In a recent blog post, Dawn Metcalf posed a question about what makes good guys in fiction into “great” guys who do more than serve as a mirror for the heroine of the story, but who are strong in their own right.
I thought I’d give it a shot.
A strong “guy” character in fiction is one who is confident in who he is (which doesn’t mean he’s not vulnerable), he has a distinct personality of his own making him interesting in his own right, and he doesn’t become someone else with the introduction of a love interest. That’s not to say that falling in love (like having children) doesn’t push people to be better versions of themselves for the sake of those new relationships. It certainly does! (Or at least it should.) What it DOES mean is that a strong character (male or female for that matter) is one who doesn’t stop being the person they are – the person the other character fell in love in the first place.
I’ve always believed a healthy relationship is built around two people looking together in the same direction, not two people (or even just one of them) looking only at the other. For the story to carry on after the romance ensues, strong characters are those who expand the scope of their own interests, even their lives, to include the other without completely trading in their independence for dependence (or even worse, co-dependence). It’s a delicate balance.
Nevertheless, each of the characters had a life before they met and each needs to continue to have a life after they meet, albeit an expanded one. After all, where’s the excitement, or the conflict (fictionally speaking), in a relationship where one partner is merely hanging on the heels of the other doing nothing but waiting to be needed? Without that underlying, ongoing tension which keeps them independent yet together, the romance is over. Even if the characters themselves don’t appear to be bored with each other, the reader almost certainly will be.