I came across the concept of ‘love languages’ while reading a book called Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke. The first half of this book runs through a very thorough exercise in character building, hitting all the usual high points. As part of the section on physical and natural attributes, though, Mr. Gerke introduced me to a concept I hadn’t encountered before. He suggested giving some thought to the way that characters give and receive affection.
“The theory is that, like gifts and talents, each of us is born with a tendency to express and receive love in a certain way – in a love language – but that not all of us speak the same language.
“Some of us understand love in terms of what we do for someone else. I’m saying I love you if I clean up your room or have your car fixed for you or make your dinner. I receive love – that is, I understand that you are saying you love me – when you do something similar for me.
“But what if you don’t speak my love language? What if you understand love in terms of gift giving? You say I love you when you bring me a rock you found that made you think of me or when you pick up a can of my favourite soft drink on the drive over, and you expect to receive love in like manner. So now I’m fixing your bathroom but you’re giving me a rock. Both of us are saying I love you but neither of us is “hearing” the other correctly.”
(Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke, Writer’s Digest Books, 2010, pages 48-49.)
Mr. Gerke’s recommendation is based on a theory by a man called Gary Chapman. Mr. Chapman has a website (of course he does) where he applies his theories to real-life relationships and tries to convince you that you can’t live without his book or seminar or whatever it is he’s trying to sell. To be blunt, the website makes the theory look like your average pop-schlock psychology. BUT. Don’t let that put you off the idea entirely.
Since I first encountered this theory, I’ve been noticing more and more the way in which the people around me express affection. My father does it with acts of service, like in the example above. A colleague of mine gives gifts – every occasion is celebrated, even if it’s just something small, with a gift or a card or a cupcake. A friend will send me random texts to tell me that he values me, that he misses me. He expresses affection in words. And me, I express affection through physical touch.
Where the theory falls down a little for me is that I believe we’re all mostly smart enough to see other people’s acts of affection for what they are, even if they express love in a different way than we ourselves do.
The thing that’s fascinating me at the moment, though, is the way this bleeds over into how we write.
I express love by physical touch, and that’s how I receive it. And conversely, if I don’t like you, I don’t want to be touched by you. Touch has meaning. It speaks. So when I write gestures, when I build a romance between characters, when I reach for symbolism, it’s all laced with the meaning that I, personally, encode into physical touch. I use it as a kind of shorthand.
But what if my reader doesn’t care about touch, or doesn’t notice it? What if the reader is my colleague, the gift giver? The only access she has to this character are the words I give her. She doesn’t get to interact with the character except through me. Will she be dissatisfied with the relationship I’m trying to write? Will she understand what I mean? Will she connect with the characters? It’s an interesting question.
I recently read Parasite by Mira Grant. I devoured the book in less than a week, despite a looney schedule at work. The story was compelling, and I liked the characters, and I needed to know ‘what happens next?!’ all the way through to the very end. All signs of a great read.
But the relationship between the lead character and her boyfriend fell completely flat for me. I felt nothing. And I wonder if that could be linked to the author (or maybe just the character?) and I having different love languages. The characters said “I love you” on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean as much to me as gestural language would. Because I’m a toucher.
“Understanding love languages … [is] good for your fiction because if you’re not being conscious about the love languages you select for your characters, you’ll give them all the same one – yours – just by default.”
(Plot Versus Character, page 51)
It’s something to think about as I launch into new short stories. And it might be an interesting exercise to deliberately write a character who expresses affection differently than I do, who responds to people differently than I do. Because it’s not just about affection, it’s the basis of the character’s approach to all human interactions.
As I said, something to think about.
Have you encountered this idea before? Is it something you’ve given any thought to in terms of your writing? Are there exercises out there that incorporate this kind of idea? I’m curious to learn more.