Genre Pet Peeves: Dueling Love Interests

It’s time for another Genre Pet Peeve! Because I don’t believe in diversity in this blog, apparently. But I do believe in blog entires.

This is a pet peeve that I find worse in the fantasy subgenre of Supernatural and anything Young Adult written in the last eight years, regardless of subgenre.

Now, I have a lot of grumps about the over abundance of romance in books. We could, and eventually will, go on for pages about this. But over all, I get it. Sex sells and romance makes for an interesting subplot. Chemistry between characters, the will they/won’t they.’ It’s expected and if done right, it helps deepen both characters and add interaction beyond the main plot.

But these days, ONE love interest is no longer good enough. Oh no. Because one love interest is too obvious. We know the heroine has to pick the guy, because heaven forbid a woman ends the book independent and not tied to some kind of man. PFFFT, what a silly idea! But if she has to hook up with whatever guy the plot dangles in front of her, then we know who she’s with and that’s no fun.

So let’s introduce two love interests! Yeah, that fixes everything! Now our heroine is torn. Will she go with Boy A, who is handsome, tall, dark, and sweeps in out of nowhere or Boy B, who she has known forever and but only now noticed that he’s super hot? And has possibly gained super powers? What is with that anyway, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHO WILL SHE PICK!?

Except that we always know. It’s always painfully, boringly obvious who she will pick. Not that there’s a rule that says she has to pick the new guy in her life or the childhood friend. But the reader can tell. Because the winner will, in some way, reflect a trait that the author considers ‘ideal’ in a boyfriend, and the loser will have some similar trait that is considered a flaw.

Take Twilight, for example. Twilight is the book that set dueling love interests as a standard for young adult, though it’s been present in other genres for much longer. In Twilight, we have Edward and Jacob competing for one girl. Edward the vampire represents perfection and control, letting Bella fall into the perfect place as invisible bride. Jacob, the werewolf, represents something more wild, more primal, and therefore flawed in comparison, at least as far as the author is concerned. Me, I’m wondering if Jacob has any cute werewolf sisters who moved to Seattle and now work as baristas, but I’m definitely not the target audience here.

In other novels, the traits and flaws that cause one of the competing guys to win out over another can vary greatly. Sometimes the winning guy is the boy next door, representing stability instead of wild new love. Sometimes the winning guy is proves to be gentler, the better, more aware lover. Sometimes the losing guy is just a big jerk and everybody spends the whole book wondering why our heroine would ever see anything of value in the guy at all.

Actually, sometimes that’s the winning guy. See: Edward.

But even when that’s the case, it’s still obvious. There’s never actually a competition. The heroine, as much as she finds them both dead sweaty sexy, makes doe eyes at one while the other struggles, strives, and fails to get her attention for more than the occasional scene to remind the reader that “OH HEY, SHE COULD MAYBE POSSIBLY CHANGE HER MIND!”

The double love interest CAN be done well, in a way that keeps interest, develops character, and keeps the reader genuinely guessing. But these days, I keep running into this trope in places where it’s absolutely shoehorned into the plot. Where there’s absolutely no reason to keep dangling another man before the heroine, because her preference is painfully obvious and it doesn’t even add a damn thing to the plot. It just feels like the editor sat down with the author and said, “No one will buy your book unless there’s two love interests, so jam some sexual tension in there, will you?”

Actually, the horrible thing is, that probably happens.

So what do I want to see done with this trope?

Well, first off, I would love to read a book where instead of picking, the heroine decides she wants both and both guys agree that they will share (and maybe even develop something of their own). The trio then have to arrange and figure out how to live as a successful menage a tois. In fact, if anyone can point me at some of those, I will read them. Awesome bonus points for stories that don’t just end with agreeing to have a threesome, but actually go into them trying to make it work.

Since that’s pretty rare outside of internet smut, I’d also love to see one of the guys get fed up with wishy washy behavior and go his own way. And not at the end, when the heroine rejects him. Before that. Possibly even having the heroine go “Oh, I want you!” and have him go “That’s nice, but I got over your ass and am dating the barista next door. BYE.”

And for the rest of the time, I just want to stop reading secondary potential love interests tacked into the narrative like glittery clip on narrative earrings. If a character’s only purpose is to remind us how sexy, awesome, and desirable our main female character is, he is not a useful character. Cut him and give me more of the plot, will you?

Genre Pet Peeves: Character Must Love Books

Hello blog, yes I know it’s been a while. I’ll update on life situation– OR MAYBE I WON’T. But either way, I need to get back in the habit of blogging and I wrote out half of this rant in a comment elsewhere, so I may as well do this properly in my own space.

No matter how much you love a genre, there are always some cliches and tropes that drive a person up the wall. I have many for the fantasy genre and I’m sure I’ll talk about some of the other ones later. But this one applies to more than just fantasy, being a trope of a lot of literature.

I hate, hate, HATE how the main character of story MUST love books and the narrative requires commenting on how they discovered reading and utterly fell in love and it was So. Mindblowing!

Now, I understand why we have this trope. Most authors are also readers and it’s very common to give your main character traits you like. Most readers by default of being readers also really love books, so it makes characters more sympathetic, more relatable by your bookish audience.

And I will certainly grant that there are times where loving books is actually character building, where discovering books and literacy can really add a lot to both plot and character. The Outcast Bookish Main Character Thrown Into An Adventure is a staple of the fantasy genre. And having been a bookish outcast growing up, I hold a special place in my heart for that kind of character.

But the Bookish Main Character isn’t even what I’m sick of seeing. What really drives me nuts is the need for every main character to love books, regardless of whether this adds anything to the story, character, or even makes sense for them to be literate in the first place! It often gets mentioned as an aside, while tracing the character’s early years before we get to the actual plot. It gets tossed in, like a check box that must be hit on the way to Traumatic Quest Starting Event or else they don’t give you Official Main Hero Badge.

And what pisses me off even more is when our main character loving books comes as a surprise, to the main character and teachers alike! It’s usually phrased in some dumb way as “And then, to my surprise and delight” or “Everyone was shocked to discover that I loved books” or “No one was more surprised than I when reading came naturally and joyfully to me!”

Really? Reading as enjoyable is a surprise?

Look, I know in fantasy in particular, we have the trope of the dumb barbarians who can’t read and beat their younger children for liking books more than they like swords. But the truth is, we’ve had books for a long time. If it weren’t enjoyable as well as useful, people wouldn’t keep doing it. You wouldn’t be reading this blog if it weren’t. Sure, in ancient times, farmers were too busy trying to get enough to EAT that they had no time to learn how to read. But if it’s expected of a kid in your fantasy world to learn how to read, if it’s an available option to them, then there’s going to be people who enjoy reading and won’t be surprised when your main character also likes reading.

Because lots of people like reading. I would argue that just about everyone likes some form of storytelling, if we define storytelling broadly. So come on. Reading should not be this huge revelation most of the time!

I really want to see more stories where:

A) The main character reads poorly or not at all and this isn’t some excuse to discover the magic of words later. They actually just aren’t super literate and this is not seen as a crime. It can still be a problem, if the answers to the quest got written down and our hero does not have the skills to deal with this. But the story shouldn’t revolve on the hero learning to read or on the hero being belittled for not knowing how to read. It sucks not being able to read and that can be addressed, but if you live in a world with dragons and no indoor toilets, maybe reading is not your main priority. Think on that.

Or

B) The main character just doesn’t care about books. The main character doesn’t hate them, because that always inevitably leads to Sudden Discovery of the Value of Books. Instead, a character who just doesn’t care. Books are lovely, thanks, but they’re not all that! Much rather listen to the bard at the local inn. Maybe our main character even reads when time is available, but hey guys, there’s kind of an entire plot happening that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with books and is maybe even an excuse to get out of reading boring text books. Yes! Let’s go slay the dragon, way better than this three hundred page tome on philosophy!

Even if we don’t see more of these characters, I would still ask authors to consider if it’s really important to tell me that your character loves books a whole lot. Is it plot significant that they can read? Does it help flesh out the character and give us a deeper understanding of who they are? Or are you just pandering to your own love of books and giving your character a trait that you think makes them cooler and more likable?

Because if it doesn’t matter to the story, I don’t care if your main character likes books. Because I am already reading books, so you can presume, dear author, that I also like books. I don’t need to be told, again, how cool reading is. I figured that one out for myself. Your characters opinion on books doesn’t change mine.