Love stinks

I’m not really a romantic. Maybe I was, some time ago when I was young and naïve. Back in high school, I thought I had a pretty good grip on what “love” was (laugh with me) and it seemed solid and immutable. Now that I’m a jaded old hag, love is a tenuous and often distasteful concept. In real life, romance is an awkward, trial-and-error affair and in the movies it’s predictable and ridiculous. I don’t like characters who give up “everything” for love. I don’t like those “boy meets girl” stories. I don’t sympathize with Romeo and Juliet or Jack and Rose and I can’t stand the people from that blasted epitome of chick flicks, The Notebook. I don’t mind when characters are married, dating, sleeping together, or whatever (a lot of my characters are doing at least one of those things), but I can’t stand romantic ideals. I don’t believe people actually fall in love or “just know” or that anyone completes anyone. And now that I’ve said all this, I’m going to contradict myself.

If I’m going to write a story, I have to fall in the love with the characters.

Male, female, young, old, beautiful, ugly, villains, heroes, whatever. I absolutely have to love my main characters. Since my idea of love is sort of unstable/cynical/different from most people’s, maybe I should just say I have to want to spend time with them. I must want to spend hours and days and maybe years of my life writing their stories down. I have to get to know them, appreciate their flaws, let their emotional ups and downs affect me, and patiently try to figure out what they want and why. That seems similar to how real relationships are supposed to work.

That probably doesn’t sound like a bad thing. If I care about the characters, readers probably will too, right?

Wrong.

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s wrong. After all, I’ve read a lot of stories that didn’t draw me in. I’ve read books that people—sometimes even people I know—have spent years writing and I’ve remained unaffected. Someone cared about those characters and I didn’t give a damn about them, so I can only assume the same holds true for my own characters. So if loving your characters doesn’t guarantee other people will love them, what does it do?

In my case, it’s limiting. Since I love them all, they all have something in common. A lot of people have a “type,” right? We’re drawn toward different external and internal characteristics: blonde or brunette, optimistic or pessimistic, idealistic or realistic, Superman or Batman. And if you’re a hardcore Batman fan, how often can you bring yourself to care about Superman? If you love the Dark Knight’s moral ambiguity, will you appreciate the Big Blue Boy Scout’s sense of righteous justice?

As readers, watchers, and consumers, it’s natural that we have a type. We have favorite genres and subjects and as long as we’re not too stuck in a rut, that’s perfectly okay. However, even though no one has said this to me explicitly, it seems like we’re not supposed to have favorites as writers, makers, and producers.

Maybe the adage “kill your darlings” gave me this impression. Writers are constantly told to edit, chop, cut out anything that doesn’t belong in the story, even if we love it, and to keep or add things that do belong. Sometimes it’s a matter of cutting a paragraph you spent three hours crafting. Sometimes you end up killing a character you wish could’ve lived. Everyone hopes, I assume, that the story they love is also a good story. But can you write a good story you don’t love?

I couldn’t. When I don’t love my characters, it shows. One of the biggest challenges of my current project is disguising my disinterest in certain people, which is an especially daunting task given that the story depends so much on how readers feel about the characters. Sure, I love my main characters, but the antagonists? The minor characters? Can I evoke sympathy, hatred, or admiration for a character I don’t sympathize with, hate, or admire? If I can, I think I’ll have a damn good story. If I can’t, it’ll be an amateurish waste of space on my hard drive. No pressure.

My uncertainty extends beyond this project. Can I make my characters in different stories sufficiently distinct? Am I doomed to write the same characters over and over, just with different names and eye colors? Will their motivations and philosophies always be the same even if their genders or ethnicities are different? Or will I allow the events of the story to organically shape the characters into unique people?

Do you have to love your characters? Does writing a good book require some amount of distance and detachment? Can you break away from your favorite themes for the sake of story? Is that something I should be working toward? Am I way off the mark with this entire theory?

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3 comments on “Love stinks

  1. b.h.quinn says:

    I thought about this post for a few days because I wanted to make sure I understood what I was saying. I think, perhaps, that you may want to find your characters interesting instead of falling for all of them.

    Of course, I have characters who I completely adore, but like you said, that doesn’t work with everyone. What I think I’ve done is find something interesting in each of them that makes me want to know more. I need to be able to look at them and ask “Hm, why?” in some sense. That way I have a reason to keep writing, it helps to make them more realistic and relateable, and I still don’t have to like them. It doesn’t even have to be something important. I once had an antagonist who loved to knit, and I knew there had to be a reason why he did, but I didn’t figure it out until closer to the end of the story.

    So… maybe try to give your characters or find something already in their characterization or background that interests you? If you can find something that makes you want to keep “watching” them in your story, I think it’ll help you maintain the readers’ interest as well.

    • Carly says:

      I guess part of the problem for me is separating “interesting” and “appealing.” Maybe they’re not really similar and I just think they are? But I love the idea of leaving a little mystery in the characters. Lately I’ve been all about hammering out every little detail, but maybe if I leave some unfinished edges in the characters I don’t instinctively care about, they’ll be more interesting to me. Thanks for the advice!

      • b.h.quinn says:

        That would be an issue. I’ve always found despicable people to be fascinating because it just seems to be so much more work to me. I feel like it takes a certain mindset and background to truly be evil or cowardly.

        Perhaps you can look at characters in books you love who you’d find horrible if you were to write them into your story. Then try to find out what makes them intriguing in those stories. Trying to make them understandable and human in some small way helps. Developing characters for RPG’s can help, too.

        I do recommend leaving some things to chance. Once you have a good grasp of the character in your head, it might be wise to let them grow in your subconscious. That’s when they do those pleasantly surprising things.

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