“What is love? (Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me no more!)” Everyone remember that classic by Haddaway (and of course, its star-making turn on SNL)? If so, sorry about getting it stuck in your head, but I’m using it to illustrate a point. When we consume fiction, be it in book, TV or movie form, love stories tend to follow very predictable, repeatable patterns. Just like the song’s beats and lyrics, we can see the same basic tropes play out over and over and over again.
And there’s a reason. Much like the song, these kinds of stories are catchy, satisfying in a particular way. We go into them expecting something to happen, and then it does. Two people meet, they fall for each other, some sort of conflict arises when one member of the relationship wrongs the other in some way, but at the end they realize they are meant to be together and all is forgiven.
That’s the romantic comedy variant, but if you pay attention you chart the different variants across any genre you care to name. They’re predictable as clockwork. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The reason certain plot structures survive in fiction long enough to become tropes is that on some fundamental level, they just work. We find them pleasing. In this case, they depict a world where a person can find true love and retain it, even if they make some mistakes along the way. What concept is more appealing than that?
Of course, we all know it doesn’t always work this way in the real world. In my ever-present quest to inject more reality into fiction, I humbly submit that we should take the time to break out of romantic tropes. Maybe the wronged party refuses to forgive the hero and moves on to find happiness with another (or alone). Maybe the hero or heroine is never able to attract the interest of their unrequited love at all, and has to learn to let go of idealized interpretations of love before they can grow as a character.
You notice anything about those examples? At first glance, they all tend to be more pessimistic than the tropes they subvert. But I would disagree. The stock love stories we’ve all grown up on paint an unrealistic depiction of what real-world love means to most people. Think about it. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Are you serious? That’s crazy talk!
And even though they are pleasing to imagine, we shouldn’t assume that everyone wants to read stories about idealized, unconditional love all the time. If someone is suffering through a difficult breakup or even a divorce, they may not want to read a story about how true love is preordained and unbreakable. Maybe what will help them most is a story about how fleshed out, three dimensional characters who behave like real people tried to make it work and couldn’t for whatever reason. I guarantee you that while such a story might not be a warm fuzzy, a lot of readers will be able to identify with it.
The bottom line is this: love story tropes depict idealized love as we would like it to be, if you ignore the fact that the people such stories involved wouldn’t be in any way real. But love stories that focus more on character than tropes will do a better job of depicting love as it happens to real people. And when the most important key to hooking a reader is getting them to identify with a character, maybe that’s something we as writers should be trying to do more often.
“What is love” indeed.