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I've recently been researching and discussing characters and character roles, mostly off the back of feedback on a romance story that described the "love interest" (if that is the correct literary term?) of my protagonist as "flat, uninteresting, where no one would care if they lived or died, death would be better because they wouldn't be so boring".

Whilst I understand that "character roles" in fiction are quite prescriptive and that following the rules verbatim yields a technically accurate and flat story, I also understand that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

So after a heated debate on love interests in novels, I would like to know if there any literary guidance for creating a "love interest"? Is it different for male, female, bi-sexual, British, American, young, old etc?

Within the guidance, are there any stereotypes other than "tall, dark and handsome"? For example, it's widely accepted in the western market that the male love interest is strong, dark and mysterious, including a long list of examples such as Edward Cullen, Tony Stark, Mr Darcy, any Hugh Jackman character and that 50 shades of grey mush that I actually can't stand but can't deny the reception.

Nowadays, this is borderline cliché, there must be more love interests out there over and about "tall, dark and handsome" right? If so what?

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Are you sure that that criticism came from someone who actually likes romance novels? I ask because "flat, uninteresting and no one would care if they lived or died, death would be better because they wouldn't bore me so much" seems to describe every character in a genre romance novel to anyone who is not a reader of romance novels.

The whole definition of genre, it seems to me, is that is accepts without question or establishment, a set of propositions about character, setting, and plot. In essence that it guarantees the reader certain things and in exchange asks the reader to take certain things as read so that it can get on with delivering the goods with messing about. The result is that it provides a very quick and easy fix to those addicted to its particular formula, and that it bores the rest of the reading public to tears.

So if you were showing formula romance to someone who is not an addict of formula romance, "flat, uninteresting and no one would care if they lived or died, death would be better because they wouldn't bore me so much" is pretty much exactly the response you should expect, just as it would be with formula fantasy, for instance, to someone who is not an addict of the genre.

For a mainstream character, on the other hand, the rule seems pretty simple. This is a real person who falls in love. We fall in love because we are incomplete, lonely, afraid, and desperately in need of physical and emotional support. Lovers are not (as the erotic fantasy would have us) two strong brilliant independent people coming together for mutual erotic satisfaction. We need someone because we are desperately lonely and sad when we are alone. Love is loneliness responding to loneliness. It is the particular quality of a character's loneliness that evokes our sympathy and our hope, and which engage us in their matrimonial prospects.

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I'm sorry that someone gave you feedback like that. Critique and feedback is supposed to be constructive, and help you improve and frankly, that person sounds rude. Perhaps there is more context there, but if I were you I would not dwell too long on that person's comments.

To address the actual issue, let's work on the assumption that there is a problem with your love interest character, though that's not necessarily the case.

I'm not sure you're approaching it from the right angle. 'Love Interest' may be this character's role, but it should not be the be all and end all of their character. They need to be a character in their own right, with desires, flaws and quirks. Thinking of them only as a 'love interest' is probably why you're getting stuck in the cliches, especially 'tall, dark and handsome'.

So, I would recommend doing normal character development for this character, forgetting for a while that they are the love interest. You might want to start with an archetype - pick one of the enneagram types as a starting point for your character. You can see summarised descriptions of these here (this is my site) https://www.novel-software.com/enneagramcharacterarchetypes

Then you could answer the following questions:

  • What does the character want?
  • What does the character need?
  • What is the character's flaw?
  • What are some of their postitive traits?
  • What are some of their negative traits?
  • What are their fears / phobias?
  • What is their life philosophy / motto?

A few more comments... While cliches exist, I don't think that character roles are necessarily that prescriptive - you can follow the cliches if you want, but plenty of people don't and you'll find plenty of examples of love interest roles that aren't dark and mysterious. There are lots of love interests who are blonde, grinning, goofy, witty. Admittedly, they are rarely short... But male love interests in particular can get away with not even being traditionally handsome in some cases (though of course it helps).

Is it different for male, female, bi-sexual, British, American, young, old etc?

Yes. But each of these is only a single factor in the tapestry that makes up the character, it is not their only feature, which defines their character, and there will be overlap between these profiles.

it's widely accepted in the western market that the male love interest is strong, dark and mysterious, including a long list of examples such as Edward Cullen, Tony Stark, Mr Darcy, any Hugh Jackman

I think this list is interesting, in that these characters are actually quite different, especially Tony Stark, who I don't think of as dark and mysterious at all. He's funny and quirky. Edward Cullen is brooding, I suppose, and Mr Darcy is certainly understated, so I guess you could say he's mysterious in a way. But think of any character played by Matthew Mcconaughey when he still did rom coms before his mcconaughaissance into epic actor.

I hope that's some help.

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Usually if the love interest is uninteresting, it's because the author isn't very interested in him or her as a character. There's any number of (often quite successful) books and movies where the love interest is basically a symbol, or a object, or plays a functional role in the story but doesn't have any inner life of his or her own.

It seems to me that going down an enumerated list of "attractive" traits is exactly the wrong way to solve this --if it needs to be solved. It may be that your story doesn't required a fully realized love interest for one reason or another. But if that's not the case, you need to create a character you actually find interesting --and NOT just because that person matches your own mental list of for a dream girl or boy. An interesting love interest would be interesting even if he or she wasn't the love interest.

Consider the love interest in Almost Famous. What makes her compelling is that she has her own story arc, even including a love interest of her own (that is not the main character). Her story basically stands alone without his. That's a lot of what makes her so attractive to the main character (a thinly disguised stand-in for the writer) and in turn to us, the viewer.

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When a critic says that one of your characters would be better off dead, because they are so boring, I have the impression that this person's interest is not an impartial review or to help you develop your writing skills, but to put you down. Disregard anything that person says.


People are different. For that reason, you cannot create a love interest that everyone will find attractive.

When it comes to physical apperance, one trick I like as a reader and employ as a writer is to describe your love interest as little as possible. If you write that the love interest is tall, dark haired, and muscular, those that prefer normal-sized blond men with a cuddly belly will find him unattractive. But if you write that "he was strikingly handsome", everyone can project their own fantasies onto that blank and fall in love with their own imagination.

That is a strength of writing as opposed to movies: that everyone can imagine the love interest however they like.

Of course, sometimes your story requires specific traits, but keep them as general as possible and only describe as much detail as you must.

With this trick, you can keep the appearance of a character largely unspecified. But when it comes to his or her behavior, you must narrate it. And since attraction is not only to a person's appearance but to their behavior as well, here you cannot but dissapoint some of your readers. If a love interest is a macho, some will find that exciting, while others will be turned off. And the same goes for any kind of behavior.

Therefore the first rule, when you want to write an attractive character, is to write him or her however your protagonist would find it attractive. That way your story is logical and that is half your rent. The other half is simply pleasing yourself.

If you want to write a man who acts in a way that female readers are attracted to, write him so that you are attracted to him. And it doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman, gay or straight. Always – within the confines set by the requirements of your plot and the character of your protagonist – write the love interest so that you feel attracted to how they behave.

In practice, what you do is:

  • get in tune with yourself; stop rationalizing and feel who you are and how you are in this world; trust your emotions and your intuition; be yourself
  • get in tune with your story and its protagonist; know the setting, what must happen, and who the person is that goes through it; become that person in that world
  • observe what goes on and write it down
  • rewrite and polish

This, of course, is what you always do when you write. There is no difference between writing the love interest and writing anything else.

If your writing makes you feel what you want your readers to feel, then what you have written is good. It may lack some grammatical fine-tuning or stylistic polish, but the basic form is correct. Ignore what those say who are not your target audience.

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