Writing a Love Story

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!

67 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING

67 responses to “Writing a Love Story

  1. Pingback: A List for Love in Books – Cedar Writes

  2. Draven

    my response to the first sentence:

    Baby dont hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.

    you asked for it.

  3. Rick

    Love is never having to say you are sorry. Good Grief! Didn’t you ever read that epic novel LOVE STORY?

  4. Reality Observer

    My favorite love story? Doesn’t involve anyone dying, I’m afraid. “The Gift of the Magi.”

  5. I’ve always had a bit of fun, subverting the standard romantic element in my books. In the first, I had a long-time married couple (well, long-time by 19th century standards) who were still madly, passionately, crackers in love with each other. In another – I had a couple who married because she was desperate to escape her awful mother and he felt sorry for her – and then they gradually fell in love. And in at least two, I have had male-female couples who started as good friends and then moved gradually into romantic attraction.
    Love is what you make it. For authors, anyway.

    • Funny when subversion becomes making a man love his wife…

    • Indeed, the more common treatments of those situations would be the long-time married couple who were bored with each other, the marriage of convenience and pity that failed because such things never work, and the “friend zone.” It’s sad, really, that it is assumed that marital love can’t last, that those who marry out of something other than love can’t grow to love one another, and that one can never fall in love with a true friend.

      • Yep – that is why I feel so wickedly subversive, when I do this. It feels like I am kicking PC-lit right in the shorts.

      • greyratt

        I don’t think you believe this but let us break it down
        long time marriage = fail
        marriage of convenience/pity (no love) = fail
        friendship becomes love becomes marriage= fail
        so what you are saying is that these authors write love/marriage always fail, and if you “write what you know” says something very grim about these people.
        note: been married for 33 years

        • What it means in the case of long-term marriage failing is that they assume that the desire for variety trumps love and loyalty. What it means in the case of the marriage of convenience failing is that they assume that love can only work if it starts as infatuation. And what it means in the case of friendship becoming love not working, is that they see sex as predatory rather than cooperative — hence, it’s not something you would do to a friend.

  6. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    One thought is that too many “romance” writers confuse “f*cking” with Eros.

    IE there’s more to Eros than “good sex”.

  7. TRX

    > the one place where it really falls flat on
    > it’s little nose is the single word ‘love.’

    Also “friend.”

    For a language that steals words so often from other languages, there are several concepts that English lacks vocabulary for.

    I think this might be more of a reflection of English-speaking societies than the language itself. Those societies don’t see a need for slicing those concepts finer, just like they don’t need 50 words for types of snow.

    Still, the lack of specialized vocabulary is recognized; that’s why there are things like the joke about a friend who will help you move vs. a friend who will help you move a body. There’s a vast difference there, but English doesn’t have an easy way to show it.

    • Yes, because friendship is love, but acquaintanceship is not. Those friends you can meet after years apart and fall back into easy conversation with – that’s love. It would be so much easier to just have a word for that.

  8. This isn’t to bring in religion: The first thing that came to mind is Jesus’ asking Peter three times if he loved Him. This is usually translated as “love.” But the first and second time Jesus asked Peter if he had agape love for Him, and Peter replied “You know I love you like a brother (philos).” The third time Jesus asked him, he said “Do you love Me like a brother (philos)?” And Peter was hurt. The English translation is “. . . because Jesus asked him the third time ‘Do you love me,” but here the word love is philos, not agape. There’s a shading there missed in English, and we lose something there.

    Then there’s this sad thought: Could it be that the idea of deep love has become so alien that many writers do not remember any other love but lust?

    • Kevin, you have no idea how hard it was for me not to bring religion into this post, because that’s my training. And yes, this is a terrific example of the subtle use of language English can’t cope with, this passage in the Greek was very different than a simple repetition.

      I think many writers distrust the idea of a deep sacrificial love. The idea of dying for someone else is alien to them, or it’s portrayed in a very offhand manner. Writing deep emotion means the author has to feel deeply, first.

      • I think that is the nub. How many of us 1) feel that deeply, 2) are willing to pull that out of our inner selves and 3) risk putting it on the page? Especially in a world that all-too-often resembles the worst of high school, with the snickers and finger pointing “hee hee, you said love! Hee hee, weeeeee know what you really mean!”

        To which we as authors (and grown-ups) ought to be saying, “No, no, you don’t. Read and learn.”

        I’d not thought about until I was starting to do initial revisions prior to pulling the books together, but the two Cat books that follow the April release are very much about love of several different kinds.

        • One of my favorite moments of the film Aladdin is when he tells the genie about Jasmine. He’s going on and on about her, and then it cuts to the genie, who has a knowing smile, and says “Is she pretty?” Aladdin thinks he’s in love while the genie thinks he’s head over heels in lust.

      • I recommend (and I suspect you’ve long since read) C. S. Lewis’s *The Four Loves.* He tries very hard to highlight the shades of meaning buried within the single English word “love,” and does very well.

      • Philos is what motivates men to get up out of their foxholes and charge the machine guns. Well, that and the overwhelming desire to have your fellows not look down on you as a coward. But Philos is what makes you run out under fire to help an injured buddy. No love so great …

    • nerdgal

      Lust seems to have been redefined to mean sexual passion. However, its older meaning is more the opposite of love, i.e.
      Love desires the best for a person.
      Lust sees a person as an object to be desired / used for pleasure.

  9. If you want a prime example of the loss of friendship as a concept, try all the LOTR fans who are convinced that Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli were all, at one point or another, boot-knocking.
    For a more recent example, see the reaction to Finn and Poe during the The Force Awakens

  10. 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 very much agree with this. In real life, losing a beloved is an emotionally traumatic experience, even if you just drift apart. In these series, the hero is unaffected by the deaths or murderous betrayals of lover after lover, to a point that would probably drive any real human being crazy. The unfortunate implication is that the protagonist is cold almost to the point of sociopathy, or that he never really loved any of them.

    For that matter, James Bond was borderline-sociopathic, something which Ian Fleming makes obvious in the books but which the movies drop because they can’t deal with anything as complex as a slightly-monstrous hero.

    • TRX

      And depressive, and deeply unhappy much of the time. But Fleming’s Bond and Broccoli’s Bond share little more than names and occupations.

      • OTOH, for the cinema Bond:

        Once upon a time there was a man named Bond, who found the love of his life in a woman named Tracy. Tracy was murdered on the day they were wed. And Bond never let himself fall in love again.

  11. I think friend-love, however lacking in a proper term, is a very powerful thing in writing. The stories endure. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Kirk and Spock. Robin Hood and Little John. Frodo and Sam.

    Even the ones with a bit of Eros in there, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia . . . The hint of sexual attraction and rivalry spices it up, but without the growing friendship, the story would be pretty flat.

  12. Is the author list to the right accurate with respect to the current official Mad Genius contributors? I ask because I am re-systematizing my reviews, and since this is where I started, I feel it only appropriate that I make sure I’ve got these covered first. Feel free to email me with any suggestions. I currently have an empty mag, and “Sleigh Bells Ring” is chambered.

  13. Uncle Lar

    In simplest terms love is that condition where one places the welfare of the object of one’s affection equal to or above one’s own.
    When, as is often the case, that condition is not reciprocated it will tend to fade over time, or transform itself into fixation or obsession.

  14. I read a lot of Regency romances (because comfortable/predictable, I guess). I try to avoid the ones that are all sex, because it’s not love, it’s lust, and anyone who bases a relationship on lust is a fool. Some few authors have done a really good job of portraying the growth of a very realistic love between the two main characters. (And I need to go back and find them, and make a list of those authors….)

    But what has been bothering me more and more recently is that so often the man has spent much of his adult life being very promiscuous (which in itself can’t have been mentally or physically healthy for him), and then we are supposed to believe that he is going to be monogamous for the rest of his life with his new, beloved wife?!? That is really hard for me to swallow. He’s developed some really bad character traits; it’s not that easy to un-do those. And when ‘love’ is really ‘lust’, people tend to fall out of that after a while.

    And it may be that one of the reasons I don’t like ‘contemporary’ ‘love’ stories is because so often the FEMALE lead is portrayed as having been promiscuous, and that’s just wrong (even more wrong than the promiscuous man, in my view, though that is definitely wrong also). It’s politically correct, I guess — SJW mentality (equality for women and all that). If it’s real life, I really don’t want to know about it….

    • There’s a post somewhere – I’ll have to see if I can find the link – on MGC about the glittery hoo-haa and how that phrase came into being. Kate Paulk, after having had the same reaction as you did to those romances, decided that it was a magical glittery ho-haa that suddenly ensorcels the Rake, and he can’t stray because he’s been glittered. Or something like that. But the point is that it’s magical handwavium for the HEA, not what real people do and react like.

      • It gives people some very unrealistic expectations for their own relationships — thinking they can somehow magically turn a Rake into a responsible, monogamous husband is one of those unrealistic expectations.

    • For a good example of handling this topic (ymmv), check out Glen Cook’s “Garrett for Hire” series. Over the long run of the series, the protagonist goes through quite a long list of girls, but keeps going back to this one special girl. But they drive each other crazy, and not necessarily in a good way. And there’s more, but that would involve spoilers.

      • greyratt

        I have read all of Garrets books, I have even quoted Morleys first rule (never date a woman crazier than you). … this makes the second agreement in the same article. … it’s 75 degrees in Kansas in mid feb.
        if the cubs win the series it’s the end of times.
        and to add to the man-friendship Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. (plus his cook and plant tenderer ) althrough Archie did date Lily.

    • The usual Heyer subtext is that the hero stops being a rake because he grows up and develops wider interests and a healthier emotional life, not just because of falling in love with the heroine. Often this involves taking more interest in his estate and dependents, as well as other business or philanthropic affairs.

  15. elainethomp

    This reminds me of my teen trying to figure out why Rowling’s love in the HP series seems off, unhealthy. We haven’t quite figured it out, but keep poking at: mismatch, how they treat each other, and ick, Snape toward Lily?
    is it only mortal sacrifice that makes it love?

    • Ironically, the healthiest love in the series is the one which the fans disliked the most — Ron x Hermione. They start as friends and fall in love because of genuine admiration for one another’s charaters. Harry x Ginny isn’t entirely bad, but their initial motives are mixed — Harry wants to be part of the Weasley family, and Ginny wants to marry her hero. It works out okay because they’re basically compatible, but it easily might not have done so.

  16. analogkid

    Since the “baby don’t hurt me” quip was of course taken by the first post, I’ll go with:

    Love is a battlefield.

  17. analogkid

    Of course, the “baby don’t hurt me” quip was taken by the first post. So I’ll go with:

    Love is a battlefield.

  18. Let’s see: Joschka and Magda married for convenience and fell deeply in love. She succumbed to ovarian cancer and he re-marries, in part because of family pressure, in part because he always liked Adele and she liked him. Not saying more because . . . spoilers.

    Elizabeth and Lazlo married for love, even though she didn’t recognize it, after being friends for several years (and she didn’t recognize it). And stay happily married and very much in love even though physical intimacy isn’t as urgent as when they were younger.

    Rada and Rahoul would go through hell for each other, and do. He’s happily married to another women. Rada and Zabet – likewise and they share a bed but there is zip physical attraction.

    Charles Malatesta – ah, a man who grows up in a deeply-flawed situation and can’t let himself feel that deeply about a woman. Or a man. And who suffers the consequences.

    Aquila Starland and Kemal Destefani – bi sexual because of cultural requirements, faithful to each other and to their families. Complicated, messy, painful, but they find a way.

    Yeah, I can’t write a single plausible love story, or story with love.

  19. ironbear055

    Cool. Since you were going for all types of love, not just romantic, I was happy to see Jim Kjelgaard’s Big Red in your list.

    I was a bit unhappy to not see Heinlein’s “Door Into Summer” there, though. Hits both areas: the protagonist’s and his feline friend’s love for and loyalty to each other with Dan and Petronius the Arbiter, and the both platonic and later romantic love of the protagonist and the girl. Also has a really good breakdown and illustration of the unhealthy type of love in the, to borrow Marc McYoung’s phrase, “Poisonous F*ck Bunny” in the shape of the gold digger that broke up the protagonist and his partner and stole his business out from under him.

    I tend to think of romance/romantic love when I think of love in a story… and this is where far too many authors fall down in my opinion.

    IMO, one thing that usually gets me to toss a book containing a romance is that somewhere along the line, the author seems to have either forgotten, or have never known that love, sex, and romance are *supposed* to be *fun*. The protagonist and their love interest in so many romances – and supernatural romance is especially guilty of this – never seem to be really enjoying themselves, even in the sex scenes. Often times, they don’t even seem to really *like* each other.

    Angst isn’t romance. (Or at least it’s not a healthy one.)

    Romance and sex are supposed to be fun. If we’re not enjoying ourselves and the other person, why are we doing it?

    If the author is trying to show a dysfunctional romance, that’s one thing – but all too often, they seem to be presenting what they’ve written as the ideal, rather than as the painful to read and dysfunctional mess that I see in their pairings.

    I strongly suspect that to write functional and adult relationships well, it really helps for an author to have *had* functional and adult relationships once or twice.

    Heck: in order to really write a dysfunctional relationship well, it often helps to have known the other kind – I think that you have to know the rules on how something should work in order to break them effectively.

    • B. Durbin

      “I strongly suspect that to write functional and adult relationships well, it really helps for an author to have *had* functional and adult relationships once or twice.”

      Very astute observation, there.

  20. Bjorn Hasseler

    So many protagonists seem to be islands. Having two people in s stable, loving relationship is fairly rare. Now give them kids and parents and see how many of them turn into cardboard.

  21. dlj66839

    RAH was able to write entertaining stories without love or sex or even many females, with the Boys Life (boy scout magazine) stories. yes, I fully understand those were the conditions he had to meet for boys life. it does not detract from my enjoyment of those stories. As far as “modern writers” Tell me they love each other, show me they love each other, don’t waste my time trying to write explicit detailed porn. that author will probably never get picked up again on my part.