People seem to be in one of two camps when it comes to love at first sight. Either it’s the ultimate epitome of romance and true love or it’s a creepy, unhealthy fixation that will never work out. This is why the fairy tale image of love at first sight leading to an instant happy ever after is going through a deconstruction in recent years and most modern readers are turned off by it.
There is a reason why it emerged as a literary trope and even why it still appears in some stories today. First meetings are emphasised in fiction because they are important in real life as well. Our first meeting and first impressions of someone will determine what our future relationship with them will be like. As much as we’d like to think we’re completely objective, scientists do say that it takes as little of one tenth of a second to decide if we like someone upon first seeing their face.
From a historical standpoint, it’s easy to see why this used to be a more acceptable form of storytelling. People used to die sooner and were expected to marry young so they had to latch onto the first piece of marriage material they came across and not let go. Divorce was also frowned upon so they were expected to be happy with their chosen partner for their whole lives, or at least pretend to be.
As society has changed, the idea of love at first sight has changed with it. Just as we aren’t expected to settle down with someone we’ve just met, so we don’t expect fictional characters to either.
Even so, there are still people who believe in love at first sight and it apparently does happen to some people. Some of these relationships do work out but others end horribly. So can it ever be pulled off in fiction? I’ve found that there are some cases when it can:
When to write love at first sight.
Short time frame. This is why love at first sight is so often associated with Disney films. The writers only have an hour and a half to make you buy into a relationship and love at first sight saves them a lot of time on development. This is why it rarely if ever works in a novel or long running television series because there is plenty of time to develop a relationship naturally.
A legitimate reason. To use Disney as an example again, Frozen did a very good job of establishing why Anna would fall instantly in love with Prince Hans – she’s spent most of her life isolated from her sister and only has one day to find a husband to keep her company throughout the rest of her lonely days. Of course it doesn’t work out but her reasons for falling instantly in love still make a lot more sense than the classic Disney Princesses.
Magical power. Maybe a character can predict what their true love’s first words to them will be or they were star crossed lovers in a previous life and have been sub-consciously drawn to each other. There is some room for creativity here. Magical powers can be a satisfactory explanation but if done badly they can come across as lazy writing, obvious plot devices and an excuse to skip out on the development of the relationship. In the worst cases they can also be downright creepy. Remember how appalled everyone was by the ‘imprinting’ scene in Twilight?
It’s not supposed to work out. Maybe the reasons why people are against this trope are the very things you are going for. It could be a villain with an unhealthy fixation on someone or a clueless romantic with no idea how true love really works. Even Romeo and Juliet, the most famous and glorified example of love at first sight was actually supposed to be a warning against hasty marriages.
Lust at first sight. This is a legitimate excuse because it does happen and lust is different than love. A crush at first sight is also understandable. I think all of us can say we’ve gotten a crush on someone just by looking at them, even if we later found out that their personalities weren’t as great as their looks.
Historical fiction. As I said, people’s attitudes to love at first sight have changed so you might be able to explain it in a historical context. But keep in mind that aside from different attitudes, people in the past were still the same as us in every other way and their hasty marriages didn’t always lead to happily ever after.
So there are some instances when you can write a character falling in love at first sight, but these are just starting points to the development of a relationship. In stories, build up is everything so you have to make your readers believe why somebody is worth going through a whole book’s worth of trials for.
I mentioned in a previous article that love triangles only work if they are written well. This is perhaps even truer for love at first sight. It’s not that writers can’t use it but it needs to be handled in a precise way to work effectively. Sometimes it can be done successfully but it is very rare and attempts to do so more often fail. If your character does fall in love at first sight and you want the readers to support their relationship then at least spend time developing it and the characters properly and have the characters decide if they want to make the relationship work in the long term.