Columns > Published on February 10th, 2016

Storyville: Love in Fiction

When I read a story, what often leaves me flat is the lack of empathy I have for the characters. One way you can get your reader to care more about what’s happening on the page, and with your characters, is through love. How can you show us love in your short stories and novels? There are many different types of love. Here are a few ideas.


One obvious way to show love is through the compassion one character has for another—husband for wife, mother for daughter, old man for lost dog, ancient oak for damaged fairy. It can be through grand gestures—a man filling his basement full of coal, the worst winter in recent memory bearing down on the rural farm. It can be through small acts of kindness—a singular donut left on the kitchen counter—glazed, powdered, and filled with jelly. It can be a mother sitting on the side of son’s bed as he cries, the shadow in the closet scaring him, the gesture not simply to pacify, but earnestly listening, ready to stand against this threat—imagined or real, now, or in the future. It is recognizing the emotion, and understanding. It is a willingness to put the need of the strong aside, to take care of the weak, the scared—the threatened. It is listening, just so the child can be heard, so the grandmother doesn’t feel alone, so the crippled doesn’t feel worthless.


Love is also a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect another, to sacrifice in order to protect. Think about it for a moment—what are you willing to do to protect your mother, your boyfriend, your daughter? What about the threat of intimidation, of violence, of sexual abuse? I know that I would do anything to protect my children, a raw, animalistic rage buried deep inside, something primal, that I hold on to just in case that horrible day should ever come.

Feel free to recount from your own personal experiences, and then embellish where needed.

I thought of several stories right away. Two of my latest, “Repent” and “The Offering on the Hill” are out later this year and both deal with love as sacrifice. Without spoiling them, “Repent” touches on the idea of a bad man, a father, who sees an opportunity to change, and in doing so, to save his son, who is sick, possibly dying. Have you ever had a sick child, not just a cold, or even a fever of 103, but a surgery, perhaps, appendix, broken arm, maybe the eye or brain? It makes you weak with desperation. Cancer? Don’t get me started. Have you ever prayed to God, saying, “Give it to me, I’ll take the pain and suffering, just leave my child alone!” I have. In “The Offering on the Hill” in order to pass over the mountain, a sacrifice must be made—an offering. What would you be willing to give in order for your son to survive?

I also thought of Stephen Graham Jones and his story, “Snow Monsters.” A father is approached by a strange man, and is presented with a contract, an opportunity to protect someone he loves. He does not hesitate to sign it. And what if the mother was also approached? How might that plot thicken, the cut deepen, and widen. And I don't think I have to mention Stephen’s other story, “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit.”


What about our friends? What would you do if you saw your good friend Brian out in a bar, kissing some strange woman that was not his wife? Would you be willing to cover it up, or would you straighten him out, take him home, protect him? What if it was his wife, instead, the one you never really liked, always a bit too uptight and judgmental? Here is your chance to show her. But wait, what would it do to your friend? Maybe you keep that secret, too? Would you let yourself be seen? How might that complicate things? Friendship is sometimes just being there—a knock on the door with a six-pack and a pepperoni pizza, a copy of Blade Runner under your arm. Friendship it standing there as the cat is put to sleep, your friend balling her eyes out, being a rock in the middle of a raging river. Show us how your friends bond, what languages they speak in code, what inside jokes they share, the matching Star Wars sweatshirts, the excitement over a new episode of Game of Thrones. I probably have a handful of best friends in the world, and I know that all I have to do is show up, and we’re good—we’ve been through so much together. Being there is part of it, too.


What might your characters do for the good of mankind? Is it a small gesture—pulling over to the side of the road to help change a flat in the pouring rain? Is it an action for a community—Rango stepping up, and out of character—a reluctant hero, eager to protect those that can’t protect themselves? Is it the Terminator—come back in time to save John Connor, to save the future, by protecting a boy? It really depends on your character, right? Sometimes the noble deeds are done under the cover of darkness, nobody the wiser. Sometimes they are done on a grand stage. It can be political, it can be an act of vengeance or perseverance, it can be the only logical thing to do in the face of certain disaster.


This has to be a big one, right? How often do we follow a flawed character, an unreliable narrator, waiting for that change? And what might that change be? It could be simply the act of believing—in the future, in themselves, in others. What we yell at the screen, or page, is, “You can do it! Don’t give up!” We root for our protagonists to fight through the struggles, to understand that it’s worth it, THEY are worth it, they are needed, and wanted, and important. We see our characters beaten, ignored, ridiculed, abused, overlooked, abandoned—and what we want them to know is they can get through this—they can survive. I embrace this notion of hope and love in Disintegration, in Breaker, and in many stories I’ve written. It’s easy to love yourself when you don’t have any flaws; that’s not very interesting. It’s much harder when you’ve screwed up, and seek redemption. That’s where the spark and fire is, right?


This is where you run the risk of being over dramatic, but when you think of that passionate love—your boyfriend or girlfriend, your husband or wife, your lover—you would climb that mountain, swim that ocean, right? It can be as simple as tickets to a show, that band she’s been dying to see. It can be cooking a favorite meal—spending hours over the stove, knowing the food is a favorite. It can be a back rub when she’s tired, that turns into more—soft kisses on her neck and bare shoulder, a heat rising between you, a glistening of moisture on her top lip. That first kiss—the tender, trusting gesture—the warmth and tenderness of her tongue, her lips. Love makes you dizzy, it fills you with excitement and energy, it inspires you to do great things, to work hard, to be creative, to share in something special—so put it on the page.


All of these things we’re talking about, feel free to recount from your own personal experiences, and then embellish where needed. What did that fight feel like, when you got punched in the face (it felt like a brick)? What did you cook for her that first time, back in college (grilled chicken in a honey-mustard glaze with Rice-a-Roni and sautéed broccoli)? What is the one special phrase you say to each other, the nickname, the secret history? Take the good and the bad—the birth of your child, the death of your grandmother—and think of the love that surrounds it. If we don't care about your characters, no matter what comes next, it doesn't really matter, does it? We won’t cheer when they win, we won’t mourn at their loss.


Love is a many splendored thing, right? I was in church last week (I know, shocking, right?) and they read a passage from First Corinthians, and it moved me, to tears. It was something that was recited at my wedding, as I’m sure it is at many others. I want you to just put aside any ideas about religion, and just listen to this, and think about how you might utilize the depth and passion of love in your next story or novel:

“Love suffers long and is kind; love envies not; love flaunts not itself…is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things…so now abide faith, hope, and love, these three. But the greatest of these is love.”

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit

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