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.”