Lest anyone be alarmed by the title of this post, I hasten to assure you that it’s purely literary in nature: To the best of my knowledge, Neil Gaiman is a pretty cool guy who has never murdered or otherwise illicitly rid himself of a fiancée, his own or another’s, nor do I anticipate his ever doing so. His novels, however, feature a suspicious number of male protagonists whose fiancées are removed in ways that do a disservice to them as characters. Spoilers for Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and Stardust follow.
A few disclaimers are necessary. Neil Gaiman is not just a good author, but a great author. He is one of the biggest vitalizing forces in contemporary fantasy literature, regularly breaking new ground himself and also bringing out the best in his many collaborators. Some of his greatest strengths are typically problematic areas, like handling female characters (Coraline, for instance).
Additionally, disposable girlfriends are extremely common throughout literature; they find their way into stories more because of convention than any narrative necessity (the spear counterpart is a staple of romantic comedies). But this is precisely why I’m singling out Gaiman from the crowd: Because, while an average writer can be forgiven for falling back on a serviceable cliché that undermines the work’s characterization, an excellent writer ought to know better.
An archetypal example is Jessica Bartram from Neverwhere (both the miniseries and the novel; the quotes are from the latter). Her part is small and front-loaded, since she exists as a backdrop, and her characterization is primarily composed of Stereotypically Female Things, such as shopping, planning for her wedding, and trying to change men:
Jessica saw in Richard an enormous amount of potential, which, properly harnessed by the right woman, would have made him the perfect matrimonial accessory. If only he were a little more focused, she would murmur to herself, so she gave him books with titles like Dress for Success and A Hundred and Twenty-Five Habits of Successful Men, and books on how to run a business like a military campaign, and Richard always said thank you, and always intended to read them. (Neverwhere 11)
Here Jessica already falls into the disposable-love-interest archetype as a standard mean fiancée in preparation for Richard to leave on his adventure and meet someone who will love him for who he is. A serviceable, if unenviable, role*, but that isn’t the part she ends up playing, as we find out a little further on:
“Look,” said Richard, “I’m sorry about the other night. Well, not about what I did, but about upsetting you, and…look, I’m sorry, and it’s all crazy, and I don’t honestly know what to do.”
And Jessica nodded, and continued to smile sympathetically, and then she said, “You’re going to think I’m absolutely awful, but I have a really dreadful memory for faces. Give me a second, and I know I’ll get it.” (Neverwhere 61)
Except for a brief appearance in the middle, Jessica doesn’t come back into the story until this scene at the end:
She closed the door to his office and took a few steps towards him. “Richard. You know something strange? I remember calling the engagement off. But I hardly remember what we were arguing about.”…
She put a hand into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a small brown box. She put it down on Richard’s desk. He opened the box, although he knew what was inside it. “It’s our engagement ring. I thought that, well, maybe, I’d give it back to you, and then, well, if things worked out, well, perhaps one day you’d give it back to me.” (Neverwhere 359)
This bizarrely disjointed series of actions works in the narrative because Jessica is not meant to be a developed character; she exists to demonstrate how reality is warping around Richard. One morning, those closest to him abruptly don’t remember who he is; later, reality has been “reset” and everyone returns, or tries to return, to their normal relationships with him.
But this treatment doesn’t seem fair to Jessica. She is a person with thoughts, opinions, and, yes, relationships. We lose the possibility of developing those realistically by making Jessica the story’s weirdness barometer. To think about it another way, imagine how the story would look from Jessica’s perspective. We know how the constantly shifting rules of reality affect Richard, but what about Jessica? She must be experiencing something similar, so we’d expect her to be similarly distraught. Is she? We don’t know and we aren’t supposed to care, because she isn’t a real character.
The second work I shall address, Anansi Boys, features a protagonist swap: Two of the four principal characters (Charlie and Rosie) begin the story engaged, but by the end, have been paired off with the other two (Daisy and Spider, respectively). Yet, despite the symmetry, Rosie–and Rosie alone–is treated as a disposable love interest.
Despite having a comparably sized part to the other leads, Rosie has far and away the least characterization. The cursory mentions of compassionate, charitable nature have little to do with her actions (they don’t, for instance, prevent her from clocking someone with a chain); instead, she too gets to do Female Things: screaming at the sight of a spider, weeping inconsolably, insisting that her boyfriend get a job, and not being able to decide who she’s in love with. She’s the “spare” character, moved around as needed to accommodate the characters with proper personalities and motivations.
Compare how the protagonists discover that they’re in love with their final love interests. First, Spider:
He couldn’t have told you how she was different. He had tried and failed. Partly it was how he felt when he was with her: as if, seeing himself in her eyes, he became a wholly better person. That was part of it. (Anansi Boys 162)
It’s one thing, he thought, singing for your life, in a room filled with diners, on the spur of the moment, with a gun barrel in the ribs of the girl you…
Well, thought Charlie, I’ll worry about that later. (Anansi Boys 319)
Spider’s unexpected feelings of love spur his character development; Charlie’s development as a character spurs his love, hence why one precedes the other by so much. Daisy doesn’t get an internal-monologue moment, but Charlie does gallantly save her life and they get a lot of shared page time. And then there’s Rosie:
“No,” said Rosie. “I can’t marry Fat Charlie because I’m not in love with him.”
“Of course you aren’t. I always knew that. It was a girlish infatuation, but now you can see the true–”
“I’m in love,” continued Rosie as if her mother had not spoken, “with Spider. His brother.” (Anansi Boys 193)
No further justification given. The relationship grows more realistic by the end, when Spider has demonstrated a more self-sacrificial side, but at this point the sum total of their interaction is Spider having sex with her while pretending to be Charlie, and then him owning up to it.
As with the scenes from Neverwhere, this passage isn’t meant to reveal Rosie as a person; it’s meant to show that Spider has such preternatural charisma that he can not only fool his brother’s fiancée, but make her love him afterwards. Unfortunately, Spider’s powers are illustrated at the expense of Rosie’s characterization.
Gaiman’s signature malleable approach to reality is simply a problem when applied to significant others; their relationship to the protagonist ought to be, well, significant, and thus shouldn’t be written out of their lives as easily as a ticket machine rejecting someone’s money. I tend to think love interests ought to be warp-proof or at least warp-resistant, so that their relationship can end gradually and believably rather than with the flip of a switch. Or the protagonist could be single.
I am not condemning all characters who are in a relationship with the protagonist at the beginning of the story and aren’t by the end, nor all of Gaiman’s handling of them. While they’re a weak, overused type, they can be implemented correctly. They just have to be treated as people, not props. Gaiman pulls this off perfectly with Victoria Forester in Stardust. Victoria is never actually engaged to Tristran, but she does promise to marry him if he completes the plot-initiating quest:
“For a kiss, and the pledge of your hand,” said Tristran, grandiloquently, “I would bring you that fallen star.”…
“Go on then,” said Victoria. “And if you do, I will.”
“What?” said Tristran.
“If you bring me that star,” said Victoria, “the one that just fell, not another star, then I’ll kiss you. Who knows what else I might do. There: you need not go to Australia, nor to Africa, nor to far Cathay.” (Stardust 47)
Victoria works as a plot device, but she also works as a character because she’s consistent; she has her own plans that neither coincide with Tristran’s nor are entirely known to him. Telling him to fetch the star is, from her perspective, a perfectly reasonable way of getting him to shut up and calling him out on the grandiose promises that he clearly isn’t going to actually do. And so, even though the story begins with Tristran begging her to marry him and ends with him doing nothing of the sort, sh is not a disposable fiancée (although her capricious film version is).
Gaiman is a master, but that doesn’t place him beyond criticism, nor does it preclude the possibility of improvement. It’s time to put an end to the use of disposable fiancées.
*It’s also an always-female role; disposable fiancés for female protagonists are usually portrayed as doofy losers, rather than evil manipulators.
Thank God Gaiman keeps a leash on his intellectual property or we’d surely have an all-white adaptation of Anansi Boys by now.