Bikinis, buff bods and banter make up the majority of content for ITV’s hit reality show Love Island. So popular was the summer edition that a Winter series is currently underway as Instagram-ready singletons try to find their type on paper for a romance worthy of £50,000. However, the ‘reality’ aspect of the show is perhaps a dubious term. Clear stock characters appear in every series and the narratives of the drama that hits the villa is often orchestrated by producers for maximum Twitter meltdown impact. As such, Love Island occupies a more significant space in the fictional sphere of literature than it is perhaps a reflection of real life.
cw: mention of suicide
In every series, there is the clear favourite amongst the majority of viewers. By no means perfect, the vital characteristic that this couple possess is relatability. Think of Dani Dyer’s success with Jack Finch, earned not because of their potential to sell teeth-whitening products post-villa but because of the camaraderie they shared.
Viewers saw themselves in the couple, envisioned themselves being part of the same friendship group and often found them to be more ‘real’ than the other couples. They fit the bill of the idyllic couple we all rooted for, moulded into a contrast against the other couples who were portrayed as being ‘fake’ with malicious intentions.
This was a support never more apparent than in the outcry that arose when producers attempted to add a twist to their blossoming relationship. By manipulating pictures of Jack in a separate villa, the show convinced Dani that he had fallen for another girl. Shock, horror and outrage spread like wildfire across Twitter at the mere thought of the star couple being attacked in this way, much like the indignation of a reader compelling the fictional couple contained within a romance novel to realise the truth and cast away their doubt.
The curious thing about the villain character, however, is that many viewers seem to contract a slight Iago-esque affinity for the antagonist
The stressful reunion of the couple as Dani waited in anticipation to see if the love of her summer was to abandon her ended with the emotional reveal that he had been faithful all along. And reader, they lived happily ever after… until the pages of the Love Island romance novel were closed and real life set in, that is.
Diametrically opposed to the central couple, as with any protagonist, stands the villain of the villa. This islander is often found at the eye of the fake tan hurricane of island drama, breaking up previously solid couples and smiling smugly when they speak directly to the camera. The curious thing about the villain character, however, is that many viewers seem to contract a slight Iago-esque affinity for the antagonist.
In the case of season three’s Theo, for example, many enjoyed his scathing remarks and took his side in the feud against fellow Islander Jonny. Theo may not have played up to the cameras to try and garner the public’s affection, but it seemed viewers enjoyed his sass in the same way readers often name Shakespeare’s Iago as their favourite fictional character. While no Othello perished in the villa, the stock villain character that everyone secretly loves was clearly adopted when crafting Theo’s place in the overall narrative.
While much of social media take to their keyboards to express their contempt with the antagonist character, it’s worth noting that whistleblowers have come out previously to expose the show’s dishonesty. A former contestant commented that “it is completely disingenuous and a lot of the time very, very fake”, scripted by producers to fit the narrative they were trying to convey.
Knowing how integral this interaction between characters would be for subsequent events, they rewrote and restaged the event to ensure it set up perfectly for the rest of the plot to follow
Scenes such as Georgia and Jack Fowler’s awkward kiss in season four were said to have been shot several times, a detail viewers picked up on when continuity errors were noticed. Here, the producers have clearly taken on the role of the author writing the vital scene in the overall plot of the show. Knowing how integral this interaction between characters would be for subsequent events, they rewrote and restaged the event to ensure it set up perfectly for the rest of the plot to follow.
Alike the dramatic irony of the reader’s awareness of the truth that the characters within the fiction are deprived of, the show withheld what actually happened from the contestants until the dramatic moment of reveal. The main characters were gathered to receive the news with relevant minor characters on the periphery of focus as the moment of anagnorisis was delivered and Georgia realised the consequences of her own stubborn refusal to admit the truth.
The show has been met with unprecedented success with various spin-off shows, much like the fanfics or spin-offs that stem from popular books, expanding on the original world created by the author. Perhaps some of this popularity is dependent on the fictional nature of the show. Romance novels have remained a steadily popular genre, albeit often branded the ‘guilty pleasures’ of the bookshelf, a title the reality show also shares. Case in point: the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy were the three most sold books of the decade although not many would admit to purchasing it.
Living vicariously through characters you will never match the lifestyle of is exactly what both Love Island and romance novels thrive on
Reading about a couple who meet under unconventional circumstances, undergo events that test their alliance to each other and eventually end up a happy partnership is a format people tend to relish. Living vicariously through characters you will never match the lifestyle of is exactly what both Love Island and romance novels thrive on. We don’t want to read about our own mundane lives and ordinary events, just as viewers don’t want to turn on the show to watch the slow progression of two people getting to know each other without any drama.
In a Twitter poll conducted asking people the question ‘how ‘real’ do you think the show really is, or do you think it’s more a work of fiction than a reflection of reality?’, 100% of responses acknowledged some level of scripting was present in the show, with 25% saying the entire show was planned. We know that what we’re watching is a work of fiction, but continue to invest in the plot nonetheless.
As much as they protest, the viewers of the show and readers of romance alike depend on the author (or producer)’s hand in causing conflicts and creating obstacles in order for the eventuality of success to seem meaningful. We want to believe that true love exists and that the people we’re watching have achieved it, but are acutely aware that just like the characters in the books we read, the fictional journey of the characters we invest in ends once the pages of the books and the villa doors close behind them.
Only, in the case of Love Island, the villa doors do not necessarily cohesively contain the narrative. Unlike the future of fictional couples, the lives of Love Island characters spill over into the ‘real’ world, and this is where the fictional nature of the show becomes problematic. The Iago character isn’t dragged off stage away from the spotlight where the heckles from the crowd can be thrown.
Creating these characters has devastating consequences when the lives of the characters transcend the pages of a book and spill over into the harshly lit, unscripted world of reality
This issue has led to tragic events; two contestants of the show, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, took their own lives following their stints on the show in separate seasons. Viewers took their roles in the show as grounds to attack them over social media and their deaths sparked conversation around the responsibility of reality shows to provide tangible support to contestants to deal with the pressures of the limelight.
Producers and authors share the responsibility of crafting fictional narratives in which characters operate, ensuring the planned plot is cohesively delivered and the journey of characters is brought to a conclusive end. However, the responsibility of the author tends to end here, as the characters are encompassed within the world they create. Love Island producers, by contrast, release their inventions into the real world and essentially wash their hands of the characters they created, absolving themselves of the responsibility of the actions they orchestrated.
Crafting the fictional narrative of the show to mimic the progression of the ever-successful romance novels may ensure that viewers are hooked the same way readers are engrossed. However, creating these characters has devastating consequences when the lives of the characters transcend the pages of a book and spill over into the harshly lit, unscripted world of reality.