Stories follow a familiar pattern because it works. When it comes to character archetypes, we have the Hero, Villain, Mentor, Ally, and Love in just about every story. Usually, the weakest of these is the Love. This is because in an adventure novel, the main story goal is not to “get the girl” (or boy as the case may be), which means your Love character will become the object of a subplot. This leaves less time available for pursuing the Love. Less time for the Hero to be rejected, overcome the rejections, and eventually win the Love.
As a result, romantic subplots usually feel unsatisfying because we get the sense that winning the girl (or boy) isn’t as important as defeating the villain. How many movies and books can you think of where obtaining the Love interest was way too easy, and seemed to just be tacked on at the end, like a bonus prize? Throw in some extra-marital romance, perhaps a kiss here and there, and this all adds up to cheapen love, rather than esteem it. Many books and movies bombarded us with the fantasy that “love is all you need”, but the “love” they speak of is NOT real love. It’s just the glossy icing on the cake, lacking the deep richness that true love actually renders.
“It is love that sustains romance, but our culture would have us believe it is the other way around, and that romance sustains love. We cannot perpetuate this myth in our stories.”
So many stories today want to pitch us the easy, cheap, and “free” kind of love which is just an imitation, a vapor that doesn’t last when divorced from its foundation, a foundation based on sacrifice; hard love.
For most young writers, I think they would be better off leaving out a Love subplot altogether. Pulling off a real, meaningful Love subplot that esteems the real deal is a difficult task. On top of that, it’s hard to write appropriate, believable, and positive examples of romance into your story. Even if your characters are married, for young writers, it can be difficult to pull this off.
However , this does not mean we should abandon love. We need stories that show what we are missing. We need stories with hard love. Therefore, for beginning writers, if you want to write a Love subplot, write one that doesn’t include any romance.
Here is a novel idea (no pun intended): why not write a love side-plot where the princess actually does go through and marry the good prince/man she doesn’t “love” for the good of the kingdom? And what if she actually seeks to do him good rather than being completely obsessed with her own desires? Not an ideal situation at all. This is hard! But what if through this sacrifice, she discovers that feelings of love can be cultivated, and that a much richer relationship is possible when we base it on hard love rather than easy love.
Or, why not write a subplot where the main character does what is best for the Love interest, sacrifices for her, rescues her and what have you, knowing full well he is not to end up with her. This is hard! Doing good has a reward, but it isn’t always what we want, or what we think it will be.
Write a subplot where the Hero, despite knowing he may lose his love because of it, protects her, and does what is best for her. In such a situation, the Hero may reason, “Is it really worth it to do the right thing? Both she and I want to do the wrong thing, the dangerous thing. Is doing the right thing worth losing her?” But he does the right thing anyway, and, just as he feared, she misunderstands his actions, and abandons him. This is hard; this isn’t fair! But this is Love!
Write a subplot where the Hero rescues his love from mortal danger, only to discover that she has betrayed him, and seeks his death. This is really hard! But this is what Christ did for us. This is love.
You could also display the opposite of these scenarios. Show your Hero doing the wrong thing, putting their own desires ahead of what would be good for the one they love, and show the terrible consequences that result. Show their motivation to be what it really was, not love, but selfishness.
Moving forward, if you do end up writing stories which include romance, writing stories first displaying love without romance can be good practice. It helps to develop the foundation that romance should be based on, which can lead to much more dynamic, meaningful, and impacting romantic plots and side plots in future stories.
Real love is serious business.
It can impact people down to their core, and reshape their understanding of the world. Instead, our culture seems content to write “cute” romances, which are shallow, and ultimately fake.
A word of caution:
It is important that, in our attempt to esteem the hard love by displaying our Hero doing the right thing and not “getting the girl” in return for his actions, we are not actually demeaning the hard love. We don’t want the reader thinking at the end of the story, “Well, what good is doing the right thing if it leaves you miserable and betrayed?” True, doing the right thing may leave us feeling miserable and betrayed for a time; but this is not where the story ends for us, and it’s not where the story should end for your valiant hero.
Just as God will reward us for our faithfulness, so too should we reward our Heroes. We might not give them what they expected they would get, or what they wanted to get (The Love character), but they should instead receive something far greater, just as we will when we give up our selfishness and instead take on love.