Just in Time for Valentine’s

Over at Exchange of Realities, Ravyn writes about the dangers of “Designated Love Interests”… that is, NPCs that are designed to become the love interest of one of the PCs.

    • People will do amazing things for the ones they love; as a result, such love can be a motivator for story characters and game characters alike. So it’s often tempting to create a character specifically for the purpose of creating a romantic attachment: a Designated Love Interest, or DLI.

      That’s when the trouble starts.

      Limyaael has a lot to say about the Designated Love Interest in novel format, mostly having to do with the fact that said DLI isn’t really human, strains internal consistency by how her romances begin, and is generally cliché and undercharacterized. And yet, despite these flaws, a story with a bad DLI can reach its predetermined end; it just requires the writer to completely overwrite the characters. (The fact that this is bad fictional practice is another matter entirely.)

The problem with a lot of advice along the lines of Limyaael’s is that people read fiction for a lot of different reasons, and I can point to a huge selection of literature that demonstrates that Limyaael’s preferences are not shared by readers looking for romance in their fiction in the first place.  Readers want what they want, and not what some PhD LitCrit candidate thinks they should want.  Contrariwise, PhD LitCrit candidates want what they want, and are under no obligation to enjoy pot-boiler romances just because the masses do.  But people looking for writing advice are well-advised to carefully consider which audience they’re writing for.  My sister Elizabeth is a published romance novelist, with a half-dozen novels to her credit, and one of the first things she had to learn was there really is a tight limit to how much tweaking the conventions readers will put up with before they’re dissatisfied by the fact that whatever its other merits, the book is no longer what they want when they pick up a romance.

What’s more, RPGs aren’t simply a form of fiction, and there are a lot of players who play so that they can revel in the cliches.   They want their good to be good, their bad to be bad, and their fated lovers to be damn well singled out by fate in no uncertain terms. You’re not doing those kind of players a favor by creating a subtle, nuanced portrayal of a realistic sort of person that their character plausibly might or might not  fall in love with if this were a work of fiction where the author controlled both sides of the interest as well as everything that happens to them.

The point is that you have to know your audience.  There isn’t a good way and a bad way to do romantic interests in a game; there are a bunch of ways, and different players may want different ones, or the same player may want different ones at different times depending on the genre or how they see their character.  The real danger in a Love Interest is not that the character won’t bite and that will spoil your plot, it’s that you’ll choose a way that isn’t what the player wants, and even if the plot moves along its rails the game time will be wasted if not spoiled.

Generally speaking, I think the best way to avoid that is to solicit player input.  You want a character that the player’s PC will fall in love with?  Have the player help design the character and the general outline of how they’ll interact.  One huge advantage to this is that if the player isn’t interested in having that sort of thing happen in game, for whatever reason, you find out then and there and can drop the whole matter.  You also get explicit guidance from the player on what the character will find attractive (which is by no means what the player personally would find attractive), as well as just how genre-iffic, and how detailed or abstract, the whole approach to romance should be.  I find that even players who care deeply about playing In-Character are really open to out-of-game discussions about how they as player would like the game to go and the psychology of their character.

The down-side to this approach is that you lose the spontaneity.  There is something particularly satisfying about relationships with NPCs, of any sort, that arise dynamically out of play and not because the GM or the GM and player together contrived it in advance.  After all it’s precisely the actual real-time play of the game that’s the reason we play out the game in the first place instead of sitting around the table collaborating on a novel or a play.  To the extent that important things are moved from game play and into game planning, we risk diminishing the game.

Still, with all the ways that in-game romances are fraught with peril–not just for your preferred plot, but for the cohesion of the game group as a whole–I think the wisest course is not by creating a really attractive character and crossing your fingers and hoping, but by knowing your audience, which includes knowing whether they want in-game romance at all.  And the best, quickest, and most reliable way to know your audience is to openly ask them.

9 thoughts on “Just in Time for Valentine’s

  1. I think you’ve pointed out the primary problem with giving advice to GMs. It’s likely to miss it’s target because they and their players are unknown to you.

    Sometimes it can be so far off base that it’s like a Unix Engineer telling me that I have to to run a certain command if I want to better hit my target at the rifle range, i.e. an immediate WTF! moment.

  2. Sometimes I think that half my advice boils down to “Mileage varies. Talk to your players.”

    The other half I at least try to present as “This what I do. You might find it interesting or useful.”

  3. Guess getting a rant is better than nothing…. Ah, well. I needed a good discussion today.

    The way I see it, you’re actually restating my point pretty closely; I address the issue of finding out which players aren’t interested in the first riff, and touch on coordinating with them in the second.

    What’s most important, and what I’m trying to get across with both posts, is the issue of DLIs who aren’t human. I’ve seen quite a few–including one of my own, I’ll be talking about that on Saturday–who have actually lost the interest of their designated players because of their lack of individuality, and I’ve had two and a half accidental romances in my game alone that sprung from the fact that the characters in question were human first and everything else second. Even a fated love interest needs to be interesting in her own right, or her partner decides “Screw destiny, I like this woman better!” (…and yes, this is a real example that I do plan on writing about.)

    Besides, dedicated romance novels usually don’t fall into a lot of the DLI cliches anyway. The characters have to be their own people and have real chemistry or the audience gets bored, and it’s more exciting if it actually seems like there’s a risk of them not reaching their Happily Ever After. If anything, romance readers are more picky about their couples than your standard fantasy reader, since they’ve seen it all–sort of like how a speculative fiction writer will pick holes in fantastical devices that a literary generalist takes for granted.

    (The disclaimer on game style, by the way, is in the “How to Use This Blog” tab. You blog professionally long enough, you start taking for granted the fact that not everyone’s going to agree with you.)

    Been nice talking to you!

  4. Hm. I wasn’t intending it to be a rant at all. I don’t think your advice is bad. (I don’t even think Limyaael’s advice is bad as long as you read it as a rant about what she wants to read, not universal advice on how writers should write.)

    But I didn’t see you offering much guidance on how to tell whether the players are interested or not, or how to distinguish between the qualities that the player might find attractive and those that the character might, and I had a specific suggestion for what I think is fruitful and underutilized approach there.

  5. Ah, gotcha.

    I tend to take for granted a certain amount of communication in that regard; I’ve never been the type not to ask my players things.

    I’ll admit to being extremely tempted to start distilling what I know about the romance reader audience, since I think they’d agree with me and even with her a lot more than you think. (Would you believe I spent my last semester of college hanging out on a couple of romance blogs? I blame the Cassie Edwards/black-footed ferret scandal and the McGillivray debacle.)

  6. I’d be interested in your thoughts on romance readers. I’ve read a bunch myself, originally because my sister wouldn’t let me read her manuscripts until I’d read enough that I’d have some basis for comparison, then later because I’d actually found some authors I enjoyed. I’m really skeptical about some of Limyaael’s pronouncements. For instance, I think that it’s inevitable that the love interest is going to get more description and more vivid and attractive description than anybody else in the book. The goal is in a large part to turn the reader on; you’re just not going to get a dumpy guy with bad skin or halitosis as the designated reader fantasy figure, no matter how realistic it might be that people do in fact sometimes fall in love with such guys. The most you can hope for is that sometimes the guy is not the perfect Adonis, because that’s the villain and the heroine is showing how deep she is by falling for the really handsome but not exaggeratedly perfect guy.

    You’re also not going to get a guy who really has a serious character flaw or failing, unless it’s something the heroine can cure before the end of the book. Romantic heroes can have quirks, or they can have fixable problems that provide complications to the couple getting together, they can have issues that would be a problem for anyone but the heroine, but they just won’t have something where on the balance the heroine prefers to be with them but will be a source of tension or dissatisfaction for the rest of their lives.

    Romance readers aren’t interested in stories of settling, or girl-gets-fixer-upper. Or if they are, they’re reading books that I haven’t. I’ve read plenty of romances where I thought the heroine was a fool, the guy should be in jail, and in the real world the relationship wouldn’t last a month, but I don’t think I’ve ever run across one where I got the sense that was the author’s take on it too.

  7. Bear in mind Limyaael isn’t usually reading things-that-are-meant-to-be-romances, either; her blog is for SpecFic writers. As she points out early on in one of the posts, “I view romance in my fantasy the same way I view a fly in my soup.” So we really can’t apply her pronouncements to the romance genre as a whole, and I doubt she expects anyone to. Fantasy doesn’t need to give its romances neon signs, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding it more amusing trying to guess. (Besides, it gives the ‘shippers more room to play without actually breaking canon.)

    Before I go on, I need to point out that when I say a human character, I don’t necessarily mean one too flawed to be functional, or a “settling” job. It just means that I want them to have emotion, and a few interesting characteristics that aren’t OMG Sexy!, and a minor flaw or two because believe you me, dating someone who comes across completely perfect is an exercise in irritation. And a life. Most of the leads I’ve seen in romances, and particularly the ones that have gotten high review ratings on the two romance communities I used to frequent, have been intelligent, interesting, people with goals and dreams that will carry on beyond being in love. Heck, there was one that got really high marks because it was clear that she’d do fine whether she got her Happily Ever After or not, and netting the guy was just an added bonus. Forget the title, though.

    And–I always think that to deserve a PC’s affection, you should at least have the mindset of a PC. Preferably similar to the PC they’re seeing. I had one who wouldn’t settle for anything less than a duty-bound player of spywork and social politics with hobbies and interests of his own (her DLI was good on the first three, but I kinda had to get on the GM’s case about the last), and there was one NPC in that group who was treated to stirring choruses of “Girl, get a BACKBONE!” every two months for the first year realtime. (She got better. Then worse and nearly lost her PC. Then better again. Then her PC quit and things got messy.)

    ….and I will get to the romance genre later, as I have to get to choir.

  8. Well, that pretty much gets back to my original point about Limyaael’s advice: people read fiction for a lot of different reasons. And people play games for even more reasons. There are times when I’m tempted to say screw whether that NPC love interest is three dimensional, I’d settle for my fellow PCs being three dimensional.

  9. Basing a plot on any reaction that a PC is “supposed to” have seems dangerous to me, let alone a love interest. When I’ve wanted romantic subplots in my games, I’ve always had them be between NPC’s, with the players assisting the star-crossed lovers to fulfill their destiny (yes, if they are really star-crossed their destiny is to die in each others’ arms…)

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