This article was written specifically to YA fantasy writers. That said, its main takeaway is applicable to any romance writer out there!
Our genre is a ripe ground for romance. What better spot to plan an angsty love story than against the backdrop of your epic fantasy world? What better subplot to weave into your rich intrigue and battles? I don’t think it’s too far to say that romance is an expected element in fantasy, however small it be. But when something becomes expected, often what follows is a lack of development… and the love interest is no exception.
Your love interest needs personality. I cannot stress this enough. When romance enters as a subplot rather than the main drive, as typically occurs in fantasy, it’s easy to gloss over the second party’s developmental stage. You need a personality? No big deal. Start with some wish-fulfillment, add a heavy dose of bad-boy allure, and you’ll be good to go.
I see two main strands that form a cliché love interest.
The first springs from the author’s desire to create his/her dream crush. This creates a surpassingly beautiful character who elicits a sensation of toothache in discerning readers.
To be clear, I’m not against handsome men or women in the least. I write them. The difference between a handsome and a too-handsome character is simple: the perfection of a too-handsome character is shoved upon you until you are internally screaming, “Yes, I know he’s flawless! Why, exactly, does she have a special intoxicating scent that follows her everywhere? I know her skin looks like sun-kissed honey without one oversized pore! What am I looking at, a cosmetics ad?”
Please, for the sake of my nerves, do not describe a potential love interest’s appearance as flawless. Unless, perhaps, it’s through the eyes of an obsessed teenager who doesn’t know better, in which case the truth should be made apparent shortly. The fact is, perfect people are so unrealistic that not only is it unpleasant to read about them, it’s much harder to give them a decent personality.
Which brings us to the second strand I was talking about…
After crafting their melting, swoon-worthy piece of perfection, authors must create a personality to match. Witty, sarcastic, dangerous characters are a hit, so thither you’d better gravitate. Gentle characters, especially if female, are weak and wimpy and better left alone. The love interest must certainly be a weaponry expect, very likely live in perpetual annoyance at the stupidity of the mortals around them, and are full of force-fed backstory.
For reasons, it’s also common fodder for the love interest to be linked to the villain by blood.
Is any of this, objectively, bad?
Aside from the disturbing concept of gentle = wimpy? No.
No, as long as you treat it right. And the problem is, many people don’t.
The issue with this perfect-sarcastic-jerk lover trope comes when the sarcastic jerk part isn’t dealt with.
It creates a mindset that beauty is the most important thing in a relationship, and things like abrasiveness, sourness, anger issues, are just trivial details that don’t matter.
Because hey, spoiler: they do matter. A kiss will not make everything eternally right between the two characters, grumpy guy will not become an angel on the spot, grouchy girl will not be just fine now that she has someone who “understands” her. It can help, immensely, to know that someone is there for you, but people don’t change overnight. And if your MC wants to spend the rest of her life with a rude, permanently broody control freak, your MC might want to rethink her priorities.
The physical experience of falling in love only lasts a matter of months. Real love entails loyalty, commitment, sacrifice, selflessness. If that’s not evident in your book relationship, it better not be portrayed as healthy.
Spins on the love interest trope:
Make him/her a plain character. You don’t have to go for disfigured or ugly, although those are perfectly good options. Barely anybody has a face modeled like the classic Greek statues, but few of us are dull or ugly either. Most of us have at least one point of beauty about our person. I have a friend with a beautiful heart-shaped face. I have another whose turn of her mouth is exquisitely shaped. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry is perceived by herself and most others as homely, but when she happens to remove her glasses, Calvin O’Keefe tells her, “You've got dream-boat eyes. Listen, you go right on wearing your glasses. I don't think I want anybody else to see what gorgeous eyes you have.”
So maybe it’s your character’s eyes that are stunning. Maybe his smile. Maybe her nose. Go for it. Make your character unique, a little off-balance, and your readers will love him all the more.
Choose a shy, backwards, or conflict-avoiding kind of personality rather than the usual smack of sass.
If you’d rather keep your vinegar-tongued person alive, use the personality to good ends. Actions should bring about consequences.
Anger should create discord, which makes the reader uncomfortable. Discord can lead to disasters which leads to guilt.
Sarcasm and insults can lead to real hurt, which makes the reader sad. Real hurt can lead to retaliation and/or separation.
Bitterness can lead to prejudice, which sends warning signals to the reader. Prejudice can lead to impulsive decisions that create irrepairable division and danger.
And that’s really but a sampling of the options ahead of you.
So your love interest needs personality, beauty-in-moderation, redeeming qualities, and subjection to the law of cause-and-effect. Not a tall order or anything.
But here’s the most important tip: don’t worry about anything I just said. Just make a person.
Make your person.
And when you’ve made a person, the rest will have taken care of itself.
And preferably don’t just grab a lipstick advertisement and roll.