The 5 Ingredients of a Great Fictional Relationship
Across all genres, readers adore good, strong fictional relationships. These can be friendships, romances that end in a wedding and more kids than you can count on one hand, or something in between. A good relationship between two characters the audience really likes can make up the emotional core of the story. You can also explore their differences and create drama between them by having them end up on different sides of the story's conflict.
But it's also easy to get writing relationships wrong. Writing them is hard. There are many requirements the audience has, consciously or subconsciously, that they will consider necessary to develop a relationship that justifies getting to the "Romantic Happy Ending." I've known readers who really hate the "canon ships," the author's official couplings, and that's the primary driving force behind fan fiction. Fan fiction is often an attempt by the fanfic writers to "correct" what they see as a failure by their favorite works' writers to create a good, plausible-feeling relationship for the main characters.
Some fans feel an even better pairing exists and is being overlooked. For example, in many cases, you see two main characters of the same gender who have a heated, romantic-feeling friendship—only for them to be paired off with characters of the opposite gender whom they barely know and barely have chemistry with. So fanfic writers will step in and write an ending they prefer where these intense best buds become more than that!
But all the debates surrounding shipping and fanfics on the internet got me wondering—what does it actually take to make a good relationship in a work of fiction? I'm not a romance writer or reader. But many of my favorite genres do commonly feature romantic sub-plots. What makes up a good relationship can be subjective, emotional, and hard to pin down. But generally, I've come to the conclusion that romantic plots that satisfy readers tend to have the following five traits. And the lack of one of them can make a romantic pairing seem forced or unfulfilling.
This is probably an obvious one. Passion means that the characters in question feel strong feelings for each other, but also that they're comfortable expressing strong feelings to each other. Even when these feelings are uncomfortable, awkward, hard to talk about, or cause the one sharing them to be vulnerable, Person A always feels comfortable around Person B to share their feelings.
Passion is also motivation, and motivation pushes the character to take action on behalf of the other person. When two characters end up together, and you just never saw Person A care all that much about Person B before the big romance reveal, it feels weird. Like usually, when you have a crush on someone, you're going to show signs of being passionate about them and caring for them before you confess your undying love.
A lot of times, the passion in a story can seem over-exaggerated, to the point of sounding cheesy, emo, and fake. That really grinds my gears. It's pretty common in YA, but also in the darker-toned romance and erotica written for adults. Describing love as being in agony, like you're literally being tortured every time you see your crush, is not fun to read about. And it makes me wonder, is this actually a good person for you to have a crush on, if having them around is described as your heart throbbing with screaming anguish?
I don't like messy, gross-sounding metaphors ("my heart was impaled and cut into a thousand pieces and then the pieces were all set on fire, and they exploded in my chest cavity"—that's a medical condition, not romance). Love is not supposed to feel painful, it's supposed to be pleasurable. I know that there is pain to some aspects of love, like not being sure if they love you back, or not being socially allowed to be together. But, the love itself is not agonizing.
Passion should feel good, and I prefer fiction that recognizes that it feels good to be in love with someone, even if the implications of those feelings might also lead to a bad outcome. For example, if you're a page boy who falls in love with a queen, it's probably not going to end well. But like I said, the love itself will still feel really good, as will being in the presence of the person the character has a crush on. All that doesn't feel good are the consequences the character will think about later. After getting over that heart-pounding feeling of bliss in their crush's presence.
To recap; lacking passion is bad, but also, don't describe the passion in exaggerated terms that imply that all strong feelings are painful. I think if you feel like your heart has a thousand razor blades slicing into it, you should maybe see a cardiologist!
2. Time Spent Together
"You can't marry a man you just met!" - Elsa, Frozen
In this part, Disney is criticizing its own past fairy tale movies, which were based around the "love at first sight" trope. The idea of love has changed over time, and Disney has changed its approach to fictional relationships to reflect that cultural change.
Why did people ever believe in "love at first sight"? In ancient Greece, people tended to favor rationality and skepticism. They believed love to be an irrational kind of madness, or "theia mania", madness sent from the gods. In Renaissance poetry, it became once again popular for stories and poems to feature the concept of love as eye beams from the eyes of beautiful women, or to talk about being struck by "Cupid's arrow". In these stories, men would instantly fall in love with young marriageable girls upon first meeting them, and it was a sign from God that their destiny was to end up together, despite anything trying to interfere with that.
Perhaps in a time of arranged marriages, the romanticism of "love at first sight" and "true love's kiss" stories acted as a form of escapism. Women could enjoy the fun idea of being romantically whisked away by brave knights, who would instantly fall in love with them (for no real reason), and save them from arranged marriages. In many cultures where arranged marriages are common, so too are love stories. Often these stories involve supernatural aspects; fate, destiny, reincarnation, God, or the fairies want you and Sir Handsome to end up together! That's what "love at first sight" is supposed to signify.
So the reason we no longer value "love at first sight" is because people no longer relish the idea of being romantically "saved" from an arranged marriage. People like "love at first sight" though because it's emotionally intense and it takes out the work and messiness of real-world relationships. People still like classic fairy tales, and don't care that much that Cinderella didn't know the prince at all before their first dance. We're just so busy getting caught up in her dreams and her lavish fun night at the prom, relishing the jealous faces of her step-sisters as she dances with the prince.
But in recent times the "love at first sight" trope has fallen out of favor. People want fiction to be more realistic. I think this does a disservice to fiction. Fiction is entertainment that is meant to transport the audience out of reality. Too much reality in it can be, well, too much reality.
But, it's true that relationships take work, and love takes time. And it is more rewarding to see characters get together after spending a lot of emotionally intense time together, and really bonding over something meaningful. When you see love between two characters build more gradually, you understand that their relationship has more substance to it than the superficial. Let's be real, Cinderella likes the prince because he is a prince, and he is handsome and elegant. He likes her because she shows up in a beautiful gown, and her beauty eclipses that of all other girls at the dance. That seems a bit less "earned" than people going through adventures together, and gradually coming to like each other through those adventures.
Time together is also the biggest complaint people have with certain canon pairings. It's usually where the main character has a "female best friend" who is his companion and sidekick most of the time, but he ends up with another girl, who knows him less well, but is more beautiful, more feminine, or something of that nature. It feels like a slap in the face to fans of the on-screen female lead, who were rooting for her to end up with the male lead.
This is also the root of 90% of homo-romantic fanfic pairings. It is caused when there is little time spent with the female who gets the guy, but the male protagonists spends way more meaningful time with a male character, who can be a friend, rival, or even antagonist. So naturally, people would rather write and read their own slash fictions with the characters who actually not only spend the most time doing things together, but also are shown to spend the most time thinking about each other.
So, while I kind of enjoy the "love at first sight" trope in classic fairy tales and their film adaptations, it is a limiting trope, because it can make the resulting romantic relationship feel less earned. And if you don't show your couple-to-be spending a decent amount of time together before that first kiss, it can sometimes make the pairing feel like it just came out of nowhere. Romance ex machina. Best to avoid that.
3. Understanding and Communication
Not only do relationships require passion and time, but they require understanding and communication.
Understandingis a very sexy, very romantic feeling—that the other person just "gets" you. They know what you want without you having to ask. They see your struggles. They know your likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, weird little quirks. A person who understands you will treat you fairly and compassionately, not belittle you or dismiss your needs. They make you feel important, like you matter to them.
Communication is often said by psychologists to be the backbone of a good relationship. And yet, fiction often rests on conflicts that are caused by crazy misunderstandings that could be solved by one character being honest or speaking up about their feelings. Sometimes the lack of communication is excusable, if the main characters are particularly shy or inexperienced. But audiences are pretty sick of communication blunders acting as the major obstacle to romance. If you find yourself shouting "Just tell him X!" at the TV, you're probably not watching a great romance story. The plot that can be solved by just speaking some words to a person is not usually a plot that feels like it needs to happen.
Also, there's the silent treatment, and unnecessary secretive behavior, acting as barriers to the simple communication that would fix the plot. For example, Shrek. In Shrek, Shrek hears Fiona say something that implies that she thinks Shrek is unlovable because he is a hideous beast. What she meant was that, in her cursed ogre body, she felt that she was unlovable because she was a hideous beast. Which is absurd when you're talking about falling in love with an ogre and changing into one. But it results in her insistence on keeping a secret, and his silent treatment of her preventing further discussion, which might have gotten her to open up about her curse. Anyway, the whole misunderstanding part of the movie is probably not anyone's favorite.
This also shows up with friendship, as in an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where one pony, Fluttershy, becomes a model and hates doing it, but she thinks her friend Rarity wants her to keep doing it. Turns out Rarity is actually getting jealous of Fluttershy's fame as a model overshadowing her own achievements as a fashion designer. But they drag out the lack of communication and mutual secret-keeping for way too long. But at least it's to show that honesty and directness are better.
I really just want a romantic story that doesn't rest on contrived misunderstandings or miscommunication, on secrets or lies getting unreasonably out of hand before the truth gets out. Truth is always going to win anyway, so just spit it out and move on with your life.
4. Caring and Protectiveness
Technically, the good guys are supposed to care about saving all of humanity. But it's normal and natural for people to be especially protective of the people they care about most. I love it when someone makes a heroic sacrifice for their significant other or love interest. I like how Vegeta is pretty cold towards humans generally, but passionately defensive of Bulma in particular. It's cute when men are especially protective of their love interests.
The female side of that is it's also cute when female characters are especially caring or nurturing, even those who aren't to anyone else. I live for tender moments when women tend to their loved one's wounds, while gently berating them for putting themselves in danger. I love the moments when Winry takes care of Ed in Fullmetal Alchemist and fixes his automail, while also always lecturing him to be more careful with it.
In G Gundam, Rain, Domon Kasshu's main love interest, is always there to fix his Gundam, but also always giving him heck for fighting recklessly. Sophie also shows her love for Howl in Howl's Moving Castle by not only cleaning and cooking, but by caring for him when he's sick. In turn, Howl is protective of Sophie.
Men protect, women nurture. I'd like to see more of the opposite, or more deviations playing with this idea. For example, I like how Puella Magi Madoka Magica is about a girl being romantically protective of another girl. But most fiction doesn't take risks by rocking the gender role boat too much.
I'm pretty sentimental about this, so I don't mind it feeling a little old fashioned. It feels romantic and genuine. It's good when characters show their feelings by action. Actions speak louder than words. And buying shiny things is not as cool of an action as saving someone from a burning building, or helping their battle wounds heal. People romanticize doctors and nurses for a reason!
5. Shared Pain or Shared Struggle
A fundamental building block of a relationship is not just quantity of time spent in each other's company, but how much of that time was spent doing stuff that was particularly emotional and meaningful to them. I like relationships where two characters share in the struggle, and share each other's pain and heartache.
One of my favorite moments is not even a human example of this, but from 101 Dalmatians. Pongo and Perdita want to have puppies almost immediately after getting married. So they do, but in a heartbreaking moment, it appears that one of the fifteen is dead. But Roger carefully warms up the little pup, and he comes to life, cute paws, wiggly nose, and all. In that moment, and throughout the film, Pongo and Perdita share the struggle to keep their puppies, and later, all the puppies rescued from Cruella's stooges, safe. They make a great team, and they bond by sharing worry and care for the same pups. If only human romance novels could take a hint from these two dynamic animals.
Another example of this is in The Savior's Champion. Both Layla and protagonist Tobias hate the brutal death tournament Tobias is stuck in, and they are both working to undermine the whole system subjugating both of them. That's a powerful cocktail for romance, their shared struggle against the cruel and oppressive leaders of their country.
So when characters ought to be spending meaningful time together to develop a relationship, the best way to accomplish that is through shared struggle. They will empathize with each other's pain. They will help each other through thick and thin. This is the stuff that forges powerful relationships, and even creates very intense close platonic friendships.
If you read a lot, or watch a lot of stuff, you've probably been disappointed by how a fictional romance was handled. When you write, it's difficult to know how to get this part of the story right. It's crucial that your romantic plot feels like it built up over time. It should have tension, conflict, complications. Even though we know the two characters getting together may be a foregone conclusion (especially if the genre is romance), we still want it to feel earned, as opposed to pulled up out of nowhere. The writer is a farmer, not a genie.
Best of luck with writing your own fictional romances!
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© 2019 Rachael Lefler