Nobody falls in love the same way
A few tropes tend to dominate when we imagine characters falling in love. Someone makes a sacrifice for the other person, which makes them fall in love with that person. Someone just treats the other person kindly or carries through on a long-standing promise. What they all have in common is the lowering of our defenses when someone protects, defends, or honors us.
It can, of course, be more convoluted than that. Someone with low self-esteem could fall for someone who compliments them a lot. Someone searching for some evidence that a self-centered person can love crumples in relief when observing the other caring for an animal, projecting that some day, that same fawning devotion will be directed toward them.
The illusion of constancy
Feelings of love are not constant. They depend on us feeling hopeful and safe, even in some cases when we have nothing specific to hope for and are negotiating dangerous situations. Love can be sidelined when we are angry or confused. The flush of romantic love recedes, but often a grudging compassion remains–a memory of being cared for.
Love scares a lot of people–often at the same time they desire it. Allowing another person into your life is always disruptive. To make room for them, you have to pay less attention to other people you care about. You have to give up parts of your schedule that you also enjoy. You may end up spending more money or traveling a lot more than usual. It can sometimes even become an overwhelming existential fear that you are losing who you are the more you hang around that person. That tension between wanting and fearing love can make some people act erratically, or at least inconsistently.
And sadly, love can often feel like an obligation–something we’re supposed to feel because of the circumstances. Have your characters been living with the same person for three years? Is one of them pregnant? Sometimes the pressure to approximate love comes after a few months of dating. We say to ourselves, “I should be feeling something now,” and then go through the motions we think loving people would, like vacationing together, meeting each other’s parents, living together, or getting engaged.
Once, when I was working as a ghost writer, I was abducted and imprisoned by one of my clients. (He was insisting I wasn’t working hard enough and had to stand over my shoulder. I know.) But he and his wife had a really inspiring ritual they performed every morning upon waking: They affirmed for each other that they still loved each other and wanted to remain together.
What IS love?
And that, I think boils down the glue that love becomes in a society of so many different people with different agendas: We love someone who seems committed to our well being. It is the reason we love our families. It is why we love long-time friends. We can depend that they will always have our backs, no matter how bad things get.
So when you write about characters falling in love, whether you write specifically for the romance market or just include it in your character development and plot complications, consider (at least initially) characters falling in love for the wrong reasons, questioning whether they’re still in love when they feel bad in the other person’s presence, and more easily feeling love for more than just one person. It will ring truer to real life.
This is the second installment in my short series of essays on portraying different emotions. Check out last week’s “Writing Anger” and check back again next week for “Writing Fear.”