What is love?
Since I can’t possibly answer that simple question fully in the constraints of the post, I’ll satisfy myself with keeping it short: Love is wanting only the best for the one that is loved with no expectation of anything in return.
Not enough? No, it really isn’t, is it.
Let me try again. English is a wonderful language, and I’m glad I know it. The way it absorbs useful words, the way spelling can be creative, the homonyms… But the one place where it really falls flat on it’s little nose is the single word ‘love.’ We love our parents, our children, our cars, our food, the view of the sunset… One word. It hardly seems sufficient to encompass this emotion we term love. Are we really putting all that on one plane?
The Ancient Greeks had three words for love. Eros, Philos, and Agape: sexual or sensual love, brotherly love, and a pure love that was said to be of divine origin and the most selfless of them. I’m not going to get into the cultural context here, I’m just going to use them to categorize love a little more neatly than the English language allows with it’s single word.
All too often when you pick up a book that has a romance in it in these modern times, it’s all about the sex. All sex all the time… I have no objections to sex. But sex is not love, something that seems to have been missed in many books. Eros, lust, these things can happen and have a place in a book, but they are not love.
Love is not always between a man and a woman, either. We can find literary examples of pure, unselfish love – Agape – in places like Silas Marner, Black Beauty, and Where the Red Fern Grows among many others. I’ve included two books where animals are the focus on purpose. There is a subgenre I dub ‘boy and his dog’ which also includes girls, horses, and it is a portrait of the love that connects a mute animal straight to the heart of a human. Writing this connection can be heart-piercing, I can think of few books that will make me cry harder than Greyfriars Bobby, and I grew up loving and reading all of Jim Kjelgaard’s books.
My First Reader recently reread Big Red, and remarked on something about it that bothered him. It had taken him a while to put a finger on it. The main character, he pointed out, was seventeen, and not at all interested in girls or sex. He just wanted to hunt the woods with his dog. Does it say something about us, in the culture we have soaked with sex, that this seems unnatural to read now? The young adult books my teens read are much more concerned with boys and girls and falling in love, and sex is very much a part of that. A love story with no hints of sex might seem strange to kids these days.
One of the other things we lose with this rush toward Eros for all the love stories is the philos aspect. Brotherly, or comradely, love: the platonic ideal. How many stories have you read recently where there was a man and a woman and they loved one another enough to lay down their life for the friend… but there was no sex? Not many, for me… And how many stories have you read about two men (or two women) who loved one another that much, and still, there was no sex (or worse, crippling doubt implied because they couldn’t love as it might mean they were *gasp* gay).
In too many books I find paper-doll characters made out of thin cardboard and being mushed up together with kissy noises being made as they are moved through a parody of love and sex like marionettes. Love is many-faceted and yet authors fall into the trap of looking at only one – at most two – facet. Which yields a flat story.
That isn’t to say that there are no great love stories out there. I have read many, and suggest that before you start writing, you think about love. We tend, as authors, to focus on the conflict, the hates, the crises… and not on what love can do for our story. Love gives support, offers a refuge, gives our hero something to hold onto when he’s about to break. Hope and love walk hand in hand.
Something that annoys me – and when I stop to think it through, disturbs me – is the treatment of love in series. I’ve been reading mysteries recently, three different series, and they all share a common thing: the hero’s love interest doesn’t last long. In one series, the hero is happily married in the beginning, his wife dies of cancer, he takes a lover who is killed, he is sexually attracted to his grad student, he takes a lover who turns out to be the killer (but wrongfully persecuted, natch)… In another series the hard-bitten old cop has run through three wives, before the series even starts, and then in the series has no less than three relationships in five books… in another series the hero is less promiscuous but no less ambivalent to his on-again-off-again lover… While I can understand the need to introduce conflict into each book, I can’t help but think about James Bond, who had a girl in every port, and how that can’t be healthy. While I know there are series out there which have long-running happily married characters, I can’t help but wonder if the frequent break-ups and easy sex in series is a cop-out for the author who feels they need some personal angst to go along with the overarching plot of the books.
I’m not saying to not write sex. Intimacy can be a wonderful thing to read about, although personally I know how tab B fits into slot A and I’d rather let my imagination take over as the bedroom door shuts. But there are bits of scenes that can fit in there – a moment of sheer silliness like tickling your lover, the moment of whispering in the dark that seals a connection – that can be powerful, alluring, and don’t get into the gory details. Eros, Philos, and Agape all are part of the ideal romantic relationship, I was taught.
In a book, as in life, we need more than love. But love can add a dimension to our characters that was missing, can flesh out a story into something beautiful. Love can be filial, can be passionate, can be the lifeline you throw your hero, or the string that draws him into deeper trouble trying to help his loved one. If we’re going to play marionettes, let’s make them dance, not just fuck. Dum vivamus, vivamus!
I asked in a couple of places for a list of love stories that people connected with. What books, other than straight romance titles, did people like to read as love stories? The response was huge, and I’ve put that list over at my blog, for those of you in search of a good love story. More than one person commented that they love a book about deep sacrificial love. And I think that’s a good use of the word love!