Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the Ant-Man movie. In the midst of cheesy one-liners, supercharged CGI, and Stan Lee cameos, I found myself thinking about “love” and how it often plays out on screen and in print. With the intent of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that Ant-Man, like nearly every superhero, has a love interest in the film … and it just doesn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong. “Love” as a thematic concept is excellent, and when written correctly, it adds a dynamic to storytelling that is impossible to accomplish through any other means. The problem with Ant-Man, and many stories like it, is that “love” is forced, and the narrative isn’t improved by its inclusion.
Knowing that love interests are often overdone in writing, it’s difficult for writers to determine how and when to develop feelings of love between characters. The first question to ask before characters fall in love is…
Does the Story Need the Characters to Fall in Love?
Failure to answer this question is the single greatest reason why “love” often fails in fiction. In the race to keep the reader attentive, writers use many tricks and strategies to evoke an emotional response. Unfortunately, this sometimes means making characters fall in love, even when the story doesn’t need it or isn’t moving in that direction.
Characters should fall in love if…
- Plot events are intentionally moving in that direction.
- Character dynamic is improved in making the match.
Notice that characters should not fall in love for the sake of love itself. If falling in love enhances the plot or improves character dynamic (the interaction between characters), there are several “tried and true” methods for turning up the heat on character relationships.
Childhood is a magical time in the lives of characters. It’s a time when physical and emotional changes occur that impact the characters’ attitudes, relationships, and stability throughout the entire narrative. Use this crucial time frame to give your protagonist a childhood friend. This friend should grow with the protagonist and share in his/her childhood triumphs and challenges. In adulthood, this relationship may transform into a believable love, strengthened by mutual life experiences.
Tragedy produces extreme emotional responses from characters, which makes it an ideal device for building relationships. Character flaws and weaknesses are exposed during times of turmoil and tragedy. If characters undergo a tragedy together, they share a unique experience that can strengthen their physical, emotional, and spiritual connection. The tragedy can take place on a small scale (the death of a loved one) or a large scale (the death of the entire human race), depending on the needs of the story.
Characters with opposing qualities can be written into interesting situations. If one character smokes and the other does not, the two characters may argue or disagree in dialogue, promoting the possibility that interactions could move into flirtation or a crush. With opposing characters, it’s easy to force a relationship, but it’s important to allow one to evolve naturally. Allow your characters to be gently converted to the other’s way of thinking before sealing the deal with a steady relationship.
When characters spend an exorbitant amount of time “alone together,” this creates a reliance on the person they are alone with. In these situations, the writer should allow the characters to develop trust for one another, a virtue that may lead to a more meaningful relationship. This tactic is especially effective when combined with a shared tragedy (e.g. the characters find themselves stranded together in an isolated region and forced to spend large amounts of time relying on each other for survival).
Even though fiction is fiction, there must be a certain amount of truth to help the reader suspend disbelief. If Ant-Man needs to fall in love, the reader better believe it’s possible and necessary. Fictional love is like real love in that way.