Romance in Fiction: The Six Types of Amorous Subplot

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There is a scene in the movie Pay It Forward where the main character’s single mother tells a friend about her relationship with her son’s social studies teacher. She admits to being nervous because their rapport seems to be taking so long to form. This prompts her friend to say, “Haven’t you ever gotten to know a guy before you slept with him?”

Caught by surprise, the mother says, “No.” Up to this point, her knowledge of love has been confined to her maternal concern for her son. Her experiences with men have all been temporary; they have not been permanent unions which took time to develop. Therefore she has no idea how long it takes to actually fall in love.

What does the above scene have to do with fictional romances? Modern authors tend to present the type of love the Greeks called Eros, from which we get the term erotic, as the only kind of amorous attention important in the life of the human person. Typically, this results in the male and female protagonists falling into bed at some point during the course of their adventure. There is very little lead up to this moment and, occasionally, the characters know each other only for a short period of time before consummating their relationship.

For certain stories, this may work. The film Hanover Street actually makes it the focus of the tale, as the affair between Harrison Ford and Lesley-Anne Down’s characters is the central point of the movie. However, fiction such as this only succeeds when the writer recognizes that such relationships are not the norm. Teenage romances are notorious for their short lifespan precisely because they begin and end with Eros. One-night stands and casual sex are also examples of this, since these relationships begin with sexual desire and end when the yearning is satisfied.

Obviously, this is not conducive to building a long-lasting tale or series which includes one or more romantic pairs that are supposed to stay together. Casual relations between a hero and heroine only “work” under certain circumstances; they cannot work across the board, something several other novelists have already explained. To the best of this author’s knowledge, though, they have not discussed the six main types of amorous relationships that may be utilized as a subplot (or a main plot, if you write romance fiction) in one’s stories.

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The first of these is the Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em Trope, which has been touched on above. James Bond, Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, and Templeton “Face” Peck are examples of this character type. These and other protagonists who fall into this category are regularly criticized for their behavior, but there is a reason for setting up such protagonists and their temporary relationships. First, men like this are highly attractive to large numbers of women. Excising them from fiction completely would be impractical at the same time it would alienate a sizable swath of one’s audience.

Second, in the case of Bond and Kirk, both work in professions which require them to be a hundred percent active and at their best all the time. This catches the interest of the women in their stories while simultaneously making the heroes acutely sensitive to their female companion’s interest in them. Although Bond and Kirk are practically married to their different professions, they simply cannot help acting on mutual attraction when it presents itself or caring about the woman with whom they share a reciprocal interest.

While it can be irritating, this type of romance does serve to move the plot forward or help the hero in his quest. The original Star Trek episode “Catspaw” demonstrates this point well. Kirk utilizes Selena’s attraction to him and her desire for new experiences to gain insight into her terrible plan for him, his crew, and the whole Milky Way Galaxy. And since “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” this action pushes the plot forward in a credible manner.

Although Indiana Jones’ behavior results from similar motives, he primarily exemplifies the third reason to have heroes who enter into such liaisons. Unlike Kirk and Bond, who are united to their jobs, Indy is truly searching for a woman he can someday marry. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull confirms this when he tells Marion that none of the other women he knew ever compared to her. Their subsequent marriage only cements his statement and proves its veracity.

Face from The A-Team is somewhere between these two categories. He is both a womanizer and a searcher, shown best in the installment where he discovers his high school sweetheart has become a nun. Though she remains steadfast in her calling it is clear that Face considers her “the one who got away” and hopes to someday find a woman with whom he could spend his life. Until that occurs, he is quite happy to pursue any unattached woman the team encounters throughout the series.

Having such arrangements between one’s male and female leads is plausible where applicable due to its provision of the audience with a specific vicarious experience. This kind of romance is not everyone’s forte, however, for the simple reason that large numbers of men and women are interested in more permanent unions. If this is the type of romance that works for a given tale, then it is a viable option; all the writer has to remember is that it is not the standard in reality or in fiction.

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Next on the list is the Never-Going-to-Happen Relationship. Both versions of the film Shall We Dance? encapsulate this subplot perfectly. In the 1996 Japanese film and its 2004 remake, the main character becomes infatuated with a beautiful ballroom dancer. The man is already married, however, and so he strives to keep his interest in another woman and his new passion for dance a secret. Eventually, his puppy love burns out and he stays only to study the art of dance.

This is not the only way to portray this kind of relationship. Gladiator’s protagonist, Maximus, falls in love with the Emperor’s daughter but dies before they can marry. Cyrano de Bergerac aids the man who loves Roxann in winning her heart rather than attempting to do so himself. The King and I presents a romance between the ruler of Siam and a British woman. Their different cultures and the King’s inability to change completely foil any hope for a successful love match between them, leading to his death in the final moments of the film.

Jack Schaefer’s Shane follows this pattern as well, noting the attraction between Mrs. Starrett and the titular gunslinger. Mrs. Starrett “wants” Shane but knows that even if she acted on her desire for him it would not end well for her. At heart the man is a wandering samurai, sworn to the path of the warrior and the gun. He cannot change, no matter how much he wishes to do so. Going with him would ruin her already happy marriage and lead only to heartache for herself and everyone concerned. The gunman recognizes this as well and also avoids acting on his interest in her.

From this brief overview it is easy to see that Eros can be added to a tale without too much trouble. But it does not quite address the question asked of the single mother in Pay It Forward: Is mutual sexual attraction the only thing necessary for a good romantic subplot? Is it what makes a fictional romance last? Although it helps, the answer is of course a resounding no. Eros can literally vanish within the space of half an hour. Philia and Agape, on the other hand, allow a relationship to stand the test of time.

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The examples in the second post on Strong Female Characters follow Philia and Agape rather than Eros. They also detail one way in which the Quarrelsome Couple, the third trope on the list, may be used. For while every couple under the sun cannot help arguing from time to time, there are some who are only content when they regularly disagree with each other.

Sophie Hatter and the Wizard Howl from Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle exemplify this brand of romance. Even when they resolve their personal issues in the first novel, the two are happiest when they are mired in verbal conflict. The author herself said that a typical day in the pair’s life involves several arguments and at least one slime-filled temper tantrum from Howl. It does not work for everyone, but for these two it is a mark of joy in the other’s presence.

McClintock!, based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, demonstrates the same principle. George Washington McClintock and his wife argued regularly before she attempted to divorce him in the movie. The finale for the film implies that, though they settled this debate and she returned to him, their life was still not a strictly quiet one. Bowen and Cara from Dragonheart have a tumultuous relationship as well, one that doubtless continued after the tale “finished.” Though they had a happy relationship, B’elanna Torres and Tom Paris’ marriage was not conflict-free. Notorious for her Klingon temper, even a mellowed B’elanna could not avoid feuding with her boyfriend and eventual husband, sometimes spectacularly.

The opposite kind of relationship is the Match Made in Heaven. Couples who fit into this category rarely engage in serious arguments, primarily because they remain honest or open with one another at all times. They also tend to have harmonious personalities, meaning they hardly ever misunderstand one another. Ulysses and Penelope may serve as the archetype for this romance in fiction, since the two apparently had an idyllic marriage. Penelope recognizes their compatibility when her husband passes the test she devised to confirm his identity.

A more comedic take on the premise is the relationship between Irene Bullock and Godfrey “Smith” Parke in the film My Man Godfrey. Though a somewhat foolish woman who seems blind to the realities of life, Irene remains sincere and candid with Godfrey throughout the movie. He likewise does not hide his personality from her. This leads to a growing closeness between them, one which prompts the hero to try to leave when he realizes he is falling in love with her.

One can see a comparable dynamic at work in the lead up to the marriage of Marvel superheroes Hawkeye and Mockingbird. While theirs is a whirlwind romance, it works because the two have equivalent personalities. They share a barbed wit, have no superpowers whatsoever, and are unafraid to tell the other the unvarnished truth – even when it hurts. And so their courtship feels natural despite its brief duration.

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Zack Fair and Aerith Gainsborough fall into this category as well. A natural ladies’ man, the young SOLDIER is surprised when the pretty girl who “rescued” him turns down his offer of a date. Rather than quell his interest in her, Zack becomes more intrigued by Aerith’s strength of character. Their following conversations prove that they are indeed a match; both are flirts who are straightforward in their dealings with others, up to and including the person they love. Thus they fit together like two halves of the same picture.

The next category is one that has largely fallen out of favor in the West. This is the Soft Romance, a relationship that grows over time and is hardly noticeable because the outward signs – e.g. kissing, holding hands, etc. – either do not appear within the story or very late in its telling. Aravis and Shasta’s connection in C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy is such a romance. During the book there is no overt indication that the two youths are attracted to each other in any way. Yet the subtle signs of mutual concern, appreciation, and respect peppered throughout the story point to their eventual marriage.

Another good example is the attraction that arises between Simon Tregath and the witch Jaelithe in Andre Norton’s unforgettable Witch World. Separated by cultural norms and the witches’ training, Simon only knows her as the witch for most of the novel. Despite that, their frequent interactions lead to a quiet courtship that at first appears one-sided. Only at the last moment is it revealed that Jaelithe has come to love the Outworlder in the same manner, signified when she gives him her most prized possession: her name.

Zoids: Chaotic Century includes this amorous subplot as well. Van Flyheight and Fiona Alicia Linnett meet as teens and spend at least a year traveling across the deserts of Zi. As is typical of this style of romance, the two do not show their feelings for one another in an explicit manner. Fiona only kisses Van once during the lead up to the first season finale, a factor that is not touched on – nor denied – in the second season of the series.

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Georgette Heyer’s novel The Talisman Ring contains two romantic subplots in addition to its main mystery. Of these two, the one which grows up between Sir Tristram Shield and Miss Sarah Thane clearly fits the category of Soft Romance. A decidedly stiff character, Shield’s unimaginative outlook on life is artfully challenged by Miss Thane’s humorous flights of fancy, which hide her good sense and skill with people. By book’s end the two have clearly fallen in love with one another and are prepared to solidify their relationship with all possible speed.

Finally, we come to the Arranged Marriage. This trope is usually portrayed as a sort of mental/spiritual death trap that the hero or heroine wishes to escape. However, it has been proven viable historically. Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar – better known as Eld Cid – was betrothed to Dona Ximena. By all accounts their union was a happy one, something the Charleton Heston film made sure to recognize.

The case of Prince Justin of Ingary and Princess Beatrice of Strangia in Castle in the Air, the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, makes the same point. Initially dead set on avoiding marriage with one another, when Justin and Beatrice are thrown together by the events in the story both royals find the other likable and attractive. Derek and Odette in The Swan Princess, who were betrothed as children, also come to love one another – despite the fact that they spent most of their childhood trying to drive the other mad.

Each of these examples cites an arranged marriage made in order to unite kingdoms and strengthen the political power of a fiefdom or nation. There are, however, other permanent relationships that are decided in advance, often by the two parties involved. These are the childhood or teenage romances that start with Philia and Agape before moving on to Eros.

Westly and Buttercup of The Princess Bride exemplify this brand of romance. Both before and after Westly becomes the Dread Pirate Roberts, the two never wished to spend their lives with different people. They fell in love in their youth and planned to wed after the farm boy had earned his fortune. Having accomplished that in a way he did not intend, Westly returns to Buttercup to fulfill their earlier engagement, which negates the despair-filled pact his true love made with Prince Humperdink.

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Whichever variation is most appropriate for your story, future writers, do not be afraid to inject some romance into your fiction. It does not need to be overt or obvious, especially if the format is short and therefore relatively restricted. Audiences enjoy a good love story in their fiction. That is why romance is one of the best-selling genres in the world; everyone wants to see the guy get the girl, and/or the girl fall into her man’s arms. Everyone hopes for a “happily-ever-after” which, as I said here, does not mean that everything is hunky-dory when the story ends. It means a life well lived with those the characters love.

Go on. Give us a good love story. Give us, in short, “happily ever after.”

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in the now defunct Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Lunaand Uranus*. Order them today!
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3 thoughts on “Romance in Fiction: The Six Types of Amorous Subplot

  1. Your excellent article brings to mind a thought of mine, that the classic “knight in shining armor” tale has gone out of vogue in modern romance books. It’s been replaced by romance in a sci fi setting or women falling for men that aren’t quite human in suburbia. I should really go browse the book stores because I could be wrong. Or maybe I’m worried about actually finishing my own book set during the days of 1066 and finding no market for it. How does a disfigured, sexually repressed knight compete with a virile “good” demon with a foot-long schlong? Hopefully, by finding readers that want a return to realism and historical setting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said! An excellent article, with many good points!

    Technically, the guy in Gladiator didn’t fall for the princess, though she fell for him. There was chemistry, true, but he was utterly devoted to his wife and son, even after they died. She wanted him, but her feelings were genuine enough to respect his integrity and his affection for someone else. And it’s such a beautiful moment when, in the end, as he’s dying, she tells him, “Go to them.”

    I’m reminded of Taran and Eilonwy from the Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander. Their relationship had elements from several of these types, including how they argued, how they were always straightforward and honest with each other, and how their romance blossomed slowly, over the course of five books and several years, including time they spent apart.

    Liked by 2 people

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