Romance in literature often features a “will they/won’t they” dynamic, and for good reason. It’s entertaining and engaging, keeping the reader invested in the characters. We want the best for our “ships”, and the will they/won’t they dynamic — as frustrating as it can be sometimes — plays into our investment in the character.
Of course, at the end of the story, there must come an answer: will they, or won’t they? As rewarding as it is to see the protagonist win over their love, sometimes it’s better for the characters to stay separate.
“Not getting the lover” comes in different forms. Perhaps the love interest dies (The Fault in Our Stars — spoilers but the book came out 10 years ago), or they move away and things don’t work out (A Silent Voice), or there’s a mutual agreement to stay apart (season 2 of BoJack Horseman), and so on and so forth. Each ending leaves a different impact on the reader, but also affects the characters in different ways. If a love interest dies, chances are the reader will be upset, possibly even to the point of tears. Or, if the characters mutually decide their lives seem to lead in opposite directions, the reader might feel a bittersweet resolve for the characters.
One constant in all of these endings: growth. Through the mutual connection (and affection) of the characters, they experience some sort of change. They grow together and grow as people, learning things about themselves and the world around them. As they discover things about their love interest, the protagonist will discover things about themselves as well. Perhaps their interest introduces them to new friends or new hobbies. On a deeper level, the interest might help the protagonist overcome a fear and learn confidence.
So how do we know when to let the protagonist win over their love, or let their interest slip through their fingers by the end? It depends on the trajectory of the protagonist’s arc. How much of their development depends upon wooing their love? Is the purpose of your arc to develop the protagonist in an individual right, or a social one?
In Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, the titular character Scott pines for the lovely Ramona Flowers. Caught up in his affection, he cheats on his girlfriend Knives and leaves her for Ramona. As the series progresses, Ramona finds out, and takes a break from Scott. Heartbroken, Scott reflects on his past in a “wilderness sabbatical” and realizes the various ways he hurt previous romantic partners. Learning from his mistakes, he returns to Ramona, fully committed to rectifying his previous actions. In this story, Scott regaining Ramona’s love completes his arc, rewarding him for his development and honoring his singular commitment to Ramona.
On the flipside, in A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Ōima, the protagonist Shoya seeks to redeem his past actions, specifically his bullying of a deaf girl named Shouko. He reconnects with Shouko, and works towards rebuilding a friendship, and the two end up bringing each other out of their shells. The characters save each other (literally) and form a friend group. While the author teases romantic interest between Shoya and Shouko, they never fully become boyfriend and girlfriend. For this story, Shoya and Shouko needed to stay separate at the end because their arcs were less about winning over the other romantically, and more about helping the other grow in a social aspect.
Both of these stories have similar arcs, with a male protagonist that must rectify their past actions. But only one succeeds in “winning the girl” in a romantic aspect. Scott needed to grow in his own right, whereas Shoya needed an extra push to open up. The character arc drove each writer’s decision at the end.
When writing your own romances, ask yourself the question of how your character will develop as a result of their love interest. Will they grow more if they succeed in their advances? Or would they be better off alone at the end, or with someone else?
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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