Realistically portraying relationship between male and female protagonists
My general question is: How do you make characters that are very likeable and idealistic in a Romance but at the same time not too predictable and like a Mary-Sue?
I have a more specific question too concerning my work:
This is what I've done with my characters so far.
On the one hand, I want the girl to be vulnerable; I do treasure the cuteness of a classical, chivalrous relationship. But when she's on her own, she is forced to protect herself (she proves to the audience she can be independent when she needs to be). But at the end of the day, if there is help from the boy, she will want it and never decline. I.e. she is strong on her own, but when the boy's around, she feels weak and ultimately, becomes weak.
But on the other hand, I have her rescuing him at the end. As much as that is great for her development as a character, I'm afraid it reduces the appeal the audience will have for the male character. I'm scared right now I've made the girl all too independent, it's almost like she doesn't need him anymore, that she should just break up with him and find some alpha male. (I don't want that to happen!)
What is the universal thing in relationships in fiction that appeals to all readers (even if the reader themselves would never want such a relationship in real life, etc.)
I'm going to go out on a limb a bit here, so bear with me.
One way Dramatica looks at male/female relationships is through two key traits.
The first is Approach, which is to say, is your character a Be-er or a Do-er? When faced with a problem, a Do-er typically will try to solve the problem externally by taking some physical action that changes or fixes his environment.
On the other hand, when a Be-er is faced with a problem, her first instinct is to try to solve the problem internally. She will try to change herself to fit in better with the environment.
The second characteristic is sometimes called "Problem Solving Style." The idea is that some characters approach problems Linearly. They look for the biggest issue of concern, tackle that, and ignore all the other little issues.
On the other hand, some characters think Holistically. To them, a lot of little issues added together can outweigh one big issue.
It's worth noting that the original term for Problem Solving Style was more like "Brain Gender." In other words, the creators of Dramatica felt that linear brains were "male" and holistic brains were "female."
Before you think this is sexism, I should state that these terms have nothing to do with a person's gender identity, genitalia, sexual preference, etc. A heterosexual male character can have a holistic brain and a heterosexual woman can have a linear brain.
However, I think we can agree that the classic alpha male character is a Do-er with a Linear brain. He is the man of action who looks for the biggest problem in the world (rather than in himself) and leaps into action to fix it. Of course, these guys have trouble recognizing when they are in the wrong or have become bullies.
other hand, the classic female character is a Be-er with a Holistic brain. She weighs up all the issues in her mind, trying to balance them properly, and then tries to change herself to fit in with the world around her. This is why you have female characters who seem willing to put up with a bad situation rather than change it.
Of course these are stereotypes. People grew tired of stories about passive women and patriarchal men. So today, you see more stories with female Do-ers and male Be-ers. You can find women with Linear brains and men with Holistic brains (though perhaps they are less common).
The point of this is that neither Approach or Brain Gender is wrong. And that men and women often need each other to find balance. Sometimes the best way to solve a particular problem is to be a Be-er; sometimes the Do-ers are right. Sometimes, tackling the biggest thorn in your side does bring the biggest, fastest relief. Other times, if you ignore all the little thorny issues, you will only make the problem worse.
A good male/female team is one where each person contributes insights that the other one does not perceive on their own - and where they learn to appreciate each other's insights. That is why, in many romances, if the main character is a Be-er, the impact character (typically the love interest) will be a Do-er. If the main character thinks holistically, the impact character thinks linearly. Regardless who is right in the end, without the other person's perspective the problem will not have been fully weighed.
Now, if your female lead is a Do-er by nature, you might consider making her love interest a Be-er who can draw her attention to times when she, not the world, is the problem. He therefore can give her the perspective she needs to grow. Vice versa, she can perhaps point out times when someone else, not him, is the problem. Similarly, if she's a holistic thinker, you could make him linear.
Incidentally, we're talking about preferred ways people tackle problems. Bear in mind that people can use other methods if they have to, it's just not their primary instinct.
Even if a man is a Be-er by nature, he can be forced to take action - for instance, to save the woman he loves. Someone who is linear can be persuaded to see the big picture. A holistic person can be persuaded to tackle the biggest problem first. And if necessary, a Do-er can try to fit in rather than be a bull in a china shop.
Neither is weak or stupid necessarily, though they can appear that way at first to someone with the opposite Approach or Brain Gender.
I think if you show how your male lead provides what your female lead needs to grow and resolve her problem, such that she comes to respect and value him, the reader will come to respect him too.
P.S. It also may be that your female lead is a Be-er by nature who has been forced to be a Do-er by her circumstances. That could be why she reverts to being a Be-er when she finds a man who is a Do-er. In other words, with him she can finally be herself.