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The problem of the throwaway boyfriend

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In the first 10% of my novel, my MC has a boyfriend. MC is accepted into the Space Corps (or he's summoned to fight Troy - the particulars don't really matter), boyfriend is sure he'll wait the required X years.

MC starts training, and already the forced separation, the change in their respective lifestyles, the separate new experiences - all of it draws them apart. There's friction, eventually they break up.

From a Watsonian perspective, the MC finds himself sacrificing a relationship that was important to him, for his chosen path. It's painful, he struggles with it, he tries to keep both, eventually he accepts it.

From a Doylist perspective, of course they're going to break up. From the beginning, a long-distance relationship isn't very interesting - having the MC meet someone new and exciting a bit further into the story has much more "meat". So it's just a question of when. Once the conflict appears, it's therefore rather obvious how it ends.

I'm struggling to maintain tension in the struggling-relationship period. On the one hand, the conflict needs time to develop - they wouldn't just break up at the first sign of trouble. That would feel unrealistically abrupt, and devoid of the related internal struggle for the MC. On the other hand, it is clear that they're going to break up. Not clear to the characters, but clear to a savvy reader. Since it's clear how the conflict is going to end, why would a reader be invested in it? How do I prevent a "get on with it, break up already!" reaction?

A particularly important element: boyfriend is not a schmuck. Rather, they both, and MC in particular, underestimate how hard the ordeal is going to be. Which is an important recurring theme I want to set up early.

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You've suggested that the particulars of their separation don't matter, but it is specifically those particulars that hold the opportunity to sow doubt and hope into the otherwise obvious path.

Amp up the intensity of the couple's feelings for each other during that first 10%, while diminishing the apparent scale of the forced division. Then, as that division increases in distance, scale and prospective length, it will be a surprise to your readers as well as to your characters.

It is this misleading initial harmlessness of the division which sets the reader up for the sucker punch; then the sudden amplification which draws hard on the tension strings. The reader and the character should come to hopelessness together only when faced with further amplification of the division, which should happen as soon as both have bounced back from the initial blow.

If you feel that you are dragging out the breakup, then you probably are. Time passage in the story does not need equivalent page passage, and agony is agony whether short lived or eternal. Hurt your readers by hurting characters, but don't torture either of them.

Keep Writing!

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If you don't have some readers disappointed by the breakup, you haven't done justice to the "throwaway" boyfriend

The problem appears to be that you want the initial boyfriend to BE a throwaway character, and at the same time want to be hanging story progress around that "throwaway" character's neck. Make the initial boyfriend charismatic enough, make him MATTER enough, that it's actually kind of a shame that him and MC can't quite make it work. That's more or less all there is to it.

The best writing (a thing I myself am still more pursuing than achieving), makes minor characters still be memorable characters. And your readers won't feel the tension and loss unless there is actually a real risk of loss, and ultimately a real loss.

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The main character has to relinquish his old life. His boyfriend is just one part of that.

What else is the MC giving up?

  • His friends
  • His family (they will stay his family but he can't see them or contact them very often)
  • His Sunday morning routine (crossword puzzles and walking to the corner bakery sounds trivial but losing it can totally shake someone up)
  • His favorite library with the comfy chair
  • Volunteer work
  • His old job

And so on.

Losing someone who he probably assumed he would marry and grow old with is major. But the rest is all part of losing a life. The totality of what he gave up to take this new job (whether a long hoped for dream or a conscription) is going to hit him like a ton of bricks. The breakup might be the obvious representation of that but it's far from the entirety of his loss.

As he lets go of his old life, he may try desperately to cling to the bits of it that he can. His boyfriend senses this and maybe he clings harder, maybe he pulls away faster. Or the MC may resent the parts of his old life that are keeping him from fully immersing into the new (no matter how badly he wants to have both).

If you show the conflict with the relationship as part of a larger issue, then the reader won't get impatient or overly invested. It's about the MC growing and changing. By including the relationship at all you're showing us who the MC is. He's someone who commits, who cares about people and tries not to hurt them. But he's also a realist and knows when it's time to move on, in large part so he can honor his new commitment.

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Provide multiple possible resolutions

From a Doylist perspective, of course they're going to break up. From the beginning, a long-distance relationship isn't very interesting - having the MC meet someone new and exciting a bit further into the story has much more "meat". So it's just a question of when. Once the conflict appears, it's therefore rather obvious how it ends.

Remove the 'obviousness' of this resolution, and keep the readers guessing. For example, maybe the boyfriend also has a chance to join the Space Corp (but at a later date), but isn't sure if their parents will let them.

Trick your readers about what the conflict actually is. If the readers think that the conflict is about helping the boyfriend throw off the influence of their parents, then when the stress of trying to do so puts strain on their relationship and causes a breakup, then it will come as more of a surprise then if the relationship was made the focal point of the conflict to start with.

Convince the readers that they want this other resolution to happen. If the readers want and expect one thing to happen, then they won't look to hard at other possible routes the story could take, and will be affected as strongly as the protagonist when the desired path falls through.

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You can stop making it so obvious they are going to break up; and don't even make it obvious to the MC they already have broken up. The boyfriend can break, and move on to somebody else without telling the MC.

So the arc is:

BF: I miss you so much!
MC: Be strong, this is what we talked about.

Second round: Something bad happens to the BF:
BF: (tearful) This is too hard. You said you could quit, I want you to quit. Come home, and help me.
MC: You'll get over this, I can't quit.
BF: That's a lie! I read the enlistment forms, you still have two weeks to withdraw!
MC: Yes, but I'm not going to, not now. This is too important.
BF: And I'm not?
(tearful argument ensues, but MC is adamant)
MC: I love you, but I can't.
BF: I love you too.

Third round:
BF: Hi! Everything is fine, I'm in the middle of something, gotta run to a party!
MC: What party?
BF: Michelle's birthday, or did you forget that too? Nevermind. Gotta go!
MC: Oh yeah. Well, have a good time.

What the MC doesn't get is that BF is cheerful because he has already moved on, but isn't going to admit it. The MC can suspect this, and dread it, and deny it to himself, but you (the author) can take time to confirm it for the MC (leaving the reader hanging).

The truth is the MC gave up his BF in the second round, by refusing to withdraw from the program and come home. I think this ability to withdraw is important; if the program he is in does not allow withdrawal, then whatever happens between him and his BF was not really his choice. He did choose to join, of course, but his BF had agreed to wait.

But if he can quit and come home, and chooses not to despite his distraught lover begging him to quit and come home, then he has made a conscious choice of mission over boyfriend. When he confronts his conversation-avoiding BF, he gets an unapologetic confession and the MC is told he shouldn't call anymore. The MC can be reminded, by his BF, that he made the choice, when he refused to come home when the BF needed him most.

Otherwise you have a situation of something bad happening without any conscious choice. I mean, if I invite my friend to dinner somewhere, and she slips on the sidewalk and breaks her wrist, I feel terrible for her but I don't feel guilty for inviting her to dinner. I made no conscious choice in her trouble; I thought she'd be fine getting to the restaurant. I think your MC must make a conscious choice of job over boyfriend for this to be a sacrifice.

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Make the boyfriend more than just "MC's boyfriend".

Give him a life of his own, a (minor) role in the story beyond the doomed relationship. Maybe tell some of the "home front" part of the story from his point of view. Then you also don't have to throw the character away after the breakup - he's still around, doing stuff that matters, perhaps even something relevant to the main plot.

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You seem to want there to be a throwaway relationship on the one hand but not on the other hand.

There are of course subtleties and degrees, but, in a broad analysis, either it is a throwaway relationship—and you shouldn't worry about there being little tension over it disappearing (at least not in terms of pages of writing)—or it isn't a throwaway relationship and there should be more going on to make it obvious that it's not a simple decision.

For instance, give them a child together. That would make it dramatically more difficult for the MC to decide to abandon one life in favour of another. And it might keep readers guessing a lot longer as to whether or not that will actually happen. The stakes, and the tension, would be all the greater. It would also make the readers care more about the relationship than they would about one where it's really just two separate people each going their own way and putting the past behind them. (People break up all the time, but it's more significant when a breakup leaves longer-lasting effects than just moving on to someone else.)

The most effective learning experiences are those which are painful, but from which you grow and adapt anyway.

Or, go the other way and only summarize the breakup. The character can still suffer—you can describe things that happen to him that indicate that—but the reader doesn't need to be aware of all of the details around them as they happen. Relay events in a short series of vignettes or flashbacks. You can indicate the suffering and growth, but still preserve the bulk of the tension of the story for what comes after the breakup.

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I'm struggling to maintain tension in the struggling-relationship period.

Make the relationship more interesting (to the author and the reader)

In Watsonian terms, their relationship may need more rough edges to make it seem real. It might help to (briefly) imagine the alternate timeline where they stick together. What might be their loves and peeves when this couple grows old together? What are the sort of things that would make them argue? Do they want children? How well does each integrate into the partner's family and class? Maybe imagine a few big conflicts that would befall them, so you can seed some hints of that possible future into the existing relationship.

They might be a little young to be planning retirement together, but I don't think anyone dates another person exclusively without imagining themselves with that person at least a few years into the future. It can be a very naive idea of the relationship ("When we live together let's get a cat and name it Nemo." "I hate cats."). Perfect relationships trigger suspicion for (exactly as feared) a sacrificial character – they are too good to be true.

You might need to "hide the forest with plenty of trees". In other words, make their relationship as real as possible by distracting with an immediate conflict (outside of Space Corps) as if that is the story, before you derail it.

Gay breakups are given extra scrutiny

In the Doylist mode, the thing to watch out for is the trope where in a gay couple one typically dies, or the breakup is used to narratively reset a gay character to be effectively asexual. It's perceived by LGBT media critics to be a cop-out to writing a mature, well-adjusted same-sex relationship.

In my opinion, this is a case where pointing out that hetero relationships are sacrificed all the time for emotional payoff doesn't address the "problem", which is the lack of representation of long-term gay couples in media. I'm not saying it's your responsibility to fix that issue, I'm just pointing out that it's a trope that has received extra attention in certain circles which you may be hoping to reach. There may be (unwarranted) scrutiny put on this breakup as it is held to a different standard.

From your description, it sounds like they try to maintain the relationship for a while. Consider "having cake and eating it too" by making them so committed they come up with creative ways to be romantic while they are apart. They go the extra mile to make the relationship work. Ultimately what happens is that Space Corps changes the MC. They break up because they are not the same people they were before, not just because the long distance makes it unworkable. Distance will put extra stress on the relationship of course, but do the unexpected and make it seem like they will beat the odds. It doesn't turn sour until the MC starts re-prioritizing, and that's a slower but "earned" character shift that can play out in stages, like with Amadeus's answer.

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