Meet Un-cute

On May 6, 2020, Christie V Powell wrote, If you were reading a book with two POVs, a girl and a guy of comparable age, would you expect them to become a couple? The genre is fantasy.

A conversation followed:

Erica: Unless they were related, already interested in other people, younger than about ten, or vast distances apart, yes. On the other hand, I like to be surprised. Do what you feel like is best for your story.

Katie W.: I would expect them to, but I would also be happy if they weren’t, because I get tired of having every story I read be a romance. I think the comment thread about romance vs. friendship a couple posts back made some good points about this.

Melissa Mead: Yes, but I’d love to see more books that subvert that expectation.

Raina: If it’s a MG book? Maybe. In that case, though, unless it’s really upper MG (bordering on YA, like the later Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books), I wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of romance, even if they do end up together. More like subtle crushes or really strong friendships that develop into something more, not “you’re the love of my life and I will spend the rest of my life with you” type of romance found in some YA books.

If it’s YA? Yes, almost certainly. Not so much because I personally need to have romance in all of my books (honestly I’d love to see more strong, platonic friendships in YA), but because 99% of YA books have some kind of romantic relationship between the main characters, and it’s pretty much a genre convention at this point. I can think of one book that subverts this–THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab, which is also a Fantasy featuring dual male/female POVS who go on an adventure together but end up as close friends, not lovers–but that’s an exception among the norm.

That being said though, you don’t have to purposefully follow OR deliberately subvert genre conventions by any means. Romance is great when it’s well written, but platonic male/female friendships are also something I’d love to see more of.

Christie V Powell: This one is supposed to be adult. There are definitely romance subplots, but they each have one with someone else, not each other. They’ve mentioned that they might be related, but I haven’t decided if they are half-siblings, or if they aren’t, or if I just leave it a mystery and no one ever knows for sure.

SilverSky: Me and my friend are actually going to do this and each write a P.O.V! They definitely won’t be interested in each other. They are around the age of 14 and 15 I think (haven’t started writing it quite yet. Quarantine got in the way of getting together).

If I were reading the book, I think I would still have them just be close friends. If you’re talking adult characters then I would probably expect a closer bond.

Of course, if one (or both) is gay, the reader won’t expect romance.

I once asked a dental hygienist if the first thing she noticed when she met people was their teeth. She said Yes! and added that when she and her ex-husband got serious, she told him she couldn’t marry him unless he dealt with the disaster going on in his mouth–which he did, and the marriage lasted long enough for their daughter to grow to adulthood.

(I wondered how she could tolerate working on me and my tan teeth, caused by my weird habit for many years of chewing cinnamon sticks.)

To me, the heart of Christie V Powell’s question is how we create and manage reader expectations, especially about characters.

In our narration, we can quickly shut down a romanic expectation with something like this: Stacey’s friends were always intense, tightly focused, twitching with energy. But for romance, she preferred laid-back, go-with-the-flow types.

Then, when Brian, wound like a spring, shows up, the reader understands he’s only friend material.

For each of our two POV characters we can think of what would be romantic deal-breakers. Evie in Ogre Enchanted, for example, couldn’t fall for someone with a weak sense of humor.

The deal-breaker could be physical, though we have to be careful with that, because we don’t want readers to feel bad about the way they look. My first date, maybe at the age of fourteen, was with a boy who was at least six-feet-two and I never made it to five feet. I had to reach up to hold his hand. Nerds that we were, we went to a museum in New York City, and on our way there, people from two blocks away pointed at us and laughed. This isn’t to my credit, but I was too embarrassed ever to date him again.

Again from Ogre Enchanted, which explores romantic attachment, Evie asks her mother what made her mother fall in love with her father, who died before the beginning of the book. Part of her mother’s answer is about the tingle she felt with him. We can use absence of some variant on tingle to let readers know that love between two characters is not to be.

In my beloved Pride and Prejudice, any thoughts the reader may have of romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Collins, heir to Mr. Bennett’s estate, are dashed even before he shows up, by his letter, which is pompous and odd. This exchange between Elizabeth and her father follows his reading of the letter:

        “‘He must be an oddity, I think,’ said she. ‘I cannot make him out.—There is something very pompous in his style.—And what can he mean by apologising for being next in the entail?—We cannot suppose he would help it if he could.—Could he be a sensible man, sir?’
        “‘No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.’”

Mr. Collins’s goose is cooked!

By contrast, let’s look at this from Jane Eyre, following her first meeting with Mr. Rochester, when he’s fallen off his horse and she doesn’t yet know who he is:

    “The new face, too, was like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory; and it was dissimilar to all the others hanging there: firstly, because it was masculine; and, secondly, because it was dark, strong, and stern.”

Oh, my! The reader is primed in a single sentence for the cosmos-shaking love that follows.

(Just saying, I adored Jane Eyre in my teens, but when I revisited it decades later, my opinion of Mr. Rochester plummeted.)

So, we guide reader expectation in romance just as in everything else, like world-building, and, like world-building, the sooner the better. Our introduction to Mr. Collins and to Mr. Rochester don’t come early in the respective novels, but they come early in their entry to the story. We don’t want to give the reader a chance to form a different idea, which we’ll have to labor to reverse.

I don’t mean there can’t be surprises. Jane Austen doesn’t guide the reader’s idea of another possible romantic interest, Mr. Wickham, immediately. She wants to surprise the reader. That decision will depend a lot on our plot.

As always, we convey expectations to our readers through narration or thoughts or dialogue or feeling, or a combination of more than one. Anticipation about Stacey’s romantic interests are set up in my first example through narration. We can even use narration to address the reader the old-fashioned way: Dear Reader, do not expect love to spring up between these two. Yes, there will be mutual respect, but their romantic destinies lie elsewhere.

The P&P example uses dialogue, the Jane Eyre one thoughts (or narration–I’m not sure). But we can use thoughts. Here’s Brian: I walked home and ran over the afternoon in my mind. Stacey was nice, sure, but every five seconds she scratched her neck or her arm or rubbed her nose, like an itchy dog, except dogs are adorable no matter what they do.

Not promising.

Here’s Stacey’s feelings: Brian ordered spaghetti and dug in. Stacey’s stomach turned when he slurped, when spaghetti strands wriggled from his mouth, when red sauce dribbled down his chin.

Hard to get past that.

Christie V Powell, if you continued with your project since you asked your question, how did it turn out? Was there a romance?

Here are three prompts:

• Dr. Watson has broken multiple bones in a fall from his horse. He sends in his sister to sub for him as Sherlock Holmes’s assistant. Write their meeting from his point of view and show that he’s drawn to her.

• Using the scenario above, now write their meeting from her point of view and show that, while she admires Sherlock’s mind, she finds him romantically unappealing.

• Write the scene that follows the one above, in which Holmes deduces the impression he’s made and works to change it. Decide whether or not he succeeds.

Have fun, and save what youwrite!

  1. ” My first date, maybe at the age of fourteen, was with a boy who was at least six-feet-two and I never made it to five feet.”

    My driver’s license says that I’m 5′, but that may be generous. My ex-husband was 6’4″ We’re both sitting/kneeling in our wedding pictures, because otherwise we couldn’t have both fit in the shot!

  2. Since this is a fairy-tale crowd, maybe somebody can help me figure this out: In “Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes, and Little Three-Eyes,” how many eyes does the mother have?

  3. Kate Mazlow says:

    If I’m reading a book, doesn’t matter what genre is I will enjoy it way more if it has a romance between the to main characters. In all my books I’m writing I leave room for a romance to spring up. Like in one of my current WIP, my MC Vanessa, I make you think she’s going to fall in love with one brother but she ends up with the other one. In short I love a good romance between to characters.

  4. “In our narration, we can quickly shut down a romantic expectation with something like this: Stacey’s friends were always intense, tightly focused, twitching with energy. But for romance, she preferred laid-back, go-with-the-flow types.” Unfortunately, in YA at least, I’ve noticed a certain trend where what the MC thinks they like/know about romance at the beginning of the book is reversed by the end. The whole “falling in love with your mortal enemy” thing. Personally, I find it incredibly unrealistic (and annoying), but between that, the “falling in love with someone you never noticed before” trope, and the “love at first sight” trope, really the only way to make sure the readers know two characters aren’t going to end up together is to give them a happy relationship with someone else, or just refuse to touch romance with a ten-foot pole. There’s really no way out of it. That being said, I wish there were. I really like seeing friendships instead of romances, but they’re almost impossible to find, which makes me even more grateful for the ones I track down.

    • Yeah, the enemies-to-lovers trope is huge.
      Making them related in some way is another possible way to make sure they don’t end up together.

      “The Year Money Grew on Trees” is a fun one about the friendship between cousins (YA, I think).
      “Dragon Run” by Patrick Matthews (MG but borderline YA) focuses on the growth of the main character. He is friends with a girl, but it’s not really romantic and he has a much more developed friendship with his male friend.
      My first Keita’s Wings book (YA) is about the friendship between four girls. There are romances later in the series though.

  5. i💜writing says:

    Hate to be stating the obvious, but Harry and Hermione in Harry Potter? Obviously romance is involved eventually, but not between the two.

  6. Belle Adora says:

    One thing that I hate is when a romance is completely set up, then doesn’t even happen. For example Little Women… When I write I try to avoid that catastrophe. Don’t pair up someone with someone else who’s twenty years older than them. Just don’t. And don’t set up a romance if it’s not going to happen at all. State clearly what your MC looks for in love so that the reader doesn’t get aggravated. Yes, things can fall through, one character can have feelings and the other doesn’t – but make that obvious.

  7. An_Author_Someday says:

    I’ve got a question– although it’s quite trivial. I was reading through the draft of a novella I’m writing, and I realized that I mention food in five scenes, all of which feature a character eating soup.

    And now I’m stuck wondering, is the mention of food even necessary? It’s not terribly plot relevant, although it provides a venue for some characters to have an important conversation over a meal. How much do you like to read about characters eating before it feels frustrating and irrelevant? I’m never quite sure how to write about my characters eating, even when I do think it’s necessary to mention that they are. Is some detail about say, what kind of soup, better? Or just distracting.


    • An_Author_Someday says:

      I should clarify, whatever I do, I know I need to diversify my food, but it led me down a confused rabbit hole.

    • Trivial questions are my favorite kind!

      In my opinion, it’s less important to show characters eating than to make sure they have food. On the other hand, meals are a good way to indicate the time of day, start conversations, and include worldbuilding.

      How much you want to focus on food will depend mostly on what kind of story you’re writing. If you’ve got a story that focuses on a group of characters that always eat together (friends at school, families, adventurers on a quest, and such), then meals provide a good opportunity to advance your plot. On the other hand, if the focus of your story is more focused on action (mysteries, spy stories, quests), make sure your characters have food, but don’t necessarily watch the eat it. It’s all about finding a balance.

      As far as details go, include the ones that make sense. Describe what’s on the MC’s plate/bowl when they get it, and anything they put on it. For example “Joe picked up a plate and took some of the spaghetti. After grabbing a slice of garlic bread, he sat down.” That way, if you want to mention twirling noodles around his fork, you’ll be set.

      • I agree that it depends on your story… and on you. If you want to include food, it’s a great way to worldbuild, showing culture and economics (what kinds of food and how much they can afford), what plants and animals are in your world, etc. You don’t have to use it, but there are advantages if you choose to.

    • I love food scenes in books. One of my biggest disappointments with the novel on sub was that I didn’t get to write any, because the MC only eats raw meat. And readers generally like them. There are whole cookbooks of fantasy recipes out there. And I sometimes think that Redwall is as famous for its food as something else.

      Plus, it’s a wonderful way to show culture. everybody eats.

      • You can even use it to show character. Ex:

        “Here, have some wedding cake.”
        With a mischievous smile, she offered two slices of something layered in yellow and white, topped with snowy fluff.
        “My birdling,” said Malak, trying not to sound reproachful, “you know Jabin and I can’t eat bird-man food.”
        “Do you think I’d give either of you something that would make you sick? I made this myself. Try it.”
        Malak bit off a corner. “Eggs!” he said in surprise. Jabin had already devoured half his piece.
        “Uh-huh. I made it special for both of you. I didn’t want either of you to feel left out.”

        (Ok, I managed to sneak in a LITTLE food scene. 🙂 )

  8. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I really love it when a guy and a girl can just be friends in books. One of my best friends is a guy, and I wish it was more normalized in society. The amount of looks/comments we’ve gotten is too many to count, and I think that if more stories across all forms of media showed happy platonic relationships between girls and guys, how other people view us/what they expect from us might change.

    • I’d like that too. I hung out with a guy I went to HS this weekend, and I suspect that at one point someone mistook us for a couple. His wife + kids would be shocked! 🙂

  9. Ms. Levine, I love your writing and your prompts but why would I write straight Sherlock Holmes fanfiction? With all due respect, we all know he’s in love with John Watson.

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