Thursday, January 19, 2017

Getting to Know You: Character-Building in Romances

Discussions over meals are a handy "Get to Know You"
technique--see What Did You Eat Yesterday?
One place that romances unfortunately often fail is the "getting to know you" part.

Romances need the characters to get to know each other. If they don't, the reader is left wondering, Why are these people together? The reader also needs to "see" the "getting to know you" parts--not simply be told that the characters spent an afternoon together exchanging recipes and jokes.

The problem for the writer, of course, is how long should the "getting to know you"  parts be? Too long, and the plot gets lost. Too short, and . . . Why are these people together?

Good and bad examples of "getting to know you" montages in manga/light novels follow:
The Aristocrat and the Prince by Ai Hasukawa leaps from kidnapping/rescue to love. It makes a common mistake to many romances by conflating attraction with interest. Many, many romances start with attraction but as Angel points out on Angel, a person can be attracted to the point where he or she sleeps with someone--only to wake up the next morning thinking, "Yikes!"

Takayuki wants to stay with his rescuer--but why? They seem to have no interests in common, not even a common way of looking at the world. In contrast, in Finder (which is fluff but nevertheless well-written fluff), Asami and Akihito have several long conversations about politics, friendship, and even, delightfully enough, fireworks. (I reference Finder here because it is the most classic example of the seme/uke relationship, a relationship that The Aristocrat and the Prince never seems to get beyond: see post about archetypes versus stereotypes.)

Jamal and Leonard discuss a soldier's
duty. Neither are the type of man to
blame the other for doing his job.
Black Sun by Uki Ogasawara accomplishes its "getting to know you" montage using an actions-speak-louder-than-words method. Jamal is, by nature, an action kind of guy. Leonard and Jamal consequently have a number of arguments, culminating either in Jamal walking around unself-consciously naked, flustering Leonard, or in Jamal and Leonard sparring. The arguments, however, never fall into abuse or cruel mockery (by either character).

Over the course of the arguments, personality similarities and differences appear. Jamal is more likely to experiment with a possible answer/action; Leonard is more likely to mull. ("His seriousness," Jamal says, "is his charm. But is also troubling.") Both characters come away having learned more about the other--and feeling more and more enthralled.

One of the most telling pieces of dialog occurs when Leonard, in response to a choice between cozy, lonely imprisonment and "imprisonment" with Jamal, declares, "I must speak to Jamal about this." At this point in the story, Leonard's trust feels right and believable--the reader has learned, as Leonard has, that Jamal is someone that he can speak to. They are the Bones and Booth of the Middle Ages--capable of coming at a problem in two different ways but sharing a fundamental similarity of viewpoint.

The Guilty, Volume 1 by Katsura Izumi contains an interesting variation on the "getting to know you" challenge. The characters do get to know each other in the initial chapters. They have common interests (nature, Hitchcock movies, writing). However, part of the book's conflict is that (1) aloof mystery writer Hodaka is difficult to get to know; (2) the relationship is in fact sexual before it becomes emotionally intimate, a fact that causes editor Sakurai a great deal of guilt. Sakurai's handling of his guilt/the affair--his self-loathing followed by justifications followed by self-knowledge and, finally, a sense of responsibility--are well-captured. His initial impulse to further a relationship based on little more than attraction is the novel's point, not a mistake in the writing.
"Getting to know you parts" are like sports montages: a series of scenes pulled together (sometimes with music) to prove that yes, the athlete did train; yes, the ending where the underdog beats the champion will now be believable.

Don't tell me that the relationship worked out--prove to me that it could!

See my main blog for non-yaoi examples . . .