WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Michael's new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: a Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, is available now. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb and Instagram @michaeltabbwga.
If there is a common tragedy in the relationship between my fellow screenwriters and their five major character types, it often is in the poor amount of forethought and development that seems to go into the character every writer should most adore. It hurts to admit that the most poorly conceived character in a script is so frequently the one that should be the closest to our hearts. We scribes love to write a beautifully flawed protagonist because we identify with them. Writers can't wait to sink their teeth into that nasty antagonist that's inspired by a person we've been dying to fight from the safety of sitting behind our laptops. Are lackluster love interests the result of wallflower writers that seem to witness life more than partake in it as extroverted participants? Perhaps many writers have not found a person that rips their soul apart and also mends it, romantically, all at the same time? Maybe it's the opposite situation, where writers have been so deeply heartbroken that the terrain is too sensitive to approach for mere entertainment properties? Yet that is exactly what great writers must do, or they utterly fail at creating the essence of beauty that only love can bring to any story. As a professional writer, I refuse to fail love.
The Love Interest is way too often written as a trophy for the protagonist, which is the polar opposite of how the role should be designed. To simply make the romantic interest something to “win over” is to demean the word “love” and “romance” entirely. Because we experience stories from a protagonist’s perspective, when writing a character that fills this purpose in my script, I remind myself that it should inspire the same feeling in the audience as it does in the protagonist… Awe. Everyone should grow to LOVE this character when they read it. If audiences can fall for a bodiless computer operating system in the film Her, this goal is possible to achieve. Any actor or actress should drool at the idea of playing the part. A love interest is so much more than six-pack abs or a writer's conceived ideal amount of cleavage (which the director will change to their own ideal when casting anyway).
We all know how Hollywood works. They are going to cast someone in this role that looks great next to the protagonist. So never write the role as eye candy. The director and casting people will be shallow for you. Our job as writers is to create a character so dynamic, exciting, invigorating, fun, savvy, intelligent, or perfect in their own way for the protagonist, that the sexiest people in Hollywood will fight for that part. Look at the wonderfully ironic role of Cheryl in The Sessions. She's a professional sex surrogate in an unsatisfying marriage being paid to help an amazing, romantic, paralyzed man make love for the first time. Writers must pour their heart and soul into the love interest because they expect the protagonist to do exactly that. Therefore, this character must not merely be skin deep; it actually has a very specific, structural purpose in the big picture.
Every character should speak to something in the grand design of your story. Just as the antagonist personifies the antithesis of the script’s premise by challenging the protagonist's outer journey, the love interest should speak to the character arc and push him or her to grow with regards to the protagonist's inner journey. It relates to the lesson, core value, or point of the protagonist’s evolution. Therefore, when writing this role, I don’t just ask myself, “What is attractive?” Instead, I ask, “What is it that my protagonist truly needs as a counterpart to complete them and round them out as a person?” Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors reflects Seymour's complete inability to speak up due to low self-esteem. Only because Seymour sees the value in Audrey that she fails to see in herself does he arc into a leading man. Seymour develops a real backbone to stick up for someone he does see value in, even though she may not necessarily see value in herself. Only love can fill the gap created by a character flaw between the person the protagonist is at the beginning of the film and who he or she is at the end of it. Yes, the famous Jerry Maguire line says it all; the love interest "completes" the protagonist.
The romantic interest is the personification of the ideal mental and emotional balance the writer hopes for the future of the protagonist. This character helps shape a new life for the future of the protagonist by the end of the story. He or she represents everything your protagonist’s personal journey is about and everything your protagonist aspires to be worthy of when the film is done. Anything less than that and you will sell short the very dream Hollywood is based on… That anyone can find, realize and achieve their dreams. For what is love if it is not a dream? Now, whether that dream should be realized or shattered is up to the writer. That is the deeply, disquieting question all writers must give serious consideration ever since Romeo and Juliet broke our hearts.
The romantic interest often serves as a gauge on how close the protagonist is to achieving their character arc. This also means they are obviously a source of commentary on the protagonist’s humanity (character flaw) as they challenge him/her to rise above it. Rita is a perfect example of this for Phil in Groundhog Day. The audience knows Phil will not get the girl until he has truly, completely changed. So, the protagonist is the yang to this character’s yin. No character is ever perfect, but they are perfect for each other in a way the reader/audience must be able to fully see and comprehend.
Like a muse of ancient Greece, this character:
- Should motivate (provoke, challenge, inspire or push) the protagonist.
- Forces the protagonist to earn our respect and appreciation by the end of the story.
- Be one of the reasons we deeply hope the protagonist comes out on top… with the love interest.
He or she is the answer to our hero’s inspiration and aspiration. There's an old adage that women try to change the men they love into the men they want to be with... The man they believe he is capable of becoming. A good writer allows art to imitate life, but the writer does not limit it to a sexist cliche. It's important that this rule goes for men and women characters. It works in epic, male-driven fantasies (like Avatar) just as it works in romantic, female-driven fairy tales (like when Prince Charmont gets Ella Enchanted to break the curse of obedience through love). InTwilight's slowly escalating lion and lamb romance, Edward Cullen both challenges and facilitates Bell Swan's growth emotional growth and confidence level throughout the film series as she finds her place in this new world among the vampires and werewolves. This isn't just for live action films. Wyldstyle is the reason an ordinary Lego construction worker becomes a hero in The Lego Movie. Belle changes the heart of a cursed prince in Beauty & The Beast.
Now, just because the love interest inspires greatness in the protagonist doesn't mean they have to get along. The protagonist doesn't have to even like the love interest at the beginning of the story… just merely be engaged by him or her. 1992's ice skating, romantic comedy, The Cutting Edge, is a perfect example of this. As the story unfolds, they provide a metaphor for success and a deeper understanding of what it means to achieve the character arc… an arc that brings a beloved character into the protagonist’s arms.
Nothing worth having in any story should come easy for the protagonist. Struggle and conflict are the adhesives keeping an audience's butts glued to their seats. Therefore, romance should be earned through personal growth, not given over easily. Even if the love relationship is that of a married couple, there should be strife between them until the protagonist becomes the spouse they should be after they have reached their arc. Maintaining any long-term relationship takes effort, patience, understanding, sacrifices, and compromise (and that’s before adding children, financial pressures and work schedules into the mix). Movies like The Family Man, The Story of Us, and This is 40 exemplify this. There are many areas in which characters can arc that would affect a relationship that began long before the first frame of story was shot. There should be conflict between your protagonist and every character in the story, including the love interest (or else they need to be redesigned). Without conflict, there is no story to watch. For example, two people with a mutual goal should conflict over how to achieve that goal.
The romantic interest serves the protagonist’s journey by highlighting how much better off they will be if they succeed in their goal and earn the love (or save the life) of the one person who completes them emotionally. Without this love interest, the hero(ine) can never be happy, content, or fulfilled. This is why the love interest is so often the character tied to the proverbial railroad tracks (or worse). Clarence Whorley gets into a huge whirlwind of trouble to free Alabama from her pimp in True Romance. His entire journey begins because he decided to save the girl he loves. Now, the love doesn't have to be romantic, if you consider films like Little Miss Sunshine, E.T. and The Professional.
If a hero fails to fulfill his or her character arc and rise to the challenge, it is literally the protagonist’s ideal future that hangs in the balance. Let's not forget how things turned out in the film Seven. Everything they could become if they are successful, and the one person who makes our hero a better (and more complete) person, who personifies all of this, should be on the line.
The very difficult question to answer is if the protagonist is going to end up with the love interest. Often, the most engaging movies end without a union. Look at Casablanca, where the girl finds meaning in her life with a man that stands for something (as opposed to Rick, who often only stands to make a profit from it). Look at how Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather saga has divorced the woman he married, and how the kind of woman he wishes he could be with is murdered in Italy during the first film brought about by his arc from soldier to murderous criminal. Who gives a damn when Rhett walks out at the end of Gone with the Wind? We all do. Look at every noir movie ever made, from Double Indemnity to Chinatown to The Maltese Falcon… Or how about the majority of the great, Gothic horror films of years past… Or going all the way back to love stories such as Romeo and Juliet. If the history of cinema has taught us anything, it is that just because the reader may want the hero to succeed does not mean s/he gets everything they want. Many of the greatest films of all time in any genre do not end well for the love story.
That said, alas, it is so wonderful and satisfying when it does. A successful conclusion to a difficult and trying love story that forced the protagonist to change his or her ways is life affirming. It gives viewers a sense of hope, and that dreams do come true. That one day each us stands a chance of finally finding our true love and ending up together. Movies like: The Princess Bride, Sabrina, Roxanne, Taming of the Shrew, The Philadelphia Story, Working Girl, It Happened One Night, and, a personal favorite, An Officer and a Gentleman.
Now once in a while, we have a love interest that is more than that. Sometimes the romantic experience changes both parties involved so both of them have character arcs. This happens most noticeably in romantic comedies. Look at the two films, When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman. Both are wonderful films and quintessential examples of their genre. When comparing the two movies, both films appear to be a co-protagonist situation. That is not the case. As explained in my first article, Who Is The Hero, many people do not understand the difference between protagonist and just a central character or hero. A protagonist has a character arc and changes profoundly on the inside. Sally falls in love with her best friend, but her belief system never changes. She teaches Harry that a woman can be best friends and lovers. Harry is the protagonist.
In Pretty Woman, both central characters change dramatically and have profound arcs, exemplified by their major course of action shifts at the end of the film. Vivian gets off the street corner, and Edward decides to build something out of a company instead of dismantling it and selling it for its parts to make a quick buck. Both are metaphors for being ready to do something with their hearts and their lives beyond flitting them away for money. Both arcs are about investing from the heart instead of it being about the money. Both have arcs reflecting the film's premise, yet they are not both protagonists. Why? At the end of act one, It's Vivian who makes the major decision to accept a longer term relationship. She's the one who accepts the offer. Edward wants to kiss her on the lips several times, but it's Vivian who really decides when it happens. She triggers the changes and story escalations with her choices. Those choices then trigger the changes inside him. The character that pulls the trigger on a script's major turning points is the story's protagonist.
There is a very long history of romantic comedies featuring dual character arcs with love interests, going back hundreds of years. Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is a strong example of this.
In When Harry Met Sally, it's Harry that triggers the story's escalations. Sally wanted to be friends with Harry from the beginning, saying he was the only person she knew in New York. It wasn't until years later when Harry finally agreed to be friends that their relationship began. Just like in Pretty Woman, the love interest gives the green light for the first kiss with a look of teary doe eyes when she's emotionally vulnerable, but the kiss doesn't happen until Harry decides. The love interest opens the door, leaving it to the protagonist to make the decision whether to walk through it.
Now before we wrap up, let’s not forget that there are two types of love interest. The one we automatically think of, and the second is one we sometimes forget. This character can be subcategorized as the un-love or lust interest. There are several different ways to conceive this character or classify them. They serve one main purpose, which is to exemplify exactly what we don’t want for our hero. They can be really fun to write if you look at the well-constructed examples in films such as: True Lies (Juno Skinner), Wayne’s World (Stacy), Some Kind of Wonderful (Amanda Jones), Peter Pan (Tinker Bell), The Devil Wears Prada (Christian Thompson), Teen Wolf (Pamela), Tootsie (Sandy or Les), Jerry Maguire (Avery Bishop), Twilight (Jacob) and most romantic comedies.
They are also used to create the all-too-popular “love triangle.” This is another way of creating conflict, putting the proverbial stumbling block between the two people that belong together. We see it all the time in the form of “the other suitor” in Gothic thrillers, including: The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon… all the way to the opposite extreme in romantic comedies, like: The Wedding Singer, Bridget Jones’ Diary, While You Were Sleeping, The Wedding Crashers, French Kiss, The Runaway Bride… The list is endless.
The key to understanding what the un-love (or lust) interest is designed to do is at the core of your protagonist’s character arc. Obviously, the arc plays into the right love interest, while the anti-love interest is where our hero might wind up if they do not stay the proper course and achieve their arc. This unromantic interest is a warning sign with one of three traditional approaches. They personify either:
- The fate the hero is trying to avoid (Arthur, Wayne’s World, Shakespeare in Love).
- The fate the hero actually wants but cannot see is the wrong choice for themselves (Some Kind of Wonderful, Something’s Gotta Give, Lars and the Real Girl).
- Temptation from the right path (Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Broadcast News).
Any way you slice it, both types of love interest reflect the character arc when designed properly in a script, for better or worse.
The next article in this series will focus on the fourth character, which is the second half of your protagonist’s inspiration for success. If the love interest is the heart of your protagonist’s goal, then character number four is the brain. Whether the story is about saving a love, a life, or an entire universe, a hero must look up to and admire someone that inspires them in the execution of their deeds. That character is none other than… the mentor.
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