I gripe and grumble a lot about romance on here, and I just want you all to know that I do not actually hate it. I am not a pointy-nosed cynic with a shrivelled soul and a vendetta against any film that isn’t black-and-white and so artistic it’s incomprehensible, and any book that isn’t a first edition, weighty philosophical tome of mournfulness and dry social commentary from at least a hundred years ago. I am not only a modern movie buff and reader of things with shiny covers but a giant bloody sap, and I adore the love story in all its incarnations. I just hate it when it’s done badly.
Within the fictional realm you can barely budge an inch without bumping into some semblance of a romantic plotline. Love is a universal human theme, one of those few, bizarre and magical natural occurrences that manages to be common as mud but still unique every time it appears. Love stories are everywhere because they resonate—by and large, love is something that everyone can relate to (in some way or form), so we form an immediate empathetic connection. They’re pretty great, really.
But. But, but, but. We are so in love with love that we feel the need to put it everywhere, even where it doesn’t belong. Are we in our own obnoxious stage of our relationship with romance where everything must relate back to the object of our desire, whether it’s really relevant or not? We can’t shut up about it and, though the infatuation is endearing, it’s starting to annoy our friends. And ‘our friends’, for the purposes of this post, means this blogger.
The romance genre is exempt from this because, well, people read that to get a face full of love story. They know what they’re in for and the creators know this of their market. But what has a tendency to irk this little black duck is romance being jammed into genres where it does not belong.
Not to say, of course, that every love story subplot is a boil on the face of literature—they can be a great way to add empathy and character connection, and add a new layer of drama beneath the conflict of surviving post-apocalypse/taking down the dystopian government/robbing banks with magic tricks. Or, it can be an uncomfortable and sappy distraction from the real issues in play and what the audience actually signed up to observe.
Sometimes you can just tell that a romance plot has been wriggled into the story alongside the action because some writer or executive somewhere pointed out it might be nice. After all, everyone else is doing it, and it will add some emotional depth to a story about saving the president from aliens (or whatever). Sometimes they’re carried off beautifully—an example of these two warring factors, if we care to look to the Marvel cinematic universe, is Iron Man vs. Thor.
Throughout the Iron Man trilogy the dynamic between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts is established, demonstrated and significantly set up to show that they interact well together as people, as well as showing the chemistry between them. They don’t actually get together until after the first movie, and they have legitimate relationship problems along the way. In the meantime, Pepper shows that she’s a capable person and significant character who actually has a role, both in a meta sense and in the story world, apart from being Tony’s girlfriend.
Thor, however, handled this concept with less grace. The character of Jane was all well and good, but she really had no depth assigned to her (though she’s punching Loki in the face all over the promos for the second movie, so they may have made an effort to develop her beyond beautiful earthling scienceflower needing to be saved. Watch this space). Like, she’s clearly a smart woman with her own goals because she’s a scientist, but we never really learn why, except that her being a scientist allows for her to be in the right place at the right time to meet our golden-haired space-hunk. Throughout the rest of the film, their budding relationship comes off as stilted and a little bit awkward, the dramatic pull of their romantic goodbye somewhat diminished by the fact we don’t really have any time to get attached to her and their love isn’t really demonstrated… it’s just there.
Don’t get me started on everyone’s obsession with sticking in love triangles, either. I have yet to see an example of one that does work well and doesn’t become a pain in the rear at some point (if anyone has one, I am more than happy to listen to their case. Restore some of my faith, people, I beg of you). It comes back to that golden rule of editing, which many seem to be ignoring: if it isn’t relevant, it’s wasting words and time, so don’t put it in. Hey, if it helps develop the characters and impacts the plot, go ahead. But a love story for the sake of having a love story just makes everyone’s teeth ache.
I’m not doing a very good job of convincing you all I’m not a scrooge if I just sit here muttering, so let’s examine the positive: what makes a good romantic subplot?
First of all, I think, a key ingredient is not to have a character stuck in simply to fill the love interest role. Because it shows, and it’s painful. Give them their own motivations, role to play, backstory and capabilities that have nothing to do with the love story. Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies is an excellent example of this, with one of the most likeable and three-dimensional ‘love interest’ characters I’ve come across in paranormal fiction in a while. The key part of that being, of course, that while she was the object of affection of the protagonist, she wasn’t reduced to nothing but that. She was awesome in her own right, and just happened to progressively fall in love with a philosophical zombie over the course of the book.
Also, show how falling in love affects the characters. It should induce some sort of development, be it through them learning something, redeeming their status as a total evil asshole by showing they really can care about another human being, saving them from mental collapse, making them level up and grow in some way. And hopefully a positive way, because these things too often end up in dodgy territory (especially the love stories within YA urban fantasy? I have yet to figure out why positive portrayals of negative relationships are associated with that market so much. I digress). Make the love story a good and happy thing, something people can get warm fuzzies about in the midst of all the other emotions the story brings on.
Another hugely important factor is actually making sure your characters would fall in love. Without some degree of compatibility and chemistry shown to the audience, how can you expect them to believe it when they get (or rather, are put) together at the end? If they even do get together… a la the aforementioned Iron Man, you could merely leave it as speculation and implication while not discrediting friendship, something Pacific Rim pulled off beautifully. Often stories take place over short amounts of time, especially movies, and without chucking the ‘love at first sight’ lever (which, as aforementioned, is pretty silly and unbelievable in most cases) it’s pretty hard to believe that people would become sufficiently enamoured to have the big ‘happily ever after’ climax without getting to know each other that well first.
And most importantly, if there isn’t place for a love story, don’t put one in. They do not suit every genre or adventure, we’ve just come to expect them in everything. Be daring. Be different. Don’t degrade an entire gender by introducing the only female character to be arm/eye candy. Don’t increase already prevalent hatred for two-dimensional love interests that detract from the plot. Do not do the thing if the thing is not going to fit into and have a decent impression on the story. Otherwise, you’re just using up screen or page time you could fill with so much more cool stuff. Like explosions. I’d rather watch explosions than a tacky, forced love story.