Love stories in literature continue to be some of the most enduring. They’re not limited to one particular genre or set up. While some, like a meet-cute, can make you feel warm and fuzzy, others make you weep and ugly-cry with grief and some love stories make you feel sick, worried and rooting for its untimely demise.
So what’s the hardest thing about writing about love? How do you make the readers care about whether the characters’ romance comes together or happens at all? In this On Writing instalment, Jo Platt talks us through how she makes her readers fall in love with her characters’ love stories.
How do you keep the reader rooting for your characters?
Well first and foremost, by rooting for them myself. A happy ending never feels like a foregone conclusion for me as I write, and I like to include at least the possibility of an alternative ending, for example when a character misses a crucial opportunity to reveal their feelings, or when another potential love interest enters the narrative. So I’m just as eager to see how things work out for my characters as everybody else is, and I hope that my own curiosity and enthusiasm transmits to the reader.
Also, of course, it’s important for my protagonists to be relatable and ultimately likeable. I say ultimately because I’m not always presenting them at their best. As the novel opens, they may be at a professional or personal low, and miserable characters aren’t particularly engaging or sympathetic. I counter that problem by encouraging the reader to judge them, in part at least, by their friends and family. If a character is surrounded and loved by emotionally intelligent, interesting people, that reflects well on the character themselves, even if when they’re first introduced they’re wallowing in self-pity, or drowning in cynicism. It gives them collateral, hinting at what they were and what they could be again, and making them attractive by association while we’re waiting for a better them to shine through. It helps to make them a character for whom, from the off, everybody is keeping their fingers tightly crossed.
How do you avoid clichés and keep narratives fresh?
I don’t think I make a conscious effort to avoid clichés. After all, some clichés are simply tried, tested and rather beautiful truths, aren’t they? But I do make an effort to keep characters and situations as real and relatable as possible. Hopefully this avoids things becoming unsubtle or trite.
With keeping things fresh in mind, I am aware that I read comparatively few romantic novels. Again, I’m not sure that this is a conscious choice on my part, but I do feel that focusing too much on what others are writing, or what is popular, in your chosen genre isn’t always helpful. Just tell your own story, in your own way.
And do keep your eyes and ears open: fresh narratives are all around you! People meet and fall in love in a thousand different ways and all you need is a starting point. I had a friend who met her (eventual) husband through a newspaper personal column and then framed his ad and hung it in the hallway, where it has remained for the last twenty years. Another realised she was in love with her friend of many years only when he said he was thinking of moving to the other end of the country. And my mother seduced my father by slamming a door in his face. These are just three of so many beginnings which have caught my interest, and which as an author I can transform and make my own, twisting the histories and shaping the characters. The possibilities and permutations are endless.
What is your favourite love story?
My own, of course. It’s thirty years long and still ongoing.