Fatal attraction: when an attractive trait becomes the death of a relationship. Which fatal attraction types do your characters fall foul of?
What is it about a person’s personality that attracts you to them? Their traits? It makes sense—if you like the way someone acts, you feel yourself drawn towards them.
For example, you might meet a sweet person, who’s kind and giving and thoughtful, and be charmed by their loveliness. You could bump into someone who’s outgoing and confident and be captivated by their charisma. You may come across a hilarious and fun individual, whose wit wins your hearts and makes you smile.
But what if that original trait that attracted you so becomes the very thing that drives you away in the end? Then you’d have fallen foul of fatal attraction.
In 1995, Diane Felmlee devised the concept of ‘fatal attraction’—the trait that initially attracted you to someone ends up being the quality that irritates you the most, oftentimes causing the breakdown of the relationship. She identified several types of fatal attraction, with five major themes between them.
‘Nice’ to ‘Passive’
In this fatal attraction, the first thing that attracted you to your partner—their niceness—gradually turns into a trait that grates against your nerves—passiveness. Because they’re considerate and don’t want to hurt you or unload their troubles on you, it can be difficult to tell what’s really going on with your partner.
People with the agapic love style mentioned in What’s Your Character’s Love Style? may be those whose appealing niceness slides into peeving passivity.
‘Strong’ to ‘Stubborn’
If you find yourself attracted to the wilful and independent, you may find that your partner’s determination soon degenerates into stubbornness.
Like those in the ‘nice’ to ‘passive’ category, the ‘strong’ to ‘stubborn’ folk don’t usually share their problems with their partners, but for very different reasons. Rather than to spare them upset, these people are too independent to rely on others. They also like to make their opinions known, which can swiftly sour a previously loving relationship.
‘Funny’ to ‘Flaky’
Humour and playfulness can be very attractive traits, but can easily become trying in a relationship. What you previously might have seen as funny may now be annoying or immature and it may feel as though your partner is incapable of taking anything seriously—life, other people’s feelings, or your own.
‘Outgoing’ to ‘Over the Top’
While charismatic, confident and extraverted personalities draw us in, they can become overbearing after a time. These people’s tendency to talk a lot (often about themselves) can push their partners away, making for a very put-out pair. Because these extraverted individuals like being the heart, soul and centre of the party, they can find it difficult to relax, slow down and engage in quiet contemplation (and give their partners a rest).
‘Caring’ to ‘Clinging’
This type of fatal attraction ties in with the manic love style covered in What’s Your Character’s Love Style? You’re initially taken by your partner’s caring, sensitive nature. Further down the road, however, that attentive lover may become controlling and jealous, particularly when you spend time with others. Their clinginess and demand upon more and more of your time turns this attractive trait into a relationship killer.
An interesting detail to note: according to Felmlee, the shift from an appealing to a fatal trait may not necessarily be your partner’s personality changing. Instead, it might be your interpretation of their personality that changes. This is particularly interesting when it comes to creating conflict and tension in a story.
Applying Theory to Fiction
Crafting realistic relationships
While a happily-ever-after relationship may be something we aspire to, it’s not so interesting to read about. Even after your characters have overcome the problems that may have been preventing them from starting a relationship, don’t let them have it easy. Add tension and conflict to a relationship using fatal attractions.
Pair your characters’ love styles and personality traits to work out which type of fatal attraction they’ll fall victim to. For example, if you have a highly introverted and agreeable agapic lover, then it’s likely they’ll fall into the ‘nice’ to ‘passive’ category. A manic lover who’s high in neuroticism may develop a ‘caring’ to ‘clinging’ fatal attraction.
Working in reverse, if you know which fatal attraction type you want your character to have, use that to pick a suitable love style and set of personality traits.
Creating conflict and tension
Suppose you want to gradually sabotage your character’s relationship, but aren’t sure how to do so in a way that feels realistic and natural. Now you can. Let their fatal attraction type, love style and personality traits work in concert to turn your character’s loving relationship into a car crash in slow motion.
On realising that the trait they originally found attractive is turning into a curse, your character might try to salvage the relationship. What kind of things would they do to return the annoying trait to an endearing one and heal the rift between them and their partner?
What if your character attempted to change themselves (e.g., take measures to stop the trait annoying them) or their partner (e.g., force them into a situation where they can’t be passive)? Would it work? If not, what kind of things could go wrong? (Remember Felmlee’s suggestion that it’s our interpretation of our partner’s personality that shifts, not the partner. If this is the case, then attempting to change the partner could well end in disaster.)
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