I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s Titanic for the first time in over a decade. My first experience was less than stellar; I remember liking the visuals, the cinematography, the effects, the music. But I loathed all of the characters. This time around, the visuals remain stunning, breath-taking, well-worthy of all the Academy Awards this movie received. The sinking of the ship itself remains powerful, heartbreaking, and utterly chilling.
Yet I still don’t like the main characters, Jack and Rose. I understood them better, understood their choices, their positions, and empathized more than I did when I was ten. But I still didn’t really like them. Or maybe it isn’t a matter of “liking.” They would be fine as acquaintances. But I didn’t…connect with them, not on any meaningful level that persisted past the end credits.
I think it has something to do with timing and the presentation of their relationship.
I really don’t care for the Romeo and Juliet kind of romance. Two people with nothing in common have a chance meeting and are swept away by a deep, true, and instant love. If it’s a comedy, things work out and they stay googly-eyed in love and get married to live happily ever after. If it’s a tragedy, they suffer a permanent separation, usually by one or both of them dying. And I’m supposed to be utterly moved by their deep, overwhelming love.
I call bullshit. This kind of love is a wonderful plot device when you only have 3 hours to tell a story. You have to condense time, speed everything up, in order for it to fit. I get that. That’s why I like montage scenes that show, in a very short amount of time, two people getting to know one another and actually developing a relationship. When a few weeks or months are shown to pass, I am more moved by their relationship. They’ve obviously invested time in each other, and so shall I. When only a few days have passed, I remain skeptical of the romance. I have no reason to invest myself emotionally. Sure, they might be infatuated, starry-eyed, lustful. But are they in love? They might think so, but as a viewer or reader, I can’t help but try to imagine how this would play out a few years down the road.
With Jack and Rose, it’s a little hard to tell. Going back into a sinking ship to free someone you just met has an element of heroism and selflessness, which is key, I think, to real, lasting love. At the same time, it’s also a little insane. I’ll admit, it makes for good visual drama. When you are swept up in the moment, it makes perfect sense. But when you step back and think a little…yeah, Rose was a little crazy. Does that make it love? I can’t really say. It’s beautiful and dramatic, but if Rose and Jack had survived and gone off together, I can’t help but wonder how long the new glamour of a life constantly spent poor and on the road would be. On the ship, dancing in steerage was a novelty, a completely new experience, so it’s understandable how it would be wonderful to Rose. But she is a lady raised to high society and is used to living a certain material lifestyle, so when the going got tough, would her American artist-lover be enough for her? Would that love stay strong?
While arguments can be made for and against Jack and Rose being in love, I’m not here for that particular debate. Watching Titanic sparked this chain of thought, and I decided it was important to point out that how relationships, romantic or otherwise, are presented and develop are key to the success of a story. I don’t feel satisfied by whirlwind romances with instant soul-mate connections (with a few exceptions). It just doesn’t feel real to me.
Relationships start slow and build off of shared time and history. Any relationship, good or bad, starts with a moment: interest, curiosity, lust, amusement, annoyance, disgust, fear. First, you need to notice a person. Then make the effort to speak with them and then continue to deepen it by spending time with them and sharing with them. Or, if your connection/impression is negative but you are forced into interaction, you need to develop survival strategies. The length of time spent on these processes varies from person to person, personality type to personality type.
How your characters approach and maintain relationships will also depend on what kind of person they are, their idea of manners, social graces, and their past. Are they outgoing? Insular? Businesslike? Shy? Why do they exhibit those traits? Are they aloof because they are trying to protect themselves or because they believe they are superior to others? Do they like social events or prefer writing letters? Some people form relationships with others very quickly, sometimes without apparent effort. Such people are often seen as highly charismatic. Other people, like me, require a lot regular exposure and communication in order to connect with others. We open up only in the most begrudging fashion. Just as you spend time with people in real life to get to know them, as a reader, I like spending time with characters to get to know them. Half the fun is watching them change, their evolution through interaction. So, as a writer, I need to keep that in mind when building relationships between my characters to keep them as natural, believable, and compelling as possible.
Alas, this part writers have no control over. How our creations are received by readers is completely dependent on the kind of person who is reading them. Each reader brings their own experiences, history, impressions, and judgments to the table. Those things all influence their artistic experience and reaction to any work, written, visual, auditory, or otherwise. And, unfortunately, I think that I tried watching Titanic again at a bad time.
Right before rewatching Titanic, I finished reading Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before by Dr. Jean M. Twenge. It’s a pretty good book that discusses the different in attitudes between generations. This generation, people born in the late 80s and early 90s, have grown up in a world that emphasizes self-esteem, self-expression, and doing what makes you happy. There are advantages to this, but also disadvantages. We have been told since we were very young that we could do anything we wanted “if we just believe.” As a generation, a lot of people between 18 and 35 expect to have their cake and eat it too. (Lord knows I’ve been guilty of this.) But in the real world, just believing isn’t enough, the world doesn’t give a damn about maintaining your self-esteem, and the dissonance between what we’ve been told to expect and what we’ll actually get has caused a great deal of pain and disillusionment.
One of the chapters talks about how the obsession with personal satisfaction and happiness leads to greater narcissism which has a negative impact on romantic relationships. Dr. Twenge postulates that one of the possible reasons divorce is on the rise is because people focus too much on themselves and not enough on their partners. People go out expecting to find “their soulmate,” some kind of perfect being that will fulfill all their needs, and forget that what they are dating/marrying is a thinking, feeling human being who isn’t going to meet their expectations all the time and has needs of their own. And when a partner inevitably fails to remain on that pedestal, a lot of people decide to cut and run rather than trying to work through it. (I am speaking of more minor disagreements, not abusive or utterly incompatible relationships.) The idea of commitment has taken a hit in my generation and media has only exacerbated it.
It seems like every song, movie, and book out there supports the instant-sparks-fly-connection-if-things-don’t-gel-instantly-then-they-aren’t-your-soulmate idea. It makes me want to scream with frustration because it’s only making the problem worse. Stories help provide direction, potential role models, a way of living. They provide instruction and inspiration in addition to entertainment. And for something as thorny and fraught with peril and heartbreak as love, I do not like seeing stories try to pass off the spark of infatuation as love. (If you want a really good discussion on the elements of love, I highly recommend this essay.) I want to see more stories with thoughtful, mature relationships that develop in a slower, more realistic manner. And since I don’t see as many of them as I would like, I want to make a concerted effort to offer them in my own work.
The only time that I let things slide a little with the more realistic timeline for relationship development is when magic or nonhuman species are involved. Creatures that aren’t human, such as dragons, elves, unicorns, etc., I fully expect to have different attitudes, expectations, and time frames for romantic relationships, or any relationship. And magic tends to mess with people anyway, so if the rules of your fantasy world support soulmates or very fast relationship development via magical assistance…that can make sense. I just would be wary of over-using it. Since Jack and Rose don’t live in a world with magic, I will remain skeptical of the veracity and depth of the great “love story” presented in Titanic.