In honor of the holiday you may or may not celebrate, I’m writing about love. Worry not; this is more of a technical examination of the term and not a mushy lecture on the subject. We’ll start with the Greeks, of course.
The Greeks had four different definitions of love (agape):
1. Eros, or passionate love. (Sexual or otherwise.)
2. Xenia, or hospitable love. (Love without motives.)
3. Philia, or mutual love.
4. Storge, or natural affection.
To understand what type of love you’re dealing with, define it through the process of elimination. For example, I love chocolate. I know I love chocolate. I have deep, deep feelings about it. When one loves a food, what type of love is it?
I can immediately eliminate philia, because the love is not mutual. Philia love never encompasses inanimate objects. As much as I love chocolate, chocolate cannot love me back.
It is not xenia, or hospitable love. Xenia was important to the ancient Greeks; it is a compassionate love demonstrated to guests by their hosts. Again, this does not fit the type of love I have for chocolate.
Do I have a natural affection for chocolate? Storge is most commonly used in reference to the love a parent has for their child and vice-versa. As much as I love chocolate, even I will not deign to put that love on the same plain as the love I have for my children.
Which leaves us with eros, which of course is the root of the English word “erotica.” Eros is “passionate love.” We most commonly think of it as sexual love, love between two paramours, and not love of food. Yet, eros love encompasses a number of passions or longings… a longing for knowledge, for beauty, for truth, even for the perfect piece of chocolate. Though sexual longing and passionate love can become intertwined, love stands on its own, with or without romance.
Understanding the different types of love can help drive a plot and develop multi-dimensional characters. Eros, I think, is the hardest love to define. The love between a parent and a child is almost universally understood. Philia literally means friendship, and is a love that can is easily fostered because it is built around a mutually exclusive feeling of affection and devotion. Xenia is still culturally relevant; it is a love that drives us to take care of our fellow mankind. It is the love shown when we help a person stranded on the side of the road, or when we send money to a charitable organization.
But eros… eros can be complicated. It is a fierce type of love that doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, or even make sense. It is driven by desire and, while the other types of love foster pleasant feelings, eros can make a person absolutely miserable.
Anne Carson wrote the compelling book, Eros the Bittersweet. She describes the concept of eros as written about by the Greek poet Sapphos:
She is not recording the history of a love affair but the instant of desire. One moment staggers under the pressure of eros; one mental state splits. A simultaneity of pleasure and pain is at issue.
Eros is an emotional paradox that varies in intensity. My love for chocolate does not put me in danger of heartbreak. A strong and irrational desire to live in Paris or procreate with Colin Firth, however, can only end in tears.
We all love something. When developing your character, ask yourself: what kind of love drives my character(s)? If your story is about a father fighting for custody of his children, explore the emotions behind that type of love. Storge love is unconditional; no matter how his children disappoint or fail him, his love does not waver.
Is your story about a man who has fallen in love with his best friend’s fiance? Here we have a battle between philia love and eros love. Listing the importance of the love your protagonist feels for his friend versus the love he feels for the fiance will help flesh out the character and will make for a more plausible conflict.
Is your main character compelled to leave a life of comfort and teach a group of children in Africa for little to no money? Why? What sort of love drives a person to do such a thing?
Once the love is defined, choose the words and emotions that help describe that type of love. Let your character’s emotions drive your prose or poetry.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is THE story of unrequited love. You can feel Florentino Ariza’s anguish, the bitter and the sweet eros love, as he looks upon Fermina Daza:
To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else’s heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.
Consider this expression of unconditional love from an excerpt of To a Sad Daughter, a poem by Michael Ondaatje:
When I thought of daughters
I wasn’t expecting this
but I like this more.
I like all your faults
even your purple moods
when you retreat from everyone
to sit in bed under a quilt.
And when I say ‘like’
I mean of course ‘love’
but that embarrasses you.
You who feel superior to black and white movies
(coaxed for hours to see Casablanca)
though you were moved
by Creature from the Black
For a look at a long-lasting friendship, here’s a quote from Robert Parker’s hardboiled detective, Spenser, who is speaking of his partner and friend, Hawk:
In fact, in all the time I’d known Hawk I’d never seen him show a sign of anything. He laughed easily and he was never off balance. But whatever went on inside stayed inside. Or maybe nothing went on inside. Hawk was as impassive and hard as an obsidian carving. Maybe that was what went on inside.
Even if love isn’t the central theme of your story, your character loves something or someone. That love might even be driving your character to act the way he or she does. Define that love and you have a more honest and believable character.