How can I have a male character and a female character work together and NOT imply they’re romantically destined for each other?

-Dave L

Hi Dave,

I wish the answer to this was just “Don’t give them any chemistry or make them seem interested in each other,” but unfortunately, many people will still assume they’ll end up together. Simply leaving out chemistry worked pretty well for the show Elementary, but those helming the show also outright told people there would be no romance, and even after that, they had to prove they meant it. Few written works have the opportunity to get the word out that way.

So, here are some ways to signal that no sparks will fly:

  • Make one or both of them queer, with no attraction to the opposite gender.
  • Make them family; they could be a sibling team.
  • Make their ages really really far apart; one of them could be a sort of mother or father figure or a mentor long past their prime.
  • If one or both is monogamous and has an existing partner that can help, but writers often eliminate the partner to start a romance. However, if one or both of them are happily married and the spouse is also present in the story, that will help convey the arrangement is permanent.
  • It will also help if you make the woman conventionally unattractive – it doesn’t work in reverse because there are too many stories where ugly dudes hook up with hot chicks. But we could use more women characters who aren’t around to be sexy anyhow.

I hope one of those works for your story!


Update 7/8/2019: I just wanted to say a little more on the attractiveness aspect, since some commenters have rightly pointed out that it’s bad to send the message that unattractive women aren’t worthy of romance.

While I clearly put my foot in my mouth there, when you are making decisions for your story, using unattractiveness to change audience expectations doesn’t necessarily mean you will send that kind of problematic message. For instance, giving her a happy relationship with someone other than the male protagonist shows she has romance in her life, while also making her seem less like a love interest. It lowers suspicion that you will kill off her partner so a romance can begin. Of course, if everyone starts doing that we’ll end up with a pattern where unattractive women never get romance plot lines, which is not great. However, there are so few unattractive women protagonists in popular stories right now, that frankly, it would probably still be a step up from the status quo. That’s why I decided to include it on the list.

That said, sometimes it’s also worth it to not cater to unfair audience expectations. Your story may take a hit, but you’ll be helping to change them for the next story.

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