Let’s talk about ex(es), baby!

Picture this scenario: You’re writing a romance novel. (I know, this is a huge stretch for my blog audience.) In this book are two amazing main characters (hero/heroine, hero/hero, heroine/heroine, doesn’t matter). You love these main characters. They’re awesome illustrations of everything a hero or heroine should be—not perfect, of course, but realistically flawed and (hopefully) lovable.

What’s the best way to turn your readers off instantly?

The Evil Ex.

(Unless, of course, you’re writing Scott Pilgrim.)

The Evil Ex is an awful person

I’m not talking about an ex who made a mistake because they’re human and humans do that. That’s the sort of ex the reader can look at and go, “okay, you’re an asshole for hurting the main character, but clearly there was something good about you at one point”. Maybe the main character has happy memories underneath all the hurt. There’s something there that makes us realize that even though things went south in a bad way, the ex isn’t the devil incarnate.

Yeah, I’m not talking about those guys.

I’m talking about Evil Exes that are so awful that there are no good times for the main character to remember. The exes where it’s a complete mystery why the hell anyone would even talk to them, because they’re selfish and crude, they shout misogynistic slurs at every woman they see, they’re a disloyal betrayer, or they’re manipulative and cruelly childish…basically a sociopath without being labeled as such in the book.

And yes, I’ve read a book recently where the Evil Ex was all of those things.

The Evil Ex shows just how good the new love interest is!

No! No, no, no, a thousand times no.

Here’s the thing: the Evil Ex character isn’t a character at all, but a caricature. A stereotype. And, let’s face it, caricatures and stereotypes are supremely lazy writing. You’re basically piling on all these bad attributes to prove to the reader how awful the ex is (telling), rather than taking the time and effort to craft a realistic character that can earn our hate/dislike (showing). The best “bad guys” are the ones that we can empathize with—even if they’re not a focal antagonist of the book.

The Evil Ex reflects

Honestly, it’s in your best interests for your main character’s characterization not to have a complete asshole of an ex, because that reflects poorly on the main character. It’s an extra hurdle for readers liking or relating to your character.

If the ex is that awful, and yet the main character was supposed to be in love with them—and the main character has no happy thoughts or memories about how things used to be good with the ex—then immediately I’m going to doubt your main character. Are they stupid? Are they just as bad as the Evil Ex? Are they spineless?

And the biggest question: Why would anyone invest time and energy into someone who isn’t even a real person?

The Evil Ex must be stopped

I can’t count how many times I’ve read this caricature. Don’t add to the numbers. Don’t do it!

If you’re including an ex in your story:

  • Make them real. Don’t pile on the bad traits just to prove they’re evil.
  • Give them their own GMC. That’s goal/motivation/conflict. It doesn’t have to be detailed but it will help anchor their presence in the story.
  • Don’t depend on a comparison between the ex and the new love interest to prove how amazing the new love interest is.
  • Think about their past with the main character. Make sure there were some good times before everything fell apart.

Happy writing!

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