Thursday, May 12, 2016

Chemistry of Romance - 4 Rules for a Good Love Story

Which rule is most important to you?

Love is one of the most common subjects in all genres of narrative art. And as it is with common subjects, there are good love stories and bad ones. Furthermore, I believe that the romance genre is especially vulnerable to overdoing: If there's too much violence in an adventure story you can just roll your eyes and go on; yet if a love story is too cheesy it's really hard not to throw up.

So what can we do to spare our audience the need for vomit bags? Here are some thoughts on this question.

Clichés: Good or Bad? 

My personal love story trauma is the movie Waterloo Bridge from 1940. And I can take much, actually. I generally enjoy romance anime, I love the movie Désirée (1954) as well as the original novel by Annamarie Selinko and I love shipping fictional characters. I generally like love stories. However, watching Waterloo Bridge was a torture. I hated the story, I hated the characters, and most of all I hated their relationship. I know the movie was made at a time when people had other ideals concerning love, but I still couldn't help but think that Roy is an a****** and Myra a stupid cow without a noteworthy personality. From the very beginning of the movie I wanted them to die, and when Myra threw herself under a bus I was genuinely happy her miserable and annoying existence finally ended.

The problem with Waterloo Bridge is that both characters are personified clichés as it's really hard to feel for characters who don't feel like actual people. The relationship of these two clichés was, logically, a trite cliché as well. And how is one supposed to like a story so annoyingly stereotypical?

I believe there aren't many people who would argue with me if I say that too many clichés are deadly for a love story. However, clichés aren't bad per se. One of my favourite love stories ever, Tipsys sonderliche Liebesgeschichte (Tipsy's Odd Love Story) by Else Hueck-Dehio is swamped with them: Tipsy is a lively, innocent girl, her love interest is much older than her and a handsome womanizer, and after an extremely awkward (and hilarious) incident he thinks she was sent to him by God and proposes to her. The difference between Waterloo Bridge and Tipsy is that Waterloo Bridge is deadly serious (literally, since it ends with suicide) while Tipsy is cute, light-hearted and very funny. If someone tells me they don't like Tipsy's Odd Love Story I would totally understand, but for me the great difference to Waterloo Bridge is that it uses clichés to convey positive emotions and its main purpose is to make the reader feel good. No more, no less. As for Waterloo Bridge, however, trying to tell a dramatic story of an oh-so-great love by using clichés should be considered a mortal sin.

So here's rule number one:
If you use clichés in a love story then do it wisely and carefully.

Unconventional Ideas

When I started working on this post I naturally asked myself which is the best love story I know. Weirdly, the first thing that came to my mind isn't a love story at all. ... Well, it is, but ... Maybe I should just give a summary: She suffers from dissociative personality disorder, he regularly plays the organ at her insane asylum to make some extra money. Switching between three personalities, she also sees different personalities in him and randomly calls him by different names. He feels a platonic love for one of her personalities, the dreamy Isabelle who enjoys drinking the moon, as she seems like a counterbalance to the madness he experiences in his life, having been a soldier in World War I, suffering from the inflation of the 1920's and witnessing the beginning of the nationalistic movement in Germany.

The novel I'm talking about is The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque. What's so special about this relationship about which you can argue whether it's love or not, since it exists only because of a mental disorder, is that it's very unconventional. It's the exact opposite of Waterloo Bridge and Tipsy. It's something unexpected, something impossible to fully understand and thus very interesting and engaging.

And with this, we have rule number two:
You can't do anything wrong with unconventional ideas (as long as you execute them properly, of course).

The Characters and Their Interaction

As mentioned above, I generally enjoy romance anime (and manga). Yes, the typical romance anime is all about clichés, but many of them fall in the enjoyable "cute, light-hearted and funny" category. Moreover, one reason why I like anime in general is that they usually have very fleshed-out characters and great, touching character development. For example, Maid Sama! is about Misaki, the first female student council president at a school which used to be an all-boys school until recently and where girls are a minority. She dislikes men, since her father abandoned the family, and she works hard to improve the situation of the girls at her school, often even too hard which makes her look like a dictator from the perspective of the boys. Since her family is poor, Misaki works after school in a maid café which she keeps a secret, fearing it would hurt her reputation as student council president.

Then there's Usui, a popular student from her school who is an illegitimate son of a noble English family. When he discovers Misaki's secret he keeps it for himself and becomes a regular guest at her maid café. He teases Misaki and she dislikes him at first, but as he keeps helping her she slowly grows on him, and it's mainly thanks to his influence on her that she starts to respect the interests of the boys at her school as well.

The story and the characters are full of clichés, but at the same time there's also much "flesh" on them. Misaki's conflict plays a major role in the story, she goes through character development and becomes a better person. As for Usui, he's even more stereotypical than the protagonist, being the embodiment of almost every girl's dream boyfriend, yet his interaction with Misaki makes him likeable nonetheless. As we see him mostly from Misaki's perspective, he is a major cause for emotions and Misaki's development which makes him the main driving force in the story.

Formulating rule number three, we have:
Fleshed-out characters make a better love story, but characters can also help each other to shine.

The Role of the Medium

Not every story works with every medium. However, while stories that are perceived passively (novels, comics, movies, story-driven games) usually can be transferred to another medium it's much harder to make a movie or a series out of a role-playing game (RPG). A finished story is a finished story, and when you transfer it to another medium you can still mess it up by ignoring the specifics of the target medium, but you'll still have the story, even if it's told badly. In an RPG, however, there are multiple ways how a love relationship can develop, and often these ways are rather boring.

For example, in the Fable series you can marry almost every non-player character (NPC) just by having some nice interaction with him or her. Talk to them, dance with them ... and within a few minutes they'll be in love with you. You may have some unscripted story with them, like the NPC being your favourite shopkeeper or something, but this is a story existing only in your head, since your interaction isn't any different from your interaction with other NPCs.

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim there are only a few NPCs who will fall in love with you, and you'll have to do something for them. Some of them only need a friendly brawl with you, some will fall in love with you after you help them with their business, some will fall in love with you after you perform an assassination for them ... Brelyna Maryon, the wife of my stealthy mage character Dar'ajar, fell in love with him after he served her as a guinea pig for her magic practise. Apart from being a possible marriage candidate these NPCs can be also possible followers and possible trainers. So, to some extent marriageable NPCs are different, and they also say different things to express their love for you. However, in the end they're still all the same: They will all open a shop after you marry them and give you a share of their income, they will cook you a meal once a day, they will provide you with the Lover's Comfort bonus if you sleep in the same room as them, you can ask them how the kids are ... and that's it. In the end, every marriage in Skyrim is the same. If there's a unique and touching love story, for example, how Dar'ajar asked Brelyna to accompany him on his adventures, how they brilliantly worked together, how she regularly saved him from wild animals, how he gave her flowers and expensive gifts and how they literally stole a horse together ... If there's such a love story it exists only in the player's head. There isn't an option to give your beloved a flower except for saying you need to trade some things with her. It won't raise her affection for you. She won't even thank you. If you ask her to wait and she says to you: "Just don't forget about me", and you tenderly reply: "I won't", she won't hear it, since there isn't such a dialogue option and what you say to your screen doesn't matter in the game. You really need imagination if you don't want to feel like you're courting an emotionless machine (which you actually do). But if you do have it love stories in such games can be beautiful. You just need to be active yourself and not expect someone else to tell you the story.

However, not all RPGs are like this. Unlike the other two examples, the Witcher series has a fleshed-out protagonist, and in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt the player can choose between two love interests. Since my computer wouldn't run the game I can only speak from what I've heard from others and seen on YouTube, but it looks like depending on which love interest the player chooses the story will be different, as there are different things that connect the protagonist to the two potential love interests.

While The Witcher generally isn't about romance and offers only two options there are actually games that are all about choosing a lover from a whole cast of characters and experiencing a love story unique to this character. What I'm talking about are otome games most of which are visual novels and thus ... not really games. Most of the time you'll spend reading a prose text accompanied by pictures of the characters showing different emotions in front of different backgrounds, occasional illustrations for certain scenes, often with music and even voice-acting. Occasionally the player will have to make choices that will affect the story, increase (or decrease) a character's affection or both. What's remarkable about these games is that most of them are made in Japan and some of them are adapted as anime. The main characteristic of anime based on otome games is usually a cast of handsome and very fleshed-out male characters with deep conflicts and complicated background stories and a shallow, passive and boring female protagonist. What such anime adaptations do wrong is that they adapt the protagonist from the game. While in the game the female character is meant to be faceless, so the player can imagine herself in her place, such a lack of personality is unforgiveable in linear storytelling. Even if one can argue that Usui from Maid Sama! is stereotypical he still has a personality, he's active and causes emotion. The protagonists of otome games, however, don't do anything but witness the events and dig in the personalities of their potential love interests. Which is fun, actually. Personally I really enjoyed Hakuouki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. My love interest had a very well-written storyline and both the good ending and the bad one made me cry. My character didn't feel passive as I played her, since I made important decisions, knowing that a wrong decision could result in my own or my love interest's death. I actually could feel the deep connection between my love interest and my player character who did her best to help and protect her beloved. In the anime the core element of making decisions and being active is missing and the protagonist seems rather useless. She just follows her love interest around, witnesses his battles, doesn't really do anything and it's hard to understand why he loves her: The protagonist doesn't have a personality, we don't see much of her struggle and so the interaction between the two lovers seems rather poor. And while I actually did enjoy every single episode of the Hakuouki anime (based on historical events, much fighting and bloodshed and a cast full of handsome samurai - can a woman ask for more?) I believe the game is better, because the story was developed for interactive and not linear storytelling.

So before I get carried away by my fascination of interactive storytelling completely here's rule number four:
Always consider the specifics of the medium through which you intend to tell a love story. This especially applies to the differences between interactive and linear storytelling.

These are the four rules for creating love stories I can think of right now. Do you have ideas for more? Which rule is most important to you? Tell me in the comments!

Feael Silmarien


  1. I recently discovered "chicklit" and discovered--after disavowing romance novels in my teens--that some of them can be touching and funny and highly entertaining. But again, in spite of the story lines being humorous, the characters feel like fully-fleshed, real people. I find that "funny" goes a long way with me. "Explicit" has me running for the door. Cliches--ahhh, I can take them, if the story is a nice one--but what I cannot take is an overload of adjectives and adverbs; the hallmark of a Newbie writer. (Only John Bellairs did florid adverbs and adjectives properly in "The Face in the Frost"; which is to say, charming and enchanting.)

    I think the story is everything, when it gets right down to it.

    1. Urgh, an overload of adjectives and adverbs is a perfect example of "show, don't tell" done wrong. Metaphors work much better. This surely deserves more attention: the importance of a good execution (i.a. writing style). A poor execution really can destroy everything.
      As for the story being everything, I think you have a point here. Scanning my post, I noticed that every "rule" I mentioned is about story. So the main rule would be rather simple: Just make the story good.


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