The love story is one of the most common narrative features and is present in almost all storytelling mediums whether it be games, anime, books or movies. This is often presented in a number of different ways but by far the most common plotline is what I'll call the Lover's Journey, a plotline which is considered quite cliche and often looked down upon. If this is the case, why do we see it occur so much?
Header from The Last Story
What is the Lover's Journey?
For the sake of this piece I'll term the Lover's Journey simply as a narrative where one character likes another and the resulting journey that occurs as they strive to attain the love or ability to be with their beloved. While this affection is usually unrequited, this does not always have to be the case. It's important to note that while this trope can function from both the male and the female perspective, but in the majority of cases this type of yearning happens from the male perspective. In broad terms there is almost always some sort of obstacle separating the hero from this, although this doesn't necessarily need to be a romantic obstacle. This narrative arc typically resolves itself by the protagonist receiving some sort of affirmation of their affection from their beloved, with the story commonly ending at this point (although many stories continue by examining what occurs after this happens, it's good sequel material!)
Looking at my favourite stories in various forms of medium, I realized that a majority of them feature the lover's journey, so I've decided to examine this trope a little bit and attempt to posit why they are so common. Why does this plotline appeal to our sensibilities so much so that this trope is constantly reused without fail?
Why is it so common?
The love story is so common because of its ability to relate the audience. In consuming almost any piece of narrative we indulge in a form of escapism, placing ourselves in the shoes of the main character. Love is one of the key features of the human experience as something yearned for and to be enjoyed. We often desire to live vicariously through fictional characters, imagining for ourselves a life far less mundane that the one we lead. Love stories are a key part of this as we revel in the tension and drama presented, experiencing the emotions of the characters.
The lover's journey is the most frequently used version of the love story because it is by far the most relatable version of a romantic love story there is. Almost everyone can relate to a time in their life where they had affection for someone whether returned or unreturned and can relate to the tension and hope this made them feel, the desire to gain the affection of someone and the doubt of whether you could ever be together. Deep down, we want it to work out for the protagonist because of our emotional investment in them and by extension, their success in the pursuit of their beloved. It recalls emotions deep within us and humanizes the characters making for a power powerful story. In addition the protagonist gains some sort of understanding out of the experience whether positive or negative and features into their development as a person. This is why this trope is most commonly used in fiction targeting a younger audience because of the direct relatability with a majority of their audience going through those feeling at the moment, although this does not preclude adults from this appeal.
This emotional investiture is one of the biggest reasons I love stories with this trope so much. Recently I wrote about why you should be watching Your Lie in April, an anime that is heavily centred upon the protagonist Kousei's process of falling in love with Kaori on his journey of self-discovery through music. I feel emotionally invested in their relationship and want to see him move beyond his yearning and triumph in the end by achieving the emotional affirmation (whether through a relationship or somehow else) he desires. I'm currently in a relationship (we both love this show) and it really provides a form of escapism for us to a time where things were not so certain and there was more tension. The empathy we feel for the main character means we find it satisfying when they win in the end because we (hopefully!) identify and are invested with them.
The lover's journey also compliments the narrative arc of a story well and the protagonist often "beats the bad guy and gets the girl" so to say, representing the protagonist's complete triumph and signaling the end of the conflict. It many stories it is not this simple (maybe the hero fails to save their beloved, or does not receive the love they want back) but it represents a form of closure and a signal that the protagonist has taken away something form this story and is not as they were before in some sense. Besides, who wouldn't want to ride off into the sunset as a hero along with the one they were yearning for?
Valkyria Chronicles is one of my favourite video game stories of all time, and encapsulates the Lover's journey perfectly. Set against the backdrop of a war, our protagonist Welkin meets fellow squadmate Alicia and falls in love with her over a charming series of events during the game. One might say that his interactions directly and indirectly with Alicia form a bulk (not all but a significant amount) of his characterization, helping the player to empathize with his struggle. It's extremely cliche but it makes it all the sweeter at the end of the game when he eventually gets the girl.
To sum up, the lover's journey is so often used because it complements the main arc well and creates an emotional attachment between the characters and the audience. We relate to the characters better, making for a more engaging story and resulting in the ultimate triumph of the hero (whatever it may be) feeling all the more the sweeter. It is also a convenient way to provide closure to the story and a sense of forward progression, that it was not all for nothing (whether the outcome was good or bad). It often represents the idealism and tension that we may lack in our everyday lives, providing a form of escapism through the medium.
It would be an overstatement to say this trope appeals to everyone (see in videogames where it not used much in Western made games, likely because there is a certain proportion of males who consider themselves too tough to like these types of stories) it is often the best chance to appeal to a wide audience. It should be noted that some of the backlash we see towards media today is a reaction against the typically male heterosexual portrayal of this trope, but that's a different discussion entirely that I would not be able to do justice to.
This trope is so familiar and easy to relate to that even in its clicheness it still feels just as satisfying.