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.

Three prompts:

∙    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!

  1. That last prompt was a really good one. 🙂 I'm with you on Jo and Laurie, mainly because the professor does arrive so late. In Lucy Maud Montgomery's book, `Kimley of the Orchard' (not sure if I spelled her name right) the protagonist is a newcomer to town who falls in love with Kim. Kim ends up rejecting her childhood sweetheart to be with him, but since the protagonist is there from the beginning of the story, it feels like he's the one who has the long relationship with her. (Besides, her old boyfriend is a jealous stalker, which doesn't help his case.)

  2. Hey Ms. Levine!
    I could probably copy/paste everyone's fangirling over your books into my comment and add 10K words more, but I shan't. I'm curious about something else, and I've seen some people do this so hopefully I'm not breaking any secret rules or anything ^_^ .
    Say you have a really great character with a terrible secret that's kept him isolated by everyone and pretending to be someone else. And by everyone, I mean everyone… his younger sister, his parents, the girl he was in love with, *everyone*. This secret involves the death of his brother, and our character's trying to find the murderer. He doesn't know who this person is and he really has no clue if this someone really killed his brother at all. (He/she did, but our MC doesn't know that at first.) His circumstances render him unhappy, but he’s relatable so readers like him (or, at least, the ones I have now like him all right. ^^). Of course, this all occurs of in the course of the story.
    But I'm having a hard time getting to the end—or even finding it. If he finds the murderer and gets his revenge like he wants, the story ends. He still can't tell his parents his secret for fear of ruining their happiness, and he avoids everyone else because he can't tell them either. The only way he can be happy is to stop pretending, and the only way he could do that would be if he moved to a deserted island where no one knew him and he never contacted anyone elsewhere again.
    But he loves his family, and I don't want to do that to him. I’m one of those weird authors whose characters purt near talk to me in my head, and I like him too much to leave him in this depressing state. I want him to get his happily ever after.
    I guess my problem is that I have a great character and plot, but no resolution without it being a horrifically depressing, sadistic story that leaves people saying, “What. That was so sad. Why did she do that. I hate this author. DIE, author! DIE!!”
    Any tips on how to turn something hopeless into a story with a happy ending?
    Thanks… and sorry for leaving a comment the size of Texas. ^^
    Christina Icarus

  3. I completely agree about Little Women. I have loved it since I was a little girl, but have always been so disappointed by Jo's choice. Had Professor Bhaer been in the story from the beginning, I might have been slightly more inclined to appreciate their love story, but somehow I think that more story time with him would have proven even more that Jo and Laurie were meant for each other! Laurie's choosing Amy always seemed like a slap in the face to me as a reader, simplifying his love for Jo into nothing more than needing to be a part of her family.
    Anyway, you brought up one of my favorite old tangents so I couldn't help but chime in 🙂 Thanks for another wonderfully helpful and enjoyable post!

  4. @Christina Icarus
    It sounds to me like the only real way to get any sort of closure to your story is for your MC to come clean and tell everyone the truth, as it seems like the main conflict is not really his catching the murderer, but his keeping secrets. Is there some reason why he can't do this?

  5. I have a quick, almost grammar question.
    If I have a sentence that says, "Rapunzel dusted everywhere for her aunt was sure she would die if she inhaled one bit of it." how can I be clear the aunt thinks she herself would die without making it sound awkward. I have a lot of sentences where it mentions two girls or two boys and saying their name again would sound weird but he/she is also a little unclear. Help?

  6. I feel like I need to read Little Women now. Well, I think that in my case, having a character fall in love with another person is really hard. I can feel it and experience it in real life, but for some reason it doesn't translate to my writing. If I had them stay together until marriage, they would date for a decade. I often connect to the male characters too much, and they never leave each other.

    Thanks for an amazing blog post!

  7. First of all, thank you so much for answering my question! 🙂 I'm still trying to figure out how to make this story work, so your advice is really helpful.
    I agree about Little Women, I found Jo's romance and marriage to the professor disappointing. I had been rooting for Laurie, and even though I liked the professor, he wasn't nearly as much fun to read about. I think that the change of girlfriends is justified in my story, and I think it works with the story. The second girlfriend is there the whole time as another MC. She has flaws, but I think she is a pretty likable character. So it should work.

    @ Jill – I don't know how the sentence in your example would be placed in relation to the rest of your sentences. But I would try reversing the order of your words, so it would maybe sound something like 'her aunt was sure she would die if she inhaled one bit of it, so Rapunzel dusted everywhere.' I hope this helps. 🙂

    @Christina Icarus – You might want to try letting it sit for a while. Sometimes I find after leaving my story for a while and then coming back, I have a better idea of what I need to do.

  8. Jill–The post before this one is – in part – about precisely this, and there's an example. Your sentence has a loose pronoun and you should try recasting it. Take a look at my post, if you think it may be helpful.

    Raini–You may want to look at my post of June 9, 2010. If you have further questions after you read it, I would welcome them.

  9. Hmm, now I'm thinking about all the books I've read where people change romances… And thinking about Little Women. Somehow I've never resented Amy for marrying Laurie, but I have NEVER forgiven her for burning Jo's stories.

    Anyway, on the romance subject–I think the trick is to avoid a bait and switch. If the reader can see throughout the book that the MC really belongs with the second girl, then we'll want to shake him for a while, but will be happy in the end. I don't usually like twist endings in romantic pairings–I like to be able to tell how people will end up, and then I can enjoy watching the relationship develop.

    Of course, there have also been times when I wanted a character to switch romances, and really thought they were going to, and then they didn't…but that's a different problem.

  10. Oh I read that post but somehow I didn't remember it when I thought of my question when I was writing during math… maybe it was because one half of my brain was thinking of sentence structure and the other half was solving a geometry problem.

  11. "Emma" by Jane Austen, and the movie of it, "Clueless" with Alicia Silverstone, are all about changing couples. Many people, and many couples, but they're all presented close to the beginning and you follow them (at least through letters and sisters) throughout the book. I won't spoil the ending; and I think it would be a good one to read as a study in this question.

  12. This was a cool post. I don't write too much romance and when I do it's pretty simple stuff-not much drama, but this post was still pretty cool.

    One of my favorite pairings happens in Harry Potter. I was convinced for the first four books that Harry and Hermione were going to be together, I was so sure of it. But then when Harry got together with Ginny, it was kind of a shock, because though the reader knows Ginny you would have never thought of him getting together with her(though they are perhaps the cutest couple ever). Then, when Hermione gets together with Ron, it was a shock because I would have never considered them being a couple but they're perfect together. In my opinion, that was romance done right 🙂

    About the whole Inkheart thing…that kind of bugged me. I know Farid was kind of a jerk in book 3 but I don't know… Doria was pretty cool but I don't feel like we got to know him enough, I wasn't completely thrilled with the ending. (but then again its been years since I've read Inkdeath…)

    As for Pride and Prejudice, I loved all the pairings there. Though I was rooting for Wickham in the beginning, he and Lydia are a good match (as are Elizabeth and Darcy…)

    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine!

    Happy first week of spring everyone 🙂

  13. I don't think I'll ever recover from Jo choosing the Professor over Laurie! It was a heartbreaker! The most recent time I read it, I repeatedly slammed down the book in anger – I just still can't believe it! I feel like Louisa May Alcott just decided he wasn't good for Jo, and started trying to change the story almost, but we already knew he was a wonderful character and their chemistry was perfect! I also felt very irritated that he ended up married to Amy, and even then, he still pretty much admitted to having feelings for Jo. Ugh.

    Obviously I have strong feelings about this, haha.

    I agree about Harry Potter – personally I didn't think it would be Harry/Hermione, though I definitely never thought of Ginny, but you can tell in the earlier films that the director already was trying to set up that pairing, so he must have picked up the same signals.

    Yes, thanks for the post! How is the wee puppy doing?

  14. I agree about Little Women. Though I liked the professor, and I can see that relationship making sense, Laurie was a much better match for Jo. And the Laurie/Amy pairing??? UGH, NO!!!

    Also, your first prompt kind of makes me think of A Midsummer Night's Dream. 🙂

    @Christina Icarus
    Sounds like you're keeping your character from having to face his problems/pain—but that's what makes for a good story! Either he needs to come clean or someone else needs to find out. See what happens after that… you might be surprised.

  15. I have a question that ties in with this post a bit. I am writing a story that has a bit of romance, but it is not the main plot. Whenever I try to write the romantic scenes (kissing, hugging), they always coming out sounding awkward. How do you write believable romantic scenes? I am a younger teen, so I have not had much experience in this department, so I cannot draw on from my own experiences. Does anyone have any suggestions as to how to make romantic scenes less awkward?

  16. OH. MY. GOODNESS. I was so so so terribly disappointed when Jo went for Professor Bhaer and left Laurie, even though the former was a fantastic character in his own right – IF HE HAD STAYED AWAY FROM JO. I started referring to him as that 'Bhaer guy' when I read that bit. Ugh, that was so disappointing! And especially having him end up with Amy? I always liked Amy least of all the sisters, and so that was a bit of a blow. I've heard that the author did it on purpose just because her readers asked her for Jo and Laurie, and she wanted to write the books how she wanted it, not how others did. :/
    But anyway. Jo and Laurie were always perfect for each other.. *sighs*

    As for the Inkheart Trilogy…I'm just sad we didn't get to see more of Doria. 😛 I didn't like Farid anyway…hehehe. 😛

  17. Aha, Harry Potter discussion. For me, it always seemed as if Harry would end up with Ginny, and Ron with Hermione. Though it was kind of annoying in DH, where Ron all out screams her name (I hope that's non-spoilery enough), but…yeah, they're all awesome.

    I DID NOT LIKE NEVILLE LONGBOTTOM AND HANNAH ABBOTT. Even though that was out of the books. He should've ended up with Luna! And George and Angelina? D:

  18. Megan–The wee puppy is doing fine, thank you for asking! He's growing quickly, eating A LOT. We're beginning to hope he'll be housebroken before six years old. He's very talented. At eight weeks he held his own in puppy pre-school with a gang of tough older puppies. At ten weeks he knows "fetch" and "come" and sort of "sit" and "down." I could go on and on.

    Alexandra–I added your question to my list.

  19. Hello! I've been reading the blog for ages but haven't started posting (but I do love reading the comments- they're so interesting!)
    Anyway, i have a writing question:I have two MCs in my story and I switch off writing them- they each get their own chapters. They've never seen each other before, but in the book, their lives are entwined and they end up meeting each other (kinda early on) They are very different- one doesn't trust anyone but is close to her family (and trusts them). The other is hurt (emotionally) and feels betrayed by one family member. I'm having trouble making them have their own voices. Any suggestions?
    Oh, I was so annoyed when Jo left Laurie… And I am annoyed that Amy married him beacause at some point, doesn't he say something to Jo like, 'Someday I will be in your family?' It always seemed to me like he married Amy just to be in the March family… LOL I love Emma and P&P! I always liked Darcy but I LOVE (lol not a crush though!) Mr. Bingley the best! 😀
    @Jill- I agree with Jenna Royal about your grammer question!

  20. I agree about Harry Potter, the romances there were really well done. Harry has a couple girlfriends (Cho and Ginny) and so does Ron (Lavender and Hermione) but they're not close enough that it seems wron when they switch. I guess Hermione had that Viktor for a boyfriend, too, but you don't see him enough either for it to bother you when she goes for Ron instead. I think the biggest thing for me with the Inkheart trilogy is that you see Farid all through the series, and even though you know that he wasn't the nicest person in the third book, I at least liked him as a character in the previous books and I felt like there wasn't enough of Doria for him to really replace Farid, even though he was nicer to Meggie. 

    @Welliewalks – If you've ever read The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, that is a really good example of different voices. I've never attempted to write a story with multiple characters in first person POV, but I would think that it might help to give each character a distinct way of reacting to certain situations, or maybe a list of words that each character uses frequently. By making your characters recognizable, you make the voices more obvious. Also, maybe setting characteristics such as a squeaky door or a cold climate, or a view or sudden storms would help. If you can give traits that will show through in the narration, it will lend itself to a more distinct voice. 

  21. @Christina Icarus
    If the character wont decide to spill what he is thinking on his own, you can make the situation such that everyone figures it out anyway or begin to suspect something is fishy because he is acting strangely. If he's close to his family and loved ones, one of them at least will notice that he is upset. Even if he is a stoic character on the outside, no person is perfectly stoic. The littlest things can betray their mental state to those who know him closely. Or you can make up an entirely different character, for the sole purpose of shaking up the main character to spill his secrets. The key is to pressure the main character to do something he normally wouldn't do, or shock him so badly he'll say something revealing, or find some way to build up the tension so it snowballs into him not having any other choice. I hope this helps.

  22. Okay so I was wondering I always have tons of different story ideas (like notebooks full of them) but I can never finish them, at this point I have one short story done and one picture book rough draft for my english class. I can think in my head of almost exactly how I want it to end but I can never get it out on paper. My mom thinks that it's because if I finish something then I will feel the need to do something with it and she thinks that it's because I'm afraid people won't like it. Whatever the reason I don't know how to fix it. Help?

  23. @Jenna Royal (and any one else)- Thank you for your help. I know what you mean and I think it'll help. The thing is, I try to make them sound different (with their thoughts AND spoken words) but it usually ends up sounding like me. Now I know a writer needs to have a distinct voice (I think Nancy Rue is a great example of that) but the characters shouldn't have that same voice. That brings up another question- How do I get a good balance between my writing voice and my characters' unique voices?

    @Erica- If your mom's right, remember that you need to write for yourself, at least sometimes. Try keeping a journal or freewriting. Don't worry about any one liking it- because you are writing for yourself! I'm kind of like you- The Writing foulder on the computer that I use is filled with unfinished stories. That's normal I'm guessing??

  24. @welliewalks

    Mrs. Levine wrote an entry on voice Sep. 8, 2010. Its entitled "In good voice". Looking through the entry might help you a bit. I know it helped me alot, especially this quote which describes what makes voice: "Voice is an amalgam of many elements: word choice, vocabulary, sentence structure, kind of sentence, sentences combined together, mood, point of view, even tense. "

    Usually the way I make each character has their own voice, is to not think about me and what I think when I'm writing. I think in the character's perspective by understanding the way they think–what they pay attention to, when they speak or when they don't, and what their priorities and values are. I imagine myself as an actor playing the part of the character and I begin to think like them. Use diction the way they do, structure their sentences as more precise and compact if their very analytical and scientific in thinking, or have looser, more poetic sentences for more characters who pay more attention to their emotions. For example, one of my characters are a bookworm and are very analytical and scientifically minded. Her sentences will contain more words that are usually used only in books. She will also pay more attention to what is happening in a situation rather than her own feelings, even in her own thoughts. She would never say "I feel so angry" or "my face burned red…". Her emotions will only be betrayed by her actions, "I narrowed my eyes" or "My fists clenched". In other words, she never says what she is feeling, even in narration and definitely not in dialogue.

    In comparison, another character I am writing about is the opposite. She shows her emotions on her sleeves, she's one of those people who pays attention to not only her emotions but also other people constantly. All the actions described in her point of view have an emotional tint: as an example, "It was the not-so-subtle deflection that caused me to narrow my eyes."

    However, these decisions were conscious ones only at first. I didn't have to think about how my sentences are structured and didn't have to go back and rewrite more long words for the more analytical character, once I got into the story. It came naturally, because I considered her perspective before writing. And since I know my character so well, her perspective, her voice, just flowed. So before you write, think about your characters. Think about specific personality traits and how those traits may affect their voice. You may just surprise yourself.

  25. @Gail-I checked out that blog post. It was really helpful!

    I am going to try and write a story without romance first, however. Almost always, my story either is a romance or romance is a major plot point. I've read so many amazing books with almost nothing to do with love, but as soon as my character is created, a partner forms too. I really love romance. Yet I think I can definitely make a great story without it. Just of now, I already have an idea!

  26. I loved this post! I do have a question that is about something a little different though. I have two MC's and the POV is third person omniscient. The MC's are friends and have been since they were very young. Now they are teenagers, but they're still just friends. Another girl comes along and the boy seems to the first girl to like the new girl. She spies on them once to see if her suspicions are true but he catches her and gets mad. He avoids her and is falling for the new girl more and more. Then at some point the original two make up and the boy realizes he actually loves the first girl. They fall in love. How do I write that so that it doesn't seem as though the boy quickly changes love interests without thinking? The story is a medieval setting, by the way.

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