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In a first-person narrative, how do you effectively make it clear to the reader that a second character likes your protagonist, before it dawns on the protagonist herself?

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  • Have you not read many romantic novels? Why isn't Barbara Cartland your go-to resource? – Robbie Goodwin May 6 '18 at 15:50
  • I don't actually write romance novels, I'm talking here about subtexts in other genres. I was asking because I'm looking for something more subtle than might be needed if romance is the whole drive of the plot. You're absolutely right though, I should check some out for reference. – FalseEpiphany May 7 '18 at 10:13
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Interesting.

In real life, it happens very often to some people that other people can see that someone is attracted to them, but they don't notice it, or they are afraid that what they think they see is not true.

In a first person narrative I see only three possibilities:

  • The viewpoint character sees the cues that someone sends who is attracted to them (so they narrate them), but they don't notice them (that is, they don't think about them) or they misinterpret them or (if that fits your tale) they interpret them correctly but are afraid to act on them because they think they are wrong.

    This method is a bit of a risk for you as the author, because you are relying on the reader to be perceptive enough to pick up the cues the attracted person is sending and to interpret them correctly. This won't work if your reader is one of the persons who don't notice this type of cue.

    You can certainly make the cues unmistakeable (Sarah told me that she wanted me to kiss her.), but if the character doesn't understand such obvious cues, this gives them a personality you may not want for your story. You'll have to play with the cues a bit to find out what works best for you.

  • Another option is to have the viewpoint character tell the story in retrospect. They are an omnisicent narrator in the sense that looking back on their lives they know what mistakes they made or how things turned out eventually. All you have to do for this is write in past tense and you can have the viewpoint character say things like: At that time I didn't notice it, but Sarah was sending me all these signals that she wanted me to approach her.

  • The third option is to not tell the story chronologically. Many thrillers or action novels start with narrating the moment immediately before the climax first, and then take the reader back to the beginning and show him how the characters ended up there (and possibly that the climax didn't turn out the end of the first chapter suggested). You can do the same in a love story. Just show some scene that lets the reader know the characters eventually get together (or fail at getting together or whatever your climax is), and then, with the reader knowing that romance will happen, take them back to when the viewpoint character didn't yet notice the interest of the love interest.

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  • I think I like the sound of misinterpretation. I'm happy to take the risk as in my experience so far with writing, you can trust the reader a lot. More in fact than I did when I first started out. I've even started enjoying it; relying on my readers to read into the text as much as they can. – FalseEpiphany May 7 '18 at 19:57
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There are many roads, all leading to Rome. So let's look at a few.

  • Cultural differences. If in her culture all men treat all women a certain way? If this guy is treating her like that, she'll attribute it to him just being a guy (nothing romantic about that).
  • All men in this culture treats her this way. It would stand out more, compared to the above situation. Only this time, it's more annoying because she isn't used to it.
  • Mixed signals. She just has no idea what to make of this guy. I mean, it was so sweet that he brought her flowers, but he offers flowers to a dozen girls where she can see(not exactly making her feel special, now is he). Or he offers to hold a door open (to him, he's being so chivalrous. to her it's mostly annoying because she now has to speed up to make sure he doesn't wait too long). This will usually play out as her telling one of her friends she just can't get a read on him.
  • "He's always like that." This is going to make so many guys roll their eyes so hard. But it's a fact that women study the guy she's interested in (or just studying people around her in general). If he's different with me than he is with everyone else, that's a sign (maybe good, maybe bad, but a sign). Enough signs and she'll start agonizing over the reason for them (doesn't mean she immediately understands)
  • Low emotional intelligence. It could just be that she is clueless as a general rule. She's great with her niche (Ask her to break into the pentagon, no problem. Ask her to explain what the person beside her is thinking and she'll only have guesses.)
  • Too busy to notice the signs. People like to think that all women are on a hair trigger for subtle cues regarding romantic attraction in all people around them. Fact is, many are completely clueless. This is why so many women (though most learn this sooner rather than later) hear from their friends who has a crush on them.
  • Low self-esteem. It's not that she doesn't see, she simply doesn't believe. "I mean, a cutie like that? Strong and upstanding and smart and so this and so that. Why would he be interested in me? I must be imagining it."
  • Doesn't want to see. "There are none so blind, as they who will not see." Something happened. It doesn't matter what, when, or why. Something happened,, and she simply never wants to go down that road again. So she ignores everything she can. And if someone forcefully brings it to her attention, she goes out of her way to sabotage it. This isn't happening, and even if it is, it won't survive long.

It all depends.

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Your protagonist would either have to be clueless ("why is he hanging around all the time?") or always find other explanations ("I guess he's interested in my room mate"), and quite likely both.

Obviously, this only works if the admirer doesn't approach her directly or act in a way strongly connected to romance. Flowers, for example, would be a pretty big clue and hard to ignore. And even then you could have him get cold feet and come up with some kind of alternative explanation. (For example, when invited to a party hosted by your protagonist, "My mom taught me to always bring flowers if I'm invited somewhere." While that seems a bit old-fashioned, it's still believable, but could later be contradicted by him not gifting flowers to someone else in a comparable situation.)

If he's nervous enough, he could deliberately send mixed signals, so that for some time, it's not entirely clear even to the reader whether he's interested in the protagonist or someone close to her (her sister, best friend etc.) That would make it easy for your protagonist to assume all his affections to be directed at someone else. If this other person is already in a relationship (and the admirer knows this), your protagonist could even judge him negatively for trying to break up said relationship. Maybe all her friends know what's going on and react accordingly (eye rolls, jokes, sarcastic agreement: "Yeah, he must have been so disappointed that Janet wasn't in today"), but it takes a while until one of them actually points out the obvious. If your protagonist is clueless enough, it might require several conversations until she no longer thinks they're the ones misreading the signs or alternatively joking.

You also could have the admirer act vastly differently (but not necessarily in a romantic fashion) when the two are alone and in a group. Maybe he always ignores her when there are others around, so when he talks to her when they're alone she thinks it's because he's bored and just needs someone to talk.

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