Why are we drawn to stories about people falling in love? There are likely a host of reasons, but here’s a good one: marriage, when observed from a place of solitude, has the power of dream. Solitary people fall in love with couples, imagining their own lives transformed by such a union. And once the transformation finally happens, people need to talk about it, telling not only their families, friends, and strangers on the bus but also themselves—repeating it to make it real, to investigate the mystery of marital metamorphosis. And they get good at the telling. People who cannot otherwise put together an adequately coherent narrative to get you to the neighborhood grocery will nonetheless have a beautifully shaped tale of how he met she (or he met he, or she met she) and became we.
Such stories often have many literary qualities. They rely, almost by definition, on the revelation and transformation of character—the same elements that are the backbone of literary stories. The narratives have a mystery at the beginning: how the characters begin loving each other before they understand they’re doing it, the way sleep enters our bodies before we’re actually asleep; and like sleep, we fall into love, and fall deeper as we go. The narratives also have something like a built-in ending. A wedding, after all, is the traditional conclusion for comedies, and it is meant to indicate that the transformation has transpired. Passing through the ritual of the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are irrevocably changed.
It seems to me that “How I Met My Spouse” stories are the perfect venue for the study of characterization. I’m going to use my own story of how I met my wife to display a dozen slightly unusual methods of characterization.