Storytelling

Twelve Signs a Storyteller Is Building Romantic & Sexual Chemistry

An angel and demon in human form sit next to each other on a bench in Good Omens
When it comes to possible romances in popular works, fans and storytellers do a lot of finger-pointing. People have varied tastes and can view the same interaction differently, causing fights over whether the romantic or sexual chemistry in a story was intentional. These feuds are particularly likely in cases where storytellers may be taunting queer audiences.

However, the question of whether chemistry was inserted by the storyteller isn’t as subjective as you might think. Storytellers use the same tactics over and over again when developing a romance. Let’s go over twelve of the most common. You can use them to analyze your favorite stories or to build chemistry yourself. To make things simpler, I use the term “peer” to indicate people who are similar in age and aren’t closely related. In other words, they qualify for a non-platonic relationship.

Let’s start with signals that could be platonic if used in isolation and count down to ones that are almost never platonic.

12. Banter & Teasing

Legolas and Gimli together on horseback

When the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy came out, fans felt the chemistry between a pair of people that Peter Jackson probably didn’t expect: Legolas and Gimli. However, Jackson should have seen it coming. These contrasting characters start as natural adversaries, and once they’re on the same team, that transforms into competitive banter. This makes for fun and endearing scenes between them.

Even though banter can be platonic, there’s a very blurry line between banter and flirtation. That means interactions between peers that are familiar and yet have that teasing edge are particularly effective at building sexual and romantic chemistry.

If banter is all there is between the characters, the storyteller may not be creating that chemistry on purpose. However, in popular stories where everyone knows that fans want those characters to hook up, storytellers who include teasing are at least willing to encourage it. For instance, Merlin and Arthur on BBC’s Merlin are also known for their banter, and since it’s obvious that the show’s writers were cultivating chemistry, it’s very likely that banter was part of their strategy.

11. Staring & Close Eye Contact

Crusher and Picard, dressed up in 40s outfits, gaze at each other

In the Star Trek: Next Generation episode The Big Goodbye, Dr. Crusher dresses up in a 1940s outfit to join Picard’s Dixon Hill game on the holodeck. When Picard sees her there, he first stops, stares, and then has a close face-to-face conversation. The scene even has cheesy romantic music.

While that example is over the top, storytellers can do this with a lot more subtlety if they want to. Visual storytellers typically have a character conversation in almost every scene, and it’s easy to nudge characters closer together or have them stare a little longer. However, some shows like Star Trek are also in the habit of making their actors talk really close together all the time. That makes the line between what is romantic and what is platonic really blurry.

Building chemistry via staring isn’t limited to visual works. In narrated works, description is used to focus the camera and show what the viewpoint character is paying attention to. The choice to describe the eyes of a peer, assuming they aren’t supernatural looking, creates romantic chemistry. Using a disproportionate amount of description on a peer, especially if that description makes them sound attractive, will also be interpreted as non-platonic. While narration can also describe how close characters are together, it won’t have the same subtlety as it would in a visual story.

10. Domestic Activities

Octavia and Diyoza have a close conversation

In season seven of The 100, viewers discover that Octavia spent ten years stranded with her former enemy, Diyoza. They took shelter in an abandoned home, and since Diyoza was already pregnant, they ended up raising her child together. For many years, Octavia tries to leave and go back to her brother, but Diyoza tells her that she shouldn’t abandon her family. Diyoza finally sabotages Octavia’s efforts to leave, but Octavia quickly forgives her. That sure sounds like a love story.

While characters don’t have to be romantic to be roommates, making peers into roommates is likely to get fans invested in a hookup. This is partly because living together is associated with romantic partnerships, but it also means that the characters are around each other a lot. The more they are together, the more opportunities they have to build chemistry.

Aside from that, simply seeing characters handle (or refuse to handle) domestic tasks like cooking, doing dishes, or house cleaning builds romantic chemistry between them. This goes double if the characters raise a kid together.

9. Bonds of Magic or Destiny

Merling and Arthur sit against a tree

In BBC’s Merlin, a wise dragon tells the titular Merlin that it’s his destiny to protect Arthur so that Arthur can bring about a new golden age. The dragon refers to them as two sides of a coin, and it emphasizes more than once that their fates are intertwined. Because he wants to stay close to Arthur, Merlin spends the entire show hiding his magic and working as a lowly manservant.

Our culture has countless stories about characters thrust into roles that make them essential to both the world and each other. These characters might be magically linked together, perhaps even hearing each other’s thoughts. The bond might be one of prophecy, with the characters needing each other to save the world. Or their society might make a big deal out of the two interdependent roles the characters play. For instance, in Gideon the Ninth, lots of time is spent describing how important a necromancer and their cavalier are to each other. Often, characters with these special bonds will gain abilities that can only be used when they’re together.

Storytellers have used this trope so many times in their romances that it carries a strong romantic connotation. While the trope can also be used for platonic relationships, a storyteller doing that may need to explicitly state that the relationship is platonic.

8. Voicing How Much They Care

Scorpius and Albus hide behind a stack of suitcases Photo by Manuel Harlan

In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the students Albus and Scorpius form a close relationship that is forbidden by Harry himself. This relationship is of central importance to the play, and it includes a conversation where Albus tells Scorpius “you make me stronger” and Scorpius responds “I didn’t much like my life without you in it either.” This sounds like a conversation from a romance novel with the direct “I love you” lines conveniently clipped out.

Friends and siblings in popular stories don’t spend much time talking about how they are friends and siblings. Most platonic relationships in stories are also not as emotionally intense, and they come across as less needy and codependent than romantic ones.

As we get more deep and meaningful platonic relationships in popular stories, these conversations may be less associated with romance in the future. Even so, having peers spend time discussing their relationship or what they mean to each other definitely builds romantic chemistry. And since we can’t credit most popular storytellers with caring about meaningful platonic relationships, conversations like this one between Albus and Scorpius are a strong sign that the storyteller is creating romantic chemistry on purpose.

Storytellers who are covertly building romantic chemistry are particularly fond of using the word “love” in ambiguous ways. They know interested audiences will interpret this as “in love,” while others will interpret it as platonic love.

7. Activities Associated With Dating

Crowley and Aziraphale drink champagne at a nice restuarant.

The Good Omens miniseries added original scenes for the fan-favorite demon and angel pair, Crowley and Aziraphale. The series shows them meet for the first time, go through ups and downs together, and as a secondary concern, deal with the events of the actual plot. They’re shown drinking wine at a fancy restaurant together more than once. When things look bad, Crowley practically begs Aziraphale to run away with him. After Aziraphale’s shop burns down, Crowley invites Aziraphale to come home with him. Aziraphale often appears scandalized by Crowley’s advances, which only makes those scenes more suggestive.

While two friends could have a candlelit dinner together, storytellers don’t depict characters having candlelit dinners for the purpose of developing a platonic relationship. That’s why in a story, just having two peers eat at a restaurant by themselves implies a romance in progress. Other dating-associated activities might include watching the sunset together or dressing up to attend a fancy event together.

This category also includes any outing referred to with the word “date” – even if it is a “friend date.” Your friend date in real life might not be romantic, but storytellers choose that word for a reason.

6. Absent Clothing

Kylo Ren and Rey communicate telepathically while Kylo Ren is shirtless

In The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson decided to develop a romance between Rey and Kylo by giving them a magical bond in the form of long-distance telepathy. But Johnson must have decided the obviously romantic implication of this connection was too subtle, so Kylo also happens to be shirtless in one of these scenes.

Fictional clothing doesn’t just evaporate in storyland. If a character is bathing, is in their underwear, is missing their shirt, or even just has buttons undone, the storyteller has chosen to create sexual tension. This isn’t always to develop sexual chemistry specifically between two characters. In visual media, it might be to give the audience some eye candy. But if one peer’s shirt goes missing when the other appears, that’s a big sign.

Perhaps the most common method of doing this is putting characters in the same room when one of them is changing. Injuries are another common excuse for clothing removal and close contact. A remarkable number of characters have trouble applying their own bandages; somehow, they always need first aid from an attractive peer.

5. Flirtation & Flattery

Scully and Mulder work undercover pretending to be a married couple

X-Files was notorious for taunting viewers with a possible romance between its two leads, something that started right with the pilot. One of the many tactics used to build up a possible romance was for Mulder to inappropriately hit on Scully while they were working. In one scene where they are undercover as a married couple who just moved into the neighborhood, he tells a neighbor that he and Scully spooned like kittens all night. Generally, Mulder’s advances are disguised as jokes, and when he’s too serious to be joking, Scully treats his comments as if they were jokes.

It’s obvious that when one character hits on another, they have sexual or romantic interest. The only question is whether that interest is being used to develop romantic or sexual chemistry. Many stories have a scene where a minor male character hits on a female protagonist only for her to turn him down, and it’s supposed to be funny. Since most women do not find this funny, these scenes aren’t as common as they once were. Occasionally, a male antagonist will make threatening advances. That’s even worse.

However, it’s different when a relatable protagonist is initiating the flirtation. Even if the subject of their affections isn’t interested, being turned down will create sympathy. The scene may still be written as though it’s funny, but then it’s humble or self-deprecating humor. Failed flirtation establishes that the protagonist is looking for romance, creating the expectation that they will hook up with someone. If they’ve tried to flirt with a recurring character, it’s almost certainly a romantic setup.

4. Emphasis on Hugs and Physical Contact

Derek carries a howling Stiles in a bridal carry

Many fans of the show Teen Wolf wanted Stiles and Derek to hook up. Stiles is the fan-favorite character, Derek is really hot, and the two have some great banter scenes. Unfortunately, the writers of the show wouldn’t create a romance between them, but at the end of the show’s long run, they decided to give these fans something to remember. How did they do that? With the bridal carry. Even though the scene was written to be humorous, this specific hold has incredibly romantic connotations.

While the bridal carry is pretty blatant, storytellers will use all kinds of physical contact between peers to create romantic and sexual chemistry. One of the most common is hugging. Yes, friends hug, but visual stories don’t include extended shots of friends hugging. Narrated works don’t spend a whole paragraph describing the way friends hug. If a hug between peers is rendered in artistic loving detail instead of as a casual and brief aside, that was intentional chemistry-building.

Other blatant signs of non-platonic physical contact include showing whether their hands are close enough to touch, making one character fall on top of another (classic), hair tucking, and, for storytellers with no shame whatsoever, mouth-to-mouth such as CPR or “water transfer.”

3. Blushing

Bow and Glimmer blush as Glimmer compliments Bow's music

In Netflix’s She-Ra, the characters Bow and Glimmer start off as best friends and hook up in the final season. In depicting this transition, She-Ra gives us a beautiful reversal, in which this straight romance is much more subtle than the central queer hookup. Because they were already friends, some viewers might miss that Bow and Glimmer end the show as a couple. However, close observation of one scene in particular leaves no room for doubt. In it, Glimmer praises Bow’s music, and they both blush.

Blushing is a little odd because it doesn’t appear in live action for practical reasons. But in animated, illustrated, or narrated works, storytellers use blushing to communicate that a character is experiencing non-platonic feelings. While it occasionally indicates general embarrassment, context almost always makes it clear which is which. If the character blushes after dropping all their books in the middle of class, it’s embarrassment. If they blush after speaking to or staring at a peer, it’s romance.

Since blushing is involuntary, it’s particularly useful when characters aren’t willing to show their feelings. This means it often gets used as early buildup to a romance or to create chemistry between characters who will never admit their feelings at all.

2. Jealousy

Gideon and Harrow from the covers of Gideon the Ninth and Harrowhawk the Ninth

In Gideon the Ninth, Harrow is a necromancer and Gideon is her cavalier. However, at the beginning they’re almost enemies. When they’re summoned to an abandoned castle to train for a great honor, Harrow goes off on her own. This leaves Gideon to socialize with the other nobles present – in particular, the lovely and kind Dulcinea. As Gideon and Harrow begin to make up, Harrow increasingly voices her displeasure with this association, finally forbidding Gideon to see Dulcinea. While Harrow insists it’s because Dulcinea is dangerous, Gideon accuses Harrow of being jealous.

In stories, jealousy is an obvious sign of romantic feelings. That’s simply because while the vast majority of romances in popular stories are monogamous, friendships are never exclusive. Someone who wants to be a friend doesn’t have much reason to get jealous. Factor in conscious choices by storytellers, and platonic jealousy is rare indeed.

Characters rarely admit to being jealous, so storytellers who want to clarify usually have another character say it. Even if it looks like that character could be wrong, the storyteller wouldn’t have used the word “jealous” unless they wanted their audience to think about it. The romantic chemistry that comes with this is intentional.

Unlike other items on this list, I don’t recommend using this one yourself for romantic buildup. Like other negative emotions, occasional jealousy is natural. However, it’s not a sign of a healthy relationship, and it’s associated with domestic abuse. When storytellers use it in romances, they are encouraging everyone to think of jealousy as romantic. That can have deadly consequences.

1. Onlookers Assume They’re Dating

At a restaurant, the waiter assumes Watson is Sherlock's date

In the BBC Sherlock episode A Study in Pink, Watson and Sherlock have dinner together at an Italian restaurant. For those who’ve been paying attention so far, that’s a dating-associated activity. The waiter is an old associate of Sherlock, and he casually refers to Watson as Sherlock’s “date.”

I cannot count the number of times I have seen this used as early buildup in straight romances. The likely couple goes out together – often to a restaurant but not always – and some stranger assumes they’re a couple. Embarrassed, they hurriedly correct the stranger. Several episodes later, they’re admitting their feelings for one another. In BBC Sherlock, this trick from the old romantic playbook was clearly not enough for the show writers. Following this is a conversation where Sherlock concludes that Watson is interested in dating him. He says he’s flattered, but he’s “married to his work.”

The denial of the characters doesn’t cancel out the intentional romantic chemistry. If the storyteller didn’t want the audience to think about the pair hooking up, they wouldn’t do this song-and-dance in the first place. In fact, if the denial is enthusiastic, it just indicates these comments about being a couple are hitting close to home.

For all the other signs I’ve listed here, I can at least conceive of a situation in which a plot would call for something similar between people intended as platonic. These little snippets of dialogue have no such cover. They are irrelevant to the plot at hand, inserted entirely for the character moment they create. They are the furthest thing from organic, especially with a same-gender pairing. The storytellers can claim they’re jokes (homophobic ones), but they have many jokes at their disposal that do not build romantic chemistry. They chose a joke that would.


When these romantic or sexual signals are used on same-gender pairings, it may fly under the radar for audiences with a heteronormative gaze. However, these signals don’t end up in the story by accident. That goes double if this is a big-budget story in a visual medium, where the story has been written, animated, or filmed, and finally edited under supervision. Remember: it’s a storyteller’s job to shape the response that audiences have to their story. They may not be perfect, but they still know what they’re doing.

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Comments

  1. Tifa

    As an asexual person, I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate, sort of, and say that nudity doesn’t have to be sexual.

    • Chris Winkle

      Well that’s why I have it as #6 instead of #1, but it’s fairly unusual for storytellers these days to choose to make their character nude unless they want either sexual chemistry between characters or a sexual gaze from the audience.

    • Arix

      Also as an asexual person, pretty much all of these can be platonic. But like the article says, it’s less about what these things can be in real life and more about why authors include them in their stories.

    • Omega

      Also also as an asexual person, I would love to see more storytellers include nudity without once sexualizing it in any way.

    • Beez

      Also also also as an asexual…I don’t really have a point to add, I’m just excited to be included.

      I will probably be using this article a lot – whilst I know how to act the physical signs of attraction, it doesn’t really translate so well in words and even if it did, 20 minutes of looking eyes, lips, eyes, lips, doesn’t sound like a stable relationship.

    • Bellis

      *joins the asexual club* Does anyone want a slice of cake?

      I’m kind of interested in subverting a number of these tropes in a way that shows how for example platonic friends hug and cuddle for a long time, because I think that should be normalised. Might be tricky to do in a story though, but then again I’d be ok if I end up alienating straight allosexual people.

      A thing that I absolutely hate to be played as romantic/sexual chemistry – that is unfortunately very common – is unavoidable physical proximity or contact. Like having to hide in a small space, providing first aid or medical care, being stuck in an elevator or, worse, escape pod, etc. It’s grating when their lives are in danger and one (or both) prioritise their feelings of attraction instead, but the real problem is that it’s super creepy because the potential victim of harrassment can’t escape.

      A varioation of this is teaching anything from tennis, pool, shooting a gun (seriously?????) to horse riding or whatever else in often nonsensical ways that include a lot of physical contact. It makes me sick especially when there’s a formal teacher-student relationship or other kind of power dynamic like boss-employee etc. Idk if I’m the only one who is so sensitive to this issue but if a character abuses their power and tricks their object of desire into a situation where they’re forced to endure the creep’s proximity or touch, it’s super super hard for me to get over that. Plus, this trope is so overdone and obviously contrived that I really don’t see any positive aspect to it, sorry.

      • Guest

        no, you’re definitely not alone in that.
        I get the ‘teaching/learning a skill’ as a potential bonding activity generally, and if the characters are already romantically/sexually involved that could well be expressed in this. BUT just using that as a means of actively hitting on someone without existing mutual interest? urgh. no. for many reasons.
        …and it irritates the h*ll out of me when it’s treated as if asking to be taught a skill is automatically flirting. Sometimes, a person just wants to frukking learn a useful or cool skill because its useful and/or cool!!!

      • SunlessNick

        It’s not just you.

        Despite having some quite awful romantic and sexual storylines and framings, The Vampire Diaries had in its early seasons a talent for taking on-TV-usually-romantic relationship dynamics and applying them to other types of relationship. “I hate you except inasmuch as I secretly love you” was between two brothers, while “I hate you but I can only express parts of myself when I’m around you” was between drinking buddies and (eventual) friends.

    • A.R.

      ‘Nother ace here. Number…6? My protag is ace and 15. Her love interest, 16, is demi or gray. I don’t think I’ve managed to show the romance– which is fine for now, because I’m only at the beginning of a planned series, and they are asexual teenagers. But the other books are from different POVs. Any suggestions for developing ace romance from the outside? If it helps, they are two awkward bunnies and it’s going to be heck to get either to confess a crush.

      Bellis: As someone who has been on both sides of a horseback riding lesson, the only way that involves significant physical contact without being highly contrived and unbelievable is if the learner is a little kid who can’t ride on their own. Consider me extra freaked out by that one. All the ~romantic lesson~ stuff is not fun in general, but especially when it’s something I have firsthand experience on one/both sides.
      (Also, can I have the cake?)

      Omega: Have you read the novels of the Others, by Ann Bishop? As I recall, the shifters’ clothes don’t shift, and they really only wear clothes because the humans do, so there’s some humans freaking out because AAH NAKED PERSON and shifters clearly thinking ‘but honestly it’s not that big of a deal compared to the danger you’re in???’

      (If anyone wants an already-published ace protag, I *think* Sunny from Wings of Fire is ace, though ace vs. not interested yet can be hard to tell. Still, she is wonderful and I love her so much.)

  2. LazerRobot

    Great article! It did amaze me when the Last Jedi came out how much debate there was over the romantic undertones of the infamous shirtless scene. As stated here, everything in a story happens for a reason. Sure, in real life they might get linked up at inconvenient times such as right when Kylo is emerging from the shower. But in that case they’d be just as likely to link up when one of them was on the toilet, or eating a sloppy plate of chicken wings. (Porg wings?) Point is, nothing is truly random in stories, there’s always storyteller intent.

    • SunlessNick

      I think Ryan’s intent was to have what looked like a romantic buildup so that Ren’s decision at the climax of the throne room sequence would hit harder – and then Rey literally slams the door on it at the end of the film.

      • LazerRobot

        Yeah, that makes sense. As far as “romances” go it’s a bizarre one, and not one that made it easy for audiences to get behind, so I think the impact of that part of the ending was weakened by that.

  3. Silverware

    The banter is my most hated trick to show romantic tension. The best banter is invisible, just a part of the dialogue, but when you notice it, it starts getting grating. It’s like characters yelling “AND NOW WE’RE BANTERING, SEE HOW WELL WE SUIT EACH OTHER?” and i want to yell back “F YOU, AND YOUR MEANINGLESS PADDING!”

    • Jeppsson

      I agree! Also, when people show that they dislike and annoy each other, but it’s so clear we’re supposed to interpret this as romantic tension… Me and Husband talked about how NEITHER of us EVER started dating someone after first being really annoyed with this person and disliking them. If you dislike someone, you’re very UNlikely to date them later. That trope is the worst!

      However, we got a lot of fun out of Malcolm Reed and Major Hayes’ interactions in Star Trek Enterprise… I’m 99 % sure this was not intended as queer-bating, but just as a conflict, plain and simple, but after having watched approximately a million similar interactions and conflicts that ended in romance, we couldn’t help shouting “get a room!” and stuff at the screen.

      • Silverware

        Right?! I hate it too when two characters insult each other into their faces, and the third character says “Ah, they love each other!” or something.

        • Jeppsson

          Also, even though fiction often (though far from always!) portray these interactions as pretty mutual, the insults fly both ways, I think it feeds into this toxic message often given to girls and women to put up with all kinds of shit from boys/men because “it’s just because he likes you”.

        • Sophie the Jedi Knight

          I actually read a book where the MC’s parents are telling the story of how they met, and the dad says that the mom insulted him for littering. And then the dad said that he, quote, “wanted to be insulted by this woman for the rest of my life.” Yeah, romantic, sure.

    • Ems

      I’m fond of Enemies-to-Lovers as a trope, but it’s very, very difficult to get right and most writers don’t. I think the big problem is that many writers either keep things too one-sided (which leads to it coming across as one party just being mean to the other) or they forget to write-in the turning point where it becomes clear that the two really do care for each other. I don’t mind a bit of playful bickering, but the two characters involved MUST have the right personalities for it or it will fall flat.

  4. Kaylene Blankenbecler

    Nice!!!

  5. Keiimuru

    Very interesting article, and also really well written, it was a pleasure to read !

  6. Ems

    It’s funny how a good amount of the examples were accidental. Interesting how some storytellers accidentally slip in romantic subtext where they didn’t intend.

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