October 12, 2011

Out of Love

Ok, I've decided I no longer like the "lead with a question".  I've been thinking more about how to set this blog up, and I've decided that answering a single question just limits me and you in terms of responses.  Instead, I'm going start things of with a topic.  The topic will be drawn from the range of usual suspects for someone with my personality and disposition, but will not be phrased so as to limit the range of responses.  As before, I'll give my take on the matter at hand and you are free to respond to my words or just give your own thoughts on the matter.  Right then...that's out of the way; let's see how this goes.

Romance in Fiction

This is a subject I've brought up several times in conversation with family and friends and it always yields the same results: "We get that you don't like 'love stories'", "just cause you hate love doesn't mean there's anything wrong with stories about it".  Let me make something perfectly clear: I don't hate love stories.  In fact, I believe that all stories are inherently about love at some level.  I can't think of a single story that I've ever really enjoyed that didn't have a love story at its heart.  A well told story can only be made stronger through a solid portrayal and understanding of love.  It's an essential and beautiful part of the human condition that genuinely adds to a narrative when employed properly.  The problem with love stories is that, to my mind, they are rarerly employed properly.

The issues I have with romance stories in media (movies, books, tv, games, etc.) are threefold.  1) Not every story needs a love-interest plot to be overtly forced into the narrative, 2) not all love stories have to be about a union of two, and especially not just boy-girl, and 3) love stories in fiction need to flow from the over-arcing story.

Let me say in the interest of full disclosure, I am not a writer, I have no formal training in the construction of story-arcs for any medium, and I my statements herein represent only my opinion.  It's an opinion that grows from my own experience of these media and how they seem to operate, but just an opinion in the end.

On to it then.  Let's begin with my first problem: the crowbarring of love stories.  One of the reasons people start to think I hate love stories is that I complain about them nearly every time they crop up in my favorite movies or tv.  Of course, most of what I watch are sci-fi and fantasy features, and fantastical love stories are very much a part of that genre, but I do have a lot more of a problem with them in those genres.  This isn't because I have a problem in general (note that I don't complain about romantic comedies and their ilk having love stories in them - more on that in another post) but because too often the story they inject into the writing feels artificial and token. Too many of the love stories seem to be included in what I can only describe as a cynical attempt to make the story more marketable to more people.  Obviously some people love these kinds of stories, so someone in marketing made the decision to include a story-arc about boy-meets-girl or whatever in order to draw more people in to a film/book/what-have-you than they otherwise might. This is pretty obnoxious to me, as it inflates (needlessly) the time we spend in the story and makes at least two (if not all) our characters feel less real. But even if we assume this isn't the case, let's return to why crowbarring is a problem for me.

The life blood of sword-and-sorcery stuff is the suspension of disbelief.  This is true of all genres, but particularly of sci-fi/fantasy since they call upon us to accept things like dragons or Jedi; things that don't exist and never will (unless I wake up as God one day - and you'll know if I do).  As such, it becomes vital that the humanity of the story remain believable.  I can accept bravery in the face of a fire breathing winged lizard if my hero has some recognizable human flaws and characteristics.  It allows me to invest in him/her and makes the story all the more engaging.  Now, if in the midst of all this, our hero has to stop his/her heroism to have a romantic relationship with someone, that can work fine...if it's believable that the story would want them to.

Some stories just don't need romantic love of this sort in them.  There's nothing inherently wrong with it, but if it wouldn't add to or evlove from the story as a whole, why would it be needed? As a sort of absurdist example, imagine that there was an unspoken rule that said that every movie, book, and tv series had to incorporate at least one car-chase or stunt-driving moment.  This would be fine for genre movies like James Bond, or the Jason Borne book series, but would it really have added anything to Sense and Sensibility or Casablanca?  Of course not! Because those kinds of stories have nothing to do with car-chases.  Nothing a car chase contributes to its story would feel in line with the goals and ideals of either of the two works named, so their respective creators (wisely) chose not to include such a scene.

Since this is running long, I'm gonna have to cut some corners now, so let's move on to point number 2: Boy-meets-girl needs to go (more often, anyway).  I could go on about how boy and girl need-not be the only kind of romance we see in a day and age where gay marriage is becoming legal in more and more states, (and how non-traditional relationships have ALWAYS existed) but that's too cliche.  Besides, it would overlook the real issue: not all "true love" is between two people.  Since I'm all about sci-fi and fantasy, let's use Avatar to illustrate my point.  Whatever your feelings for the movie, it does one thing very right: it understood what the REAL love story in it's narrative was.  Jake Sully and Neytiri are the two individuals with whom we experience the love story in Avatar, but the story is about a love that's much bigger than boy and girl. Jake doesn't just fall for the pretty-blue-cat-lady, he falls for her whole world. 

While you could argue either way whether or not Neytiri is an object of desire, it's unquestionable that it's this planet and the culture of the Na'vi that Jake really loves.  Neytiri is just a convenient embodiment of all these aspects that allows both character and audience to see that love personified in a simple, but elegant form.  If it was really about Jake finding a pretty girl and wanting nothing but her, he also wouldn't have had as strong an attachment to his Avatar body.  Do not reach for your e-mail client to tell me otherwise; this is a story about love through a much more universal (literally, if the yogis are to be believed) understanding of that emotion.

The use of what I call "selfish-love" (which is not a judgment, just a differentiation between love of someone and love of something) as the central romance is over-played in too many things.  Love is a powerful and all-consuming passion and it has the capacity to do so much more than just put the spurs to the relentless pursuit of an individual.  In Death of a Salesman, a father's love of his two sons is powerful enough to push him to suicide for their betterment.  Why is it always written so as to limit it to the "thing that makes party A seek out party B and kiss"?  To me, this is demeaning of the emotion.  It confines it to what I consider its least impressive, if not most common, form.  Whole societies have been made and unmade because of the love of a few individuals for their people or culture. Empires are torn apart or established because of an unending patriotic love of one's country. It's the stuff civil rights movements are made of.  This is no trifling thing.  Why does so much of fiction treat it as so much smaller than it is?

To wrap up this over-long hate-speech (ha!), though, let's visit the idea that love stories need to flow from the over-arcing story.  To lead with an example, the love Han Solo and Leia Organa had made Star Wars a better work of art, but the "love" between Neo and Trinity didn't add much to the original Matrix since it really was just a plot device.  The difference being that while we see Han and Leia evlove as individuals who match each other, Trinity and Neo don't have any such evolution, and so her "love" of him is just in place to raise the stakes at the very end. She "loves" him because she was meant to "fall in love with the One", thus confirming his character arc rather than co-evolving with him.

Now, I love Star Wars and The Matrix as films as works of art and as expressions of the human condition, but this one aspect is the one (get it?) that The Matrix gets wrong (even wronger in its sequels...bleh).  In Star Wars, the characters of Han and Leia start off as antagonistic, but their circumstances lead them to understand one another and force them to work together.  In doing so, they come to understand one another in really meaningful ways, and ultimately, learn to love one another.  The wrapper on all this sweetness, though, is the story of that conflict (which I obviously don't need to explain...it's been over 30 years, people) which shapes the characters.  You'll notice that only Han and Leia have a romantic plot-arc in Star Wars, and that's because the story doesn't drive any other characters there (if you e-mail me about Anakin and Padme, you will receive an email-bomb with the words "You mean love has blinded you?" spray-painted on the box).  Only these two had stories that lead them to romance.

As an example of this bad habit pulled from the RomCom (romantic comedy for those not speaking the lingo) world, Crazy Stupid Love commits one such faux pas in the person of Julianne Moore's character. For those that haven't seen it, we're lead to understand that Stever Carrell's character (who's story is so lasting and dynamic that I've completely forgotten his name) will never love a woman like the one whom he married and recently divorced.  This sets up the central arc of the story, but there's a problem: we know almost nothing about Julianne Moore's character!  Why is this the woman he loves so dearly?  What do they have in common, apart from a background in slapstick comedy?  It's sweet and all, but it makes no damn sense?  Why should I feel for him if his one true love is a blank slate? Make no mistake, Crazy Stupid Love does a lot of things right for a RomCom (again, another post), so it's all the more glaring a flaw when something like this happens.

It's because of these problems in character development that I proclaim with certainty that the story itself must provide the reasons for the romance.  Great stories always make it the inevitable and natural progression for their characters - love becomes the only reasonable path.  Look at Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet and you'll know what I'm talking about.  Even if the intent was to start from "These two people will fall head-over-heels for one another" and work it out from there, they construct a setting where we don't just expect the characters to fall in love, we demand it.  It must happen for the story to feel complete.  That is what I would call well done romance.

This has run on for too long, so let me just conclude by inviting you to post your comments about your take on this rather critical issue in pop-media.  I'll happily re-visit this topic if it proves popular enough. 

Thank you for your time, and I'll be back next week.  I love you all.


  1. I won't wax eloquent on this one because I don't really watch that many movies these days. And I share Trevor's distaste for romantic comedies in most cases.

    What dawns on me is that based on what he says, I think he would really like reading Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. It's not normally thought of as a love story because of its dominant historical themes. But it is a historical novel driven by the love relationships among Dr. Manette, Lucie Manette, Charles Darney, and Sidney Carton. In a way that I think Trevor would very much approve.

  2. I've actually read Tale of Two Cities, believe it or not, and I came very close to including it as an example in my entry, but a) it was running long, and b) I wanted to keep it more current since the trend (I believe) has been even more cynical in more modern fiction. Just another opinion, but I've been nostalgia tripping on older TV shows, books, and movies that I remember liking, and while some aspects definitely are the product of rose-tinting, I definitely didn't see as much of the stuff I addressed here in this post.

    Just some more food for thought.

    I loved Tale of Two Cities, by the way, and I can see very easily why it's considered a classic.

    Did you know that in the ORIGINAL printing of A Christmas Carol there's an entire chapter devoted to bashing English sabbatarianism (i.e.: the practice of closing businesses on Sunday)? Apparently he thought it was too cruel to close all the shops and markets on the only day that the poor of England didn't have to work. Just thought you'd like to know.