The Centerpiece of My Obsession: On Unintentionally Creepy Romance

enhanced-buzz-19238-1383159540-25 ‘Men pursuing  unlikely or inappropriate relationships with women and getting them is a common theme promoted in our culture….This Hollywood formula could be called Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Many movies teach that if you just stay with it, even if you offend her, even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, even if you’ve treated her like trash (and sometimes because you’ve treated her like trash), you’ll get the girl.’ –Gavin deBecker, The Gift of Fear

Like real life, even the most fantastical corners of Fantasyland is crawling with creeps— in most cases, creeps who want to get into the main character’s pants.

[Generally, this is a pretty heteronormative and gendered trope, where the persistent suitor is male and their target female; although the inverse exists, the male-pursues-female version seems (anecdotally) more likely to be framed as part of a serious love story (not a romantic comedy) and also normalized (where the female-pursues-male version is framed as comedic and unusual).  As such, I’ll be using gendered language that assumes the male-pursues-female scenario.]

Giving the main character a creepy suitor, or even having your main character be someone’s creepy suitor, is not inherently the problem. The unwanted suitor villain is a well established trope, but it’s universal for a reason. As long as one puts effort into sidestepping cliches, there’s no reason not to use this trope. Conversely, if your main character is the unwanted pursuer of their love interest, a little self-awareness (or a dressing-down from another character) goes a long way. This could be a solid character flaw assuming there are consequences to your protagonist acting like a creep.

Where this trope goes off the rails, however, is when the quantifiably creepy (or even abusive) suitor is held up not as an object of revulsion, but as a viable love interest. In one version, the object of the unwanted suitor’s affections simply shrugs off the obsessive behaviors as normal; in the more disturbing version, the obsessive, invasive behavior is identified by the main character as actively appealing and romantic.

Again, there is a subtle difference between a narrative where the protagonist is established as unreliable narrator and swoons over an objectively antisocial suitor while the reader is supposed to watch in horror, and a narrative that validates the creep’s behavior (bonus creep points if it draws on a man-pain filled Dark and Troubled past as a totally justifiable reason he’s mistreating his love interest). This might be a more subtle distinction if you’re writing about a society wherein the intrusive courtship is socially accepted, but the narrative can still show that this is a culture-bound problem and not a reflection of reality.

Ask yourself if the particular over-the-top romantic gesture you’re writing for your character would get them arrested (or fired, or whacked in the crotch with a baseball bat…). If the answer is yes, and the narrative suggests that this is an awesome courtship strategy, you might want to rewrite. In my observation, characters that have good on-page chemistry– that is, common values, physical attraction, compatible personalities and senses of humor, and some shared interests– are much more engaging and believable than characters who seem forced together via contrivance. If the relationship is all about the dramatic gestures and hate sex, it’s going to come off as creepy rather than passionate. Give your characters real caring and real chemistry, and you can thrill the  reader without resorting to stalker tropes.

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