Early in my novel writing course I was told that the relationship between to my two leads was unconvincing. Why did I think that she would be attracted to him? My answer, honestly, was, ‘Because it’s me.’ But apparently this was not sufficient. So, how, as a reader, do you know when one character is attracted to another? And how might this help a writer to make a relationship more plausible?
Let’s start with physical attraction. It’s a tricky one this. Any attempt is likely to be based on personal preferences and is in danger of revealing sexual peccadilloes. She had a great rack/He had a tight bum, tend to end up as nominees at the Bad Sex Awards. But the following passages are not a million miles away. This, from Dr No:
It was a naked girl with her back to him. She was not quite naked. She wore a broad leather belt with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic.
As Cher from Clueless says, ‘Sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex.’
And what about the physical attraction of a woman to a man? This is the first meeting with Christian Gray in Fifty Shades:
So young – and attractive, very attractive. He’s tall, dressed in a fine grey suit, white shirt, and black tie, with unruly dark copper coloured hair, and intense, bright grey eyes that regard me shrewdly. It takes a moment for me to find my voice.
Clearly, neither of these are at the top end of the literary market. But do I believe that James Bond fancies Honey Ryder; or Anastasia Steele has the hots for Christian Gray? Yes. It might seem a bit pat to suggest that such simple signifiers such as tallness in men and bare skin in women are effective in convincing a reader that one character is attracted to another, but try these: He was a small man, under three-foot tall if my guess was correct. Hel-lo, I thought to myself.’ Or ‘Despite the tropical heat, she was dressed to keep out the cold: at least three jumpers under her thick duffel coat, and a scarf over her chin’.
There is also a danger that you can get too literary. This is the hero’s description of his lover from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:
She had black hair, fair skin that freckled in summer, china-blue eyes with a lot of light in them; and in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic. In fact, she was half Irish, half Cherokee, from a town in Kansas near the Oklahoma border.
This is, as you’d expect, free of cliché, but it feels a little too detached – almost anthropological – to convince as a description of attraction.
If the physical were sufficient to convey attraction, then Bond girls wouldn’t have such a short shelf life – or life come to that. As it is, he’s pretty soon out the door and killing again. What tends to take over is emotional attraction. Traditionally, male leads on the Heathcliffe/Mr Rochester model, are described as brooding. (Brooding, not glum. As if your family’s inheritance means you have to take responsibility of an unfair burden; not as if your Oyster card has just run out.) The one woman James Bond actually marries has a troubled past and behaves in an unpredictable way. It all points to some depth in the character, something that might draw him past appearance. Unfortunately, just being moody or troubled is not a guarantee of attractiveness. So what else?
Actually, I could probably list any number of physical, emotional, or verbal traits, but what really convinces is the degree to which they lead to entanglement. Two protagonists who just can’t help getting involved. Even if they try to get away. In romantic fiction this is often expressed through argument. As if they are annoyed at finding themselves so caught up. A friend of mine told me she’d once got into an argument with a man at a party about the ‘patriarchal society’. She then paused and said, ‘And I know it was because I fancied him.’ This is from Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy as she tackles her handsome cousin over his choice of fiancé:
This brought him in mind of a complaint he could with justice make. He said stiffly: ‘Since you have brought up Miss Wraxton’s name, I shall be very much obliged to you cousin, if you will refrain from telling my sisters that she has a face like a horse!’
‘But Charles, no blame attaches to Miss Wraxton! She cannot help it, and that, I assure you, I have always pointed out to your sisters!’
‘I consider Miss Wraxton’s countenance particularly well-bred!’
‘Yes indeed, but you have quite misunderstood the matter! I meant a particularly well-bred horse!’
‘You meant, as I am perfectly aware, to belittle Miss Wraxton!’
‘No, no! I am very fond of horses!’ Sophy said earnestly.
A quick wit is both a sign of attraction and an attractive quality in itself. It is also important that the two protagonists are equally matched – what Charles lacks in wit he makes up for in belligerence. There is a game of tennis here, the ball will continue to go back and forth between them.
Lack of entanglement makes a relationship implausible. Two characters are paired at the end of Adam Bede, but they have barely been in contact throughout the novel and show no real attraction for another.
The example of Sophy and Charles also brings up the way in which attraction is often a game in which one or other character will break or hold rules. Sophy constantly defies convention: arriving in a carriage with several dogs and a monkey, and later driving a carriage down St James’s St in front of her cousin’s club. All Charles has to do is express angry disapproval and you know they’re headed up the aisle.
One of the reasons it is perfectly plausible that someone of a higher social status would find Elizabeth Bennett attractive is that she breaks rules. Whether it is walking when she should wait or defying her social superior. It is an attractive quality. Darcy, on the other hand, upholds rules: holding a confidence even at the risk of his own happiness; ensuring, at the end, that the right thing is done.
Christian Gray’s sadistic games could even be seen as an extreme example of this: combining rule breaking and enforcing in one.
Jane Austen, however, has more to say. In Mansfield Park, Fanny and Edmund, two of the dullest lovers in literature, both uphold rules in a rather priggish way. They share values, but do they genuinely find each other attractive? Yes, but the attractions are quieter: he is consistently kind to her, in defiance of others; whereas she quietly supports his ambitions. The Crawfords however are great rule breakers. You can’t help thinking that if Edmund had given in to Mary, and Fanny had succumbed to Henry, they might have had short relationships but they’d have gone up in delightful flames. Jane Austen seems to be saying that those things you think lead to attraction will end in chaos; conventional attractions are dull but they produce quieter and more sustained outcomes.
Ho-hum. And it brings us to the great rule breakers: Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Both of them have clearly been defying convention since they were in nappies. Despite her mistake in pursuing the boringly conventional Ashley, there are, in her and Rhett, no two other people living in Texas who can match their flagrant disregard for what you are supposed to do. The game of attraction they play is about bringing each other to heel. That they ultimately fail is probably as much to do with the fact that they temporarily accept a compromise which involves living a more conventional life. No wonder he’s out the door. Do I believe they find each other attractive? Absolutely. Plus, on the film poster, he’s taller than she is, and she’s showing a bit of boob.
If the lovers are not fighting against each other, the proof of their attraction is often the contrast between them and the world they find themselves in. A friend used to always write about supermarkets: songs, stories, you could always rely on an Asda or a Co-Op. For him, they represented an emotionally vacant world in which the two protagonists, and their love for one another, provided the only sign of humanity. In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the relationship between Jess and Melanie is set against an intolerant Pentecostal church. Think, Julia and Winston in 1984, Romeo and Juliet in that play I can never remember the name of.
A final proof of attraction is the degree to which one or other or both are willing to sacrifice or endure in order to turn that attraction into love. Prospero, clearly the father of the romantic novel, says of his daughter and her suitor, ‘They are both in either’s power, but this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.’ Ferdinand is caged to prove his love for Miranda, and endures. Both Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy have to give up their fixed views – of acceptable behaviour and social status. The hero in Love in a Time of Cholera must wait many years before he wins his love.
So where does this leave the writer trying to create convincing couple? Well, for a start, would you fancy them? If you don’t, who else is going to? Also, is this a short term attraction or something more: do they want to go to bed with one another, or wake up together in the morning? If so, what entangles them? What makes it impossible for them ultimately to be apart? Finally, be Prospero: what obstacles could you set up to test that entanglement: distance, other suitors, misunderstandings, arguments.
As usual, I don’t think I’ve got anywhere near answering the question. For example, the experience of attraction is often overwhelming. Romeo says, ‘It is the East and Juliet is the sun.’ And where is that in this list of ways that you know that one character is attracted to another? Also, I just kept thinking of more and more examples eg Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. But you’ve got to stop somewhere. If you have your own opinions please add them below.