I know this post will be greeted with resistance.
"But, this is real life!"
"Healthy people are boring."
"But, that takes all the fun out of fiction!"
"Fiction mirrors real life and healthy people aren't real life."
"Bad characters are more fun. They are popular: Bad Santa, Bad Mothers, Bad Teachers, Girls Gone Wild, Bad Boys Bad Boys Whatcha gonna do?"
I get that.
Tweet this: There is no fiction without friction, but friction can be created by flaws rather than outright pathology.
You can create tension and momentum in a plot without utilizing the dysfunctional cast of a reality television show as protagonists.
Writers not only reflect but shape reality through storytelling. We can present something as being true without suggesting that it is desirable. This is the key: the message you embed in the situation by your plot choices.
To reinforce, I am not saying you cannot portray severely damaged characters, but that you are responsible for how you slant the portrayal.
It is worth dragging a few idea viruses into the limelight to create awareness.
#1 I'm Not Worthy
The fact that low self-esteem is rampant among teens, young adults, even the middle-aged is a sad reality. Mirroring that, I’ve been told, is realistic and what appeals to readers. It may be true, but that doesn’t mean it should be.
What if we designed characters with healthy self-esteem? I don’t mean flawless individuals, but those with a base level of “I am a worthy person and anyone I let into my life should be equally worthy.”
I'd much prefer a hero or heroine who meets someone and wonders, "What do they have to offer me?" or "Why should I invest my valuable time and energy into a relationship with this person?"
#2 The Hotness Scale
Nowhere is physical perfection more lauded than in the Romance genre. Either one partner is seriously hot and the other isn’t as attractive, therefore less worthy of regard, or both are so super-hot they would naturally end up together. It is time for us to move past anatomical attributes in weighing attractiveness.
Young girls have been hysterically drooling over "hot" guys since before Beatlemania and Elvis induced fainting fits. Boys are always depicted as lusting after the Marilyn Monroes of the world.
There is too much focus on physical attractiveness and not enough on attractiveness of character. Physical attraction is amazingly powerful, but all people feel passion no matter how they physically appear to other people.
Love isn’t just for pretty people.
#3 Partnering as the Ultimate Life Goal
This is my biggest problem with the Romance genre, particularly targeted at young people. Just because hormones kick in and teens are plagued with passionate angst doesn’t mean we should encourage it to the degree that we do. We groom children from an early age to focus on romantic relationships. We think it is cute when toddlers kiss and start calling them "girlfriend and boyfriend" long before they are old enough to know what that really means. We push it with Valentine exchanges and school dances. Books and movies geared toward teens perpetuate the notion that teen love is forever love.
Perhaps we should do a little less pairing and little more preparing.
It is difficult to fight hormones when they kick in, but framing them in the right perspective might mean less interest in hookups before they are ready to assume the consequences. Teaching them they need to become the best version of themselves before they take on a partner could lead to healthier relationships.
If we tone down the romance aspect, they might be able to view each other as individuals rather than objects of desire. Imagine a world in which we put self-actualization above the need to find our forever love so that when we do find a partner, both of us are balanced individuals before we begin the confluence of lives.
Not everyone needs or wants a lifetime romantic partnership, marriage, or children and that should be viewed as a viable option, not a symptom of psychopathy.
#4 Stranger Danger
You should not let a stranger enter your house or car, much less your body. Lust overriding common sense is another mind virus that desperately needs a cure. The hook up culture started long before I was born, but has become the new normal. Many stories (not to mention reality TV) are guilty of romanticizing it. Forget the morality/religious debate and look at it from a common sense standpoint. Random hookups are not sound choices physically or psychologically.
You shouldn’t give strangers intimate access to your home, work, finances, friends, pets, or family, until you are reasonably certain they are safe. In real life, jumping into bed with someone you don’t know turns into a murder mystery or woman/man in peril story far more often than a love story.
You leave a little DNA with every partner you mingle with. Let that sink in. Your body is a vulnerable biologic entity. You should vet anyone before you give them access that can permanently affect your health.
With random hookups, you don’t know the character or intent of the person you hook up with, much less the criminal record or STD history. Just because you can, does not mean you should.
#5 Opposites Attract
Opposites may very well attract, at first. You may feel lust initially, but the day to day clashes will get old fast. When a partner is your diametric opposite in every way, there isn't enough common ground to base a long-term relationship on. Total opposite personality pairings result in a contentious battlefield rather than a safe space.
Some personality differences can result in a positive, symbiotic relationship. Differing traits can make up for each other’s weaknesses and encourage personal growth, but you need some commonality to make the bond strong.
Shared values, goals, and interests make strong partnerships.
#6 Love Triangles
Life presenting you with two viable candidates at the same time rarely occurs. Unhappy and unfulfilling relationships occur far too often. Looking outside your relationship for a solution never leads to anything good.
There are many types of relationships that have unique boundaries. I'm not weighing in on the advisability of polyamory or polygamy in this post. Normally, I say whatever floats your boat so long as you are all consenting adults, it is not driven by a cult, and no one is being harmed by the situation. There have been many different rules governing societies throughout history. I'm not saying you need to revise history when writing historical novels.
I’ve lived long enough to know that you can love different people along the way for different reasons. Not all relationships last and you may have many different types of relationships before you die.
There are no barriers to liaisons these days, even if one partner is supposedly in a relationship (legal or otherwise) with another person. There are always justifications cited for the choice to pursue someone other than the one they are with.
In reality, a relationship built on betrayal of someone’s trust is 99.9 percent likely to end the same way. If a person is willing to burn someone to start a relationship with you or targets you knowing you are with someone else, their boundaries are off. If you buy into it, your boundaries are off.
The, “Wait for me, I really need to break things off but can’t” excuse means the person has poor boundaries and a lack of integrity.
That’s not to say a character can’t be attracted to two different people for different reasons. There are legitimate situations where a character can choose between various options or even wonder if they made the right choices in life. They could even be tempted by an old love. But they need to gain clarity before they take action and resolve the old before investigating the new. How you portray their thinking and actions and consequences matter.
We can change the narrative so that it reflects healthy decision making rather than justifying betrayal. It is healthier to end one relationship before starting another. Betrayal and fuzzy boundaries should be deal breakers.
Tune in next week for part two of toxic messages in fiction.
For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.