Anybody who’s ever read a book or seen a movie knows how single people are portrayed in fiction and film. You have your stories where the protagonist starts out broken in some way (workaholic, promiscuous, selfish) and then suddenly becomes a better person as the result of adding a romantic relationship into his/her life. For example, take Trainwreck, where Amy Schumer’s ambitious, hard-partying journalist changes her ways as a result of becoming involved with Bill Hader’s sports doctor. In some stories, the single characters are depicted in nasty stereotypes. For example, in How to be a Latin Lover, Kristen Bell’s character is painted as a lonely woman who lives with dozens of cats. You have your tales where the hero has a goal, and just to add spice to the story, there’s a romantic subplot. Blake Snyder’s iconic Save the Cat even advises aspiring screenwriters to start a “B-Story” at the 30-minute mark, which, more often than not, consists of a romantic subplot.
These are prime examples of singlism, a term coined by Dr. Bella DePaulo, a psychologist from the University of California at Santa Barbara. This concept is defined as the stereotyping around singlehood.
We need to do a better job at accurately representing singlehood in fiction and film. The population of singles is ever-increasing. Fifty years ago, it was common for a person to marry right out of high school or college. These days, people are marrying later, and many are opting not to “tie the knot” at all. At the time of this writing, it is estimated that 50.2% of adults in the United States are single. In China, the marriage rate has declined each year by .57% since 2014. While most people do get married at some point in their lives, it is predicted that by 2030, 25% of adults between the ages of 45 and 54 will never marry. Given this increase, if you include singles who never marry or become divorced or widowed, the singles population will be even greater.
Why Should I Care?
Such stereotypes can be damaging. Many people become involved in romantic relationships because they feel “incomplete,” an idea that is often fed to us by popular romance (Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me” is an iconic example of this). Such involvement can lead them to stay in these relationships, even if they become unfulfilling, toxic, or even dangerous (the increased rates in domestic violence during COVID-19 are an example of this). For this reason, it’s important to know how to portray single characters and how NOT to portray them:
A lot of people grow up thinking that romantic relationships should be just like the ones portrayed in fiction, which, more often than not, just aren’t realistic.
Singlehood is stereotyped in fiction. So what follows are some tips on how to write single characters:
Clichés and Tropes to Avoid
This is a short, non-comprehensive list of how singles are stereotyped in fiction and film. These have been written time and time again, and a lot of us find them tired and compelling. Their character arcs usually find them becoming better people as a result of coupling up.
1)The Party-Hearty, Promiscuous Single
You’ve probably seen movies where the protagonist starts out as a playboy or a partier, but suddenly, a good partner (and even kids) settles them down (Trainwreck, Raising Helen).
2)The Workaholic or Recluse
On the other side of the coin, the protagonist is pretty settled in their lives: too settle. He/she doesn’t go out or have fun, and is a real fuddy-duddy. It takes a partner to “loosen them up.” If it’s a woman, she’s a real “starts with b, rhymes with witch,” and she often serves as the antagonist in a romance between a man and a more low-key woman.
3)The Mama’s Boy/Manchild
Attributed to men and often overlapping with #1, the manchild is essentially in a state of extended adolescence: video games, nightly pot smoking, un- or underemployment, empty pizza boxes and beer bottles strewn all over his hovel of an apartment. The woman cleans him up (see Knocked Up).
4)The Romantic Subplot
Sometimes, a romantic subplot can be a good thing if it helps the character develop his/her arc. However, much of the time, those romantic subplots are a distraction. If you must include a romance as part of a major story, make sure it adds to the story.
What To Do Instead
Nobody’s telling you not to write romance if that’s your jam. However, make sure you portray your single characters as living lifestyles that are equally worthy to that of those in romantic relationships. Show them engaging in hobbies, meaningful relationships (not just dating or sexually related), a full work life. And don’t have them be jealous or envious of the character(s) in romantic relationships. This can involve:
1)Don’t have all of your main characters be married. When I read Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, I would have loved for at least one single character. At the end of the Harry Potter series, all of the characters end up married, according to J.K. Rowling.
2)If you have more than one protagonist who is single, don’t have all them all “couple up” at the end of the story. In additionally, if you have four or more, have at least two remain single. How to be Single and Girls Trip are perfect examples of this.
3)If you have a romantic subplot, it doesn’t necessarily have to “work out.” Have the romance be derailed in some way, and still have the character come out on top, which is truer to life. See Private Benjamin, Crossroads (the Ralph Macchio version from 1986), and Whip It.
4)Not having a romance in the story. Or even better, if a male and female meet, show a platonic friendship. A Few Good Men and Dolemite is My Name portrayed this type of relationship nicely.
My name is Craig. I'm an educator, writer, and unapologetic singleton. When not reading, writing, or teaching, I enjoy hiking, running, watching movies, going to concerts, spending time with friends, and playing with my cat/son, Chester.