Storytelling

Six Character Archetypes for Love Interests

Korra and Asami kissing.

Korra and Asami are best platonic friends until they are something else entirely.

When designing a romance, the first choice you’ll need to make is who the love interest is. That choice will heavily influence what makes the romance appealing, the type of chemistry between the love interest and protagonist, and what obstacles the romance might have to overcome. If you’re not sure how to start your romance plot, choosing an archetype for the love interest can help you strategize.

1. The Just-a-Friend

Arthur and Merlin from BBC's Merlin laugh together

In BBC’s Merlin TV show, the titular Merlin is given the sacred task of keeping the future King Arthur safe. He becomes the prince’s squire, and while they don’t like each other at first, they’re soon close friends. Fans of the show delight at watching the two banter and give each other a hard time, even as they demonstrate a deep loyalty to one another. Because Merlin and Arthur know each other well and view each other without rose-colored lenses, their relationship feels more genuine and touching. While the show’s writers never officially paired them up, it wasn’t for lack of interest from fans.

Meet the just-a-friend

The just-a-friend is a character with a long and deep history with the protagonist. They already know each other’s strengths and weaknesses intimately and have an ongoing platonic relationship with regular interactions. Despite their familiarity, they’ve never before discussed, or possibly even considered, getting romantically involved.

Why they’re appealing

With the just-a-friend, it’s easy to include lots of chemistry and emotional intimacy. The characters might discuss their feelings, bicker and banter, or stand up for each other. This shows the audience why they’re good together, but their long platonic history keeps romance just out of reach. This is an ideal setup for slow-burn romances with lots of pining.

What might hold the romance back

It could be hard for the characters to share their feelings because the emotional stakes are so high. This isn’t a random cutie they met at a party; it’s their best friend or someone else important. What if asking for more makes everything awkward? Often, characters in this situation will wait and try to guess if their feelings are returned.

What to avoid

Don’t rush this one. Before the romance can start, you’ll need to establish the current relationship between the characters. If your story is long enough, you could start with their meeting and then build up their friendship for a while. Otherwise, you’ll need to fill the audience in on their history. Briefly mention some fun anecdotes from their past and show their friendship in action.

2. The Dangerous Hottie

Catwoman from Dark Knight Rises

While Catwoman has taken quite a few forms since she was created, some aspects of her character remain largely the same. For one, she almost always starts the story committing crimes in a sexy black catsuit. That usually includes stealing but not cold-blooded murder or anything else that would push her past the moral event horizon. This provides a reason for one or two fights against Batman but still gives her the freedom to leave Team Evil for Team Good. Then, she and Batman can start a relationship if they so desire.

Meet the dangerous hottie

The dangerous hottie is a love interest that’s very appealing but probably up to no good. They might be a villain, though they’re probably a sympathetic lesser villain and not the big bad. If the hottie isn’t an outright antagonist, the protagonist will have a strong reason to suspect that they could be a spy or traitor. They appear as morally compromised as they are sexy.

Why they’re appealing

Besides the intoxicating mix of sex appeal and threat, an antagonistic love interest has more room to be super competent without stealing the story from the protagonist. In addition, the dangerous hottie is free to build chemistry by hitting on the hero, because the hero has a strong reason to resist their charms. Scenes between protagonists and dangerous hotties are full of tension, leaving the audience guessing whether they’ll fight or kiss.

What might hold the romance back

The protagonist will usually try to resist falling for the dangerous hottie. Even if the hero gives in and starts a relationship, the two can find themselves on opposite sides of an important conflict.

What to avoid

Many writers blunder into making their dangerous hotties unlikable or problematic, particularly when the dangerous hottie is a man. To avoid this, first make sure your dangerous hottie has goals that conflict with the hero’s. This gives the two a reason to clash without either of them being an asshole. Then just remember that the hottie won’t be any hotter if they violate consent, steal agency, or say abusive things. A dangerous hottie might be confident to the point of arrogance, but that doesn’t require demeaning the hero. Instead of having the hottie plant a surprise kiss on the hero, let them try to tempt the hero into initiating a kiss.

3. The Out-of-Leaguer

Prince Mytho dances with Duck in Princess Tutu

In the anime Princess Tutu, Duck sees lovely Mytho dancing and decides she wants to bring joy to his sad eyes. The problem? She is literally a duck, whereas Mytho is not only human but also a prince who left his fairy tale. Soon after, the writer of that fairy tale finds Duck and transforms her into a girl. However, she’s still awkward and prone to transforming back at inconvenient times. She has trouble getting close to Mytho, who is popular and already dating the most beautiful and talented girl at their ballet school. Thankfully, Duck not only transforms into a girl, but that girl transforms into Princess Tutu! Did I mention this was a magical girl parody?

Meet the out-of-leaguer

The out-of-leaguer is a love interest that is clearly out of the protagonist’s reach. They’re not only talented and good looking, but they also have much higher social status. They might have wealth, royalty, or fame. Regardless, the protagonist won’t be the only one crushing on them. If the out-of-leaguer doesn’t have their own fan club, they’re probably in a monogamous relationship with a partner who outclasses the protagonist.

Why they’re appealing

Being inaccessible and admired makes the love interest appear desirable. It also makes the protagonist feel like a sympathetic underdog, and that provides strong wish fulfillment when the out-of-leaguer becomes interested in the protagonist. Because the out-of-leaguer can have any personality the writer wants, these romances are also easy to write.

What might hold the romance back

Because the out-of-leaguer is well known, whereas the protagonist is a nobody, the out-of-leaguer may not even know who the protagonist is. If they do, they’ll have little reason to pay attention to them at first. Sometimes the out-of-leaguer is also protected by family members or flunkies who make it difficult for the protagonist to merely talk to them. When the out-of-leaguer gains an interest in the protagonist early on, the protagonist usually assumes it’s not romantic because they clearly aren’t desirable enough. Even as friends, the protagonist may think asking for the out-of-leaguer’s time or attention is too presumptuous.

What to avoid

Male protagonists paired with female out-of-leaguers need to be handled carefully, or the romance will reinforce the feeling of entitlement that many men already have in regard to attractive women. Luckily, there’s an easy fix. Instead of pairing an ordinary dude with a stunning woman, level up your dude during the story, so he ends up as stunning and admired as she is. Don’t make her see past his outer appearance to find the nice guy inside. If he doesn’t have to do that for her, she shouldn’t have to do it for him.

4. The Wild Dream

Jack and Rose at the prow of the Titanic

In the movie Titanic, Rose is miserably sleepwalking through life when she meets free-spirited Jack. A drifter who won tickets to board the ship last-minute, Jack helps Rose enjoy the surroundings she’s been ignoring. They pretend to fly at the prow of the ship and go dancing with the people below deck. Soon they’re breaking all rules of propriety, getting themselves into trouble, but also having the time of their lives.

Meet the wild dream

The wild dream is an odd and whimsical character. They’re usually a little reckless, but they know how to have fun, and with their help, the protagonist has fun too. The wild dream may also be referred to as the absolute nightmare or the manic pixie dream girl, but the nightmare is specifically one half of duality* and the dream girl label only applies to one-sided relationships written for men.

Why they’re appealing

The wild dream’s strange and quirky personality gives them lots of novelty. Audiences will enjoy the wish fulfillment of watching them pull the protagonist out of their routine in favor of fun adventures. As an added bonus, a wild dream can move the plot forward when the protagonist balks. That makes them a useful storytelling tool.

What might hold the romance back

Because they usually have contrasting personalities, it can take a while for the protagonist and wild dream to get on the same page. They may find each other off-putting at first, and after that, they may disagree about what behavior is good fun and what behavior is unwise.

What to avoid

Because the wild dream is so weird and novel, storytellers often make them into single-purpose caricatures instead of full-fledged people. Also ask yourself what the wild dream sees in the protagonist that motivates them to invest in a relationship with someone so different from them. Wild dreams should have their own needs and goals, rather than existing for the benefit of the protagonist. If you’re feeling lost, try the absolute nightmare and sweaterboy duality, in which the absolute nightmare is lonely and shares important things in common with their partner.

5. The Brooder

Todoroki glowers as he asks if Deku is All Might's secret love child

On My Hero Academia, Todoroki is an aloof but talented classmate who resents the protagonist, Midoriya, for getting special attention from one of their teachers. Their friendship starts when Todoroki confronts Midoriya, asking him if he’s the teacher’s secret love child. Todoroki then reveals his own tragic background, explaining that he refuses to use one of his powers to spite the abusive father he got it from. As the show goes on, Midoriya convinces Todoroki to embrace his abilities and, in doing so, gains Todoroki’s respect. The two characters are enthusiastically shipped by the show’s fan base.

Meet the brooder

The brooder is a person who’s full of angst because of terrible things that have happened to them. Their disillusionment with the world means they are hard to impress, and they usually push other people away. They generally make up for these flaws with their competence or their desire to help others.

Why they’re appealing

The brooder’s tragic backstory makes them sympathetic to the audience. Because they’re standoffish, the hero has an opportunity to prove themself by working their way into the brooder’s trust and confidence. Being the only one the brooder warms up to gives the hero some nice candy.

What might hold the romance back

The brooder has usually been burned before and holds others at arm’s length. It’ll take a while for the protagonist to gently overcome that.

What to avoid

Like the dangerous hottie, the brooder can be an asshole if you aren’t careful. The brooder shouldn’t insult anyone or tear people down. Instead, they may act aloof, indifferent, or suspicious. They might be used to doing things solo and resent having to team up with the hero at first. Think about how the brooder’s backstory has changed how they view the world, and make them act reasonably based on that belief.

6. The Cinnamon Roll

Tara looks down and smiles as Willow hugs her

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow first meets Tara at a college Wicca gathering. Most of the women at the meeting laugh Willow off when she mentions magic, but not Tara. Unfortunately, Tara is too shy to get Willow’s attention, but when monsters appear on campus, she seeks Willow out. They grow closer, but though Tara clearly wants to spend time with Willow, she’s nervous about asking and always does whatever Willow wants to do. When Tara’s family shows up to drag her home, Willow discovers they made Tara think she was a demon and unworthy of anyone’s love.

Meet the cinnamon roll

Coined after an article from the Onion, a cinnamon roll is a character that’s “too good for this world.” In most stories, cinnamon rolls are sweet and innocent characters who see the best in everyone. They’re usually great at providing emotional support, but they also put other people’s needs before their own. That makes it easy for bad people to take advantage of them.

Why they’re appealing

Since they’re selfless and sympathetic, cinnamon rolls are usually very likable. Their obvious vulnerability also invokes protective instincts. This makes it easy to get the audience on board with the romance.

What might hold the romance back

While the cinnamon roll should be yearning for a romance with the protagonist, they’re usually terrible at making their desires clear. They might assume they aren’t good enough or feel that asking the protagonist to dinner is too demanding or presumptuous. On the other side, the protagonist might be afraid of imposing their own desires on the cinnamon roll, since the cinnamon roll will do anything to make others happy. A broody protagonist may also feel they aren’t good enough for someone so sweet and pure.

What to avoid

Avoid infantilizing the cinnamon roll, particularly if the cinnamon roll is a woman. Don’t describe their appearance as childlike or give them childish mannerisms or clothing. Remember that while the cinnamon roll might be afraid to ask for what they want, they have desires like everyone else. Give them agency where you can, even if it involves them doing things for others after they’ve been told three times not to trouble themself. Because it can be hard to communicate what a cinnamon roll actually wants, it’s usually best if the cinnamon roll pursues the protagonist.

Also, never kill a cinnamon roll. You will wake up surrounded by pitchforks.


One of the great things about these archetypes is how easy they are to combine. Okay, you might have trouble mixing the cinnamon roll with the dangerous hottie, but the dangerous hottie and wild dream would make a killer combo, and the just-a-friend and cinnamon roll will melt your heart. Pick your favorites, mix and match, and have fun!

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Comments

  1. Innocent Bystander

    As someone who has a weakness for cinnamon rolls, I can confirm that the pitchfork in my closet is reserved for the death of one.

    I feel that the best way to avoid the MPDG is to not have the character’s quirkiness be only for the LI’s benefit. The LI might be drawn to their free spirit, but there still has to be a reason for the character to fall for them. For example, Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast begins to fall for the Beast (after he starts undergoing character development) because he’s the first one outside her father to appreciate and encourage her interests which get poo-pooed by the people in her hometown.

  2. Ems

    Why is it that (Spoiler for the darkhorse comics) the Buffy comics brought back just about EVERY character except Tara, and Willow finished off the series with a bunch of largely underdeveloped, unfulfilling relationships, and then was just single? Even Anya, Warren and Jonathan came back on some level but never freakin Tara! Why’d they have to play us like that?

  3. Tifa

    Yay! Willow and Tara! I love it when they get mentioned!

  4. ryan

    Any advice for writing a protagonist whose a cinnamon roll with anxiety icing?

    • Chris Winkle

      Do you mean in a romance context or just in general? I’m not sure what kind of anxieties your protagonist has, but I’ll give you a few things to think about.

      In general, you’ll need to make sure a protagonist like that has enough agency, particularly if the protagonist is a woman, as people are more likely to neglect agency for women. See these:
      https://mythcreants.com/blog/how-do-i-write-shy-characters-without-slowing-down-the-story/
      https://mythcreants.com/blog/character-agency-its-what-that-sexy-lamp-is-missing/

      For romance, I recommend pairing your protagonist with a brooder or out-of-leaguer (or someone who’s both ). Despite the protagonist’s anxieties, they’ll need to do things that get the attention of the love interest. For instance, maybe the protagonist is too nervous to directly approach the love interest and speak to them, but they’ll do nice things for others in the background when they think no one’s paying attention. Then the love interest may be the only one observant to notice how hard the protagonist works to help others. The love interest can then respond by taking an active interest in the protagonist, but at some point the protagonist will need to overcome any inhibitions by telling the love interest how they feel.

  5. Tony

    I figure that the pitfalls of pairing a man with a woman who’s “out of his league” could also be lessened by establishing that he’s already attractive and merely insecure (similar to how Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard Of Oz already have the virtues they want but just don’t realise it). Specifically exploring desirability politics, it’s better to depict a marginalised male character as desirable in the first place (even if he doesn’t realise it) instead of framing the story of an undesirable man trying to land a woman who’s “out of his league”. The latter framing not only feeds into the attitude of “men deserve a hot woman”, but also validates the attitude that people from that group are inherently less desirable in the first place. And of course, I’d portray the love interest as her own character instead of just an object, and I’d avoid overly sexualising or idealising her like you said.

    Using ableism (the form of oppression that I’m most familiar with) as an example, Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon and Anakin from the Star Wars prequels both lose limbs, but they’re both portrayed as attractive men who end up in loving relationships. (Anakin’s doesn’t end well, mind you, but that has nothing to do with losing an arm.) 

    Additionally, in my autistic and somewhat gender nonconforming experience, media about nerds struggling to find love should be relatable in theory. But in practice, stories rarely name the problems of ableism or hegemonic masculinity. Combined with the entitled misogyny that permeates a lot of stories, the message tends to come off as “the mean women won’t date this poor nerd who deserves their attention!” I figure that addressing ableism and gender normativity in dating — and addressing them as systemic issues instead of implying that any individual owes affection to a given autistic or GNC person — could alleviate some of that.

  6. Silverware

    One of the fun things to do with the lists like this is to apply them to already existing ideas and see if the characters get another layer of depth. Thanks!

    For fun, I’m gonna make both MC and LI out-of-leaguers for each other, lol

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