On February 5, 2011 Jenna Royal wrote, …in one of my novels, my MC falls in love twice. The first person he falls in love with is someone he’s not supposed to, and it doesn’t work. It starts out that way. Throughout the book, he tries to keep away from the girl, and he ends up with another girl a lot, whom he doesn’t like well at first but over time he falls in love with her instead. Is this too complicated with readers’ emotions? The reason I’m asking is because a couple years ago I read a trilogy (Inkheart by Cornelia Funke) where the MC had the same boyfriend for most of the book but then decided she wanted a new one at the end. I felt the MC was a little unfair, and I found it to be a bit of an unsatisfying ending. What are your thoughts on this?
Hmm…I haven’t read Inkheart, but I’m thinking of Jo in Little Women deserting Laurie for Professor Bhaer. Now I’m thinking of Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice switching from Wickham to Darcy. Changing boyfriends – or, in your case, girlfriends – isn’t uncommon in literature.
I’ve never been entirely happy with Jo’s choice. I suppose Laurie isn’t right for her, and I guess the professor is, but, gee, Laurie is so romantic and interestingly difficult, like Jo, and the professor is dullsville! (I’m not being fair to him.) I certainly don’t want Amy to get Laurie. It would be better, in my opinion, if he never marries and regrets Jo and his own character limitations forever.
But I’m delighted about Darcy and Elizabeth, although I do root for Wickham in the beginning. Austen does a great job of convincing me that Wickham is a cad, and we see how smitten Darcy is with Elizabeth – which may be the key. We love Elizabeth, and Darcy appreciates her just as much as we do, so we think well of him. Wickham, on the other hand, doesn’t value her nearly highly enough, since he prefers any rich wife to any impecunious one.
Near the end of Pride and Prejudice the narrator implies that Elizabeth is going to improve Darcy’s sense of humor, make him unbend a little, and he’s going to expand her mind, so there’s equality. But, if I remember Little Women correctly, Jo is the sole one to benefit. Professor Bhaer is going to make her better, but he’s already perfect. He’s good for her, like a multivitamin, and vitamins are not romantic.
Also Professor Bhaer comes on the scene late, and Laurie has been in the book almost from the beginning. We don’t have a chance to get to know the professor or to see in slow motion how he falls for Jo.
Maybe I’m all wet. I haven’t read Little Women in many years, but I reread Pride and Prejudice regularly. Anyway, I think your hero can go through scads of girlfriends if your real heroine is there all along, on the sidelines, being delightful, appreciating him more completely than anyone else.
There are other approaches too. You may know couples that you can’t figure out. He’s so nice and she’s so full of herself. Or she’s terrific, but you can count on him to say the wrong thing on every occasion. Fictionally, you can make the first girlfriend so loathsome that we’re totally relieved when he moves on.
Or the first girl is terrific, but there’s a tiny thing wrong with her, like she’s a ghost or she lives a thousand miles away and they can be together only online or she’s a six-hundred-year-old elf or she’s from another galaxy. Again, the reader is likely to be glad when our hero finds someone more possible.
Or he could act badly in the first relationship and their romance sours. It’s his fault, but he ends it, recognizing that the damage he’s done is irreparable. We see him start fresh. A moment comes with the new girl when his buttons are pushed, but he chooses to behave better. Whew! we think. This time they’re going to be happy. Yay!
Or many other possibilities.
In the interest of not jerking the reader around, you probably want to make it clear that the old relationship is over before the new one starts – unless the story is about the hero’s flip-flops.
Generally, we don’t want to stop loving the main. In the case of Little Women, Jo goes down in my estimation for choosing Professor Bhaer because he’s good for her. I like her emotional side – her temper, her storminess – which humanizes her. I don’t want her with a man who’s going to smooth her out. When your main chooses a new love for reasons the reader doesn’t understand, the reader disconnects a little or a lot.
I’m also not pleased when a character unaccountably changes. In Jenna Royal’s example, let’s suppose the main, Lester, say, loves a woman, Peony, in a rival clan. His family and the girl’s oppose the match and try to keep the two apart, but they find ways to meet because they’re wild about each other. They take a long walk together on the beach. If Lester, whom we’ve known to be a guy with good values, notices she’s knock-kneed and her speech is less educated than his and he loses interest, we’re likely to feel confused. This isn’t the Lester we know and care about. If, however, Peony repeats hostile remarks she’s heard about his clan, like they’re dirty and they steal, we’re right with him if he dumps her.
Even if the new love interest arrives near the end of the story, it may be important to devote at least a few pages to their fresh beginning. Sometimes not, but you don’t want the ending to feel rushed.
∙ It’s the beginning of senior year in high school. Justin and Flora are an item as are Peter and Rose and Horace and Tulip. They spend a wilderness weekend together with their class, and by the time they return home, the romances have shifted twice to different people in their group. Write how it happens.
∙ In my book, The Wish, Wilma magically becomes the most popular person in her middle school. All the boys want to go to the graduation dance with her. This doesn’t happen in the book, but imagine Wilma holding an audition for being her date. Write the audition. For extra credit, manipulate the reader’s feelings so that he roots for one boy after another. If you like, keep going and show Wilma’s decision and how she arrives at it.
∙ Let’s complicate the situation for Lester and Peony. They take their beach walk, the longest time they’ve ever spent together, and he realizes she’s not right for him. She’s not bad, but maybe she chatters, and he finds himself getting impatient, and maybe she has a nervous laugh that grates on him – or whatever qualities you pick. The trouble is that the objections of his clan members make it hard for him to give her up. He’s angry at them, and he doesn’t want them to think they were right. Besides, she’s risked a lot to be with him. Take it from there.
Have fun, and save what you write!