What Makes a Good Love Interest?

I was going to title this “What Makes a Hero?” which is a lot punchier, but since “Hero” implies male and not necessarily a romantic figure we’re going with “love interest.”

At base, a love interest is somebody the protagonist falls in love with, so that’s where we’re starting. The next question, the interesting one, is “Why this person?” Granted this is going to depend on the protagonist (and the writer), but there must be some criteria across the board. It’s when I try to pin it down, that things get slippery.

For example, “loves her/him/them to the point of madness” sounds good, but that’s a stalker, too. Almost every passionate criteria comes with a side note of “until it goes too far, then it’s scary.” Who decides what goes too far? The protagonist (and the writer). Some people like those can-he-protect-her guys, but they always come across to me as you-stay-right-here-while-I-do-the-exciting-stuff-in-your-story.

But the opposite is true, too. The kind, feminist, altruistic billionaire gets my side-eye for being too damn good to be true. (That’s true of protagonists, too; I started to lose my enthusiasm for Mika in The Book of Firsts when she turned out to be able to fix anything and was close friends with a movie star who showed up just in time to solve a problem . . . uh, no. Good thing the rest of the book was fun, although those three love interests were rich, smart, independent, loyal, musically and artistically gifted, and adored by all and it was still a good book, so . . .)

So I’m left with “doesn’t kick puppies” as my line in the sand for love interests. Along with the obvious stuff like “doesn’t eat the brains of the innocent” and “can understand and respond appropriately to the word ‘No’.” But those are negative statements, I need some positives. So, uh . . .

• Actually listens when the protagonist says something.

• Makes mistakes (aka “is human”) but fixes said mistakes and apologizes sincerely to anyone they/she/he may have maimed.

• Is vulnerable

• Does not fall for a Big Misunderstanding because he/she/they has an IQ above 80.

• Is kind to puppies. And children. And the protagonist.

• Is, at base, possibly hidden beneath a prickly/cold/sarcastic/silent exterior, a good person; that is, not homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, or a smirker.

The problem is getting a list that’s an attempt at universal. For me, a great love interest has a terrific sense of humor and can banter all night, but that’s not a universal. There have been some pretty famous dour love interests–Heathcliff comes to mind–and some pretty entertaining villains–Loki for example–so “sense of humor that leads to banter” is a lousy universal criteria for a good life partner. (Trust me on this.)

So what do you think? Would you argue with my choices? Do you have better ones? (I know you have better ones.) And beyond that, what are the love interest personality traits that are your personal kryptonite. (Mine would be sense of humor and banter and never lying and not being a billionaire and never smirking and . . .)

Speak up, Argh. What makes a good love interest?

Edited to Add:
I may have missed “good in bed.”

Sometimes a gun is not a cigar.

66 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Love Interest?

  1. I never figured out how to make me a good love interest! How am I supposed to find a pattern for some fictional character? Maybe just, “Be better than me in general, someone I could try to emulate or aspire to or just admire from outside the story.”

  2. In real life:
    – has a good sense of humor/the same as i have
    – is kind
    – is interested in a lot of things (many of which interests I share)
    – is someone with which I can talk endlessly (we never run out of things we can talk about, laugh about, discuss, be silent about)
    – has a good set of values (similar to mine)
    – is competent in what he does but doesn’t need to brag about it
    – is a good dancer
    – is someone with whom I feel comfortable enough to break ot in song
    – is my best friend and much more
    – plus your addendum
    – is the guy preparing dinner right now.

    Reads a bit like a Dick Francis hero without the danger 🙂
    Or like Harry, the love interest on Rosaline Palmer.

    1. In my novels though, a love interest can be much, mucv more because he/her/whatever has to be the right fit for the other love interest.
      It’s easier to say what doesn’t work in a love interest regardless of the opposite one:
      – is mean / domineering / egotistical / a know-it-all
      – is cruel
      – is perfect in everything (I can’t relate)

      Apart from that I personally prefer my “heroes” to be not too perfect/ fascing some sort of struggle, preferably fighting an uphill battle, otherwise there’s no development/arc, no journey.
      The heroine should be worth her love interest and vice versa.

      Your love interests fit the bill in what I prefer in real life PLUS the bonus have the attractivenes / sexiness that is more difficult to achieve in real life – be it Nick, Gabe, Riley (because he’s fun!!) etc.
      I love the love interest for Miles Vorkosigan – Ekaterin.
      I love Philippa for Lymond, who is sooo intriguing, but would be exhsusting in real life (I’d feel eternally too dumb).
      Love interests GET their partner, make them into someone enjoying life more/ being able to face life’s challenges better, bring the sparkle into each other’s eyes.
      Not very helpful, I know…sorry!

      Like Miles

    2. “someone with whom I feel comfortable enough to break out in song” is a requirement for even short-term roommates….

  3. I’d agree with all of this. I love a banter-y guy myself and would be disappointed with anyone who can’t snark back. If there’s something about the person that amazes/fascinates you, that’d be extra bonus.

    Btw, as far as I can tell billionaires IRL are total assholes, that’s how they become billionaires. Can’t say I have any interest (or much beyond disgust) for the ones in our world. Anyone WANT Bill, Jeff, or Elon? Ughhhhhhhh.

    1. I’m sure they’re lovely people who just need to meet the right woman to bring out their inner men.

      No. Just no. Absolutely totally no.

    2. Elon Spouse(s) Justine Wilson ​(m. 2000; div. 2008)​
      Talulah Riley ​(m. 2010; div. 2012)​ ​(m. 2013; div. 2016)

      Jeff Bezos Spouse: MacKenzie Scott (m. 1993–2019)

      Bill Gates Spouse: Melinda French Gates (m. 1994–2021)

      Steve Jobs Spouse: Laurene Powell Jobs (m. 1991–2011) (he died)

      Steve Wozniak Spouse: Janet Hill (m. 2008), Suzanne Mulkern (m. 1990–2004), Candice Clark (m. 1981–1987), Alice Robertson (m. 1976–1980)

      Somebody wanted them.

      1. True. But — I think divorce has been regarded as failure for too long. It can, at the least, be the result of unhappiness, and working through a divorce must be hell. Yet it is — for a huge proportion of married couples — necessary. Divorcees’ lives need to go in new directions.

        I’m emphatic because for years I thought the opposite and I feel embarrassed now for being so simple-minded and cruel. Divorce is a procedure. It is neither a judgment of character nor a static ending.

        1. I kind of think a marriage that lasts 20 years should be considered a success. The whole ’till death do you part’ thing is a holdover from women-as-property and I don’t dig it. People change. We’re *supposed* to. It’s called learning.

          1. LOL! I have been known to comment that the “til death do us part” was also when the average life span was a hell of a lot shorter than it is now. I think if you reach 25 years you should be allowed a no-harm-no-foul separation without any drama.

            Mind you, I’ve been married 30 years and haven’t had the urge to call in that marker, so I am blessed!

  4. I adore the hero who notices the little things, like when she’s tired from work and he tells her to take a bubble bath then cooks dinner or orders pizza. Or she says she needs to get the car washed, or run to the store because she’s almost out of toilet paper, and he says I’ll do that.
    When there is a sharing of chores it makes life more comfortable. When there is an imbalance there can be resentment. A guy who cooks dinner or washes the dishes is more likely to get sex later than the one who kicks back in the recliner and enjoys a beer and a sports show, while she runs around doing everything.
    Getting a massage together, or giving each other a facial while watching TV, or a foot massage, all of the caring things help to make a good hero. I love the guy in the Oreo commercial who puts the kid to bed then has time with his wife watching TV, eating Oreos, and wearing a blue facial product.

    1. Yes! I was asked what was romantic once and said “when he takes out the garbage without being asked.” It is a little simplistic, but you know what I mean. 🙂

      1. I don’t think that’s simplistic at all. It’s really important, because it means he’s taking a bit of responsibility and not waiting to be told what to do. The opposite, where someone only takes out the garbage (and everything else) if they are reminded/told/begged is the very antithesis of romance.

  5. My ideal love interest:
    is competent at zir profession;
    has interests outside said profession which align with, or at least are not antithetical to, those of partner;
    has good manners and generally avoids doing harm but is not a pushover or compulsive pleaser;
    likes music even if ze can’t dance;
    likes animals even if ze doesn’t have/want a pet;
    is open-minded and tolerant;
    is able and willing to physically please zir partner;
    is able and willing to be social with people important to partner;
    is quick-witted and readily amused;
    is observant;
    finds partner fascinating, sexy, fun, and essential.

    1. Thanks for the embedded lesson on sleeker, gender-less pronouns!

      But I’m SO not quick-witted. At first I thought typo, but then as the pattern persisted I thought: Hmm, seems like she (which will henceforth be ze) likes Frenchmen?

      1. Ooh la la, j’adore Frenchmen. There’s a French guy in my working group and getting him on the phone is a treat. LOL

  6. I think considerate and perceptive are the basics if you’re going to get along with someone outside formal situations where everybody is on their best behavior. And whether you’re getting past the first meeting or the first date or the first rescue from a zombie horde, you’ve got to move as quickly as you can to find out more.

    For my money,”likes” are often the best cue to someone you’ll get along with in a way that will last beyond the “Hmmm, cute… dresses the way I like… laughs at my jokes” kind of first impressions. It doesn’t have to be a mirror image thing — a taste for different foods or sports teams isn’t a deal breaker, but appreciation for things with substance can show a lot.

    I came to Jenny’s books from some newspaper article where there was an indication that she really liked Georgette Heyer and Terry Pratchett — my favorite authors. Listening to the Lois Bujold podcast (thanks for the link, Argher!) today, I learned that these are two of her favorites also, and then she goes and mentions liking Jenny’s books too! Implicit in liking very similar movies or books or animals is that you value a host of similar things.

    It’s a little like picking out a family or a friendship group — there’s a wide variety of little aspects of getting along with people that you don’t have to put words to, but you can count on as indicators of compatibility. Hence the doctor on the next floor who likes your dog and your favorite films. Or the guy who loves your favorite restaurant when he meets all your best friends there — those likes? They’re a sure thing.

  7. I agree with many traits already mentioned.

    Kind is essential, as is integrity

    Competent, not at everything, but definitely at something (even if it is only at procuring an umbrella/hackney when it is raining as many a good Heyer hero).

    Brilliant can also be good. I do like a non arrogant genius in his/her field.

    Physically, I love it when a hero is described as lean but strong. I really don’t understand the obsession in a lot of American romances for over muscly types. And yet, and yet, I do occasionnally like the idea of a man mountain.

    Physical perfection is a big turn off though for me in real life and has always been. I like some imperfections in my fictional heroes very much.

    Money is definitely not an attraction. Also, no businessmen, doctors or lawyers please and no dukes (apart from the duke of Sale, the most unduke like duke ever invented, thank you Georgette, and Stella Riley’s omniscient Rockliffe and Mary Balogh’s Wulfric because you do have to have exceptions)

    The ability to communicate is, as is the ability to surprise/be original.

    Energy because I have known myself.

    I could continue but I’ll stop here now.

    1. Awww, I like doctor heroes. Well, I like Love at First and the hero Jenny wrote for Fred’s book (sorry, I don’t remember the title). Jasmine Guillory has at least one too. I will say, I only like doctor heroes if they are thoroughly and inconveniently exhausted at least once in the story and have tons of student loans. So realistic doctors. I’ve never seen the appeal of the squeaky clean, romanticized doctor romances, so I totally agree with you there.

  8. The first romance male I related to (as a teenager, many years ago) had asthma!,
    WOW he was not perfect. We know we are not perfect sooo we don’t want a perfect hero imho. I like them both to be reasonably intelligent, on the same wavelength and a must as I told my kids must must have the same sense of humer, only kids laugh at fart jokes. Thankfully I was listened to so all our extended family get along. Gee I went of the topic, Sorry.

  9. Smart, funny, capable (although not necessarily at everything–who is good at everything?), flawed but not obnoxiously so, kind, good with kids and animals (even if he doesn’t have any of his own), accepts the protagonist as she is.

    Bonus points for being able to cook.

  10. Oh, heck is it easier or harder to figure out what to look for irl or in a novel? I don’t think there are universal positives because everyone’s tastes are different. Lots of universal negatives though. Not many people are interested in dating people who kick puppies. Not if they know they are puppy kickers.

    1. For me, it’s easier to figure out what to look for in real life, if only because at least one protagonist is non-negotiable (me). But it’s much easier to find whatever you’re looking for in fiction. Plus, way lower stakes. Worse case scenario, you throw a book at a wall and move on. Dealing with real life romantic interests who frustrate you is generally a more complicated process.

  11. First, I see fictional interests as completely different from real life ones.

    Then, what makes a good one — Lassiter in Take a Look at the Five and Dime is the first person to be interested in Grandma Elving, contrasting with everyone else, including Ori. He scored with me immediately. Several comments to this post have listed the traits that make Lassiter a good candidate; my point is the way the traits are revealed.

    Hmm. . . . Y’know, I don’t agree that there needs to be a universal list. If that were true, there could be a limited number of stories to cover all the combinations.

    Also, I think Jenny’s list is overly tailored to 2021 because it includes that the love interest be not sexist, racist, classist, nor homophobic. (I’ll give you the no smirker.) The possibilities for conflict and change in those areas are broad and could lead to good stories. (A psychologist once told me that first marriages tend to be between people who are opposites, in contrast to second marriages in which couples see themselves as similar. There are good stories in which the love interest learns to overcome an “ist,” thereby becoming similar to the unprejudiced protagonist.)

    Also, the “ist” categories are, I think, too narrow and mostly invite more negative traits than remind me of parallel positive traits. For instance, the list misses that romantic involvement with a Roman Catholic priest is yucky. And the “ist” list misses misuse of power.

    Power is a broad term but I think it is as important in romances as it is in any other sort of imaginative literature.

    Jenny, thank you very much for this post. I’ve only begun to think about it.

  12. The first thing I thought of when I read Jenny’s intro was this comment from DRAMATICA:

    there’s always a love interest even in stories where you think there isn’t. For instance, in THE WIZARD OF OZ . . . who is it that Dorothy Gale follows into the tornado? Toto. He’s her love interest.

  13. My mother when discussing real life, once said that you look for someone who will grow in the same direction as you do. But how do you recognize that when you are young and at the mercy of your hormones?
    I wish I had thought to ask what she liked in a fictional romantic lead.

  14. I’m sure they’re lovely people who just need to meet the right woman to bring out their inner men.

    No. Just no. Absolutely totally no.

  15. Ethical, dependable and smart. Kindness not niceness. In my world, kindness is doing what you should do with compassion. Niceness is doing it to be liked. Appreciating qualities in the other person.

  16. I mean, don’t underestimate the importance of “she smelled right to me”. There’s a certain degree of ineffability in all this.

    But having said that, a love interest that recognizes when the other person needs help and steps in to provide it a treasure to be cherished and pursued.

    1. Loves cats is good. I read that the reason more women than men love cats is that most men want pets they can control and dominate. So if he loves and takes good care of a cat even though he doesn’t control and dominate her, he’s a keeper.

      1. Yes, I think Mary M is spot on. A cat wants a loving, predictable, frequently present companion/servant who will look after his/her comfort ON THE CAT’S OWN TERMS, if you please. A guy who accepts that and takes care of a cat is a good solid bet.

  17. ‘Not kicking puppies’ sounds a bit narrow. I disapprove of kicking grownup dogs too, unless they’re attacking you, of course. The same goes for everyone. I once read a book where the female protagonist kicked an unconscious man in the ribs. He may have been the villain, but doing that made her no better. I didn’t finish the book, and never picked up another book by that author again.

  18. A good love interest is the person who is perfect for the main character, not necessarily for me. “These Old Shades” – would YOU want the Duke of Avon???????? but he was perfect for Leonie. For that matter, would you want Leonie???? she would drive me nuts, but I love them together. So I guess that for me it comes down to do they really get and respect/admire each other. I like the idea that they will foster growth in each other (i.e. HEA includes more than just procreating in an epilogue). And kind to animals is a requisite – kind to people not so much, based on my fondness for his grace, the Duke of Avon as a hero.

    1. I agree. How many real life couples do you look at and think “Why are they together” because you can’t see yourself with either or both of them. But it works for them, and that’s all that matters.

      This is why I love reading and writing romance. There are so many character traits to explore, and if you match the characters properly, any personality can create a believable, loving relationship.

    2. When I read the original question, I immediately thought of ‘Lord of Scoundrels’ which I guess is a similar situation. The charm of the story is that they are both so outrageous but they match each other so well that it is absolutely believable they will have a successful and lasting relationship.

  19. There has to be some meshing of values. Not a 100% match but a certain compatablity, And if completely opposite, a recognition of those differences and ability to compromise.

    If one party is appalled and apologizing for an overdue notice and the other is a “cancellation notice? I’ll get the payment out soon” type, well, there’d better be a plan to handle that.

    Or an introvert/extrovert couple. Not impossible but adjustments have to be made.

    And if there are too many differences, I can’t see it happening.

    1. I’m not sure how exactly to put it but the two partners have to be compatible enough to get tbrough a pandemic in a house with no other company. Which is actually no small test.

  20. Non-negotiable must for lovers, friends, main characters: we must match on basic human principles. Decency, justice, non-ego-feeding priorities and thought processes. A drive to leave the campground in better shape than it was before I arrived. I can’t trust zem otherwise and certainly can’t relax enough to enjoy zem.

    Beyond that are personality, stylistic traits that provide zing, delight, and surprise–and highly entertaining conflicts in books? Like a goofy/dry/sharp/quick/snarky (in the most righteous way) sense of humor. A curiosity about people and things (love nerds).

    And I agree with Michael Mock–I do believe in ineffable sparks.

  21. Yes to all that. For me, friend or love interest must also include ability to understand that introverts get worn out by social interaction, even though they like people. Thus, they may need to leave the party/gathering/whatever early or go to bed early. Or nap.
    Also must be tolerant of those of us who are not morning people.

    1. Judy, my husband is an extreme extrovert, while I’m the opposite. I think on our second vacation trip as a family (not visiting relatives) when our kids were very small, we learned by accident how to travel together and respect our introvert/extrovert tendencies.

      We’d been sightseeing all day and I was totally peopled out, but he still wanted to go-go-go. However, it was kiddie bath/bedtime. So he helped me get the kids ready for bed, then asked if he could take off to explore. I told him BYE! And that’s how it started! Now, after dinner, he takes off to explore the city (wherever we are) at night, and I stay at the hotel with the kids (who were in bed early when they were young; now that they’re teens, they game).

      I get my quiet time and a chance to rest/recharge before the next day’s adventures, and he gets his extroverted exploring time, and together, we travel well. We’re like clockwork now.

      1. We do the same sort of thing, even though we don’t travel with our kids any more. He heads out for a long walk while I head to the beach to read. Then when he comes back we either retrace his steps because he’s found something interesting, or we go somewhere new. Win/Win!

  22. The good love interest will trust the protagonist. They could arc to that: first listen, then respect, then trust.

  23. For me, integrity is the bedrock. All else is gravy.

    Can you see them doing well together after THE END? Do they have reasonably meshing life goals? Read too many romances where it doesn’t look as if they have.

  24. Must be mentally and physically attractive to our protagonist, either from the start or as they get to know them. (The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily need to find them mentally or physically attractive).

    Must have a moral backbone. (Doesn’t need to match MY moral backbone, but it needs to be there.)

    Must be Good For The Protagonist. (Some protagonists need someone to challenge them. Some need someone to comfort them. I’m not picky, so long as they’re good for the protagonists).

    Must be, in the ways that matter most, an Even Match For The Protagonist. (Jane Austen is the master of this — Darcy + Lizzy get each other, because they’re equally smart, flawed, and gutsy. Meanwhile Bingly + Jane get each other because they are both incredibly kind, but almost to the point where it turns into TSTL)

    Must make the story better. It can be the most perfect love story in the world, but if the love interest makes every scene they’re in a little more worse, boring, etc., it’s not gonna work for me.

    Not Required, But Better to Have a Goal Outside of Winning the Protagonist: The only books I’ve read where winning the protagonist was the sole goal worked, it was because the Love Interest didn’t have a POV and their motives were semi-mysterious. If we KNOW that’s there one and only goal, it will either be boring or creepy.

    Re absolutes: Can’t be cruel to people more vulnerable than themselves. That’s pretty much it. All of my other “Oh Hell No” romantic interest behavior pretty much fit under that umbrella.

    P.S. Jenny, if you’re ever kidnapped, just post that you think smirking is sexy. Argh will immediately send up the bat signal and rescue you.

    1. Moral backbone. It’s not my favorite trope, but I enjoy watching people _find_ their moral backbone in the process of falling in love.

  25. All these comments remind me that I don’t like series that have a book for each member of the family. Not every instance of falling in love is rich enough in action and feeling to warrant a novel. I’m thinking of Bonnie and Roger in Bet Me. Great people, great romance. Not a standalone novel. So when I hear that a series covers a family, or favorite characters from previous books, I steer clear. After all, the risks and burnt fingers that Cal and Min endure hurt them; it’s their integrity and stubbornness that requires the extent of their pain (and pleasure, to include Cynthie here).

  26. I think a good love interest DOES things. I always think of “Agnes and the Hitman” when Shane gets her an A/C because she needs it. He anticipates her need, and he doesn’t expect anything in return.

    Mr. Darcy is another good example. He could easily walk away from Elizabeth and her family drama after Lydia takes off with Wickham, but instead, he endeavors to make Mr. Wickham marry Lydia, lending a veneer of respectability to the Bennett’s otherwise ruined family name. Not only that, he doesn’t do it to “score points” or get in her good graces. He does it because he knows it’s important to her, letting her uncle, Mr. Gardiner, take all the credit.

    Flowers are nice, but what’s nicer is folding my laundry and putting it away, because it’s something I hate to do, yet it needs to be done. Give me more men like this. 🙂

    (I wonder how much this is driven by my love language, which is acts of service? Probably all of it.)

  27. Competence, smart, strong sense of right and wrong (this doesn’t have to mean laws – just ethics of some sort), respect for the protagonist, honest with the protagonist. Kindness feels too broad since I find some morally challenged or prickly/rude characters to be interesting or fun; more accurate would be “not cruel” or “doesn’t punch down.” Basically don’t hurt people that are weaker or can’t defend themselves, but going after someone who is evil and on the same level of power or stronger is fine with me. Takes care of the protagonist when they need it in whatever form that needs to take (e.g., Shane getting Agnes an air conditioner or Nalini Singh’s characters feeding each other a lot).

    1. While I generally agree with “honest with the protagonist,” I do have a soft spot for a con artist love interest who gets worse and worse at lying to the the protagonist as they fall more and more in love.

      1. Yes, con artists and thieves get a pass at first as long as they get there eventually. 🙂

        1. I’ve just rewatched Maverick, and given that it’s not a romance but does have a romantic sub-plot where they’re still blithely conning each other by the end, I’m thinking about how that fits in. Maybe it’s that they know each other and it’s with eyes wide open to what’s going on but it’s become a game between them where they both appreciate each other’s skills.

  28. I like Jenny’s list. I would add:
    Really smart.
    Able to speak with all sorts of people with genuine interest and no condescension.
    Has good manners.

  29. One of the things I never thought of until I met Paul was that a good love interest for me, fictional or real, has to be curious. When we first got together he wasn’t curious about anything (this is a product of his upbringing without scads of books in the house and people who, ya know, wanted to learn about the world), I couldn’t even get him to watch Mythbusters!?!?! It took about a year of leading by gentle example/hammering it into his head that he was allowed to be curious about the world and ask questions and learn new things. I don’t think I have ever seen his parents watch a tv show at home that wasn’t CNN or sports, not even a nature documentary, and I know that in the 18 years I knew her I never saw his mom crack a book that wasn’t a devotional. His dad likes thrillers but maybe 1-2 a year. Going to their house where there are no books gives me the heebie-jeebies. His sister is like that too but her girls are much more into learning and expanding their knowledge.

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