Faith here! I don’t know about you, but I have a horrible time writing romance. Either I have a fully fleshed out hero and a bland love interest, or a kick-butt heroine and a man flatter than a crepe. This always perplexed me. If I could bring one character to life, why not two?
For example, when I was into fanfiction, I had a great character named Scorpius Malfoy. Readers praised him for being extremely lifelike. But his love interest, Rose Weasley, was criticised for having a flat arc and being too much like her mother (even though she was miles flatter than Hermione Granger. If you can measure flatness in miles).
I originally thought the problem was the women -- sorry, ladies, but I have trouble writing lifelike female characters, even though I’m a girl. But then I designed Erica Motley -- an awesome anti-heroine -- and her sidekick, Philip Snow, turned out to be one of the blandest characters I had ever come up with. I was perplexed. Philip’s brother was a much better character than he was. So what the heck was the problem?
Plot function was the problem. I designed Rose Weasley and Philip Snow as love interests. They were no more than plot puppets, with no other reason to live than to bring pleasure and conflict to the main character. Rose and Philip didn’t have goals. They didn’t have hopes, dreams, or a personality of their own. In fleshing out their SOs, I forgot to flesh them out as well.
In real life, anyone who lives only for their significant other quickly learns that people are not meant to be turned into gods. Sooner or later, there’s going to be conflict, heartbreak, and their true personality will emerge. This is good arc, but most people have a life outside their SO. Each person has their own plans, goals, and dreams. Occasionally, two people will join forces to work toward their dreams, but they might have very different ideas on how to get there. That’s the sort of conflict a SO should bring to a story. Forget the damsel in distress and the hero who gives up all his dreams to chase a girl he met in a bar.
So how can you make sure your character gets an arc instead of a straight line? Here’s a few tips for fleshing out your SO. (Not your real-life SO. Not much you can do about a flat real-life SO. Sorry.)
1. Stop thinking of her as an SO.
This can cause issues, because as soon as you start thinking of your SO as her own person, you might find out she doesn’t jive with your MC at all. Ordinarily, my contrived romantic plots fail. I’ve found that in the first draft, it’s better to design a group of fully fleshed out characters and just let them do their thing. If I’m lucky, a few might decide to fall in love.
If you’re more of a planner, you can still plan out your romantic arc. Just make sure that your lovers are both well rounded AND fully compatible. Otherwise you’re going to have a relationship that is (a) unrealistic or (b) just plain dysfunctional.
2. Give the SO/sidekick/whatever his own arc.
And unless this is a romance novel, his arc should not revolve around deciding whether Miss Athletic is better than Miss Brain. In fact, even romance novels should have arcs aside from romance. Maybe Mary Kane is set on making the college basketball team and James Blue is determined to win a horseback riding championship. Your characters might have different levels of ambition and perseverance, but their goals should be as important to them as the romance. After all, would you give up that horseback riding championship prize for someone you just met? Circumstances differ, but I bet you wouldn’t.
3. Give each character her own set of ideals and beliefs.
Although at first Mary and James might agree on everything, somewhere they’ll disagree on something. It could be anything from how to fold socks to how to run a family. We don’t spill out an itemized list of our beliefs as soon as we meet someone. If we do, and for some reason they don’t run away, you can bet there’s a sneaky ideal hiding somewhere that you don’t even realize you believe. Sooner or later, Mary and James are going to clash. Their fighting can strengthen the relationship or break it -- but for goodness’ sake, do not have Mary and James agree on EVERYTHING.
It’s okay if Mary and James fight for a while, too. You don’t have to resolve conflict by the end of each chapter.
4. Remember, relationships change.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this outside of a love triangle, but your lovers don’t have to end up together. In fact, they can go their own separate ways even if neither of them dies. Because we don’t download a copy of our friends’ brains as soon as we meet them, relationships fluctuate and change. You might find out your friend believes something you just can’t agree with. You might find out your SO loves kitten gifs more than you. (Life is harsh.)
People change over time -- your minor characters as much as your MC. Mary might decide basketball isn’t as important her her personal life -- or conversely, she might decide she can’t give up her dreams on a romantic whim. She might decide basketball isn’t for her, but only because she developed a new passion for soccer. James might develop an allergic reaction to horse hair. He might cheat in the championship, and Mary must decide if she can live with that. He could fall in love with someone else. Something horrible could happen to his family, causing him to forget Mary in his distress.
In real life, friends turn against each other and enemies decide to put their differences aside. It shouldn’t be any different in your stories.
5. Have the SO directly impact the plot.
Rose Weasley and Philip Snow were nothing more than sidekicks -- a character to call in to save the day when the MC got into trouble. They were mainly reactors. After all, how could they, humble plot puppets that they were, deign to interrupt the flow of the plot with their own choices and actions?
If your characters are worth their salt, each will have a direct impact on the plot. Rose actually took a step in this direction when she decided she couldn’t condone Scorpius’s plans and snuck after him to knock him out.
Hermione Granger is a great example from published literature. She isn’t any of the MC’s girlfriend until the last book, and throughout the series, she makes plot-changing decisions -- everything from unpuzzling a maze to brewing potions to kicking butt in battle. She eventually ends up with Ron, a character she routinely disagrees with throughout the series. In the epilogue, she’s still seen bickering with him. I haven’t read The Cursed Child, Rowling’s latest addition to the series, but I have no doubt she makes her own decisions in that story as well.
Buttercup from The Princess’ Bride is also a nice example. She leaps out of a boat in an attempt to escape kidnappers; she pushes her second kidnapper into a ravine; she helps fight off a Rodent of Unusual Size (sort of); she openly defies her fiance, Prince Humperdinck; and she is prepared to kill herself rather than marry him (which would have foiled his evil plot, although she didn’t know that. Also, I’m not saying this was a good idea). You could argue Buttercup does this all for love, but even so her spunky personality shines through. If you still think she’s merely a damsel in distress, clearly you have only seen the movie. Read the book.
Gale and Peeta are both SOs that refuse to let their love interest outshine them, even though Katniss narrates The Hunger Games. Peeta has his own agenda throughout the first game, including his temporary partnership with the Careers. Gale disagrees with Katniss on several fronts when it comes to politics and war. Although they are both in love with her, neither of them sacrifice personality for that.
Your characters deserve better than life as plot puppets. Give them the freedom to make their own choices, even if they end up royally screwing themselves over. In fact, all the better if they do.
What are your favorite examples of SOs that keep pace with their love interests? How do you make sure your SOs don’t descend into Flatland? Let me know in the comments!