Recently, I was reading a novel about teenagers fighting in an intergalactic war. I found myself taking months to get through the novel, putting the book down more often than usual. This was because of the dull, two-dimensional characters — specifically, another flawless, tall, dark and handsome male love interest.
Why exactly is it bad to have a perfect love interest?
An idealistic fantasy does not represent a real person. A “perfect” male love interest is a common trope in all media — books, movies, songs. It perpetuates both the high standards of beauty and the too-perfect personality traits given to characters. Consumers of fiction see him everywhere, from the covers of romance novels to the masculine YA book hero to famous actors on screen. With their tall stature, impressive muscles and subdued personality, they act as an accessory to a romantic plot rather than a fully realized character that develops as the story unfolds.
As a character-driven reader, I found myself bored reading about such a faultless male love interest. As Katie McCoach from Standout Books wrote, “Flaws make a person human, and flaws on a man are endearing and intriguing.” Real people have flaws, so characters need flaws. They need realistic personality traits that make the reader want to invest in them. This opens the door for the reader to relate to the character.
There is a danger in an unrealistic model of men. It raises certain features onto a pedestal, such as abs and height, while unnecessarily degrading others, like having a tummy or looking more stereotypically feminine. It creates a high standard for men to look perfect, to speak charmingly and to act flawlessly, all according to this coveted set of characteristics.
The danger is not in creating a character with all of these preferred traits, but rather, the outcome it could cause. What happens when it becomes the standard perception of the ideal male love interest? Outside of fiction, everyone is human. Everyone has their own quirks. Representation of individuality needs to be showcased more in storytelling.
In an age where social media has taken over, standards of bodies circulate around faster than ever before. Emma Beddington, mother of two teenage boys, wrote for The Guardian, “It’s also pretty quaint to think any part of the struggling magazine industry could be having a serious impact on boys’ body image with a whole digital world of #fitspo and #workout posts to obsess over, and the chiseled gods of ‘Love Island’ everywhere in their tiny trunks.”
Giving characters idealistic attributes or showcasing only the traditional forms of masculine features in entertainment media leads to the insecurity of young boys as they grow up, just as it does to young girls with traditionally feminine characteristics. They strive to be this picture-perfect model of masculinity that is worthy of love — when in reality, it doesn’t exist. It is important for men to see representations of themselves in characters, no matter how small the role is.
Mindy McGinnis from Writer’s Digest coined the acronym SIAM, meaning “The Sensitive Intelligent Alpha Male,” which she described as “physically impressive, sexually gifted, kind, smart, sensitive, and never displays attraction or interest in anyone other than his intended. You’ve seen him around. [O]n book covers, anyway.” Found often in novels, this archetype, while complex, lacks internal conflict, such as insecurities, flaws and bad habits.
The SIAM, present in many books and movies, exhibits the preferred characteristics of a male love interest through a typically female perspective. However, having all these characteristics is a too-specific archetype that raises expectations of a relationship with a man, discouraging men that lack in any of them.
The male love interest should not be a fantasy made specifically for the protagonist, nor should he be an accessory solely imagined in order to help the protagonist reach their goal. The male love interest, although not the main character, should still contribute to the plotline as well as have their own individual personality traits. A love interest with no goals of his own shows that his only function is to cater to the main protagonist, which is never the case in real life. Everyone has their own goals, passions and backstories.
All characters in a piece of fiction need a level of individuality. When one develops ethereal features, that is when the story becomes unrealistic and boring. Envisioning a male love interest as the paragon of all men unreasonably raises expectations.
The stereotypes associated with male characters differ from females due to the negative connotations of female stereotypes, such as being fragile or compliant. On the other hand, male stereotypes like assertiveness and strength are the desired norm, so any deviation from them is seen as weak. It explains why male love interests are adorned with confidence and muscles. The common bad boy trope also screams stereotypical masculinity, but this time paints the traits onto an almost dangerous character. Bad boys are aggressive, assertive and overtly sexual.
However, while the problems with unrealistic female characters are openly criticized, unrealistic male characters — especially love interests — are swept under the rug because they embody the sought-after standards of humanity, regardless of whether or not they are actually attainable.
Jeannette DiLouie answered why perfect protagonists are bad for both fiction and reality. She said, “We’re capable of doing absolutely amazing things. And we’re capable of doing absolutely horrible things. And we’re never perfect regardless. If you deny that, you’re treading on entirely unrealistic ground — so much so that it doesn’t even work for fiction.”
By giving male love interests more realistic traits, looks, flaws and backstories, the story will showcase a person with his own personality and peculiarities, allowing all types of men to be shown as capable of being loved, regardless of their flaws and insecurities. Even representing the little parts of an individual, such as freckles or a habit of nail-biting, matters. It adds personality to the character.
Fitting men, or anyone for that matter, into categories breaks an individual’s sense of self and molds them into society’s standards of perfection. Men come in all forms. Different personalities, races, sexualities and bodies. Characters with realistic traits allow readers to fully engage with media, and they give men the opportunity to see themselves within the characters.