It takes several factors to make a compelling romance, but everything starts with attraction. This is what draws the lovebirds together in the first place. If there’s no attraction, then nothing else matters because the romance can’t even get started. That sounds simple, but many storytellers neglect attraction in their rush to get the characters dating. The result is invariably unsatisfying, as audiences can’t see why these two (or more) characters got together other than the author wanted them to.
1. Deep Space Nine
Romance has never been Star Trek’s strong suit, and while DS9 is generally ahead of the curve, it still has its clunkers. The most prominent such clunker is the unconvincing romance between Ezri Dax and Julian Bashir in season seven. From Bashir’s perspective, the entire attraction is based on Ezri carrying the memories of Jadzia Dax, whom he also had a crush on. Sigh. Writers, please. You made the right choice dropping the Jadzia/Bashir romance because it had no substance. It was a mild infatuation before both characters moved on to better things. I don’t know who thought reviving that relationship in the final season was a good idea.
Ezri’s part in this romance is far stranger. Before the two have done any flirting or even talked much, Ezri is captured by the Breen. It seems that Breen interrogation techniques make one hallucinate, and during these hallucinations, Ezri decides she’s way into Bashir. Bashir isn’t present for any of this – he’s not even on the same planet. For some reason, Ezri concludes that her hallucination crush is a good relationship to pursue. I guess she got a look at the upcoming episode scripts and wanted to be a team player.
From there, the only real sign of attraction on Ezri’s part is when she justifies her choice to Worf, which is a bit weird because Worf was married to Jadzia before she died. Whatever. The most Ezri can say in praise of Bashir is that he “knows how to have a good time.” This is in reference to Bashir’s historical wargaming hobby. Does Ezri think wargaming is a good time? If so, she never shows any interest, which is too bad because that could have been something for them to bond over.
After this, we have a few comedy sequences where Ezri and Bashir try to confess their feelings to each other but fail, until they finally succeed and go to make-out town. At this point, we still have no idea what is drawing them together other than Bashir’s lingering crush for a different woman and Ezri’s vague appreciation for historical minis, maybe. Both characters do mention how good-looking the other is, but this is a big-budget TV show; everyone is good-looking! You need to be more specific than that.
Then the finale arrives and the writers seem to have immediately lost interest in the romance, as Bashir’s main relationship drama isn’t with Ezri at all, but with O’Brien. It really feels like a last-minute urge to make sure as few of the main characters are single as possible, and the results are just as underwhelming as you’d expect.
2. The Wheel of Time
Partway through Wheel of Time’s first book, protagonist Rand meets one of his main love interests: Princess Elayne of Andor.* It’s not a terrible meeting as these things go. While trying to avoid a crowd, Rand climbs a wall and stumbles into a suspiciously unguarded royal garden where Elayne just happens to be. Of course, the narration makes a big deal about how hot Elayne is, which would mean more if it didn’t describe nearly every female character in exactly the same way.
Despite that, Elayne is the princess of a great kingdom, so it’s believable that she’d stand out to a commoner like Rand. From Elayne’s perspective, Rand is a mysterious, handsome stranger who showed up in her garden one day, giving him an appealing mystique. It’s a decent start that could certainly blossom into something more as the two get to know each other… which is why they won’t see each other again for nearly three more books.
That’s right, the two go their separate ways for quite some time, each on their own adventure. During this time, Elayne learns a little more about Rand from his friends, and Rand sometimes daydreams about how hot Elayne is. Since their first meeting lasted all of five minutes, it’s already stretching belief that they’d maintain an interest in each other after each of them goes through several novels’ worth of life-threatening adventures.
They don’t reunite until the start of book four, at which point they’re effectively back to square one. It’s not super clear how much time passes in each WoT installment, but two and a half books certainly feels like a long time, especially for characters whose entire relationship is based on a brief chance encounter. Oh well, now there will be time to show what draws these two characters together, other than being exactly as hot as every other WoT protagonist, right?
Haha, no. Instead, they essentially fall in love offscreen. Elayne decides she needs to date Rand for… reasons, and then we get a highly summarized courtship for a few chapters before they split up again for separate adventures. The whole thing feels very contractually obligated, like the author promised someone these characters would get together but wasn’t actually interested in the relationship. Usually you don’t see this kind of rushed courtship until near the end of a series, but WoT isn’t even half over by this point.
The closest we get to an explanation is that Rand is “ta’veren,” meaning that fate and random chance conspire to get him where he needs to be.* WoT uses this excuse whenever something unlikely happens and the author doesn’t feel like explaining it. Pro tip: if you’re gonna have the author’s hand be a literal thing in the story, it should at least arrange some romances that are actually compelling.
You thought we were done giving Star Trek a hard time, but no, there’s more! This time, the problem couple is Commander Chakotay and Seven of Nine, who many of you may well have forgotten were a couple at all, since they spend almost no time together and barely interact. The romance technically “starts” late in the final season, when Seven is using a holoprogram to practice social skills in a low pressure environment. Extremely relatable, Seven.
During this simulation, she flirts a bit with the Chakotay hologram. There isn’t much attraction, but then again, there isn’t supposed to be. This is a simulation for practice, not a real relationship. But then the episode claims that Seven’s feelings are so intense that it causes one of her implants to malfunction, nearly killing her. Suuuuure. Anyway, Seven ends the program because she doesn’t want to risk death for a weekend holofling, and that seems to be that.
That is, until the finale. Then it’s revealed that Seven is now several dates into a relationship with the real Chakotay. Very clever, writers. No need to demonstrate any initial attraction if you have that part take place offscreen. It’s brilliant! Wait, no, it’s not. Actually it’s really unsatisfying because audiences expect to see a change that momentous as it’s happening, not hear about it afterward.
I can see their predicament though, as there is absolutely nothing drawing these characters together. Partly, that’s because Chakotay’s entire personality is either racist stereotypes or a handful of random interests that are mentioned once and then never brought up again. It’s hard to match him with anyone. But if there has to be a Chakotay romance, his most logical partner is Captain Janeway, as the two of them at least share a passion for leadership. Seven and Chakotay don’t even have a professional relationship.
Worse, this relationship doesn’t even have the actors’ help. A big advantage of live-action romance is that the professional actors are very good at portraying romantic interest, even if the script is weak. But in episodes leading up to the finale, Jeri Ryan and Robert Beltran were specifically told not to play up any romantic chemistry, including in an episode where their characters were trapped together on an alien world.
So why did this romance happen at all? Unlike DS9, I don’t think this was a case of needing to pair off some single characters at the end. Rather, it looks like a desperate attempt to find something for Seven and Chakotay to do in the finale, since most of the plot revolves around Captain Janeway and her time clone. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that explanation makes sense. But the answer is yes.
4. Magician: Apprentice
Moving back to novels, we have Magician: Apprentice,* which is approximately what you would get if you asked a machine-learning algorithm to distill the 1980s’ most conventional fantasy novels down into a single book. Our protagonist is a kitchen boy with the odd name Pug, and his love interest is Princess Carline. Their romance begins early in the book, and it does not get off to a great start.
First, I must give the book a tiny bit of credit: when it describes how hot Carline is, the author has enough restraint not to describe every other woman the same way. Granted, he barely describes any other women at all, at least in the first few chapters. They’re technically around, but the camera never focuses on any of them, creating the impression that blonde, blue-eyed Carline is standing in a sea of vague gray silhouettes. It’s not something I’d advise emulating, but it’s a little better than flooding the entire book with a sea of hotties and then expecting me to remember which one is supposed to be double hot or whatever.
When Carline is first introduced, the omniscient narrator tells us not only how hot she is, but how she likes to get up to mischief with the castle boys, of which Pug is one. There’s a strong “not like other girls” vibe here, but at least it gives us something she and Pug can bond over: a shared love of mischief.
But when the two of them finally meet, that’s not what happens. Instead, Carline is suddenly disrespectful and rude, finding the common born Pug not only beneath her but actively repulsive to be around. She’s a cartoonishly elitist aristocrat in a setting that otherwise seems to hold feudalism in high regard. This is not at all who the omniscient narrator described earlier, and Carline’s behavior only moderately improves after Pug saves her from some wandering monsters.
While you’re trying to figure out who this elitist jerk is and what she did with the mischief-loving scamp from earlier, Carline has yet another personality change. Now she’s a scheming manipulator who tricks boys into fighting over her affections. Presumably she does that in some way other than being openly antagonistic all the time. Through all of this, Pug’s affection for Carline remains strong, though he does eventually decide to finish his new wizard training before committing to a serious relationship.
The problem here is less a lack of attraction and more an anti-attraction. Carline is just a bad person, and her extreme hotness simply isn’t enough to justify Pug’s continued interest in her, unless this is a morality play about Pug being shallow. It’s hard to imagine why an author would do this, but my best guess is that there were a lot of sexist stereotypes to get through, and since Carline is the only woman with any screen time, she had to embody them all. First, she was not like other girls, then she was the snooty noblewoman who doesn’t appreciate the working man’s masculinity, and finally she became the evil temptress who uses love as a weapon. Oh boy.
5. Iron and Velvet
In this urban fantasy novel of mystery and romance, our lovebirds are private investigator Kate Kane and vampire sex queen Julian Saint-Germain. They first meet when Julian hires Kate to investigate a gruesome murder. There’s a bit of initial flirting, which makes sense as Julian seems to enjoy flirting with any woman who gets within shouting distance of her. Still, Julian is a vampire queen and Kate is a lowly PI, so it’ll take something pretty big to get these two together, right?
If you’re paying attention, then you won’t be surprised that the answer is no. Instead, after just one meeting, Julian is entirely devoted to Kate. First, she breaks into Kate’s house for a grand romantic gesture. When that doesn’t go over too well, she offers to take Kate out for dinner and dessert, promising to wait all night at the restaurant whether Kate shows up or not.
These actions can be read as harmless romantic antics or as major red flags depending on your mood, but the issue we’re concerned with is why. Specifically, why is Julian so infatuated with Kate? Kate’s good-looking, but as is becoming a theme, no more so than most of the people in this erotic urban fantasy paradise. Kate does have fey heritage, which adds a sense of danger Julian might appreciate, but as before, Julian is surrounded by sexily dangerous people all the time. Why would Kate, the hired help, draw so much of Julian’s devotion?
It’s difficult to tell if Julian’s attraction is supposed to be purely physical or involve deeper feelings. The sexiness is certainly turned up to 11, but the two of them are also bonding over their tragic backstories within about ten minutes, and it’s not long before they’re officially dating. Ironically, if it was supposed to be purely physical, or at least start off that way, the book has a much better example to draw from. In a different scene, Kate goes to a bar and nearly hooks up with a woman there, stopped only by a sudden attack of intense angst.
In that interaction, Kate and the other woman are on roughly the same level, and they’re both out looking for some sexy times. When Julian meets Kate, she’s hiring someone to solve a murder. Now, you could argue that Julian is always looking for sexy times, but that still doesn’t explain why she’d want Kate in particular, especially to the point of making grand gestures of devotion.
The bottom line is that this romance either needed more time or different starting positions. If Kate and Julian had worked together for a while before falling head over heels, that would have given them time to bond over mutual interests or shared adversity, the kind of thing that would make Kate special even to someone like Julian. Alternatively, the lovebirds could simply have been on more equal footing. If Kate were a world-renowned investigator, then it would make more sense for Julian to be so taken with her.
6. Avatar: The Last Airbender
That’s right, it’s time for Mythcreants to officially weigh in on an Avatar shipping war, only about 15 years after it was relevant. Specifically, the relationship between Aang and Katara. This is a major case of one-sided attraction, as it’s obvious why Aang is into Katara. Beyond her looks, Katara is kind, supportive, and responsible. Some of the show’s coolest moments are when Katara keeps Team Avatar going despite everyone else being ready to give up. But why is Katara interested in Aang?
Over Avatar’s run, Katara has significant chemistry with three boys: Haru, Jet, and Zuko. Two of them are Earth Kingdom rebels against the Fire Nation, and one is an exiled Fire Nation prince, but they all have one thing in common: being dark and broody. Katara clearly has a type, and while that doesn’t mean she can only date broody boys, it does raise the bar for any would-be suitors who don’t fit the parameters. Aang’s not dark and broody, so what does he bring to the table that might interest Katara?
Honestly, not much. He’s the Avatar, which Katara certainly admires, but not in a particularly romantic way. Aang’s main personality traits are things like innocence, playfulness, and a fondness for jokes. Essentially, he’s a child, which makes sense since he’s 12 when the story starts. Katara is 14, though she’s written more like 15 or 16. The difference in their maturity makes it easy for Katara to act like a surrogate mother figure, but is pretty awkward when it comes to dating.
Rather than being attracted to Aang’s child-like demeanor, Katara is actively repelled by it on more than one occasion. This makes perfect sense with Katara being both older and more mature, but it makes a romance between them seem even less likely. Ironically, there is someone on team Avatar who’s about Aang’s age and shares his love of mischief: Toph. Their personalities certainly clash on more than one occasion, but they also have a lot in common. Unfortunately, outside of a short-lived crush on Sokka, the Avatar writers seem allergic to the idea of Toph and romance.
Toph-shipping aside, the end result of all this is that when Aang and Katara get together at the end, it feels less like a loving relationship and more like Aang is being rewarded with a hot girl. Unlike most stories with this trope, Aang’s not a bad character. He grows and matures over the course of the series, just not to the point where he seems like a desirable love interest for Katara. Whether any of Katara’s other ships would have been better is an open question, but this one just feels contrived.
Attraction isn’t the only important aspect of romance. You also need to show how the lovebirds are better together than apart, and then there’s the considerable difficulty of adding conflict to a romance. But attraction is the romance’s starting tone, the first step that sets up everything else. Get it right, and the audience will be prime for whatever comes next. Neglect it, and all you’ll have are some contrived make-out scenes.
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