Smooches and romantic dates are great, but what about literally any other kind of relationship? Those tend to get overlooked in writing advice, which is why we’re focusing on them in this episode. We talk about how to avoid romantic implications, what other kinds of relationships can look like, and how to make them satisfying. Also, why friendships and queer romances shouldn’t be enemies!
Generously transcribed by Elizabeth. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening theme plays]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is:
Oren: [over the phone] Oren.
Wes: Okay folks, listen up. I got a giant bucket of ice water to douse on your hopes and dreams because we are just friends.
Wes: I am sorry for all of that false foreshadowing earlier, but I just didn’t know that if I had people hear about each other and be put in kind of intimate scenes that you all would expect smooches.
Oren: My dreams are crushed, Wes, crushed.
Wes: I’m so sorry. I thought that maybe I could just have platonic intimacy and it would be fine, but I guess not.
Oren: Do not anger the shippers, Wes; you are not prepared for their wrath. [Wes laughs]
Wes: I am not prepared. They just want everybody to touch butts, and that’s fine. [laughter] That’s fine. Every character can go and do what you will with it. But maybe today we could talk about how you could avoid that mistake by exploring how you can write non-romantic relationships.
Oren: In my experience, there’s no such thing in fiction, so I just don’t write relationships at all. [Wes laughs] None of my characters know anyone else, or are a family with anyone else, or have enemies. Those are all relationships that unfortunately could become romantic, so just none.
Chris: In somebody’s mind, every relationship is gonna be shipped. [laughter]
Wes: There are no acquaintances, only potential lovers. [more laughter] To Oren’s point, romances are a pretty common story element, and it’s kind of hard not to think, “Oh, I need a personal character arc. I’ll use a romance.” And I just want us to talk about why you don’t have to have one. They can be great, but you don’t have to have one, because you can have good relationships that are not romantic. And there’s lots of types that I want to go over today because I think there is value in stories that don’t have romance at all. In addition, some people aren’t interested in romantic love and that’s great. We should have representation for that.
Chris: And I also just wanna say, as a person who really likes romance, I would still prefer there to be no romance in a story to half-hearted romance. What happens is writers think that they have to add romance, and then it’s just not a very good romance, or it just feels disappointing in some way, or gets frustrating. And it’s much better to realize that you don’t wanna do that and just take the romance out. If you’re not interested, it’s perfectly fine. You don’t need a romance in your story.
Wes: And because so many stories get saturated with romances, or that pressure to include them, if you’re not careful, and more often than not, you’re just getting heteronormative, White romances that get elevated to the point where the partner is almost like the prize, like the sign that you have achieved the good life. And with that, you’re kind of treading on, I think, quite dangerous and unhealthy ground because, people are not rewards, and you should be able to achieve success and happiness independent of other people, generally speaking. But just something for today, I think as we cover these things, representation matters across all relationships, whether they’re romantic or not. And romantic love is not inherently more important than other types of love.
Oren: One of the biggest signs that an author doesn’t want to write a romance is that the romance ends up feeling perfunctory, or default, or inevitable. It’s like, “Yeah, I guess they’re gonna get together. Sure. Whatever.” And that’s boring, and as you pointed out, can send bad messages, so if you don’t wanna write a romance, just don’t. Just don’t do it. Now of course, I’m not sure how to write any other kind of relationships, so maybe that’s a little bit hypocritical. [laughter]
Chris: To be clear, you can know who the love interest is and still enjoy the romance. The point is, if you don’t actually have any content for that romance, it’s just like,”Hey, hot person. There. Okay. I guess they’re together now.” It certainly doesn’t make it look like you cared about that romance, because you weren’t willing to invest in it with some word count and develop the nuances of it.
Wes: I think if you’re wanting to include some non-romantic relationships, some of the things that you can do to more easily state upfront that this is not romantic, and not going to be romantic, is to clarify the nature of the relationship. For example, in Avatar: the Last Airbender, Zuko and Iroh are nephew and uncle. They’re not gonna have a romantic relationship, and it’s very clear from the start. And yet their relationship is a very powerful, very endearing one built on the love that they share and kind of like a mentor-student relationship. And that conveys a lot of nice, powerful messaging as we learn about Zuko developing as a person, and Iroh helping Zuko grow and learning what Iroh lost, to kind of bring about the best in Zuko. So that kind of mentor student relationship, they happen to be family members also, but I think that that one is a great non-romantic relationship that you can explore.
Chris: I will say that it is easier to avoid implication of romance if there is a mentor-student or almost parental relationship, and the characters are widely different in age. That seems to look different, whereas you can’t actually rely on a familial relationship because there are [Chris laughs] a surprising number of people out there who will ship siblings, for instance. And it’s kind of sad, because Shawn McGuire, also known as Mira Grant, loves writing brother-sister relationships.
She doesn’t want them to be romantic, but in Middlegame, which centers on the relationship between a brother and sister, she clearly goes to pains to be like, “By the way, this isn’t romantic,” then a couple chapters later, “This is totally not romantic. Still not romantic.” And it’s a little sad that she has to go to that level of effort just because her protagonists are the same age and heteronormativity—one is a boy, the other’s a girl—when they’re just supposed to have a platonic sibling relationship.
Oren: Here’s how I see it. I feel like there are some things you generally should avoid in characters that you’re not interested in exploring romantically, but they’re not hard to avoid. One of the only ones I can think of that sent weird signals that I felt were kind of dishonest was in a book, The Guns Above, where the two characters have an awkward and contrived reason that they have to cuddle up together to keep the ship from crashing.
Wes: [laughing] What?
Oren: Yeah. And it’s like, that’s obviously romance foreshadowing, right? No, it’s not. There’s no romance there. And I was like, well, that scene was kind of annoying now that I know there’s no romance.
Chris: There’s also sexual innuendo that I don’t think you’d want even if it was romantic, but it makes it extra weird because we use the whole, “Oh, is that something in your pants? Or…” And the guy even says, “I’ll just take it as a compliment.” And then later we find out that he actually had a coin pouch in his pants, so he wasn’t even telling the truth, but why do that? Because it’s already just a gross thing to do and no, they’re friends. They’re on a friendship arc.
Oren: Right. But beyond that, you are always gonna get people who will ship two characters who have any sign of chemistry. That’s always gonna happen. But if we’re talking about a potential hetero couple, I don’t really think you need to worry about it. Sure, some people might be disappointed, but that’s just a thing that’s gonna happen. Just the cost of doing business. And if you’re talking about a potential queer couple? There, you wanna take some precautions.
This is where you get into the whole, [affected concern] “Oh, but why would you ship those two beautiful boys? Like O’Brien and Bashir from Deep Space Nine. Their friendship is so nice.” And it’s like, well, we wouldn’t have this problem if they had just let Bashir and Garak be gay, and then Bashir and O’Brien could have their platonic friendship. We would’ve solved both problems. If you’re doing this with two characters who could potentially be a queer couple, just make your world less heteronormative and it will be a lot less of a problem. As long as you’re not having like a bunch of straight couples going together everywhere. And then the two close characters are both dudes or are both women or what have you, but they’re not gonna date. They’re just gonna be friends. As long as you avoid that, I think you’ll probably be okay.
Chris: Sometimes people do put in signaling that creates a lot of chemistry and they don’t intend to. And there are some things that will create chemistry that we want for friends anyway, like banter. Banter just makes interactions fun. Friends should have banter, just like people in a romance should have banter, or maybe they don’t have to have banter, but it’s often a great way to build chemistry. It is gonna get some shippers, but that’s kind of inevitable. We can’t 100% avoid shippers on platonic relationships. The point is to not make it feel like you’re misleading them or making promises to them that you can’t keep.
Instead, characters should never pretend to date [she laughs] unless they are in a romance. Nobody else should think they’re dating, suggest they might date, no mention of dating between them whatsoever, except for the occasional, just like Sean McGuire does in Middlegame, if you’re narrating from their perspective, you can state, “Oh, I’m not romantically interested in that person,” but any discussion of possible dating, even if the characters deny it, is gonna be taken as romantic buildup, because it usually is romantic buildup. So just make no suggestions to that whatsoever.
Wes: Yes, that’s like food for the shippers, who’re like, “Yes, tasty!” [Wes laughs] Let’s do this.
Chris: Yep. You’re putting it in people’s minds. The goal is to not put it in people’s minds. Touching, again, keep it cursory wherever you can. I mean, yes, they can hug. Hugging is fine, but maybe don’t spend a paragraph on the hug. [laughter] It’s a casual and cursory hug, but certainly if one person is in a hospital bed, it’s natural for the other person to hold their hand. But normally, otherwise, you wouldn’t have hand holding, but that’s a special circumstance. And with description. There’s a lot of description. If you describe a character as really hot and you spend long description on their eyes, their lips, some other parts of their body that are attractive, that’s going to definitely seem like your point of view character has the hots for that character. And this can be a strange thing when people are used to, for instance, sexualizing women. We have one post on sexist narration written by Bunny, where she mentions objectifying description from the point of view of a dog. [laughter] It’s like, no, we don’t need to do that.
But there are reasons to have an attractive character in your story. That’s not them being a love interest, but usually you would be pretty vague. You’d say, “Hey, they look good,” mention how other people react to them, but you would not usually describe them in detail. And then there has to be purpose for it. Otherwise making a big point of how hot any character is is likely to lead to more shipping.
Oren: Like, “Looking good, man!” is different than, “And then I saw how the suit contoured around his pectoral muscles.” [laughter] Those are different things. Those give very different incentives.
Chris: So any blushing, jealousy, again, staring into each other’s eyes. If you describe the eyes a lot, that implies there’s some staring into each other’s eyes that happened. Oh, in The Name of the Wind, there’s even this part where a side character is evaluating Kvothe, and the point is supposed to be that he looks sickly in comparison to how he did, but the side character is evaluating his exact shade of green eyes. They used to be grass green and now they’re like bottle green and seaweed green, and it’s just like, wow, you’re really into Kvothe, huh?
Oren: Yeah, you like his eyes quite a bit. I would say that there is probably room for a friend jealousy story. I wouldn’t wanna completely rule that out. I’m not sure where the line is. I’ve been watching Amphibia a lot, which is a show that has, as far as I can tell, no romantic connotations whatsoever. And they’ve managed to do some okay friendship jealousy stories. So I think that’s doable. I’m not really sure where the line is there, but I think that’s a common enough story that I wouldn’t wanna warn people away from it entirely.
Chris: Right. I think if you clearly establish the relationships well enough. So for instance, we are friends. We go bowling together every afternoon, and then, hey, their old friend who they haven’t seen in years comes up and now I don’t feel like I can be part of their conversation. And now they’re doing something else with that friend, instead of bowling with me. It’s hard because even as I say that, I’m thinking of Our Flag Means Death, in which that very thing happens and is absolutely romantic. [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, it is.
Chris: So it’s not that we can’t have jealousy arcs for friendship. It’s a little harder because friendships are not generally considered exclusive, and so we don’t usually emphasize that as much.
Wes: But I think if you emphasize maybe the ritual of the friendship, the activities that have become such a part of it, it’s almost like if you take that away, then the person’s like, okay, I’m missing what I’m used to. Who’s responsible for upsetting my activities? I think the emphasis could maybe just be shifted in that regard.
Chris: I will say Amphibia does have a nice jealousy arc for a character and his grandfather, where his grandfather has started dating and they’re going on a fishing trip. And that fishing trip used to be their special time together. And it really makes it clear that all the kid wants is that special time with his grandfather, and the fact that he feels he’s not getting that time because of his grandfather’s girlfriend, but in the end he gets it anyway. So that’s a pretty good arc.
Oren: And also just to be clear, that arc—one of the reasons it’s good is that it doesn’t make the girlfriend the bad guy. It’s like, this is a thing that’s happening, but it’s not cause some evil lady is trying to steal his granddad.
Chris: And it really helps that Amphibia is short, honestly, because when you have a drama between everybody who means well and can resolve problems by constructively communicating, [Chris laughs] it’s hard to keep the plot going that long, but Amphibia is also very centered around internal arcs. If we had something else exciting going on to occupy people’s time, we could probably extend it somewhat longer.
Oren: Otherwise that’s about 12 minutes of content, which is perfect for Amphibia. [laughter]
Wes: Another non-romantic relationship type that I think is an interesting one you see sometimes is found family. We talked a lot about actual families, but this can be when your motley crew comes together based on, like, shared experiences or shared goals. I think kind of a key component here would be that you emphasize that the reasons they’ve come together are the most important thing, and they’re generally not gonna be personal. You might be assembling a team of superheroes for that very reason, or a ship crew just doing smuggling and trying to stay alive, Avengers and Firefly, respectively. Not that they might develop relationships, but I think when you are building a motley family, they all come together for different reasons and they find support in generally non-romantic things. It might be like safety, food source, protection, wisdom, mentorship, those kind of things.
I think of like Shepherd Book’s role with the Firefly crew, trying to be a social cohesion for a lot of them, keep them on the right path. Whereas Simon and River find safety with this group that is willing to ultimately protect them and defend them. I think with those kind of relationships, if the goals are clear, why these people are together, you can keep them non-romantic for as long as you want until you wish to romanticize them.
Oren: Yeah. Well, I mean, any other relationship, romantic or not, to make it compelling, you have to show why these characters are better in whatever this relationship is then they would be if they weren’t. That’s why it’s just more compelling if the superhero team is fulfilling some emotional need than if they just gather at the watchtower once a week to go fight super villains.
Chris: I should go into some more detail about how to set this up. Ideally what you want is to show that your character has unmet needs or some kind of problems. Create tension around a personal issue, and then show how the other character helps with that in a unique way. That’s the character that listens to them, for instance. That’s the character who understands them when nobody else understands them. That’s the character who cautions them away from making bad judgements that they normally make. So we set up the problem and then we show how that other character is like the balm. And that helps with the situation; you want your characters to do that for each other. And that’s one thing that really helps to get a broader audience to understand what’s valuable about the relationship and to root for it.
Oren: I would also recommend reading How to Write Three Types of Friendship Arcs by Chris Winkle, available on mythcreants.com. [Wes laughs] I has a pretty good setup on how to do those things. The thing that I liked about that article was that it showed how a friendship arc can be a storyline, the same way that a romance arc normally is. Because we’re used to the idea of romance being the center of the story, but so can friendship, and people can work to develop a friendship the same way that you would have them work to develop a romance. It just requires a slightly different touch.
Chris: Yeah. And really all relationship arcs are the same, regardless of the nature of the relationship. Yes, the interactions will have a little bit different tone to them. But they work the same way and you can take a romance plot and just plop it into another story and make it platonic if you want to, because they’re pretty much identical. And the main trick with any type of relationship arc is again, you need them to be in conflict, but you also need to have them continually interact. Okay. That’s the big trick.
So either they can instantly click, but then the world wants to pull them apart. This is the Romeo and Juliet model, or I would say in this case, the Middlegame model, people are conspiring to keep them apart from each other. Or you could have characters that don’t get along and circumstances are instead pushing them together. So this is like the Zootopia model. For instance, they make a strategic alliance. They get, hopefully not trapped in a turbo lift. [laughter]
Oren: We can be a little more original from that.
Chris: Or you can do both. They can fight and then come together, and then once they click, the world can try to pull them apart. So you can do both of those things, but if you pick one, then you don’t have any stalkers in your story, which is the important part. Or you’re not coming up with contrived coincidences for why they happen to run into each other at the supermarket, for instance. I mean, if they’re all in the same class together, we could… but then again, that means the world is kind of pushing them together at some level.
Oren: Now they’re on a group project together and it’s 50% of their grade. Deal with it. That just links to, in general, if you want a friendship arc or any other kind of relationship arc to be important, it needs to be part of the plot. Otherwise, it’s gonna be boring or frustrating if your character takes time out of their superhero life and then goes and has an unrelated arc where they make friends with another barista at the coffee shop where they work during the day. It’s gonna feel like, what about the superhero stuff? Why are we not with that? Why are we taking time away from that to do this friendship story? Or, for the people who are into the friendship story, it’ll be like, why are we stopping the friendship story to go fight superheroes? Like, no, don’t do that. Make the friend also part of the superhero story.
Chris: And for having a climax, you can usually have either one person make a choice to sacrifice something to retain the relationship. So for instance, if the world is pulling them in part, you can have one person sort of ditch the people who are telling them not to participate in the relationship, for instance, or sacrifice what they need to sacrifice so that they can maintain their relationship. Or if the two characters get in a fight, if you’re up for more drama, maybe they have to swallow their pride and apologize. But those would be a couple ways that you could have a climax for any kind of relationship arc.
Oren: One of them could apologize for, for example, trying to lead an army of toads to take over the valley. I’m not referencing anything that I watched recently. [laughter] A perfectly random example that could happen.
Wes: Yeah, I think those climax points are really important to emphasize, because looping back to how saturated we are with romance, there’s an obvious climax and satisfaction that comes when your lovers are together. There’s almost this unspoken level of they’re back, and there’s commitment, and they’re happy. And with mentor-student, parent-child, found family, and friends, that kind of capstone is a little less clear, which might be why a lot of people like to ship stuff. It’s like, “Oh, well, I wasn’t quite satisfied.” Maybe there was missing tension or whatever, but they’re like, “Well, we’ll ship ’em because that is the true capstone that I want on this relationship,” because the story itself was not satisfactory in terms of this non-romantic relationship arc.
Chris: Yeah. And I do think that understanding what kind of activities they’re supposed to share and how they help each other proves that. For instance, this is what’s so easy about the buddy cop arc. And so we have Zootopia. What we see at the end is finally that Nick has also become a cop, and now they are partners together. Nick and Judy are partners together. And that’s sort of what gives it that click together, because they were working together solving crimes, but they were never officially partners before. And there was always that potential and people kind of understand the nature of that partner relationship that they kind of have, but don’t quite.
Oren: It should be noted, they don’t actually have to be cops for this, but if they’re not cops, then some other tangible aspect to show that their friendship is changed or is at a new level than it was before.
Chris: Yeah. I should just clarify, say buddy cop, because that’s kind of where there’s a lot of these movies, and they’re really easy thing to point to to show this kind of relationship where people have fight each other, but they have to work together and they have contrasting dynamics, which helps, but we do have too many stories featuring police officers. So this is a good time to not write a story about cops.
Oren: And with dating, usually they do the same thing in dating. They don’t just leave you with the vague idea that maybe these characters are dating. Usually there’s a kiss, or if it’s too young for kissing, there’s a handhold or something. And then of course, that gets into the whole issue of where queer relationships are treated unfairly, because instead of kissing, they just kind of give each other a meaningful look. And we’re like, “Oh yeah, I guess that’s a relationship.” Hopefully we’re moving past that now, but you have to have something similar for your friendship arc. If that’s a big part of the story, we need to be able to tangibly see that things have changed rather than tacitly assume that they have.
Chris: I also think there needs to be some clearer causality to the way their relationship changes so you can see specifically what lessons they have learned and why the relationship develops the way that it does.
Oren: They can turn in the group project. Both actually have worked on it. Turn in the group project where the slacker actually did the work and the rules stickler let the slacker be a little bit more free and creative. There you go. Perfect group project story.
Wes: Perfect. You’ve solved everything.
Chris: As opposed to one person sabotaging the project and then giving their sob story, but then never actually repairing the project or putting in their 50%. Or if they share a moment together and then they’re suddenly closer after that moment, there needs to be some clear causality and some explanation for how that moment brought them closer for one another. Maybe they were suspicious of each other, but they proved that they had each other’s back in that moment, for instance. And so now that suspicion is gone and they’re more at ease. It would be an example, but you can see there’s clearly a causality to that.
Wes: Yeah, I think all that’s really important stuff to keep in mind, especially that tangible component to the non-romantic relationships when you don’t want them to smooch or touch butts, as it were. [laughter] Like we said at the start, there’s nothing wrong with romance in our stories, but we just hope that we can all feel more aware and equipped to portray the many different shapes and ways that love and life take in our stories.
Oren: All right. Well, with that, I think we’re going to close this out, hopefully as better friends.
Chris: If our podcast is worth at least $1 to you, please become a patron. You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.
Oren: And speaking of which, I wanna thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. Finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing theme plays]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme, “The Princess who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Colton.
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