Characters and Romantic Relationships: Are They Always Necessary?
Last week, I was reading a young adult paranormal novel. It featured a group of small-town high school students discovering they might have supernatural powers. I liked that book because the plot was filled with exciting, well-paced twists and turns. The characters were as quirky as main characters in young adult novels could be, but they weren't the story's focus. Part of the way through one paragraph, I had to slam the book down in frustration. It had happened again.
The thing that had caused me disgust was the introduction of an obvious love interest in a book that did not need it. The main character's heart raced as she saw the mysterious newcomer, but I sighed. On one hand, I shouldn't have been surprised. Many young adult novels have romantic plot threads, even if the main plot had nothing to do with romance. On the other hand, I believed that this main character could have been the same person without one. Some of the side characters were already filling that romantic void. To me, it felt like the romance was editorially mandated. It was at this time that I began to wonder: why did most characters in media have legitimate or presumed love interests?
The Purpose of a Love Interest
A love interest is usually defined as a character that is mainly or entirely created to serve as a romantic partner for another character. This character may have a fleshed-out personality, or may have almost no personality of their own. It does not matter who the love interest is in love with or how the relationship begins. All that matters is that the love interest is in a relationship.
Love interests can help to flesh out characters and add a new dynamic to a story. In dark stories, love interests are able to bring levity. They can inspire fans to create interesting art and stories, getting the audience more interested in the characters. These characters help enforce the positive aspects of the character with whom they are in love. Popular love interests include Lois Lane from the Superman franchise, Theodore Laurence from Little Women, and the prince in a Disney movie.
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When Love Takes Over
Sometimes, love interests get put in places where they don't really need to be. TV Tropes defines this as a Romantic Plot Tumour. Romance becomes such a major part of the plot that the main plot is pushed to the sidelines. The story We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick, the movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, and the musical Rock of Ages all feature romantic plots that eventually override their main plots, consisting of science fiction, drama, and rock music, respectively. There are many more examples found in serialized works. Fans of the Harry Potter series or The Hunger Games trilogy debate about just how neatly the romantic elements of these series were incorporated into their plots. Many other stories have overpowering romance plots that take over their main plots; surely you can think of one.
Even when creators don't put their focus on romantic relationships, fans may latch onto these relationships. This can even occur when there is no canonical evidence for these couples existing. The relationship between Captain James T. Kirk and his scientific officer Commander Spock, while platonic in the show, was interpreted as some fans as more romantic than what was seen on the screen. When the show was first airing, interracial kisses could not be shown on television, so a romantic relationship between two males could definitely not be shown on screen. The fans were free to interpret the relationship in whatever way they wanted. Fans wrote collections of stories featuring these characters. The fans made them one of the most notable non-canon, unofficial, couples in media. It can be argued that Kirk and Spock is the pairing that solidified the idea of non-canon couples.
Another popular non-canon couple is the pairing of Jo March and Theodore "Laurie" Lawrence from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Though Jo and Laurie did date in an early part of the story, they broke up. Readers loved this couple. When the story was first released, readers would write to Alcott asking her to write a sequel so they could read about Jo and Laurie get married. The hundreds of demands for Alcott to marry the characters cased her to state, "I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody." She kept her word.
With so many problems for creators, is it possible to create a character that does not need a romantic relationship, and is never overtaken by the audience's expectations for them to find a partner? Yes.
Sheldon Cooper is one of the main characters in the TV show The Big Bang Theory. He is a doctor of physics with a straight-laced personality and inability to understand humour, irony, or humility. In an official poll on the show's website, Sheldon was found to be the most popular character with over half of the vote. The writers knew his popularity would help them bring in ratings, so, for the season three finale, they decided to give him a girlfriend.
The writers could have easily gone with a plot line where Sheldon sees a gorgeous bombshell and is completely infatuated with her, but they knew going that route would never fit Sheldon's character. Instead, they had Raj and Howard create an online dating profile for him as a prank. The dating profile finds them a match. After Sheldon is bribed to the date, he meets Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist with a very similar personality. Their stiff, formal language helps to offset the notion that this romance will be traditional, including phrases such as "aversion to soiled hosiery" and "buy you a beverage".
Sheldon's reaction to his new relationship is one of confusion. While he clearly enjoys Amy's company, he rarely engages in physical contact with her. He actually seems extremely uncomfortable with physical contact. The majority of his contact is something he doesn't realize is sexual. Amy adapts to the relationship much faster. While she supports and cares for her boyfriend, she is more than Sheldon in a female body. She isn't as interested in nerdy pop culture and is more interested in physical contact. Though she often gets impatient with Sheldon's ignorance, she understands the immense value their relationship provides.
This relationship caused Amy to be one of the fan's favourite females. It has provided plenty of new comedic and dramatic possibilities without sacrificing the character's personality. Amy has a place of her own in the cast, having a clearly defined personality and interesting dynamic with the characters. This relationship proves that characters getting a romantic relationship does not spell death for the rest of the plot, and in fact, can add to the plot. The writers proved that while romantic relationships aren't always necessary, when care is taken, romantic relationships can work for almost any character.
© 2015 Molly Layton