What My Love Story Taught Me About Fictional Love

Today is Chris and mine’s 4-year anniversary.

Despite our rough patches (our called-off engagement, our subsequent breakup and reunion now 2 years in the past), we are still happy, in love, and planning to stay together for the rest of our lives. Breaking up was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, but it also taught us something about commitment, quality of life, and the sustainability of love.

In the end we decided there was no one else we’d rather be with. In fact, the day I wrote this we spent our lunch break attempting to nap together, but laughing too hard to settle down for the whole hour. Chris is truly my life partner; we plan our finances together, we pursue the same goals, we remodel the house together, we grocery shop together… I’m very lucky to be able to say my boyfriend is also my best friend.

Being in love as a teenager, and then morphing into this type of adult love, gave me new insight into fictional love stories, especially in YA. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Love at First Sight: I see this one complained about very frequently. Readers and reviewers say, ‘Ugh, so suddenly she meets this guy she’s instantly attracted to and can’t stop thinking about? Puh-LEEZE!’ And to this I say, ‘You’ve been in love before, right?’

LAFS exists, definitely. Sure there are lots of relationships that started as friendships and slowly burned towards romantic feelings. But for everyone I can name in my personal life, they met their significant other and were instantly attracted and interested.

My grandparents had LAFS (while my grandmother was engaged to another man, no less!), my parents had LAFS (my dad ran across this huge bar and parking lot to talk to her after one glimpse of my mother), and I had one.

My love story is well-documented so I won’t repeat it here, but I remember those feelings very clearly. Dazzlement, anxiety, desperation, fear… I would have done some crazy-person things to ensure I got to continue to talk to Chris the first time we met.

So I do definitely believe in Love At First Sight, and I will defend it in YA stories. I want my characters to have that same hope coupled with doubt that I had, but underneath I want them to have an instant attraction to this person. A connection. A spark. Even if they both have to hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist, there needs to be a reason for these two strangers to start to care about each other, or else frankly often we’d have no story.

Sustaining Love: The problem with LAFS is that those stories can easily be all about the courting stage: Oh wow, they like each other! Oh no, there are obstacles! Will they get together? YES, they got together, hooray!

…Now what?

It’s absolutely fun to write about butterflies, tingling, and desire. Fun to go through it, fun to recall it, and fun to read about it. But for longer stories, eventually the two characters will have to settle down into day-to-day life with this love interest, and some stories just can’t survive that.

I see this happen a lot in book series. At the end of the first book, the characters get together. Yay! Then in the second book, circumstances arise that tear them apart. Will they get back together? Can they reconcile? End of the second book comes and YES they can and they did! Hooray!

But again… now what? That story isn’t about mature love. It’s about going through those butterflies and tingles again. It’s about desire, and ache, and blossoming relationships.

You know what I love? When characters maintain their relationships and have to deal with real challenges, but get over them together as a couple without being broken up.

One of my favorites here is in the Kushiel’s Dart series. After the two love interests get together, their faith in and support of each other helps them overcome the challenges of subsequent books. They spend a lot of time apart, but aren’t broken up, just supportive from afar. I liked seeing that MC go through personal challenges and missions, while desiring to get back to her life partner.

The Hunger Games is another example. Spoilers for those who haven’t finished the series!  I felt like the third book especially demonstrated Katniss with more mature-like relationships with her love interest. She and Gale partnered on various projects and missions. They trusted each other. They depended on each other. They had an unresolved romantic tension, yes, but I felt like their friendship could have easily transformed into a sustainable romance. In the end, of course, we learn along with Katniss that Gale’s actions have made him ineligible to be her partner, but then we get to witness another mature relationship between her and Peeta. It’s summarized, but we see them working together, supporting each other, and eventually guiding each other through parenthood.

Because I have lived through a relationship that started off with fuzziness and butterflies, and evolved through tribulation into a sustainable romance, I like to give my characters the same experience. I want the person they end up with to be a compatible life partner for them. Not someone to oggle at forever, but who they can talk with, laugh with, and work with. Someone they understand, but more importantly, someone they enjoy.

Even as a writer, even with 4 years to think about it, I am still unable to define exactly what it is that makes me love Chris. There’s just something about him I find fascinating and enjoyable. He’s not the same type of person as me. We often don’t think the same. Our ideological values are often different. But I love to hear his thoughts and get his opinion. Even the minutiae of his life is interesting to me, because it comes from him.

Chris delights me. It’s that delight I try to give to my characters… someone they bond with and enjoy, who can grow with them, and challenge them.

True relationships aren’t based off infatuation, but deep caring and a dedication to the long-term. And that’s what love has taught me :-)

<3, Savannah

10 thoughts on “What My Love Story Taught Me About Fictional Love

  1. I too know about broken engagements, only in my case I broke things off because were had grown into two different people who were so radically different then the teenagers who fell in love. As hard as it was for me to walk away, it (like your experience) has made me more realistic about love in my stories and I feel as though my writing has improved because of it.

    So thanks so much for the awesome post, it totally made me think and happy four years to the both of you.

    • I’m so sorry you had to go through that, and I hope the experience is something you would do again if you had the choice. That’s really the sign of a good decision, isn’t it? Would you go through it all to have what you have now?

      And thank you <3

  2. Congrats on 4 years! Amazing how the ups and downs become a part of this story, this landscape that you create together. Best wishes for many more years of love :)

    You’re spot-on that life experience teaches us so much about how to write love. I had nothing close to a LAFS with my husband, and after almost ten years together (aaaak! Really?) I find myself more and more interested in the sustaining and evolving part of writing romantic relationships–even in YA, even for new relationships. Because the sustaining and evolving starts pretty early, you just often don’t quite realize it’s what you’re doing then, when you’re still twitterpated. And ok, sometimes you can still be twitterpated 10 years later :)

    • I have definitely read studies of how ‘twitterpation’ can last an entire lifetime. They scanned the brains of couples who had been together for 50 years and still professed to be in love, and when showed a picture of their significant other their brains did whatever brains do to indicate extreme enjoyment. So now there’s science behind longevity!

  3. This is such a beautiful post. Love, love, love!

    I’ve been in a long-term relationship myself (3 years long this fall) so I understand this whole getting over the butterfly feeling. Sometimes I think the more mature part of a romance is more fun than that giddy first stage. Because you still get to have giggle fights and things like that, while also having someone there for you when you have no one else to turn to.

    My thing with the love at first sight YA trend that I have an issue with is when it’s a we’re-gonna-be-together-forever love at first sight… If that makes sense. I totally believe that you can see someone from across the room and know there’s something special about them. Because then you can get these awesomely and adorably romantic stories like your parents :)

    Congrats to you and Chris!!

    • Congrats Zoe!

      The mature part is fun because of all the inside jokes… you speak a shorthand as a couple. You have shortcut phrases and descriptions, things you couldn’t share with anyone else and would lose forever if you broke up. Butterflies are fun, but I like that closeness. It means more because it’s based on years of emotion rather than surging hormones, you know?

      And yes! In YA I think there needs to be more practical planning about futures. As in, how are we going to pay for our lifestyle and where are we going to live and who will take out the garbage?

  4. Congrats on the anniversary! Love your post.

    I think I agree with Zoe more about LAFS though. I think there can be spark and an interest and a connection at first sight, but I think of romantic love as something deeper that is developed over time, though that initial interest may be the catalyst.

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