What makes a good fictional romance?

You know what I think is really hot when it comes to romance?

Actually getting to know each other.

I know, crazy, right?

I’m no expert on romance, but I do enjoy a good love story.  I almost never read books whose main plot is romance (only when forced), but I do love a good side romance.  I especially love reading teen science fiction or fantasy in which the main characters go on some kind of epic quest, and invariably end up falling for each other. Lately though, I’ve been finding a lot wrong with these narratives. Instead of warming my heart, they make me roll my eyes.*

I’m annoyed because almost all these relationships are described in such urgent physical terms.  The main character felt “instant electricity” upon touching his/her hand, or felt her heart “explode in anticipation” every time she spotted her beloved, or had a “desperate yearning for his/her touch,” all of which inevitably led her to do rash things in the name of “love.” We get it…you feel strongly about this person…but maybe, just maybe, you should hold off pledging your undying loyalty and doing things that could get you killed for your “love” until after you’ve already gotten to know that person?

Before I go any further, I just want to say that I understand that crushes can make you feel some pretty extreme things.  I’ve had my fair share of obsessions that make me feel tingly all over, and I’ve definitely felt strongly drawn to people I find attractive.  I’m not objecting to the inclusion of these powerful physical cues; I’m objecting to the fact that all relationships portrayed in teen fiction (and the movies) seem to be based solely on them.  I get that this is teenage fiction (and the movies) for a reason, but seriously can’t we do better than a deluge of desires, yearnings, explosions and collisions (to name a few)?

Maybe it’s just me, but I fall in love with the way he talks about the world, they way he can keep up with witty banter, the way that we never run out of things to talk about (and when we finally do, lapsing into a silence that is comfortable NOT because we feel a deep inexplicable connection to each other, but because we’ve already gotten to know each other so well), the way that we’re always on the same page in terms of values, the way we can hang out for days and never get bored of each other, the way he listens, and most importantly the ways in which he is a real, unique person and not someone who is obsessively selfless and continually focused on me (looking at you, romance novels).  These things cannot be inferred from a smooch or caress.  Once I’m sure I know I love him and not just the way he turns me on, that’s when I’ll confess my love.

Maybe you don’t fall in love with those same things, but I’d argue that if you have a lasting love, it didn’t stick around just because of the way he makes you shiver when he touches you.  Years later, you don’t feel waves of happiness crashing into you and threatening to overwhelm your very being every time he kisses you. So there must have been something else that made you stay in love. Something else that made you realize, hey this person is unique, and that’s why I need to be with him or her.

All I’m asking is that we see at least a little glimpse of that “something else” in those books and movies.  It doesn’t have to be much. Even just a minute of banter at the beginning of a love story increases its plausibility astronomically.  Or how about a montage of conversations?  Or having more than just a “my mom died” story before a kiss?

Instead, what we usually get are these “cute” montages of a guy chasing his giggling love interest around the meadow, periodically grabbing her to plant a kiss; then both of them screaming as they hold hands on a roller coaster; then pumping their fists in the air while dancing at a concert.  Don’t get me wrong, those things are super fun, but how do you build a lasting love around things you’ll probably only repeat a handful of times in your life?* Are you just going to giggle, scream and dance your feelings to each other forever?

It gets even worse because when these montages end, there’s always a scene full of platitudes like “You’re the kindest, most amazing and intelligent person I’ve ever met.” How could you know that just from a romp in an apple orchard??  You’re telling me your other dates were that dissimilar to the one you just had?  How did her giggling or his smiling distinguish him or her that much from any other person you’ve dated? Really?

One book that addresses my concerns particularly well is Ella Enchanted. It’s a very popular book, adored by people not just because of the love story.  Excellent writing, feminist stance, and diversity-friendliness aside, the love story is damn good.  SPOILERS AHEAD SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT: When Prince Char finally confesses his love for Ella, we see why.  He loves her because she’s funny–believable because she’s made him laugh multiple times.  He loves her because she’s intelligent–believable because he’s seen her knack for languages.***  In turn, she realizes she loves him because of his kindness and goodness–believable because we’ve seen him be generous and polite throughout.

Right now, we are in an age where we are trying to undo the damage that Hollywood and the media have wrought upon our minds. We’re trying teach our children that beauty and worth is more than skin-deep.  That love is more than attraction.  That the “one” might not be someone you’ve always been attracted to. That sex is something you should engage in with someone only when you know what you’re getting into.  With that in mind, is it so much to ask that fictional characters get to know each other just a bit?


NOTE: This particular tirade is brought to you by my strong reaction to the book Shatter Me  by Tahereh Mafi, which I picked up not for the promise of romance, but for a cool premise (this girl kills anyone she touches. whoa.). Instead, I got a story of this girl who feels a crazy strong emotion toward this boy from page 2 to the final page.  At least I think she does. I had to skip about a hundred pages in the middle because I couldn’t stand it.

*Maybe it’s because I’m a non-teen reading teen literature, but I still think that we deserve to have it stepped up a level or two.

**This is probably why The Bachelor(ette) has such a high rate of failure.

***In the interest of full disclosure, I believe he also says he’s loved her ever since he first saw her, but I excuse it…even if it wasn’t love back then, it sure is by the time he confesses it.


3 thoughts on “What makes a good fictional romance?

  1. codeinfig says:

    how about a romance where one of the people in the story is autistic and actually gets the girl? adam has a happy ending sort of, we can smile that adam is finally living and totally alone. i feel like his character was setup.

    theres a trope in films where the one black guy dies, often within the first half of the film. it would be nice to see a black guy live, not be the “silent hero” offering folk wisdom and inspiration to the main character, and not getting martyred as usual (forrest gump, the matrix, countless others.) and it would be nice to see an autistic romance that ends in happiness for a couple, not just two former lovers.

    realism is important of course, so it probably wont be all sunshine and happiness, but i dunno, maybe if all the drama isnt around the autism, since neuro-typicals have/cause drama too.

    just an idea that probably isnt going to get snatched up by any competition soon. adam came so close.

    1. seasaltandvinegar says:

      Yes, I agree completely! We need more of all of these types of stories. No matter the disability or “atypical” (i.e. atypical for Hollywood) trait, the films always seem to focus solely on that one dimension. You can’t have a main character who gets a storybook ending, you can’t have someone in a wheelchair who lives a happy life, and there’s no way Adam can keep the girl.
      Once again, you’ve hit on a much deeper (and arguably much more important) issue than what I’ve written about. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

      1. codeinfig says:

        “Once again, you’ve hit on a much deeper (and arguably much more important) issue than what I’ve written about.”

        dont undersell yourself– starting conversations can be the hardest part. and keeping them going is no small thing either.

        you do well at both. ive talked to a lot of people online, in various mediums since the mid 90s– in irc, on blogs, in other comment threads, forums, social media–

        you give some of the best feedback-on-feedback of anyone, consider it not only a compliment but a personal strength. good luck with it.

        incidentally i read your most recent entry, and its probably full of good points sitting right under your nose. at least i thought so– you wrote it, try reading it in few days 🙂 its good.

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