You’re Just Too Good to Be True: How to Make Your Protagonist’s Love Interest More Believable—Flaws and All

By Mindy McGinnis

Source: Writer’s Digest

In crafting fiction across genres, a perfect love interest is a tempting trap—and a trope. Writing flawed characters, even the one your protagonist is head-over-heels for, is a must. Here’s how to make the object of your character’s affection believable and lovable while avoiding clichés.

Love interests aren’t restricted to the realm of romance. Most books—regardless of genre—have an attraction somewhere in the pages, be it a subplot or a subtle nod. What readers find attractive can vary widely, from the sensitive type to someone you’d want beside you in a dark alley. Fiction gives us the chance to explore all kinds of romantic leads, but writers often fall into the trap of writing the too-perfect love interest.

What’s the harm in that, you may say? Well, plenty.

Our job as fiction writers is to make people care about things that never actually happened to people that don’t really exist. It’s a tough metric. Characters need to feel like real people in order for the reader to be invested in them enough to continue turning pages to see what unfolds.

And—spoiler alert—perfect people are a myth. Just ask my ex-husband, who would often throw up his hands in frustration and say, “I’m sure Jamie Fraser could have done it better.” To which I would respond, “Yes, he could have!”

Whether you’re writing a male or female love interest, there are tropes and traps that are easy for them to fall into, and tempting for you to write. The first weapon against writing clichés is being able to identify them. And when it comes to love interests, they tend to be split down gender lines.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

You might have heard that moniker before. But what exactly does it mean?

“Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG) is a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 to describe an increasingly common “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

The MPDG is always attractive, quirky and adventuresome, often the possessor of some great life-truth and usually there to guide the main character to a better, more full realization of himself. Sounds great, right? Or maybe … too good to be true?

There are endless examples of MPDGs in pop culture, but to illustrate this trope more fully, let’s build our own, and then do some retooling to create a fully fleshed-out character.

Our MPDG changes her hair color every month—once her natural roots start to show, it’s time to change. She unfailingly paints her bicycle to match her hair-of-the-month, pedals everywhere, listens solely to swing music and only on her Walkman … the cassette-tape kind. Which she found in a Salvation Army store while getting her new wardrobe—that she’s going to tear apart and creatively piece back together to create a brand-new collection of distinctly unique outfits. Her two dogs—named Dog and Cat—were adopted into her loving arms after they followed her home the night she stopped by a side alley to put all the cash she had into a random stranger’s mailbox. Her life is great without money, and she figures they probably need it more than she does anyway.

MPDG is always there for her significant other, even if it means biking across the city in the middle of the night after noticing a missed text saying he had a bad day. Bad days have to be fixed face-to-face, after all, and she’s here to help with homemade tomato soup and a comforter she just finished making from airbrushed squares featuring the album art of all her lover’s favorite bands. She has an important meeting in the morning that her career as an organic wedding-cake baker hinges on, but it’s more important to her that the one she cares for knows exactly where he stands—at the very top of her list.

Riiight. Before we get ahead of ourselves and cast Zooey Deschanel or Zoe Kazan to play her in the film adaptation, how do we take this Manic Pixie Dream Girl and turn her into just … a girl?

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