Cupid is dead. The perfect relationship doesn’t exist. There is no happily ever after and while love can bring a lot of joy, it often brings just as much pain. Sometimes more.
“How can you say that?! It’s almost Valentines day!”
“Preach it, sister!”
“You’re just say that because you’ve never been in love.”
“Gee, someone is jaded.”
Did you find yourself saying one or more of these? If you picked #2 you get a cyber fist bump. If you picked one of the others than you need to be slapped with a herring because the Dread Pirate Roberts was right when he said that “life is pain.”
Every relationship has it’s bumps and bruised egos, it’s disagreements and arguments about how to properly hang a fly swatter (What? You haven’t argued about that?), and every now and again a tragic ending. (Though, if you’re Nicholas Sparks, every romance is tragic.) So if you want your character’s romance to feel real to readers you need to be a sadist. You need to inflict pain on your imaginary lovers.
I know it sounds a bit Greek to stipulate that something has to go horribly wrong in order for the story to be right. And depending on where you are in your authorial journey this may not be an easy concept to grasp. But think about it. Have you ever had a significant other that said or did something that hurt your feelings? Did they lie to your face? Have they cheated on you or betrayed your trust in some other way? Did they incur debt in your name? Or far worse, were you emotionally, psychologically, or physically abused? If you haven’t suffered the more grievous of these, I’m glad, though I suspect that you may know someone who has. Statistics make is likely, unfortunately. And let’s not forget that we’re just as capable of committing offense as our partner.
It’s one of the certainties of life that every now and then there will be some difficulty that you and your partner will have to work through if you’re going to continue to be a couple. Because of that readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect fictional couples to do the same. Though there is a deeper reason for it.
The truth is, the Greeks were on to something. Observing the life of someone whose experiences are more painful than yours is satisfying. It gives us hope and strength. If these fictional people can muster the courage, forgiveness, and whatever else to work out their differences, learn from mistakes, and become happier more functional couples by the end of the tale than so can we. Especially if our trials aren’t as bad. If they are as bad, the same affect can be seen. It’s not quite the same as schadenfreude; though if the tale is comedic that can certainly be the case. In fact, The Bridget Jones books and films like How to Lose a Guy in 10 days prove that disfunction can be entertaining and moving at the same time.
Making our characters suffer can be hard. Oh who am I kidding. It’s a lot of fun! Bring on the pain! *cracks whip*
Oh, sure if you’re a really nice person or new to the craft it can be hard but eventually you’ll get comfortable with it. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re not torturing real people so stop expecting the NSA to offer you a position at their new secret interrogation facility. (They’re fully staffed. I’ve checked.) It’s our duty as writers to make the worlds and characters we create as real as possible we can’t do that if we only include the good. The sad and tragic need to be present as well and that goes double for matters of the heart.