This got me thinking about couples in fiction. Supporting characters can fill all kinds of functions with their romantic relationships. (If the main character is in a relationship, it tends to be more complex and central to the plot, not as able to be summarized in a hopefully-snappy category label like the ones I'm about to start making up.) Like the "useful rich characters" I posted about earlier, the characters should of course be developed and interesting in their own rights, but they can also be very handy for plot and thematic purposes.
I'd like to talk about those purposes a little, but mostly I'd like to write a safari-style guide to relationships in fiction. Well, let's see what happens.
- The Attractive Normal Couple, as identified by Jon, is a rather common beast. It provides a point of sympathy, plus the occasional sweet moment when the audience might otherwise be overwhelmed by scariness/sadness/etc. These characters can be relied upon to care about and take care of each other. "Normal" here refers to the relationship. Normalcy for the characters is relative.
- Parents may be shy creatures who get little screen time, or may go frolicking all through the plot. They may also belong to another couple classification. They are usually the protagonist's parents, but may be official or unofficial surrogate parents. (So, for example, Harry Potter has what little he knows about his parents, plus the examples of the Dursleys and the Weasleys.)
- The What Relationship? Relationship features characters who are nominally together, but their relationship gets no real screen time, and they don't seem to relate to each other in a particularly special way compared with how they relate to other characters. This couple can often be spotted doubling as the Parents. While sometimes a symptom of lazy characterization, this couple may simply be one the protagonist doesn't know well, or may provide contrast with one of the following classes. Sometimes, a couple that seems to be in a What Relationship? Relationship can surprise the protagonist - and the audience - with an occasional moment of real sweetness or romance. The subtlety can make this all the more powerful, and may catapult their relationship directly into the following category.
- The Adorables are often found in close proximity to the protagonist - friends or, sometimes, the protagonist's single parent and his/her new romantic interest. These can offer a light subplot to a tense or dark story. Alternatively, they can make the protagonist feel All the More Alone.
- The I Do Believe in Love! Couple shows the protagonist - and the audience - that this is not an entirely bleak fictional world. The presence of this couple is generally a good omen for the protagonist's future romantic prospects. May be found healing each other's emotional wounds, putting on a united front against adversity, or growing old together. To locate this couple, follow the sound of caring.
- The I Do Believe in Love! Couple's natural enemy is the Love is a Lie Couple. This sneaky species mimics the I Do Believe in Love! Couple's appearance - it may even have one of its own members fooled. At least one, however, is cheating, beating, or at the very least seriously unhappy in the relationship. At some point, expect a shocking reveal.
- An interesting inverse of the Love is a Lie Couple exists in the Surprisingly Functional Dysfunctional Couple. Perhaps these characters cannot agree on anything, or both are total jerks. Perhaps one is comically OCD, or has an uncontrollable superpower, or is an evil genius. These characters should not work together - indeed, one or both should not work individually. Their relationship may be brief and sometimes just physical - they are often highly attractive characters - or it may be more. Either way, it works bizarrely well, and is often strangely adorable. This may be used as a statement about redemption, to play on the idea of the attraction of opposites, or as comic relief. (Think of Dr. Cox and Jordan on Scrubs, or Spike and Drusilla on Buffy. Or any of them and anyone else.)
- Then, there's the Actually Dysfunctional Couple. This is a creature devoid of adorability, existing to showcase one or more of the things that can go wrong in relationships. If a friend of the protagonist is in one of these relationships, it will end in either escape (aided by the protagonist) or tragedy. If these are the Parents, expect the protagonist to flee from them into the arms of - if the story is happy - the I Do Believe in Love! Couple. If the story is not happy, you will find nothing but Actually Dysfunctional Couples as far as the eye can see, with perhaps the occasional Love is a Lie thrown in for variety.
- The Doomed by the Plot Relationship is generally one that can't hold it together because, well, one of those characters belongs with the protagonist. Sorry, Dean Thomas. You never had real a shot.
I'm sure there are lots I'm missing here . . .