Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice.  Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel.  The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.

Wayfarers series coversThe series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics:  stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World.  I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”

I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life.  On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional.  This is science fiction, after all.  But family and home do play a central role.

High Stakes

When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories:  space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars.  In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale.  We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.

Many of these early epics had to do with exploration.  We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us).  The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event:  first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet.  Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.

Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF.  And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century.  Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.

In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur.  The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy.  (At least in science fiction.)  But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries.  When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war.  What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.

E.T. poster, fingers touchingWe see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.:  the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott.  The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part.  But Spielberg has a different take:  even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters.  The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.

E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking.  The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters.  And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’

The Wayfarers Books

Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer.  Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion.  As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way.  But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions.  We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics.  Wikipedia puts it concisely:  “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”

This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story.  A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long WayOrbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood.  One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”

The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters.  Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies.  Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over.  This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax.  The author’s interests lie elsewhere.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few coverThe most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes.  In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.”  It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel.  By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars.  But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.

Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances.  Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet.  Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet.  Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.

A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context.  But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life.  There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another.  It simply lays out the possibilities.

Family Life Out There

Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns.  There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).

The Rolling Stones coverWith Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF.  For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story:  the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.

These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction.  But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved.  (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)

Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere.  These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people.  The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them.  The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion.  Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.

Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal.  There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteriesIsaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications.  Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.

On the Big Screen

My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle.  (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.)  But that’s not always the case.  Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.

The Space Between Us posterA good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017).  I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics.  The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them.  There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.

I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016).  It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story).  The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on.  But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.

Conclusion

Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular.  I’m all for more of this.  Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course.  In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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The Animal Sidekick

Introduction

Zorro on Tornado, against the moonThe hero of a story is frequently attended by a loyal beast of some sort.  Pirate captains have their parrots.  Roy Rogers had his sturdy steed Trigger, and Zorro relies on his horse Tornado—a mount he went to some pains to acquire, for example, in The Mask of Zorro (1998).  Ron Stoppable, sidekick to teenage hero Kim Possible, had his own companion in a naked mole-rat, Rufus.  The Stark siblings in Game of Thrones (I finally got around to watching the first episode last week) each have a direwolf.  For those who remember the 1950s TV series, we might also instance Timmy and Lassie (though in that case arguably Lassie was the lead and Timmy the accessory; she did get top billing).

In fantasy and science fiction, however, such accompanying creatures often get a significant upgrade.  A F&SF character’s animal assistant may be enough of an independent character to be a genuine companion, rather than merely a pet—occasionally rising almost to the level of the more familiar human sidekick.

Quasi-Intelligent Companions

Science fiction and fantasy elements allow for semi-sentient or semi-intelligent versions of what would otherwise be considered pets.  They’re not equal to their human masters—at least not as a rule (see below)—but they’re not just brute animals either.

Defiant Agents coverAndre Norton’s SF novel The Defiant Agents (1962) provides a good example.  When a group of Native American colonists is sent to found a habitation on a far-off planet, with them is a pair of enhanced coyotes.  Norton gives the backstory this way:

. . . The coyote had not only adapted to the country of the white sands; he had evolved into something which could not be dismissed as an animal, clever and cunning, but limited to beast range.  Six cubs had been brought back on the first expedition, coyote in body, their developing minds different.  The grandchildren of those cubs were now in the ship’s cages, their mutated senses alert . . . Sent to Topaz as eyes and ears for less keenly endowed humans, they were not completely under the domination of man.  (ch. 2, p. 19)

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us perhaps the classic case.  The planet Pern is protected by men and women riding flying dragons.  The dragons breathe fire to destroy an alien organic “Thread” that falls from the sky and, if allowed to spread, would multiply to consume the planet.  Moreover, the dragons can teleport from place to place by “going between.”  (Despite the fantasy tropes, the Pern stories are actually science fiction.)  Dragons and their human riders bond for life at the dragons’ birth and communicate telepathically; the bond is so complete that if one partner dies, the other is likely to die as well.

Dragonflight coverA crucial fact is that McCaffrey’s dragons talk.  Speech is a key sign of intelligence.  We might imagine getting an answer back when we speak to a beloved horse or dog; we might wish for such a relationship—but in F&SF that wish can be realized.

Nonetheless, even though it’s the dragons who do most of the work against Thread, they are the subordinate members of the pairings.  They are immature compared to their humans—halfway to the unspeaking beast, as it were.  One of the main characters reflects that “[d]ragon instinct was limited to here-and-now, with no ability to control or anticipate.  Mankind existed in partnership with them to supply wisdom and order . . .”  (Dragonflight (1968), part II, p. 133)

Nonetheless, speech isn’t always necessary to show that a creature is more than an animal.  In particular, if we’re dealing with alien creatures whose thought processes are different from ours, it may be hard to tell how their degree of intelligence compares.

In Alan E. Nourse’s Star Surgeon (1959), the main character is Dal Timgar, an alien Garvian who has just graduated from medical school on Earth.  Like all Garvians, Dal has a symbiotic partner, a fuzzy ball of mutable protoplasm referred to simply as “Fuzzy,” normally found sitting on Dal’s shoulder.  The Garvians and their Fuzzies (not to be confused with H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzies) have the same kind of interdependence as McCaffrey’s dragonriders:  they can’t live without each other.  While Dal’s Fuzzy certainly seems to be a person of sorts, he doesn’t talk.  His telepathic bond with Dal does not express itself in words.  But that bond is a central part of the story.

The Tropes

The animal sidekick gives rise to a number of classifications on TV Tropes.  The broadest is perhaps Loyal Animal Companion, which spans the range from mere pets to non-human peers.  In this last group, where the two are essentially equals—the Non-Human Sidekick—the “Film–Animation” subgroup includes a list of the animal helpers found in most of the Disney fairy-tale films, such as the talking mice in Cinderella (1950).  (Note, though, that in the more realistic 2015 live-action version, the mice don’t talk and are more like pets.)

Daenerys Targaryen, mounted on dragonThe symbiotic relationships described above are captured under the title Bond Creatures, with a separate page devoted to dragon-riders generally—including Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones.  Witches’ or wizards’ familiars, like Svartalf in Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos, appear under The Familiar.

There’s also a page for Mons, of which the famous Pokémon are probably the most widely-known.  A human master may have many Pokémon, but Pikachu, for instance, does seem to be a boon companion and not just a fighting pet—although in the animated series his speech (like Groot’s) is limited to variations on his own name.  Note that the upcoming movie version is quite different:  in this movie Pikachu talks and is a complete person—even, apparently, the lead.

The Sidekick’s Contribution

The Beast Master, coverAnimal sidekicks can aid their principals in many ways.  Some you can ride, like McCaffrey’s dragons or Gandalf’s steed Shadowfax; there’s yet another Tropes page for the Sapient Steed (including the robotic horse Fess in Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock of Gramarye series).  Some act primarily as scouts, as noted for the Norton coyotes above; so also the Falcon’s avian companion Redwing in Marvel comics (sadly reduced to a robotic drone in the movies).  The enhanced or mutated otters in James Schmitz’s The Demon Breed (1968) do some scouting, and can also carry bombs and perform other basic actions; they talk back to main character Nile Etland, though in a simplified way.  Norton’s The Beast Master (1959) features a whole team of animals who assist main character Hosteen Storm, a Native American like The Defiant Agent’s Travis Fox.

The animal companion may also be able to fight alongside you, in ways a human could not match.  We’ve already looked at the dragons of Pern; we should also mention the treecats of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, who have averted at least one assassination by being unexpectedly formidable in an emergency.  Owen Grady’s team of raptors in Jurassic World is equally capable.

Ascension of the Sidekick

Frequently, animal sidekicks tend to be a little childlike and essentially innocent.  They’re depicted as simpler than their human sponsors.  The nonhuman creature may be quite bloodthirsty or deadly, but it’s in an innocent way.  We don’t hold animals responsible for being savage; that’s just the way they are.  The more animal sidekicks lack the full intelligence and moral agency of a person, the more they get the benefit of animal innocence.

But sometimes it turns out that the seeming animal is more than it appears.  It may develop that the “sidekick” is really the equal of the human partner—in intelligence, in culture, in overall personhood.  At that point, we pass from subordinate to peer, and the relationship may shift to something more like that of a buddy movie.

Treecat with Stephanie HarringtonThis is true of Weber’s treecats:  as the series progressed, they were revealed to be about as intelligent as humans, though without advanced science.  The Pernese dragons have also shifted gradually in that direction; in particular, Ruth, the eponymous character of The White Dragon (1978), is depicted as a “sport,” human-like in personality and mental capabilities.

Sticking with the dragonrider model, we see a similar progression in the How to Train Your Dragon movies.  These dragons have always been pretty smart; but the third episode, released in the U.S. in February 2019, gives them a culture and even a governmental structure of their own.

Heinlein was fond of this twist.  He used it in Red Planet (1949), where Willis the “Martian roundhead,” originally the main character’s pet, turns out to be an immature form of the regular civilized Martians and a particularly important individual.  Similarly, in The Star Beast (1954), the main character’s monstrous “pet” Lummox turns out to be a very young royal child of the sophisticated and formidable Hroshii species.

James Schmitz’s first story about Telzey Amberdon, “Novice” (1962, appearing in The Universe Against Her and volume one of the Eric Flint Hub compilation), presents Telzey with a telepathic “pet” named Tick-Tock who is revealed to be one of the indigenous “crest cats”—predators so dangerous that, while humans have been hunting them, the crest cats view themselves as hunting the humans on an equal basis.  (Since Telzey is a formidable character herself, even at age fifteen, the team-up really is a union of equals.)

Role in the Story

Telzey Amberdon with Tick-TockThe animal sidekick’s unique abilities or powers, noted above, afford one explanation for its appearance in a story.  Such a companion can allow characters to do things they couldn’t do on their own, whether it’s adding to their fighting strength, reading other characters’ minds, or teleporting to other places and times.  The sidekick is a helper and an ally.

An animal companion provides such assistance in a different way than a human companion would.  In creating a new separate species, a writer can establish limitations in intelligence or otherwise that place the sidekick firmly in a secondary role.  We are rightly uncomfortable putting other humans in such a permanent sidekick position; it creates a fundamental tension with the fact of basic human equality.  (It would take us too far afield here to go into the variations of human ancillary characters—the superhero’s assistant; the military servant or “batman,” as with Honor Harrington or James Christian Falkenberg or Jack Aubrey; Jeeves the “gentleman’s personal gentleman.”)

An animal ancillary character can provide companionship—empathy, psychological support—for the main character without invoking the kinds of interactions that are inevitable when other human beings are involved.  Instead, the relationship between the principal and the sidekick can explore other kinds of interactions, more analogous to those of parent and child, or teacher and student, than those of peers.

In compiling this survey, I’ve noticed that a lot of the stories are older, often dating from the mid-twentieth century.  It may be that this isn’t an accident.  Contemporary thinking leans strongly toward an assumption of equality among all kinds of beings, reaching out to postulate humanlike rights for (e.g.) whales or chimpanzees.  The whole notion of a permanently subordinate or secondary being may be particularly repugnant to many of today’s readers.

On the other hand, coming from the animal side rather than the human-surrogate side, there may be something to the simple wish to communicate on more of a mutual basis with the other creatures that share the world with us.  Wouldn’t we all like to be able to talk to our horse, dog, cat?

Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, coverIn his essay On Fairy-Stories (1939), Tolkien points out that fantasy satisfies “the desire to converse with other living things.  On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, is largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales . . .”  If we can’t talk with our actual dogs and cats, we can imagine similarly situated beings with whom we can.  And if they include flying dragons and wily coyotes, so much the better.

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.