Given today’s date, it seems only appropriate that my post should be about “the L word.”
(Love, that is; not lederhosen. We’ll talk about that some other time, when the memory is not so painful. But I digress…)
Back to love. I’m a big fan of it. And I really appreciate when authors get love right. And conversely (a word that in this context has nothing to do with my favorite high-top sneakers), it bugs me when authors get love wrong.
I recently went on a reading binge, devouring a group of novels by a popular author I’ve belatedly discovered. I really enjoy this author’s writing: it’s funny, insightful, cinematic, jam-packed with conflict, and he explores complex issues of family, sexuality, and death.
But after reading several of his books I began to notice one thing: his male protagonists’ “love” for the main female characters in his books really just boils down to physical attraction. In book after book, his first-person narrators describe the aching beauty of these women, but really nothing more. We’re told that the guy loves the girl, and we’re informed repeatedly that she is totally smokin’ hot, but beyond that, we never really see why he loves her.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m also a big fan of totally smokin’ hotness. And I understand and believe in the notion of “chemistry” between people, both fictional and in real life. And no, I don’t think every romantic relationship in a novel needs to be The Greatest, Deepest Love That Could Ever Exist, Ever. Still, I find it odd that an author who is so good at capturing the complexities, dysfunction, tragedy and humor that are inherent in life consistently describes romantic love as something only slightly deeper than flat-out physical objectification.
This ain’t the movies. This is written fiction, dammit.
It could be argued that the love captured in many popular movies is often depicted as little more than physical attraction. But movies are a visual medium – the audience actually sees how achingly beautiful the characters are, and between the stunning photography, professional makeup and filtered lenses, we find it easy to “fall in love” with those perfect people. I mean, when Julia Roberts smiles that big, earnest smile, she’s got me. When Brad Pitt takes his shirt off, I can’t blame anybody of any gender for being willing to cheat on their partners.
But our novels typically don’t have pictures. We can’t see these characters; we can only imagine them. So simply being told somebody is beautiful over and over isn’t necessarily enough to make a reader feel the same love the protagonist feels. And it can also get kind of old – something I noticed while reading this author’s work.
Lessons learned from an amorous hippo
I’m reminded of the movie Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (yes, folks, I am truly steeped in The Classics), where a playboy hippo named Moto Moto starts putting the moves on Gloria, the female hippo who is one of the story’s four main characters. He keeps flattering her and expressing his “love” for her. But when she asks him why he loves her, it always comes down to one thing: because she’s so big. (A clever recurring joke in the movie is that being chunky or “plumpy” is considered a highly attractive trait among hippopotamuses. Or is it hippopotami?)
Ultimately Gloria realizes that Moto Moto doesn’t truly love her, or even know or understand her. He’s simply attracted to her size. And she sadly recognizes that this alone is not enough to build a relationship on.
I think that’s a good lesson for all of us. If we’re writing about sexual or romantic relationships, it makes sense that physical attraction will play a part. But unless we are purposely trying to explore how limited or arbitrary physical attraction can be as a component of love, I think we’d be wise to dig deeper when trying to sweep our readers into “feeling the love.”
That’s not to say we shouldn’t spend some time describing the physical attraction that occurs between characters, and you’ll find that successful authors do this in a wide variety of ways. Barbara O’Neal does this masterfully in her books, even though she is often describing characters who are not conventionally beautiful, which is a nice departure from the more common approach of having all your main characters look like movie stars.
But even when describing ridiculously gorgeous people, we still have the opportunity to really demonstrate the chemistry between them. I recently read a Nora Roberts series set in Ireland, and while her main characters were invariably totally smokin’ hot (and arguably straight out of the Irish central casting office), she also did a great job of capturing their personalities. And it was in the conflict between their physical attraction and their often clashing personalities that some true romantic heat was generated.
A literary vaccination
I’m going to keep reading the author I mentioned at the beginning of my post. He tells great stories where lots of stuff happens, and I feel I have much to learn from studying his work. But I do hope he eventually gets past the stage where a man’s love for a woman is based so exclusively on how she looks. On the upside, reading his work has also served as a “literary vaccination” for me, prompting me to work harder to make sure my own characters’ relationships are based on who they are, not just how they look. I really believe that’s one key to a more satisfying read.
How about you? What makes you start rooting for a pair of main characters to get together? Or what makes you roll your eyes when the “love” described on the pages isn’t connecting with your own heart?
Image licensed from iStockphoto.com.