Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Writing the Other Man

If you write relationship books as I do, at some point you come to the Other Man Problem. The other man is the person who the main character either is going out with now, or thinks she wants to go out with, when by the end of the story she's going to end up with someone else entirely.

He is a difficult proposition. If he is too attractive, the reader won't understand why the main character ditches him to go out with the true hero. If he is too unattractive, the main character will look like an idiot for staying with him when he's obviously not the one for her.

I read one book where the author had tried too hard to make the Other Man undesirable. He called his girlfriend, the main character, Sweetums. Well, it was obvious she was going to have to ditch him, but the penny didn't drop for her for at least three hundred pages. That meant I lost sympathy for her. Another author tried to subtly make the Other Man unsuitable by having him giving the wrong gift to the main character, but only achieved in making the main character look grasping and ungrateful.

I think the best way is to write an Other Man who is attractive and has no obvious giveaway flaws, but who shows by his actions that he's the wrong man: he lets the main character down in some way, he reveals one of her personal secrets, he tries to take control, he has some questionable views. In other words, there is something that is a deal-breaker about him. If he reveals his flaws through his actions it means he can reveal them quite late on in the story, which is more satisfying for the reader and doesn't make the main character look stupid for thinking that he could be Mr Right.

But it's hard. Everyone has their personal quirks - I know my Other Men tend to be alpha male types, which is often Mr Right in other books. Out there, there may be readers who are baffled at the choices my main characters make or else berating me for making it so obvious who the main character is going to end up with. All I can do is be as aware as I can and make the Other Man as attractive as possible, while not outshining Mr Right-for-her.


Kate Kyle said...

a tough task. I tend to make them so good and affectionated, and so focused on her it's stifling. but becuase it's her knight in shiny armour she can;t really ditch him, becuase on the surface everything shouts it's Mr Right.
So she has to work it out for herself first that she cares more about her freedom than about that shiny armour. but this is a completely different story ;-)

A very interesting (as usual) article, Sarah. thanks for your insights

Lucy V Morgan said...

Really interesting topic, and very relevant for me. I agree about writing him as an otherwise attractive proposition but with the deal-breaker quality; not only because it's so wonderfully grey a device, but because it resonates. How many of us have had to break the heart of a man that everyone else said was perfect, because we knew he wasn't right for *us*? It gets messy and it makes you feel foul; it's nice to read a heroine who goes through the same thing.

I also think this kind of device serves to challenge any "Mary Sue" status the heroine might have garnered along the way; those attached to Other Man will hold it against her, at least for a little while.

(What I found interesting with my beta readers is that some would latch on to Other Man because he showed stalker-type characteristics; they liked that part of him. This amused me and worried me in equal measure, lol).

Thanks for starting such a fascinating discussion.

Sarah Duncan said...

I like the idea of him being too good, too nice, too affectionate it becomes stifling - that's a great solution.

I haven't heard of "Mary Sue" - the girl next door? I can see why a man who is showing stalker tendencies might be attractive if you read it as intense and passionate in a Colin Firth as Mr Darcy sort of way. But inconvenient for the writer!

Lucy V Morgan said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_sue :)

I think stalker-esque males (those who are very intense, think only about the heroine, hang around to "protect" her etc) appeal to a multitude of readers for various reasons. It's a case of working out my market, I think :P

Sarah Duncan said...

A whole new world beckons...I'd never thought of looking on Wikipedia for explanations before. Another thing to procrastinate with. So thanks for that, and for the explanation, I've come across a few Mary Sue characters before and it's great to now have a name to call them.