It seems that books about romantic love fall into two basic categories: Those that idealize love and might even have a fairy-tale quality, and those that look at the harsh reality of love and still manage to depict it in all its flawed beauty. Both types of stories have their place, and I read each depending on my mood, on the type of a reader’s buzz I’m looking to achieve. Do I want a sense of happily ever after, or of “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” Am I looking for a fluffy cloud of romance or for hope that love exists in the world and can be sustained despite all the obstacles in its way?
I recently finished reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s an interesting work, part love story, part ghost story, part look at familial–particularly sibling–relationships. But one passage struck me as a very honest description of what it can be like looking for true love in real life–that need to share your soul and be understood, combined with the fear that your reality will scare the other person off.
‘Being in love is… anxious,’ he said. ‘Wanting to please, worrying that she will see me as I really am. But wanting to be known. That is… you’re naked, moaning in the dark, no dignity at all… I wanted her to see me and to love me even though she knew everything I am, and I knew her.’
It was interesting to see this vocalized by a character, the understanding that in the best of all worlds, your significant other will truly know you and love you just as you are. This may not be realistic; as human beings, many of us struggle with intolerance and impatience with the foibles of those around us, even those we love, and likewise, our own insecurities often lead us to don masks rather than reveal characteristics we suspect–rightly or not–might send the object of our affection running for the nearest exist. But this fear, this level of risk, is what makes a relationship interesting, both in reality and in fiction. The story of the lovers who are perfect for each other is often best ended at happily ever after, because reality might creep in after that and complicate matters. Complications can be good, though. They keep you on your toes, whether you’re a romantic protagonist or a reader or a writer. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for ways to make your characters more “real.”
*Quote taken from Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, Scribner, 2009.