Storytellers setting out to create a love story face many obstacles, and one of the more serious obstacles is an underdeveloped love interest. This is what you get when the protagonist’s sweetheart doesn’t seem like a complete character in their own right. They might just be painfully dull, or they might be so clearly built to be the perfect object of desire that it’s contrived. Either type of underdevelopment can spell death for the romance. Why should the audience care if the protagonist gets together with such a poorly thought-out partner?
This trope also has sexist undertones, because for reasons that will forever remain unknown,* underdeveloped love interests are usually female, and their stories usually have a male protagonist. This trend reinforces some very unfortunate messages about women, and audiences are sick of it. With that in mind, take a look at these six examples of undeveloped protagonists so you’ll know what to avoid in your own work.
1. Astrid Hofferson, How to Train Your Dragon
Be honest, did you even remember there was a love interest in How to Train Your Dragon? I’d forgotten entirely, and I watched the film last month. But despite memorability problems, this movie does have a love interest, and her name is Astrid.
Astrid falls firmly in the bland category, which is part of why she’s hard to remember. Each of the other Viking kids has a quirk or mannerism to help them stand out, while the only notable thing about Astrid is she’s the most competent among them. Actually, strike that, the protagonist Hiccup* is the most competent, so Astrid’s claim to fame is being the second most competent kid in the training class.
The romance itself is an undernourished side plot, completely divorced from Hiccup’s real arc of earning his father’s respect and proving his value to the tribe. What little desire Hiccup does have for Astrid seems to flow entirely from her conventionally attractive appearance, unlike the other characters who have comedic, highly stylized designs.
Astrid and Hiccup never have any chemistry, and she has no arc to speak of. The closest thing she has to development is jealousy that Hiccup turns out to be more capable than she is. That’s not particularly compelling, and it plays into what’s often called Trinity Syndrome, where a competent woman is pushed aside so a competent man can have a growth arc.
Despite the vestigial nature of Astrid’s character and how unrelated she is to the main story, she and Hiccup get together at the end. They supposedly do this because they’ve grown to care about each other through shared adventure, but it feels like Hiccup is being rewarded with an attractive girl for completing his quest. Looking back, comparing Astrid to Trinity may have been unfair. At least Trinity got to kick some ass before she was sidelined.
2. Martha Jones, Doctor Who
The Doctor falling in love with his companion now seems like the norm that edgy showrunners can deviate from, but in the ancient days of 2007, the tropes had not yet been set. Sure, the rebooted Doctor and his recently departed first companion, Rose Tyler, had become star-crossed lovers, but older incarnations of the show had been remarkably romance free.
Enter Dr. Martha Jones, the new Doctor’s second companion. While the writers let Rose’s feelings build up slowly over time, Martha was into the fast-talking Timelord from their first meeting. It turned out this was a bad deal for Martha, because the Doctor did not reciprocate. In fact, the Doctor’s emotional status for the duration of Martha’s stay seemed to be that he’d never love again, possibly because he was heartbroken over Rose being stuck in an alternate dimension.
Given that, it was very strange for Martha to fall in love so quickly. It can work for a romance to end with the characters not getting together, but once it was clear that the Doctor didn’t return Martha’s feelings, the writers seemed to run out of material for her. Before Martha, Rose was an inexperienced Earthling who was seeing the universe. After Martha, Donna was a sarcastic traveler who mocked wonders and horrors alike. Stuck in the middle, Martha had nothing going on but her unrequited love.
I believe the original plan was to play up Martha as a more experienced, capable companion than Rose. While Martha had never been to space, her training as a medical doctor could have meant a more useful skill set and a cooler head under fire. Some of the show’s advertisements at the time even played up this dynamic, noting that “she’s a doctor, he’s the Doctor.”
Unfortunately, whatever the writers’ plans were, they never came to anything. Martha’s medical training rarely came up, and she was mostly written as a less interesting version of Rose. In the ultimate demonstration that the writers never knew what to do with Martha, her final appearance shows her married to Mickey, a character she’d barely exchanged two words with until that moment.
It’s worth noting that none of this was the actress’s fault. Freema Agyeman did the best she could with the material she was given. It’s an extra shame that writers did such a poor job with one of the show’s few black companions. We can only hope that Jodie Whittaker’s run in the Tardis will do better.
3. Ginny Weasley, Harry Potter
The signs of Ginny’s eventual status as Harry’s love interest can be spotted as early as the second book, when she’s so awed by him that she can’t speak in his presence. That same book features Ginny as a damsel in distress that the heroic Harry must rescue from the titular Chamber of Secrets. Clearly, Rowling planned this romance far in advance.
If that’s the case, it’s extra puzzling that Ginny and Harry have almost nothing pulling them together. They don’t get along particularly well, and they don’t have much in common. You’d expect quidditch to be a major theme, but they barely talk about it. There’s so little chemistry between them that readers only know Harry is attracted to Ginny because he constantly says so in the later books.
A major cause of the Chosen Couple’s problems is that Ginny is exceptionally blank. Other than liking quidditch and being generally brave, it’s really hard to say anything definitive about her character. The most character Ginny ever shows is when she stands up to her brothers for slut-shaming her. That’s an admirable trait,* but it’s not enough on its own, and Ginny’s page time gives us nothing else. Of course, Harry is also a blank character, but it works much better for him because he’s the protagonist. Readers project themselves over Harry, but it’s hard for them to project on to a side character, much less one with so little page space.
Ginny and Harry have little drawing them together, and yet they move inexorably closer toward each other throughout the series. It’s impossible not to see the hand of the author at work, at which point the entire romance becomes contrived. It feels like Ginny was put on earth to be Harry’s love interest and has no other purpose in life.
Ironically, Harry has significantly better chemistry with two other characters: Hermione and Luna. Hermione was needed for the controversial Romione ship, but why not Luna? She knows Harry so well that she can recognize him even when he’s under a polyjuice disguise, and they have a number of touching scenes together. After Voldemort’s defeat, Luna is even the first person Harry thinks of after his two best friends. Plus, Luna’s a complete person with her own interests and desires, even if most of them are related to cryptids and conspiracy theories.
4. Sabetha Belacoros, Republic of Thieves
Sabetha doesn’t appear in person until the third book of the Gentleman Bastards series, but readers know about her long before that. You see, she’s something of an obsession for the protagonist, Locke. Throughout the first and second book, he thinks often about how much he misses her and how amazing she was.
It would be difficult for any character to satisfy that much buildup, and the character we got was simply not up to the task. When Sabetha finally appears, she seems tailor-made to be Locke’s love interest. She’s incredibly hot and an amazing thief. But she and Locke can’t get together immediately because… she’s mean to him. They can’t exchange two words without Sabetha getting a barb in. It’s a little bizarre.
Sabetha doesn’t seem to care about anything except being a temptation for Locke who will burn him if he’s careless. When they meet in Republic of Thieves, the natural thing would be for them to reminisce a little about their mutual friends who died in previous books. But they barely pay lip service to the fallen before getting back to antagonistic flirting.
One way to read this is that Locke is an obsessive creep and Sabetha is trying to keep him at arm’s length. But if that’s the case, then their getting together at the end doesn’t make sense, or at least it’s way darker than the story intends. It seems that we’re supposed to take their interactions at face value: Locke cares for Sabetha, and Sabetha is mercilessly prickly toward him in return.
This places Sabetha in the role of obstacle for Locke to overcome, which is never a great dynamic for romance. It robs her of agency by putting all the emphasis on Locke’s choices. It also makes Sabetha seem like a caricature, because everything about her is focused on Locke instead of the things a real person would care about.
5. Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I knew that if I looked hard enough, I could find a male character that fit this trope. Everyone give Angel a round of applause for proving that storytellers can create underdeveloped male love interests too if they try hard and believe in themselves!
If you’re not familiar with the show, Angel is a vampire who once committed terrible deeds under the name Angelus. But then he angers a group of sorcerers,* who “curse” him by returning his soul. This makes him good again, and he regrets all the harm he caused. That’s just how things work in the Buffyverse. Soul=good, no soul=bad.
Angel embraces the Tragic Brooding Badass trope so hard it’s comical. When he first appears in the series, he’s had his soul back for over a century, yet he can’t go five minutes without exclaiming what a terrible person he is and how he deserves to suffer. He also goes on about how dangerous he is and that Buffy had better not get too close even though they’re obviously salivating over each other.
This is hard for audiences to accept because of the way souls work in the Buffyverse. It’s clear that Angel and Angelus are different people. The lack or presence of a soul is an obvious mitigating factor, and Angel clearly isn’t responsible for the atrocities he committed when he didn’t have a soul. Instead of eliciting sympathy, his constant claims that he’s a monster provoke eye rolls. This is made worse by how one-note Angel is. It isn’t until he gets his own show that he starts to show other facets.*
The angst reaches new levels when it’s revealed that Angel will lose his soul if he ever experiences a “moment of true happiness.”* This clause seems to exist only to stop him from being with Buffy, which is an obvious contrivance. In order for it to make sense, we must accept that the sorcerers who cursed Angel cared more about spiting him than about preventing a powerful vampire from coming after them for revenge.
Angel’s initial character is so limited that it’s difficult to care about his relationship with Buffy. The actors do their best to sell the relationship anyway, but the writing makes their job a lot harder.
6. Denna, The Name of the Wind
The final entry for this list is a cut above the competition when it comes to underdevelopment. I present to you Denna, one of the most bizarre characters I have ever come across. Like Sabetha, she suffers from too much buildup. The narrator, an older version of the protagonist, goes on and on about how readers are about to meet this amazing woman, until expectations are so high no character could live up to them. This is a little puzzling, because readers actually meet Denna several chapters earlier, and as far as I can tell, the discrepancy is never commented on.
Unlike Sabetha, Denna’s buildup isn’t about how awesome she is. Instead, it focuses on how flighty and elusive she is, to the point that I wondered if the narrator was describing a deer instead of a person. At one point, the narrator says he is concerned that if he describes her too quickly in the story, she might run away. Maybe that’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s mostly confusing.
When Denna finally shows up,* her defining trait seems to be unreliably. The protagonist is always trying to find her, and yet she’s never around despite supposedly liking him. From an observer’s standpoint, this looks like the protagonist’s advances aren’t wanted and Denna is afraid to reject him outright, but the book tells us this isn’t the case.
Despite the protagonist’s obsession with Denna, it’s unclear what draws him to her. They share a common interest in music, but that quickly fades into the background. Denna is attractive,* but so is every other woman in the story, and that would be a pretty shallow basis for a romance anyway. By far the aspect of their relation that gets the most attention is the protagonist’s desire to track Denna down and catch her, again like she’s some kind of prey animal. This makes it harder to ignore the romance’s creepy overtones.
We are left with two possible interpretations of Denna. In the first, she does like the protagonist but is constantly finding reasons to flee from him. This makes her feel like someone who was put into the world solely for his benefit and not her own person. In the second interpretation, Denna is just trying to avoid this creep who’s obsessed with her. That’s a lot darker than the story probably intended and makes the protagonist really difficult to like.
Why are underdeveloped love interests usually female? Storytellers are struggling with the harmful idea that women exist to be objects of desire for men. When male love interests have problems, it usually has to do with being creeps or stealing the protagonist’s spotlight. But even when it’s a male ingénue who’s poorly developed, the damage is the same: a love story no one cares about. Romance must matter if it’s going to engage the audience, and it’s hard to get invested when one of the participants lacks a personality of their own.
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