part of a deliberately anachronistic setting.  Similarly in high fantasy, where aristocracy comes naturally in the typical pseudo-medieval milieu.

But we see royal or aristocratic governments in more modern stories too.  Asimov’s Foundation stories are centered around a Galactic Empire.  (Since that series was based on Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an Empire was inevitable.)  Similarly in Star Wars, which draws heavily on Asimov.  Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history has a First and a Second “Empire of Man.”  David Weber’s heroine Honor Harrington serves the “Star Kingdom of Manticore” (later “Star Empire”), modeled closely on England around 1810.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga contains a number of polities with different forms of government, but many of the stories focus on Barrayar, which has an Emperor.  Anne McCaffrey’s popular Pern series has no monarch, but has two parallel aristocracies (the feudal Holders and the meritocratic dragonriders).  It got to the point where I began to feel a decided preference for avoiding monarchical or imperial governments in SF storytelling.

The Lure of Kingship

Aragorn with crownThere’s something that attracts us in royalty—or we wouldn’t see so much of it.  I encountered this puzzlement directly.  As a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, I was as moved as anyone by the return of the true King.  I asked myself why.  If I don’t even approve of kingship in theory, why am I cheering for Aragorn?

The reasons we’re drawn to monarchy seem to include—

  • Kings are colorful. (So are princesses.)
  • Stability
  • Personal loyalty
  • Individual agency

The first point is obvious, but the others are worth examining.

Stability

It’s been pointed out that even in a constitutional government, a monarch provides a symbolic continuity that may help to hold a nation together.  British prime ministers may come and go, but Queen Elizabeth is always there.  (Literally, at least within my lifetime.)  This gives some plausibility to the idea of a future society’s returning to monarchy.

Something like this stabilizing function is behind commoner Kevin Renner’s half-embarrassed harangue to Captain Rod Blaine, future Marquis of Crucis, in Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye:  “maybe back home we’re not so thick on Imperialism as you are in the Capital, but part of that’s because we trust you aristocrats to run the show.  We do our part, and we expect you characters with all the privileges to do yours!”  (ch. 40)

Unfortunately, relying on the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats doesn’t always work out well.  It depends on who they are.  For every Imperial Britain, there’s a North Korea.  When the hereditary succession breaks down, you get a War of the Roses or Game of Thrones.

Too much depends on getting the right monarch.  By the law of averages, it doesn’t take long before you get a bad ruler, whether by inheritance or by “right of conquest”—and you’re up the well-known creek.

Personal Loyalty

Personal loyalty appeals to us more strongly than loyalty to an institution.  One can pledge allegiance to a state—but even the American Pledge of Allegiance starts with a symbol:  the flag, and then “the Republic for which it stands.”  Loyalty to an individual moves us more easily.

This kind of loyalty doesn’t have to be to a monarch.  Niven & Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty explores how loyalty among, and to, a trusted group of managers can form a stronger bond than the mere institutional connections of a typical modern bureaucracy.  One can be faithful to family (the root of the hereditary element in kingship), to friends, or even an institution or a people.  But it’s easiest with an individual.  This loyalty is the basis for the stability factor above.

Individual Agency

The vast machinery of modern government sometimes seems to operate entirely in the abstract, without real people involved.  “Washington said today . . .”

In fact it’s always people who are acting.  But it’s easier to visualize this when you have a single person to focus on.  “When Grant advanced toward Richmond . . .”  In the extreme case, we have the ruler who claims to embody the state in his own person:  “L’état, c’est moi” (attributed to Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France).

In a fascinating 2008 essay, Jo Walton quotes Bujold on political themes in SF:  “In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.”  A science fiction character is frequently involved in effecting a revolution, facing down a potential dictator, or establishing a new order—exercising autonomous power.  Walton links this notion of political agency to the fact that SF illustrates change:  “SF is the literature of changing the world.”  The world-changers can be outsiders, or they can be the rulers themselves—as in a number of the examples above.

It’s not surprising that we’re attracted to characters who act outside the normal rules.  We (especially Americans, perhaps) are fond of the idea that good people can act in ways that are untrammeled by the usual conventions.  I’ve already mentioned Robin Hood.  And the whole concept of the superhero—the uniquely powerful vigilante who can be relied on to act for the good—is powered by this attraction.

But this idealization of individual initiative is also dangerous.  Too much depends on getting the right hero—or the right monarch.  It can only work if the independent agent is seriously and reliably good:  virtuous, in the classical sense of virtue as a well-directed “habit” or fixed character trait.  Even then, we may be reluctant to give any hero unlimited power.  Too much is at stake if it goes wrong.

The Rule of Law

Our admiration for the powerful ruler is always in tension with our dedication to the rule of law:  “a government of laws, not of men,” in the well-known phrase attributed to John Adams.  We can see this as far back as Aristotle:  “law should rule rather than any single one of the citizens.  And following this same line of reasoning . . . even if it is better that certain persons rule, these persons should be appointed as guardians of the laws and as their servants.”  (Politics book III, ch. 16, 1287a)

No human being can be trusted with absolute authority.  This is the kernel of truth in the aphorism that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But we can’t get along without entrusting some power to someone.  When we do, it had better be someone who’s as trustworthy as possible.

The Ideal of the Good King

Thus the true king must be a virtuous person—a person of real excellence.  This is the ideal of an Aragorn or a King Arthur, whose return we’re moved to applaud (even against our better judgment).  (It should be obvious that the same principles apply to the good queen—or emperor, empress, princess, prince:  the leader we follow.  But I’ll continue using “king” for simplicity’s sake.)

What virtues do we look for in a good monarch—aside from the obvious ones of justice, wisdom, courage, self-control?

If the ruler or rulers are going to be “servants of the laws,” they require humility.  A king who serves the law can’t claim to be its master.  Arrogance and hubris are fatal flaws in a ruler.  For example, we should always beware of the leader who claims he can do everything himself and is unable to work with others.

The good king is also selfless—seeking the common good of the people, not his own.  Self-aggrandizement is another fatal flaw.

In effect, what we’re looking for is a ruler who doesn’t want to rule:  a king who believes in the sovereignty and the excellence of common people.

Aragorn defers to FrodoIt’s significant that Aragorn, our model of the good king, is introduced in LotR as “Strider,” a scruffy stranger smoking in a corner of a common inn.  Even when he’s crowned in victory, he remembers to exalt the humble.  The movie has him tell the four hobbits, “You kneel to no one.”  Tolkien’s text is more ceremonious:  “And then to Sam’s surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand . . . he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned . . . and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying:  ‘Praise them with great praise!’”  (Book VI, ch. 4, p. 232)

We see the same essential humility and selflessness in other admirable leaders, kings or not:  Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the revolutionary princess in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy; Niven & Pournelle’s Rod Blaine; Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novels; “Dev” Logan, head of Omnitopia Inc. in Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn—the unpretentious opposite of the “imperial CEO.”  America was fortunate enough to have such an example in the pivotal position of first President, George Washington.

The Alternative

At the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous person to trust is an unprincipled and unscrupulous autocrat—someone convinced of his personal superiority and infallibility.  Giving power to an individual who has no interest in serving the common good, but only in self-aggrandizement, puts a nation in subjection to a Putin, a Mussolini, a Kim Jong-un.

The antithesis of the good king is the tyrant, who, however innocently he may start out, figures in our stories mainly as the oppressor to be overthrown.  It’s much better, if possible, to intercept such a potentially ruinous ruler before the tyranny comes into effect:  Senator Palpatine before he becomes Emperor, Nehemiah Scudder before he wins his first election.  Allowing the tyrant to gain power may make for good stories, but it generates very bad politics.

If we must have strong leaders, then in real life as well as in stories, character is key—and hubris is deadly.