I am a very, very typical reader on the whole.
I cheer on the good guys, have love/hate relationships with most of the bad guys, and root for the love interest that everyone else roots for. (At least that 90% of the population roots for.) I don’t pick weird combinations, desire strange outcomes, or hope for bizarre pairings. I ship the characters everyone else ships.
As someone who loves love stories, and loves to write them even more than read or watch them, I’ve noticed a sincerely dominating – and profoundly important – pattern that needs to be in place to catch the average 90% of the population’s heart.
I’m going to call it the First Contact Romance Ship. (FCRS)
It’s very, very simple.
Set it up so that your main girl character bumps into her love interest FIRST.
Either it’s a negative or a positive interaction, but her very first male interaction needs to be with her future love interest. Unless the guy is going to be a false love interest and turn into an enemy later on – and that’s your plot (think Frozen) – this needs to be the case. If she bumps into a random male side character or doomed love triangle character instead, you will have torn up and angry fans – at least that average 90%. You know, the ones who aren’t rooting for the main girl to fall in love with her own little sister. That weird 10% is not going to be addressed in this article. So if you’re part of the strange and unusual 10% who always ship the oddest pairings, read no further, unless you’re trying to write a best-selling romance novel. 😛
TV, movies, and novels do this in a variety of ways, over and over again. I’ll just pick one example in each category. I picked obscure ones for the fun of it, but this is done in all popular entertainment. (Warning: SPOILERS):
1. Secret Garden (TV show)
Main Guy picks Main Girl up in his car, thinking she’s someone else, and they end up at
his hotel. Main Girl leaves, but not before thinking the worst of Main Guy and his intentions. Then, even though she crushes on Other Guy for a bunch of episodes, you root for her to eventually end up back with Main Guy – and she does.
2. Austenland (movie)
I didn’t love this movie in any way (Wow, so cheesy), but I thought it was genius when it comes to the FCRS principle. In the most subtle version of FCRS I’ve seen yet, Jane has a witty conversation with Mr. Nobley at the dinner table, and insults him. When her feelings are hurt by the hostess, Nobley stands up and gives her a sad look.
She spends a good portion of the rest of the movie kissing and flirting with the stablehand, who looks like a really promising catch, yet all the 90% of viewers want is for her to get back with Nobely, even though it look hopeless.
Later, in a plot twist, the stablehand is a really a rogue, and Nobely is the real prince charming. Brilliant. I thought I was rooting for the wrong guy and was happy to be proven incorrect.
3. The Host (novel)
Melanie is in love with Jared. We all know that. But Wanda, the alien, takes over her body,
and is an entirely new person in that body. Even though Melanie the body misses Jared, Wanda falls for Ian, the first eligible male who defends her in a group of guys who all want her dead. And you’re happy when it happens. 😛
You can find examples of FCRS all throughout fiction. It’s a simple step to make sure that your fans root for the guy you have planned for your heroine.
What strikes me as really odd are the writers who seem to not understand this. Without naming names of books that I thought failed as romance novels, I’ll post quips of real reviews by readers who were unsatisfied by the romance pairing. Every time I read a book and think that Main Girl ended up with the wrong guy, it’s because her first meaningful interaction with an eligible male did not include the actual Main Guy she was supposed to fall in love with (with very few exceptions – like first guy was just cruel in many ways, and Main Guy, who came about later, poured himself out in love and sweetness for Main Girl, or when first guy is shown to be someone whom Main Girl looks at as an apathetic weakling, idiot, or beneath her. Nothing shuts off romance for a woman more than that.)
Here are real reviews from readers/viewers who agree with me every time. All of these books/shows/movies involve love triangles where FCRS was ignored, and fans were upset at the guy Main Girl chose. All of these come from one-star reviews or angry blog articles. Some of these novels, especially, have lower ratings overall. I see it over and over again whenever FCRS is ignored:
“The romance: There were (count ’em) THREE love interests for Main Girl in this book. None of them really go anywhere big, but it just felt like every guy in the book was into her. The hardest part about that is that there is an obvious choice – I genuinely thought that one guy was better than the others, and that just makes for a love triangle (or square?) that’s unsatisfying.”
“A cliche ya story with special snowflake protagonist and several one dimensional love interests.”
“Girl falls in love with the other bad boy character (despite essentially zero interaction between them).”
“Perhaps writers are trying to tell us that life is unexpected, that people change, and that what you think will happen is never what you actually end up with. But still, we fangirls can feel a little gypped when we don’t get the pairing we want. After all, we are the consumers and the writers should keep our opinions in mind when writing.”
“-Possible romance with her Best Friend in the very beginning of the book.
-Main Girl’s attraction to Second Guy. Look, you just met him a day or two ago. AND you seemed to like your Best Friend back at home. But now you are in love with this guy?!”
“Ending really destroyed everything for me at least. That other guy – baseball player… what was he called? Never mind. At the end like what? He never really played a big role this entire film and at the end he confessed his feelings to Main Girl. Like seriously did you even had a normal conversation with her?”
“Main Girl never ends up with the one man that could have supported and nurtured her crazy writing talent so that it grew wild, covering their mansion with green vines and exotic tropical flowers and palm leaves big as a man’s head where birds the color of jewels spoke to startled visitors in the parlor. Main Girl ends up with geriatric old Mr. Germanic Graybeard. After learning of the dorky but sometimes necessary practice of fan fiction, I immediately undertook to rewrite the ending (some wrongs just need to be (re)writed/righted), giving Main Girl the man she really wants, needs, and deserves.”
You get the picture.
I have a theory, too, about why this is with women. Bear with me now, because I’m going to get a little philosophical. Feel free to ignore this part if you want. 🙂
I think most women really want a first and only love.
The first man that catches her eye, that stirs her heart, that she feels something for. I think it’s because God really created humans to have a one and only soulmate, and divorce, death, and immature selfish lust get in the way of the good and precious love He originally planned for His creation. He placed Adam and Eve in the garden with only each other. He didn’t create a ton of men for Eve to choose from or vice versa. I think “First Love” is powerful to human beings. And I think that 90% of women, in fiction, want the heroines to end up with their firsts. Because, to the 90%, that’s the most romantic of all.
If you’re writing romance, it can be a temptation to do something new, exciting, different, and unusual. I think that writers are often very unique thinkers, and like to do things outside the box. But they get surprised when their average reader is upset by what they’ve done when it comes to love. Go ahead – be different. But just add one *little* tiny scene in the beginning where Main Girl encounters the guy she’ll end up with. And the fans will love you for it. 🙂