It’s a dreaded aspect for many readers of many YA novels , I’m sure. Some like it, some are indifferent – and a heckuva lot of people hate it. Insta-love has been around long before the term “Young Adult fiction” ever came to be, from doomed Arthurian romances like Guinevere and Lancelot; to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; to the Wagner opera, Tristan and Isolde (although a love potion was a decided catalyst here).
I can’t say I’m someone who likes reading about insta-love. I don’t doubt that insta-love does exist, but the term I would much rather use (and, I think, explains this phenomenon better) is insta-attraction, or even insta-lust, which I do like reading about. I have known people who have fallen in love at first sight and make a successful relationship of it – but I’ve also seen people crash and burn because they didn’t know how to make it work past the physical attraction. But my problem with insta-love is not so much the fact that it’s used at all, but rather that it is used far too often as a shortcut to tell readers that a couple is in love, rather than as a segue to further character development.
Now, most authors tend to argue in favor of insta-love for a lot of good reasons, so allow me to play the devil’s advocate for this article.
The best five minute love story I know.
This is an attempt to analyze insta-love down to its bare basics, particularly on why people might dislike it, and what else might be needed to build it into a more believable romance – and WHY we as authors need to make that additional effort to.
How Insta-Love Can Fail
1. Let’s frame this in a perspective more people might understand: you’ve just met this amazing person. And s/he’s gorgeous. Physically, s/he’s exactly your type, and you already know you’ll make beautiful babies together. Knowing only this about them, do you:
- give up your family / close friends if they ask you to?
- take a bullet / knife / anything that may potentially result in your painful death for them?
- risk your career / job / schooling for them?
The problem with characters who say “yes” to all or most of the above, is that this shows symptoms of what could lead to a very unhealthy relationship / obsession, and most readers realize this. Is this really the type of character you want to read more about? Even more alarming – if you’re rooting for a character to do exactly this because you yourself think the love interest is hot, then what might this say about you?
Insta-attraction is more easily understood. And there’s a big difference between thinking about the person all the time, and doing things like jumping off buildings for each other or covering up each other’s murders, or something. For love.
And all because s/he’s hot.
(A note: while a lot of authors who write about insta-love do not immediately put their characters in these kinds of situations, it’s reasonable enough to argue that enough writers do this to make this an issue.)
2. One can argue that writing about teens means that teenagers should be written like teenagers, in that they can at times be naive and idiotic when it comes to making certain life decisions. But protagonists are, by default, special - not because their writer-creators say they are, but because they should be by default. Because that suggests there is something about these teenagers that makes them rise beyond the stereotype – there has to be something there that makes them worth reading about.
Let’s face it – we have known friends or teenagers who have acted this way. I, for one, was that friend who constantly groaned and rolled her eyes whenever one of my friends started waxing about that cute guy she just met in History class like it was going to be the greatest romance I was ever going to hear, and I’m can you just shut up already so we can eat at Burger King cause I need something in my stomach besides all this swill? (I’m not always a considerate friend.) A lot of times, people who think insta-love is the best thing ever are often the ones in the throes of it, who have experienced or are experiencing it for themselves. Most readers are going to be people like me, rolling their eyes at them and groaning because they would much rather eat a Whopper.
I love my friend, but I definitely do not want to read a book about a character like her when she is in this phase. (Her irl romance fizzled out about two weeks after they started dating.)
And this is where the bulk of the complaints about insta-love comes in. Many readers won’t understand the effects of insta-love because they’re not the ones living in that bubble of happiness and rainbows. Readers who do buy into it are usually those who also find themselves attracted to the MC/s in question.
Think about a fictional character you love absolutely. Then think about a friend of yours who’s not into that fandom. Think about their reactions when you gush about how much you love this character.
Now think about the reverse: your friend being in love with a fictional character you care nothing for, but won’t shut up about.
Yup. It’s a lot like that.
3. Another issue with insta-love is that it happens almost all the time in a lot of YA novels, especially those with romantic elements. In real life, some insta-loves succeed, and some insta-loves fail – but when present in YA, they almost always triumph. Reading one book where insta-love happens is fine. Reading two is alright. Reading two dozen in a row no longer feels quite as believable.
One of my role models, Esme Weatherwax, head witch of Bad Ass village and current Discworld resident, defines it best:
[In stories] million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.
You might not want to hear this, but you will eventually get sick of chocolate if you eat too much of it. Likewise, if you read a succession of novels with insta-love screaming through their pages, you will eventually get sick of it. The whole purpose of writing a book is to have it stand out, and using the same trope so many other writers have done without adding a very unique spin to it will not make it so.
But, hark! All is not lost. Here are some few suggestions that (I think) works, to ensure characters can still have their “insta-attraction”, and still bring some level of credibility to their romance:
1. Ensuring Believability
When it comes to writing romance, I always like to reference this formula:
Length of time knowing love interest should be directly proportional to the protagonist’s willingness to die for him/her.
Exception #1: If the protagonists are heroic by nature, then saving potential love interests from a speeding car / a villain they happen to be fighting would still be keeping in character – not because they would die without him/her, but because it’s already in their character to be heroic, and would still do the same thing even if the rescuee was a pot-bellied man in a sailor outfit.
Contrary to how he looks, he’s actually a pretty nice guy. (image from asianpopaddict.com)
Exception #2: This is some sort of satire, and you’re writing this deliberately.
Exception #3: Anything involving Tom Hiddleston does not apply here. It’s worth noting though, that many people also love him for his personality, and not just from his obvious attractiveness.
Shake that personality, Tom!
2. Build character
Throw your couple in some life-threatening situations / major obstacles BEFORE having them declare their undying love for one another. (Having them cuddle up / make out beforehand is fine, though. That’s what insta-attraction is all about.) One purpose for this is to show readers that there is something about the characters that makes them worthy of each other’s love beyond just their beauty. Robert Downey, Jr. is gorgeous, but who do you really love – him, or your significant other? (I don’t know about RDJ, but he’s never tried to be an awkward human raincoat for me during a particularly bad Category 4 typhoon, the way my husband did once.)
3. There is a difference between a romance that happens immediately but genuinely, and a romance that happens in a rather superficial way. It’s up to the author to determine how to place their romances into the former category without falling into the latter, and it’s up to them to convince the readers of the realness of that romance. It takes more than just “because he’s hot” to sell the relationship, and “show, not tell” always works for me.
There’s a difference between being easily attracted early on, and then falling into a deeper and more profound love at a later date. Romances can have both, but the second is more difficult to write about than the first – but it’s always something writers should learn to do. Train yourself to avoid shortcuts.
This is one of the few things writers can’t write about based on experience. Everyone has a different perspective on how love is supposed to feel, and experiences will vary. To argue that insta-love is justified because you’ve felt it yourself or have seen it in others will not sway readers’ minds to your side of the debate if readers can’t find a worthy quality past the character’s aesthetics.
And that’s where knowing how to portray this realistically comes in. Even people who fell violently in insta-love with each other would never have stayed together if none of them had more redeemable traits to their character.
4. I’ve done everything!
You did your homework, added in all your nuances, and readers / critics are still calling you out? No worries. Relax.
You owe it to your readers – and even more importantly, yourself – to write your book in the best way that you possibly can. Unfortunately, literature is subjective, and sometimes context can be unintentionally (and even deliberately) misunderstood. This is never going to be your fault. Do the best you can, but don’t take it to heart – it doesn’t just happen to the best or the worst of writers; it happens, and will always happen, to every one of us. And that is okay.
Insta-attraction = (physical attraction x 2)
(physical attraction x2) + (redeeming character traits / character-defining flaws) + time = love
Love AND character development.