[Due to storms in my area, I didn’t have time to add pictures or links. They’ll come up tomorrow during the day]
In the last blog, I talked about where stories can fall flat in the romance department. And in doing so, I admitted that I don’t know exactly what elements make a romance inherently appealing.
What I do know is that there are some tropes that keep turning up in these stories like a bad penny. Not saying they’re bad, far from it, but like anything, it can be very, very good, or as disastrous as a romantic evening in Centralia.
It’s hard to do that Lady and the Tramp spaghetti thing in a gas mask.
Luckily, through rigorous study that involved watching some DvDs, browsing TV tropes and reading more fanfiction that actually exists on the internet (I was sick last week, so sue me), I’ve been able to scientifically isolate some of these concepts, identify separate strains, and formulate some plans of action to make them useful like the bacteria in your gut instead of harmful like the bacteria that’s settled on your keyboard, mouse and probably most other things you’ll be touching for the rest of the day.
And now that I’ve paralyzed you with hypochondria-based terror, I will present my findings one such concept:
Before they decided that having a quirky, interesting lexicon was for chumps, TVTropes.org referred to a love interest that prevented the intended couple in a story from getting together as ‘The Paolo’, named after the famous character in Friends whose presence had a constant destabilizing effect on the maddeningly stale Ross/Rachel relationship (don’t worry, I’m not going to harp on Friends forever on this one). I still prefer the term, because it’s short, witty, and instantly refers you to one of the best examples.
Though now called the ‘Derailing Love Interest’, the idea is the same, and they have their share of dangers. For one, if the Paolo is likable, the audience might side with them over the ‘right’ choice, ultimately leading to disappointment when the romance resolves. For another, if the Paolo is unlikable, or very clearly has no chemistry or commonality with the character they’re paired with, it makes that character appear foolish at best, shallow or unlikable at worst.
Paolos typically come in three basic flavors:
The Monster: At their best, this character is annoying or boorish, but more often they are actively unpleasant or even abusive to the character they’re paired with. On the far scale, they’re a traitor to the group (if the story allows) or even an actual monster in disguise.
There’s a good chance they this breed will be killed off when the character they’re attached to wises up. These fail most often because while it’s no uncommon for people to fall for someone who is objectively bad for them in real life, audiences tend to disbelieve it and consider the ‘fooled’ character to be stupid.
The full impact of a Monster Paolo is wasted if they’re revealed and rejected at the end of the story because seeing the couple dealing with the feelings of betrayal and shame together can be a great moment of relationship development (more on that in another article).
The Pretender: The pretender is lying about something. Maybe they have a wife on the side somewhere, maybe they’re not as good as they seem to be, or maybe they’re con artist. In especially shallow works, it will just tun out that they’re not as attractive as they present, and since physical beauty is the only important thing, this is a startling breech of trust (the moral being that ugly folks don’t deserve love.)
In many ways, the pretender, especially the con artist variant, is one of the more satisfying Paolos. They don’t make the victim look too stupid, nor do they leave that messy, sympathetic loose end (see below). Uncovering them usually falls to the real love interest, but in badly written or rushed works, cops might just bust in and break up the wedding with a warrant.
A variant I’d like to see more of is where the attached love interest (what I like to call the Paolo’s host) is the one that uncovers them after noticing that things about them don’t add up. In my mind, this is superior to the unattached love interest figuring it out through jealousy.
The Normal: Sometimes, the Paolo isn’t objectionable at all. Sure, they might have some annoying habits, or might not share a lot in common with their host character, but they usually seem to be in love and their big sin more than likely turns out to be that they are written as flat characters.
Aggravatingly, the Normal Paolo is often assigned a vocation and hobbies that Hollywood finds unacceptable, but which isn’t all that boring or childish to actual human beings made of meat. Geologists, Accountants and model builders get dumped here. Ironically, if the Paolo is a Monster, these are allowable as a Quirk to be Overcome in the same way that a cute girl must ditch the glasses to be worthy in movie-land.
The failure point here is really quite simple: they haven’t done anything to deserve it, but they’re getting their love taken from them anyway. More often than not, no one in universe, even their own friends and family, will seem to care, and will gladly continue to sit for a wedding between their new ex and their rival. Even more distressing, they all too often prove to be the better person and bow out gracefully while the preferred love interest has been acting like a jealous twit the whole time.
Sometimes they ‘fix’ this by hastily dumping the Normal Paolo on a new host, usually a quirky friend who is usually a far more interesting person than the leads. Oddly enough, all this move evinces in me is wishing that the story had focused on those two in the first place.
As a rule of thumb, I recommend against Normal Paolos entirely, but like the Monster Paolo, there is some relationship/character development to be had here if the rejection is moved to the middle of the story. It says a lot about a person who can realize that things aren’t going to work out and aren’t crass enough to ditch the poor chump on the altar, and if the Normal Paolo can then bee fleshed out into a character of their own (maybe by getting a romance arc with the Quirky Friend instead of a last minute hookup?)
The Problem with Paolo
The basic function of this character is to act as an obstacle to the intended romance essentially ‘filling the slot’ of love interest in place of the character who ‘should’ be there. Those of you who are scientifically minded may notice that this is exactly how narcotics work. The problem is that this can be a conflict spread fairly thin, and unfortunately, a lot of writers thicken it with melodrama.
Probably the most common tactic here is inflating the ‘threat’ the Paolo presents. Everyone in universe seems to think that if left unimpeded, all romantic relationships inevitably lead to marriage and that marriage lasts forever. Therefore, there is an invisible clock that the prospective love interest is pitted against; they must prove themselves better than the Paolo and win the love interests heart before some preist says ‘you may now kiss the bride.
Now even in fiction, people go through several boyfriends or girlfriends, or sometimes both before settling down, and divorce is a thing that happens, so it’s a wonder how this artificial clock manages to sneak past that audience’s anti-bullshit shield. Go ahead; go watch Cheers and watch out for any character that threatens the Sam and Diane relationship, or anyone who shows interest in Robin in How I Met Your Mother, or the hit parade of doomed lovers from the first season of Lois and Clark (Yes, I am legally obligated to plug this show in every blog post.), and notice how the implication that comes with all of them is ‘You May Have Missed Your Chance’.
The sad thing is that as of this writing, the tactic works. Even on me. The writers and actors on Castle straight up told everyone they’ll eventually get together, and yet I still feel bad when one of them comes around with a Paolo.
But mark my words, one day this tactic’s time will come. It will become one of those things that savvy audiences will laugh at and parodies (if that genre ever recovered from those [Blank] Movie turd piles) will mock. Writers need to develop newer and better Paolo technologies and the groundwork is there, just largely unused.
How to Train Your Paolo
Basically, using a vanilla obstructive love interest won’t cut it. As I said, they just don’t bring that much of a threat or realistic conflict to the table. They just can’t remain one note wonders; they have to multi-task.
And this has been done, obviously. As mentioned above, it’s easy to make them the villain of the story, but that causes some problems. So what can they do?
What they do best, my friend: obstruct. The concept is called The Gatekeeper; a character who prevents the protagonist from advancing in the plot before they have achieved certain goals. Since the Paolo is already there, preventing that same character from advancing their romantic subplot, why no let them prevent the main plot too?
Maybe they’re an expert who has knowledge the protagonist needs. Maybe they have something of value to the plot. There are many ways to add the duties of a Gatekeeper to a Paolo, but the result is the thing: it forces the protagonist into interacting with the Paolo in a capacity divorced from romance, while complicating the romance angle as well.
In this way, you can force the protagonist to work with and get to know their rival on a deeper level, allow them to ‘get away with’ venting their aggression toward that person in a not entirely ‘nice’ way, or just dial up the awkwardness in the situation a bit.
The more important you make the Paolo to the main plot, the higher you make the stakes in the romance and the greater the threat you can create that the protagonist will not succeed with their love interest, possibly being forced to sacrifice love for fulfilling the main plot.
Alternately, you can change the placement of the Paolo’s involvement in order to make the aftermath of that relationship the important plot. I’ve already mentioned one way to do this, but what if instead of focusing on recovery after a bad break-up, you instead focused on the character notes that folow a good one?
Imagine that instead of discarding the Paolo once they’ve carried out their primary function, you transitoned them into a new kind of character, possibly even a part of the main cast? There’s lots of character development to be had here and new relationships to explore as characters that once saw them as a threat need to reevaluate their opinions and the former host now integrates them into their supporting cast.
Above all, the point is to make the character be more than that one note while not allowing them to take away from the intended couple. Once again, some writers take this too far and do something stupid that I’ve already mentioned: They hook them up, fast and dirty, with an interesting and quirky side character.
Pairing the Spares, as TVTropes calls it, isn’t a sin in and of itself, and I don’t know how other people feel, but to me, it’s the suddenness that makes it annoying. Most of the story or at least the subplot has been about developing a relationship and yet, we’re supposed to accept that the alternative to the trial and tribulations and character development we just watched is… noticing that you’re alone and leaping upon the nearest warm, comparable body.
Even worse, this happens mostly to Paolos who are likable characters by themselves and side characters who are often more interesting than the Paolo’s original host.
Now I ask you: why are we never allowed to see that relationship grow and develop? They’re the fun ones! They’re the ones carriying those two idiots we’ve been watching while he was trying to prove he wasn’t whipped to his boys and she was angry because she saw him talking to another woman (who was his cousin). Is it because there’s no conflict?
Well good. Because you don’t need it.
Did I just hear you make a sound like ‘wha-buh?’. I’m sure I did. Don’t feel bad.
What I mean is that what we have here is a couple made up of side characters who need not be subjected to the drama and conflict of the main couple. If you put your Paolo on the table early, dump them early, you get a magical wand of audience pleasing that is The Drama Free Cute Couple.
Remember in my Award-deserving ‘Bad Romance’ article where I talked about Romance being addictive? Well if you deprive a junkie long enough, they will shank you and steal their fix (or in this case, write shipping fan fiction). This is the danger a writer faces when they’re trying to stretch a romantic subplot.
The Drama-Free Cute Couple is the fix you give that junkie to keep them mollified and awaiting the big score; a sweet romance to take the edge off the often stormy, conflict filled main couple. They don’t need to be made via this method, or without their problems, but the idea is that they’re never in as much ‘danger’ as the mains.
The advantage of using the Paolo for this is that it lets you get a second use out of that character, and allows you to establish that their half of the DFCC is sound. It also softens the process of ejecting the Paolo from their host, and if the relationship is built with care, reduces the cheapness of pairing them off.
Of course, there’s much more that can be done with this character type, but this, I think is a start. The Paolo is an old saw to be sure, but with some thought put into it, this is definitely a very useful tool in a writer’s arsenal.