Storytelling

Removing the Creeps From Romance

"Never without my permission." - Fifth Element

For as long as we can remember, storytellers have depicted idealized romances that would translate to abusive, unhealthy relationships in real life. Now audiences are starting to catch on, and anyone who wants their story to last has to update old conventions. But there’s a reason why creepy tropes are so popular; for many people, they still represent true love or passion. Storytellers today are tasked with depicting healthy relationships, while still evoking those emotions.

Here’s how to do that for some of the worst romance conventions:

The Sleeping Kiss

sleeping-kiss

The Brothers Grimm changed romance forever when they published Little Briar Rose, wherein Prince Charming fulfills destiny by kissing Sleeping Beauty while she slumbers. She immediately wakes up after a 100 years’ rest, signaling to audiences that they were meant to be. Today, the sleeping kiss still represents true, destined love.

But someone who’s asleep can’t consent to being kissed. How would you feel if you laid down for a nap one afternoon, and some stranger wandered into your home and kissed you on the lips? Probably not great. And that’s why the sleeping kiss has to go.

However, that doesn’t mean lovers couldn’t meet in a similar fashion. They could even have some physical contact, but it must be for the benefit of the sleeping person, not the pleasure of the conscious person. The admirer could take the hand of the cursed sleeper, as that’s a gesture commonly used to comfort those who are ill. If the sleeper is on the floor, or in an otherwise uncomfortable looking position, the admirer could move them to a soft area and cover them with a blanket.

If the sleeper needs a romantic trigger to wake up, a small token of affection should suffice, such as closing their hands around a few flowers. Regardless of whether the sleeper wakens, don’t let the admirer become obsessed. Visiting every day to stare at a sleeping stranger isn’t healthy behavior.

The Surprise Kiss

Korra surprises Mako Korra surprises Mako with a first kiss.

The potential lovers are just friends, but one or both wants more. How do they transition from the friend zone to a couple? Surprise kiss! Without any signal of what’s about to happen, one of them kisses the other. Storytellers like this because it’s entertaining, and because it highlights the passionate and impulsive nature of their love.

But like the sleeping kiss, surprise kisses happen without getting consent first. I’m sure you can think of at least one friend you would not want to kiss you. While technically two people who go in for a surprise kiss at the same time are both consenting, it’s not much better because it’s too coincidental for real life. A real person executing a surprise kiss can’t expect the object of their affection to dive in simultaneously.

A couple’s first kiss requires clear, unambiguous permission. By far the best way to get it is for one of them to outright ask the other, “May I kiss you?” While this might seem like a mood killer, that’s only because we haven’t romanticized it yet. But we can – Disney’s Frozen provides a great example. Enough stories like those, and this question will have as much romantic significance as “Will you marry me?”* Done in the right manner, this question can be as passionate and impulsive as the surprise kiss.

The Fatal Breakup

Bella almost drowns herself  out of grief. Bella almost drowns herself out of grief.

The low point of the romance arrives – one of the lovers leaves the other. It’s a tragedy, and storytellers emphasize this by having one or both of the lovers go to extreme measures to display their pain. In Twilight, Bella engages in suicidal behavior in order to hallucinate about Edward. In other romances, it’s common for a former lover to slowly waste away out of grief, or to even just drop dead on the spot.

Self-harm should never be glorified in this manner. It tells audiences that their love isn’t real unless their life is threatened when it’s over. And as everyone begins to recognize this behavior and compare it to real life, it looks increasingly pathetic.

However, it’s okay for someone to mourn after a breakup. They can cry on a shoulder or two. They can change as a person, perhaps losing some innocence or naivety. You can use the five stages of grief as an inspiration. Perhaps your character starts in denial, then becomes angry, then tries to negotiate their way out of it. But no matter what emotions they go through, they must be on a path to the last stage: acceptance. Healthy people realize they will need to move on at some point.

Making your audience feel natural and healthy grief along with your character requires more thought than depicting melodramatic behavior, but it will create better results too. Early on, establish the dreams they have for their future together. After the breakup, they can look back on those dreams and realize they are lost forever. Important gifts they gave each other, and places where they created important memories, can be revisited to represent their longing. They can be reminded of each other when they see other people on the street who look similar. Details like these will draw in your audience because they can actually relate to them.

The Persistent Suitor

Tombo doesn't take "leave me alone" for an answer. Tombo doesn’t take “leave me alone” for an answer.

If two people just met, went on a date, and began a happy relationship, there wouldn’t be story. To make romance interesting, one or both of the potential lovers must be reluctant to start a relationship. Then they need an opportunity to change their minds. But all too often, only one of them is reluctant, and their admirer gives them a chance to change their mind through sheer persistence. Usually, these advances continue even after it’s clear they aren’t wanted. Traditionally, this behavior represented the strength of their affections.

But in real life, anyone who won’t take “no” for an answer is a harasser at best, a rapist at worst. It’s the calling card of a dangerous predator, and that’s the last thing we want for our romantic heroes. To steer clear of this, anything a potential lover says has to be taken at face value, as their final word on the matter. The admirer can ask a second time only if the object of their affection literally says, “I’m not sure,” or “Ask me later.”

There are better ways to keep couples from getting together. One of them could already be in a relationship. They could be friends that are nervous about asking for more. They could have vastly different traditions or lifestyles, making them think a relationship wouldn’t work. Many romances use a ploy where the two pretend to be lovers without actually meaning it. Take any of these challenges, then show how devotion motivates the characters to overcome them. That will give you a perfect replacement for persistent suitors.

The Uninvited Guest

Ramona invades Scott's dreams. Scott makes her workplace come to him. Scott orders a package from Ramona’s workplace so he can ask her out during her delivery run.*

The potential lovers have already met, but they’re not romantically involved. Then one of them suddenly shows up at the other’s home or workplace, without being invited or otherwise encouraged to do so. Their appearance isn’t a coincidence – they intentionally looked up the home or workplace and showed up to make advances, or just to watch them. Storytellers use these moments to give the two a chance to interact, and to illustrate the visitor’s longing for the host.

But we have a word for someone who invades another’s personal space and privacy: a stalker. It’s especially bad if the guest is visiting someone with any kind of customer service position while they are working. In these instances, the worker might risk losing their job just by turning the stalker away. These kinds of visits are only okay if a) it’s actually a coincidence, and the visitor just wants to say hi briefly or b) they have just learned the apocalypse is happening in four minutes, and if they don’t warn the other person, it will mean their death. The first is not an intentional invasion; the second is justified by extreme circumstances.

A potential lover can still go to extra effort to run into their crush. The key is that it must stay in the same context in which they met. If they met on the subway, one of them could go back to the same route and time repeatedly, hoping to see the other again. If they met at a party, one of them could ask the party’s host if their crush is going to be at the next one. This pattern should continue until the crush invites the admirer into other areas of their life.

 

Most outdated conventions are used out of laziness. They’re easy to think of, and they don’t require any effort to get their meaning across. But there are better options that add creativity and complexity to your character relationships. The extra work will pay off with a fresher story.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. beth Novantine

    I laughed all the way through this. Lighten up. The reason these behaviors are used in stories is because they are awkward and, yes, forbidden, but they are also part of human nature. Or hman mores. The prince can kiss the sleeping beauty because he is a rince and in these stories princes are understood to be perfect individuals without flaws, and thus can only have pure motives. They are non-Christian/pre-Christian symbols of angel-like beings..

    You are moving toward a Victorian era-like control mechanism that can only end in…a lack of readers.

    PS I am not condoning rape or stalking in any way or any form.

  2. Marcy Smiles

    I completely disagree with Beth.
    In the original Sleeping Beauty story, it wasn’t a kiss, the poor girl was raped and woke up to babies.
    Creepy is creepy. No matter how you spin it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, it’s really bad. I loved how in the new Maleficent, the Prince was like “It’s not right to kiss a sleeping girl” when the fairies were pressuring him into it.

  3. Cori

    Thank you. Finally someone called out these issues.
    I cannot agree enough with the Twilight-esque issue. Meyer’s literally is advocating suicide if you don’t get what you want out of a relationship. It’s an awful message to send.

    • Irma Niza Jamal

      I agree with you. I relate so much to the Twilight series back then because I went through a similar phase. I put the guy on a pedestal and after a terrible breakup, I was barely functional. Looking back, it was just sheer stupidity. Definitely not something to glorify about.

  4. Lana

    I agree with everything but the surprise kiss. Although I’m sure the sleeping kiss isn’t meant to come across as creepy, yeah, it kind of is. But the surprise kiss, if it’s done between a pushy person and someone who is clearly uninterested, then again, creepy. But I think I better example could be used for the surprise kiss, cause Mako told Korra he was into her, she got overwhelmed and kissed him cause he told he explicitly that her feelings were reciprocated. It also took a millisecond for him to return the kiss, as he wasn’t surprised in an “I don’t want this and I made that extremely clear”, kind of way. So…don’t really see how that is creepy. And if the two people like each other, it’s not much a surprise either, really, IMO,. Also I’ve never seen any complaints on that sort of kiss when done right. But hey, to each their own. Just be prepared to receive different views on the matter, because although this is good advice, if someone doesn’t take it, it’s simply because, in reality there is no end-all-be-all rule book on how to write the perfect story. It’s inspiring advice, but it’s still subjective. Just saying.

    • Chris Winkle

      I get where you’re coming from. For instance, if the two characters are very slowly leaning into a kiss, you could say their body language is signalling consent. But saying you reciprocate someone’s feelings is not consent for them to do what they want with your body, any more than flirting with someone is consenting to sex. Mako kissing Korra back also doesn’t retroactively give her consent, any more than a victim getting aroused during a rape gives the rapist consent. Even if Mako was completely okay with it (which he wasn’t, as he complains about it later), Korra didn’t know whether it would be okay with him when she did it, because she didn’t get his consent first. Many things about stories are subjective, that’s not.

      • Lana

        True, Makko was upset about the kiss in the end, but not because he didn’t want to kiss her. I get the sense he wasn’t ready to take that step, so maybe Korra was moving too fast. I interpreted it as, although he likes her and kisses her back, it was untimely for him, especially considering that they get walked in on, and he has to go deal with that whole situation, because she was a little too anxious, while he was still sorting through his feelings for two different women, before she laid one on him. I’m not saying Korra was totally in the right to kiss him, I just don’t see it as blatantly creepy. I see it as her being too anxious and excited over him telling her how he feels about her, and just acting on impulse. It’s not like she was forcing him to do something, she knew very well he didn’t want to do. I think doing that is a lot creepier, than rushing things because you got a little over-excited over someone’s intial confession of their feelings for you. Maybe it would’ve seemed less creepy had she realized that, as soon as he gets upset about it, but I digress. Also, when it comes to getting aroused as someone rapes you, that is not something the victim can control. It just happens. Actively kissing someone back, when they’ve kiss you and closing your eyes as you do so, is a conscious choice. If he didn’t want her to kiss him, he would’ve pulled away.

        • Chris Winkle

          I can understand why it didn’t seem blatantly creepy to you, but the reason why I highlighted the surprise kiss is that it should be seen as creepy. While you could say she didn’t force him, if she kisses him so suddenly that he doesn’t have the chance to avoid it, how is that any different? He wasn’t given a choice, and whether he likes it or not doesn’t change that. Excusing Korra’s behavior by saying she was just excited and acting impulsively is very much like saying boys can’t help themselves when they see short skirts. I’m not saying this to bash Korra; I like Korra. I consider this a fault of the writers. If we want romances that don’t creep us out not only today but in twenty years (when everyone will hopefully be more enlightened) writers have to stop putting non-consensual kisses in their stories.

          • Lana

            I wouldn’t assume that a majority of an audience finds one particular kiss creepy, because of the fact that everyone has a different perspective. You’re also won’t always be on the same page, want or dislike the same thing, and you won’t be able to please every last one of them. Not to mention we should never tell anyone what they should think about a certain kiss, just like a writer shouldn’t tell their audience they how are supposed to feel about a character. Everyone should be free to interpret a scene how they want. If you find it creepy, fine, but I was just explaining why I disagree with that one particular example. Unfortunately not every example you give for any article can be 100% spot on, because certain examples can be interpreted differently. Again I’m not excusing Korra. As I said she wasn’t completely right for it. It could be that she needs to learn to better control her impulses and to think before she acts. She was rushing things and the kiss ended up creating conflict with someone else. Again, I just don’t see how that fits the term creepy. I also never said you were bashing her. You can believe what you want, just as anyone else can. And I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to believe that every example given in every article is correct all of the time.

          • Lana

            *Your audience also won’t always be on the same page, want, or dislike the same thing…* freaking typos -_-.

      • MentalPagan

        Aang kissing Katara at the invasion during the Day of Black Sun would have been a great example for that one.

  5. Lana

    I wouldn’t assume that a majority of an audience finds one particular kiss creepy, because of the fact that everyone has a different perspective. You’re also won’t always be on the same page, want or dislike the same thing, and you won’t be able to please every last one of them. Not to mention we should never tell anyone what they should think about a certain kiss, just like a writer shouldn’t tell their audience they how are supposed to feel about a character. Everyone should be free to interpret a scene how they want. If you find it creepy, fine, but I was just explaining why I disagree with that one particular example. Unfortunately not every example you give for any article can be 100% spot on, because certain examples can be interpreted differently. Again I’m not excusing Korra. As I said she wasn’t completely right for it. It could be that she needs to learn to better control her impulses and to think before she acts. She was rushing things and the kiss ended up creating conflict with someone else. Again, I just don’t see how that fits the term creepy. I also never said you were bashing her. You can believe what you want, just as anyone else can. And I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to believe that every example given in every article is correct all of the time.

  6. Brigitta M.

    Early stage romance is tricky and awkward. It’s not always possible (or for that matter) realistic to expect people to ask for permission at each stage. Misunderstandings happen, and as long as the one who moved too fast for the other backs off at the appropriate time (such as when they’re hand-blocked or there’s a verbal “no” or anything like that) backs off and apologizes as opposes to justifies their behavior it’s not really creepy…just part of the awkwardness of crossed signals.

    Part of maturing is being able to read signals from others. I remember a particular time when I was in my early 40s and a friend of mine in his 20s had introduced me to another guy. The guy in his 20s went in the other room…and the two of us (the other guy and I) figured out pretty quickly that there was chemistry and we had a date set for the following week by the time the guy in his 20s came back with nachos and mentioned that the two of us should date. We were miles ahead of him because of that years of experience. Note, I had been out of the dating scene for over ten years at that point, but reading romantic cues is like riding a bike.

    My whole point is that the surprise kiss is symbolic of that greater awkwardness of young lovers who are learning their way around reading body language in this department. It happens on all ends of the spectrum (male, female, genderfluid, etc) and it only crosses into creepy territory when the one who did the surprise kiss tries to blame the other person for their actions. The appropriate response for learning that the kiss was unwanted is a simple “I’m sorry, I must have misread something. My bad.” Iow, “I” statements instead of “you” statements which is done far too often even in adult rom-coms (the worst offenders imo).

    PS. I know you meant well with your “putting flowers in the hand of someone who is sleeping” gesture… but that’s extremely symbolic of death. Not the imagery I think you were going for. Instead, I’d recommend something like brushing the hair out of the individual’s face or simply doing something to make them more comfortable (such as the blanket you recommended or putting a pillow under their head).

  7. James Colemann

    There’s a fair bit to say here, so let me throw the TL;DR on top – good stories (for kids and adults) have realistic behaviors and results, not just the happy, ideal behaviors. Now, here’s the long form:

    The article seems to say that these behaviors have no place in any story because they would be uncouth and boorish in real life, and I absolutely disagree. Yes, these behaviors can set bad examples and glorify creepy behavior, but that doesn’t mean that they have no place in stories. Most relationships in real life are imperfect, and portraying only the most healthy, idealized romances does your audience no favors. Even in a healthy relationship, neither partner will always make the best decisions; a character being called out on being creepy can work well to highlight the flaws that can arise even in good, happy relationships, especially if that character acknowledges their mistake and changes their behavior. Rather than removing creepy behaviors, isn’t it better to portray the characters as realistically flawed and to acknowledge the behaviors in-story as being poor choices (complete with consequences)?

    It’s important to notice that even in real life, some of these behaviors can be effective (the sleeping kiss can cross the line from creepy to down-right rapey, so let’s take that one aside for the moment). For instance, a close friend of mine had a coworker who was particularly interested in her. Despite her frequently telling him that she wasn’t interested (in a large part because she was married with a child), the two of them ended up together and are still together today. That doesn’t make the coworker’s behavior less creepy; but they ended up together because my friend and her husband were having communication issues, my friend has severe anxiety and other mental health issues, and the coworker was adept at finding the most emotionally vulnerable moments to harass my friend. They remain together in a large part because the coworker has been excessively controlling, doing things such as demanding she cut off contact with most male friends, keeping tabs on all of her activities, and being emotionally abusive in other ways. It is not a healthy relationship by any standard, but it is one that functions well enough that they are currently engaged. That is the nature of real life; the creeps sometimes win, and their victims don’t realize how they’ve been taken advantage of. As authors, should we treat our stories as sheer escapism and provide a world completely free of that sort of toxic relationship, or should we provide our readers with realistic behaviors and consequences (even if they aren’t the ideal or ‘just’ consequences)?

    Even the sleeping kiss can have a place in stories. As an introduction of characters, it could be used to show the predatory nature of the kisser. Perhaps it could be used before any trouble shows up in the romance, as a foreshadowing of troubles to come. Many other creepy behaviors work very well like that. Once the characters are introduced as a couple, it could even be used romantically; a spouse waking up their significant other could still be touching, especially if the drowsy spouse includes a line like, “I love waking up like that.” – some sort of line to state or imply that consent was previously given off-screen.

    Two of the examples in the article are good examples of my points. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and The Legend of Korra, both couples have very flawed relationships. The whole point of Scott Pilgrim is how flawed both Ramona and Scott are, and, importantly, their flaws are portrayed as something that will have to be overcome for them to have a successful relationship. It’s notable that the movie doesn’t end with the pair in a happy relationship, but attempting to get past their flaws and make their relationship work. In the Legend of Korra, Korra’s creepy behavior effectively serves to show how she is unready for a relationship at this point; something the subsequent season hammers home. It isn’t until the end of the series, when she has had years to grow as a character, that the writers feel comfortable putting her in a relationship with an implied happy ending. Korra’s relationship with Mako serves as proof that even in shows marketed for children, complex relationships can be effectively portrayed.

  8. Christopher

    I’m kind of on the fence with the surprise kiss. I think one thing that should be included in the analysis, in addition to creepiness, is power. In American society there’s a very real power differential between men and women particularly as regards sexuality. I mean just look at what women have to go through just reporting cases of sexual assault. How often are they either not believed or blamed for it themselves? Or the case isn’t taken seriously enough for authorities to pursue adequately. Given that context, I’m inclined to think a surprise kiss is exploiting privilege if initiated by the guy in a heterosexual situation, and kind of offensively creepy. I find the girl initiating similarly creepy but for different reasons. I’d also have an issue on the basis of power if a female teacher initiated a surprise kiss with a male student.

    On a positive note, the heterosexual situations I’ve seen where consent is asked for are quite compellingly cute – eg – shouting “I want to kiss you” while bouncing to loud music at a show together. I mean that’s the very heart of cute. Cute is non threatening, transparent and open, all of which are very attractive. I think some writers of romance try to inject the thrill of danger by dialing down explicit consent. Which might be how we get male leads who are little more than abusive stalkers in some fiction.

    I happen to be a gay guy. And, honestly, this is probably not a thought out enough position to put out here in the comments section, but my experiences of guy-on-guy surprise kisses have been relatively positive. I’m definitely not encouraging unwanted sexual advances, but in some situations I might not have kissed the guy having given my brain or neuroses or unexamined racist biases the opportunity to weigh in. And I want to be clear I’m not suggesting that men can’t be sexually assaulted, that’s another unfortunate myth in our culture. But I can’t help but think about gay situations back in the day. If you did ask another closeted gay guy for consent I imagine you’d basically give their internalized homophobia a chance to weigh in. Brokeback mountain for instance probably would have been a lot shorter if Jack and Ennis soberly had a discussion about consent in 1960’s Wyoming. One could imagine the same conundrum in present-day Wyoming.

  9. Alex

    I agree with all of these except for the surprise kiss. The sleeping kiss is incredibly creepy, the fatal breakup is just awful, the uninvited guest is a lot less creepy if the two are already in a relationship, but if not…and the persistent suitor is borderline harassment if the person said no. However, the surprise kiss isn’t creepy, I actually find it endearing if done right. Kisses in real life don’t always have both people initiating it. What makes it not creepy is that it doesn’t matter who delivers it. “May I kiss you” rarely happens IRL.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s not so much about both people initiating it, but if you’ve not shown any signs you wan to kiss someone and they suddenly grab and kiss you, it’s anything but romantic. There doesn’t need to be a verbal ‘yes, I want to kiss you,’ but the situation or the past encounters should make it clear that both parties want the kiss.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The trick to the Surprise Kiss in fiction is that all characters magically know when the other person wants to be kissed, when in real life that’s impossible.

      Check out the Voyager episode “Body and Soul” for a rare example of how this could so easily go wrong in real life. In that episode, an alien captain thinks he’s been getting the signals from Seven, even though she’s not interested in him. He kisses her, and she gets very upset because this guy just forced his tongue into her mouth without permission.

      Fortunately, Seven is strong enough to throw the guy across the room. A lot of people in real life won’t have that option.

  10. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I think that the Sleeping Kiss can be used well in literature if it’s properly executed.
    The kiss on the lips has to go. If the two romantic interests were in a relationship before (like in Once Upon a Time), then the Sleeping Kiss can be seen as a farewell gesture almost. But in other cases, when the two people have never met or are not in a relationship, then it’s plain creepy.
    But a Sleeping Kiss can still work… just not on the lips. That just shows that the character is lusty and horny.
    If a character kisses the sleeping one on the forehead, that can be beautiful. Kisses on the forehead represent safety and protection. Just imagine someone taking the hand of the sleeping person, kissing their forehead, and whispering “I’ll be here for you.” Much better.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree with that. A sleeping kiss on the cheek or the forehead … or, perhaps, really old-fashioned on the hand … could work very well in the right setting.

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