The Stroke of Lightning
Love at first sight is one of the most ancient and familiar romance tropes. But contemporary genre romance has its own spin on the matter. There, the first impression is decidedly physical: once the main characters meet, they can hardly keep their hands off each other. It follows that there must be obstacles that prevent them from getting together at once, and it is through meeting them that they learn about each other. What does this tell us about whether love at first sight is real?
Love at First Sight
In French it’s “le coup de foudre,” “the stroke of lightning.” Love at first sight—if we’re going to be talking about it so much, let’s call it LAFS for short (an especially good term if we’re doing romantic comedy)—is one of the most ancient, familiar, and infamous romance tropes. But contemporary genre romance has its own spin on the matter.
There are, of course, innumerable songs that memorialize this phenomenon, from the classic “Some Enchanted Evening” (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific)—“you may see a stranger, across a crowded room”—to a more recent Colbie Caillat song, Brighter Than the Sun, which actually uses the phrase “lightning strikes the heart.” Or simply consider the title of “It Only Takes a Moment,” which originated in Hello Dolly (1964) and was used to poignant effect in WALL-E (2008).
Shakespeare goes so far as to say “Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” (As You Like It, III.5.81), an homage to Christopher Marlowe, who’d said it before in his 1598 poem Hero and Leander (according to Wikipedia). I need not mention Romeo and Juliet.
Aside from romance strictly speaking, LAFS can be useful in an adventure story, by way of what TV Tropes calls The Dulcinea Effect: “the compulsion many male heroes have to champion, quest for, or die for girls they met five minutes ago.” This can be contrasted with, or may lead to, a romance “forged in fire”—the notion that a couple may bond through having an adventure together. I’m fond of this one myself, perhaps applied with one spin or another.
For the moment, let’s note that the instant-love convention is fun, but often seems implausible, not to mention clichéd. One can see LAFS simply as a dramatic convention, like the Shakespearean soliloquy—but perhaps that’s not all there is to it.
Lust at First Sight
In modern genre romances, a great deal more emphasis is placed on physical desire than was the case in earlier tales. As a result, LAFS takes a slightly different form.
In a “Some Enchanted Evening” or Romeo and Juliet scenario, the lovers’ beguilement may be almost spiritual, a sort of epiphany. They are attracted to each other’s beauty, but there may be an element of reverence mixed in. In the contemporary romance, on the other hand, the first impression is decidedly physical. Once the main characters meet, they can hardly keep their hands off each other.
This sort of LAFS is both more plausible and less substantial than the more general sort. It’s plausible because physical desirability can be evident at first sight. It can be intensified by further acquaintance—getting to know the voice, actions, words, varied aspects of the beloved. But the sexual attraction, at least, can be immediate. This is traditionally true for males, but contemporary romance makes it abundantly clear that in at least some cases women react the same way. Examples are so omnipresent as to make it unnecessary to cite them.
To do these stories justice, they recognize that insta-lust isn’t enough. The main characters typically take an entire novel’s worth of events to really fall in love. Lust (or, less tendentiously, sexual desire) is just the initial driver. There’s a lot of “getting to know you” to be done before the story is over. And a good deal of that usually happens through meeting obstacles or countervailing forces that need to be overcome.
Tension and Obstacle
If the romantic leads fall in love immediately, there have to be obstacles that prevent them from getting together at once. Otherwise, the story will be very short. I believe it’s from an entertaining opus entitled Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies that I recall the sage advice: “If your story is ‘they came, they saw, they dated,’ then you don’t have a story yet.” With intense attraction pulling the lovers together, they’ll collapse into each other at once unless there’s also something to push them apart.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t precisely true. One could simply depict a couple gradually growing more interested in each other. At first the romantic interest is just somebody they know or meet. Then a greater interest awakens, attraction strengthens, and they reach that obsessive fascination that marks the "falling in love" stage. This type of relationship might be the most common and realistic of all. But it’s the hardest to manage for an author: it requires depicting a whole series of attitudes developing at just the right pace.
I would love to see such a story. But it would be much subtler and more gradual than the tempestuous narratives audiences tend to prefer. Your average handbook on fiction writing will dwell at length on the importance of conflict in holding a reader’s interest—and for good reason.
The obstacles that keep the lovers apart, then, may be external or internal. The simplest external problem is physical separation. In John C. Wright’s “Count to the Eschaton” series (it begins with Count to a Trillion, 2011), the star-crossed lovers connect in volume one. However, the female lead, Rania, must embark on a slower-than-light interstellar voyage that will last twelve thousand years. She will survive due to time dilation. But it’s a good thing her earthbound partner, Menelaus Illation Montrose (there’s a name for you!), has ways of prolonging his life over the intervening millennia. In the meantime, their relationship is on hold.
A more conventional separation can be seen in tales from the Age of Sail, when sea travel around the world might take years—shorter than millennia, but long enough in a human life. Captain Jack Aubrey, for example, the perennial hero of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, frequently spends months at a time apart from his beloved Sophie.
External obstacles may also include dangers that keep the characters otherwise occupied—from immediate peril in an action-adventure story to blackmail or other threats—as well as social or cultural barriers like those faced by Romeo and Juliet.
In a less action-oriented tale, the obstacles are more character-based or internal. The love affair may be interrupted by disputes (You’ve Got Mail), misunderstandings, antipathy for one reason or another (Pride and Prejudice), or by one or the other person’s inner character issues, such as previous bad experiences or trust issues (where the Big Lie often plays a role). External and internal problems can be combined in romantic thrillers like Don’t Look Down (Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, 2007).
In each case, the characters’ initial attraction, the LAFS moment, keeps pulling them together in spite of the difficulties, ad astra per aspera. They just can’t resist each other, no matter what plausible reasons might be given for trying. The combination of opposing drives creates the fruitful tension that keeps the reader’s interest.
It’s worth noting that Andrew Greeley counterposes desire in a similar way to the more mundane obstacles of daily life. In White Smoke (1996), Blackie Ryan, a frequent Greeley spokesperson character, observes: “human sexuality is distinct from the sex of other primates in that it is for bonding as well as for procreation. The bond between husband and wife stretches like a rubber band. . . . Then, when it is at the breaking point, the force of passionate love draws them together again.” This is a constant theme in Greeley’s novels. In other words, lust or desire isn’t just for beginnings, for LAFS. It continues to play a vital role throughout a love affair and into marriage.
But I digress.
One of my brothers once asked the other two of us whether we believed in LAFS. The three of us ultimately came to the same conclusion. You can fall for someone at first sight, yes; but you won’t know if it’s love until much later.
The instant attraction is a good starting point. But it can’t ripen into love unless the participants come to know more about each other’s personality, character, interests, and so on. We have to see someone in a variety of circumstances: what they’re like with family, friends, enemies; when they're mad, happy, sleepy; over the long run. (The plausibility of the “forged in fire” adventure-romance is that strenuous situations reveal more about someone’s character than more ordinary casual interactions.) As an old Orleans song puts it, “love takes time.”
Later on, when the couple has grown closer enough to know that they really do love each other, they can look back at their first meeting and say, that was when we began to fall in love. And they won’t be wrong. Chances are they felt that initial attraction right then, and now they know that was the beginning of a love story.
But that couldn’t have been predicted from the moment of LAFS. Some such moments sputter out: they prove to be mere temporary infatuation, or the admired individual turns out to be unavailable (already married, for instance), or on getting to know them better they find that they aren’t as good a fit as they thought. We can’t know, from the initial thunderbolt alone, that it’s going to lead to a true love story.
So we can fall in love at first sight; but we can only say that retrospectively, after the fact. It’s rather like looking at someone’s baby pictures. When you see them as a baby, you can’t predict just what they’ll look like grown up; but when you know them as an adult, you can see the foreshadowing of their features in the baby picture.
This points up an important difference between stories and real life. If we’re reading a story—particularly a genre romance—we can generally be confident that LAFS will lead to a deeper relationship between the characters. We predict that not from LAFS itself, but from genre and narrative expectations. This isn’t always borne out: some tales will start by introducing a romantic interest who doesn’t turn out to be The One, later to be displaced by the real article. Jane Austen’s Emma is a brilliant example of this twist: among other comic errors, the heroine thinks she’s in love with Frank Churchill, but it takes the entire novel for her to realize that it’s her longtime friend George Knightley that she really loves. But as a rule, if the heroine is devastated by the attractions of someone in Chapter the First, that’s who she will end up with in Chapter the Last.
In real life, we have no such guarantee. Life is a story, but it’s not always constructed according to our narrative rules—at least in the short run. We cannot know in advance whether the object of desire who’s just swum into our ken is really our destiny.
As the famous sage Wikipedia observes, LAFS fits in neatly with the notion, put forth as far back as Plato, that the beloved is our “other half,” the one who makes us complete—what we might call the theory of complementarity. In Plato’s dialogue, Aristophanes suggests that meeting our other half leads directly to an intoxicating attachment to the other person.
Would that it were so simple. If our whole selves were evident at first glance—if our appearance fully expressed our selves—that might work: who you really are would be “written all over your face.” But in fact a given moment or aspect expresses something about who we are, but not everything. Even in the best case, we can’t possibly absorb everything about a person at first sight—which may be a good thing, as it allows us some privacy and reserve. In worse cases, though, the other may deliberately deceive us or conceal things that would compromise our love. That’s why love takes time.
Lois McMaster Bujold once said, “The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one's work!) is not ‘Do these two people get together?’ but rather ‘Can I trust you?’ Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.” The answer to that question we can only learn by extensive experience—though perhaps that experience can be compressed to some degree by experiences that show our true natures in condensed fashion (the “forged in fire” trope). Only at length can we really know love at first sight.
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