How to Write a Love Interest who Audiences Believe…
If your mind immediately jumps to soppy worn out cliches when you think of love interests, you’d be forgiven. But love interests are significant roles in many genres. They’re certainly not limited to romcoms.
The question for screenwriters is how to create a love interest who really inspires, well, love. One who convinces the audience of the validity of love so much it has them running out the cinema in search of it.
Creating a love interest who engrosses audiences is to ensure that this character exists within their own right.
- The protagonist is falling in love with this character.
- Therefore the audience should appreciate why this character inspires such feelings.
Getting the love interest right can be difficult. After all, presenting the complex, often indescribable feeling of love can come across as simplified on screen.
Here’s a few tips on how to convincingly portray the intricacies of love by writing a love interest that audiences believe.
Know Your Protagonist Inside Out
First, take a look at your protagonist before getting carried away imagining the ideal love interest. To write a match that works, you need to examine what this love interest could provide.
The love interest offers the possibility to help the protagonist build a new life, or offer a new way of seeing life.
It can be helpful to ask yourself some questions about the protagonist:
- What kind of love interest would help to fulfil my protagonist’s needs and goals?
- What are the moral values of the protagonist?
- How will the love interest help my protagonist learn something about themselves?
- How will they challenge the protagonist’s desires and flaws?
- Will they enhance their positives?
Building the Inner Journey
Ideally, the love interest is turning the protagonist into the person the audience wants them to be.
A compelling love interest is therefore a key part of the overall character arc. As a result, it is essential to know the journey you want to take your protagonist on.
The love interest should not be a side project existing separately to the main arc. If you can easily remove the love interest from your script, ask yourself why you need them in the first place.
It can also be helpful to consider the love interest as part of the film’s wider theme. What are you trying to say in your writing? How is the love interest part of moving forward the themes?
As seen in Film…
So what does this look like in practice?
Here’s some quick examples of the love interest playing a key role in the protagonist’s character arc and self-realization:
- After meeting Jack, Rose begins to break free from her repressive fiancee and mother.
- Even once Jack has died, the film implies Rose has been able to live a life of freedom and adventure.
- Jack therefore empowers Rose to leave behind the restrictive upper-class world and learn what makes her happy.
- Gheorghe enables Johnny to come to terms with his sexuality by providing the possibility of a loving and tender relationship.
- Gheorghe also diminishes Johnny’s small town prejudices by proving how their bond isn’t inhibited by their different backgrounds.
- Hitler Youth member JoJo starts to have a crush on the Jewish girl hidden in his attic.
- JoJo slowly begins to question his own prejudices against Jewish people as he gets to know Elsa.
- Eventually, it seems JoJo has learnt to trust his own moral instinct.
However, the love interest doesn’t only exist in relation to the protagonist.
In-depth characterization is key in carving the love interest into a full bodied individual. This way, you can avoid tired tropes and sickly love stories…
What to Avoid: The 2D Love Interest
Watching certain types of Hollywood blockbusters you may notice a pattern emerging – Where sometimes the love interest exists merely to boost a protagonist’s sex appeal, desirability, bravery or intelligence.
Unfortunately, this type of romance adds little to the developing story or character arcs. They’re merely an idealized object. And what a waste!
Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the controversial term ‘The Manic Pixie-Dream Girl’. This is:
- A female stock character type of love interest.
- She is ultimately intended to help tormented male protagonists with her eccentric and fun personality quirks.
- She also seems to have no independent goals or need for happiness.
- And don’t even think of being able to explore her inner life or psyche!
Subverting the trope…
The following films acknowledge but subvert the tendency to simplify and idealize love interests by both writers and their protagonists:
- Tom idealizes his love interest, Summer. He obsesses over their similar interests and her quirky personality. She becomes a projection of his romantic fantasies.
- Summer is clear from the beginning that she does not want anything serious.
- But because of his perception of her perfection, Tom fails to realize or listen to Summer’s needs.
- Summer subsequently breaks up with Tom and thus refuses to put her needs asides for Tom’s love of her.
Although the film projects Summer as ideal through Tom’s eyes, it exposes the problematic nature of constructing a love interest as such.
- Clementine is impulsive, quirky and fun.
- At first she seems to teach Joel about embracing life in the moment.
- But as the film exposes more of their relationship, Clementine is revealed as deeply flawed. She has a host of needs and problems of her own.
“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
Clementine’s awareness of her idealization and the implication of her own complicated inner journey reject a simple or idealized portrayal of her character.
Love Interest Characterization
So how do you write the complex intricacies of the love interest’s mind while still keeping the focus on the protagonist’s journey?
- You may not have the time or space to explore the love interest fully.
- However, it is important to dedicate dialogue or scenes which suggest an inner, independent life outside of the protagonist’s own.
Like their proposed partner, they will contain certain vulnerabilities, insecurities and flaws. But these are character traits which the protagonist and the love interest can help each other learn about and/or overcome together.
Therefore, like the protagonist, ask yourself some questions of the love interest:
- Why are they interested in pursuing a relationship?
- What are their goals and needs?
- What do they love, hate and want?
- Their history and background?
- How do these attributes test, inspire and motivate your protagonist?
Most importantly, keep in mind that this is a full character who plays a key structural role. Therefore all of their attributes and actions should help to develop the story in some way.
Love Interest: a Big or Small Role?
In some films, the structure is purely about the developing relationship.
- Both these films explore what these characters begin to mean to one another and the ups and downs of their relationship.
- There is not one clear protagonist or love interest. In these cases, it is easier to fully explore the inner lives of both the characters.
- The protagonist’s have their own journeys of which the love interest plays a smaller (but still vital) role.
- You may struggle to fully explore the romantic interest’s inner life and needs. However, they can be implied through the way they react to the situations they are thrown into.
Think about what story you’re trying to tell and whether you want the romance to be a small or large part of your writing.
So you’ve got two characters who are perfect for one another.
But writing a ‘spark’ is easier said than done. Chemistry is a hard enough notion to describe in reality so distilling it into a scene can seem like a daunting task.
If you nail it however, it can cement the convincing validity of your love interest. Here are some suggestions:
1. Make the characters talk to one another!
This may sound simple, but it belittles the nature of love to think people just fall in love through prolonged eye contact or walking past each other several times.
Suggest a physical attraction, sure, but making the characters share their thoughts and opinions with one another before jumping into a relationship is much more representative of a real connection.
For example, in Before Sunrise. Despite the initial attraction, Jesse and Celine cover a range of topics which demonstrate their opinions and humor to one another before they decide to spend the day together.
2. Don’t take things too seriously
The love interest may be the protagonist’s soul mate. But it’s not all about sharing inner demons and baring souls.
Especially at first, writing some verbal sparring into the dialogue between the love interest and protagonist naturalizes their relationship.
- It builds an easy repertoire and demonstrates the shared energy between the two.
- Even if they are not getting on well, the implication that they are drawn to interact and engage suggests some sort of connection.
3. They Don’t Have to Like Each Other!
Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily need someone who is in agreement with everything they say or with similar life experience. Where’s the fun in that?
- Test out giving the characters differing ideologies. Or make them from a different background or class.
- This way they can challenge each other and provide gateways to learning about the unknown.
4. Building Intimacy…
As the romance progresses, use scenes which extend the possibility of what the love interest and protagonist could be like together.
Putting them in different social settings and seeing how they react to one another can test their chemistry.
5. Give it time
Let the romance take it’s course. Individuals do not admit their love in easy clear terms: it is a complex, vulnerable and even embarrassing thing to do.
Allowing the characters to express their interest, like and love through different stages can create a more convincing love story.
The developing love interest story arc may begin rosy, but to establish a more convincing love interest there has to be some conflict and building tension.
This conflict tests what these character’s mean to one another and if they can unite or fall apart.
1. External Conflict
These obstacles can be external or external. Some ideas of external influences are:
- Social misunderstandings.
- A disapproving family (as portrayed in the love interest, Nick’s ultra-rich family in Crazy Rich Asians).
- Another love interest or ex-partner. This other suitor may exemplify what the protagonist may think they want but not what they need. For example, the charm of Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones Diary woos Bridget but he is not a trustworthy or committed partner.
- A job or environment relocation. For example, in The Devil Wears Prada, although Andy and Nate’s relationship is not central to the plot, their relationship is put under strain as Andy becomes absorbed into her new glamorous job. This conflict tests what her job and relationship mean to her.
Decisions regarding career, family, or other people can jolt the romance out of the honeymoon stage.
These complications, however, are natural reminders of the work that needs to go into your character’s relationship in order for them to survive together.
2. Internal Conflict
Alternatively, internal character issues can cause conflict in allowing the relationship to progress. These could take the form of:
- Commitment and self-esteem issues: where the love interest closes themselves off from being in a vulnerable or committed position. This could be in fear of getting hurt or not being worthy of the relationship.
- Addiction or mental health problems: these sort of issues provide evident barriers to a healthy relationship.
- For example, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clementine’s alcohol dependency and emotional intensity tests the relationship between her and Joel.
- However, the protagonist or love interest shouldn’t be the sole reason this character overcomes these issues: this is idealistic and unrealistic. Instead, it can be a test of the protagonist’s support for their partner.
Internal conflict is arguably harder for a couple to overcome but can create more nuanced and complex portrayals of relationships.
To Stay or Not To Stay Together?
Shock horror- the love interest does not always have to end up with the protagonist!
In fact, the fate of the relationship can have an effect on how convincing the love interest’s story is. Sometimes, it’s just not a couple’s time. For example:
In Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Adele and Emma break up after Adele cheats on Emma. Emma refuses to take her back despite the obvious continuing feelings between the two. In this case:
- Emma has enabled Adele to explore her sexuality and the two have experienced an intense emotional relationship together.
- But Adele’s betrayal of their love and their realization of their differences suggest that their passionate time together has burned out. It just wouldn’t be right for them to stay together anymore.
- The film’s suggestion that they may be able to get over each other instead provides the resolution to the film.
In Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver spend a passionate summer together. Oliver has to leave, and a while later rings Elio to let him know that he is engaged.
- The implication is that Elio has had the chance to love fiercely.
- But his relationship with Oliver may not be able to exist in reality outside of the summer haze.
- The resolution comes from Elio’s father encouraging him to grow from his grief.
In these films, the relationships provide experiences which allow the protagonist to grow and learn what they need or don’t need in a partner.
Alternatively, if you do want the love interest to end up with the protagonist, make sure this is for the right reasons. They have faced obstacles together and come out the other side relatively unscathed.
By the end, the relationship should continue to offer the possibility of growth and happiness.
To Finish Off…
There isn’t one formula for writing a love interest. It could be that they meet, begin to fall in love, are tested in their relationship and then either break up or stay together.
However, many films and TV shows tell their story in fragmented forms, or backwards, or chose to emphasize specific parts of the relationship journey.
However you write your romance, make sure the love interest is their own person, has natural chemistry with your protagonist and provides a structural role.
And remember: if you don’t love your love interest, who will!