Tuesday, November 17, 2015

All Stories Must Include Romance

Today I'm revisiting an issue someone asked me about on Tumblr a while back. An anonymous person sent me the following question:
I was just wondering, what’s your take on people who constantly nag at putting a love interest for either the main character, or one of meny main characters? In a story i’m working on the main character’s best friend is more favored over to a group of friends I showed it too. Though, they ask me: “Where is his girlfriend? Or wife?…Or is he and [Main Character’s Name] Secretly in love with each other?” My main character is a guy, so is the best friend. It just kind of annoys me…
First of all, my “take on” people who insist that all stories must have a front-and-center romance is that they are very annoying and they should stop trying to police the content of people's stories.





However, I do acknowledge that compulsory sexuality (and the romance that usually leads up to those sexual relationships) is a reality in our society, so there are two ways to deal with it realistically in fiction.

1. If you have a major character who is not romantically involved and his world is anything like our world, his lack of relationships or intimacy will not go uncommented by other characters throughout your story unless there are extenuating circumstances (world-shattering stakes, wars, time-sensitive missions, or complete lack of possible partners).


In the “real world,” people expect other people to want and to have romantic relationships. If your character is aromantic, this will probably come up at some point in his interaction with others, and it’s actually pretty cool to address it once in a while. You don’t have to make it “the issue” at all--kind of like somebody’s race or religion or national origin can be authentically part of them and part of how they are seen in the larger world without forcing the story into being an “issue book.” It doesn’t have to be portrayed as a bizarre or weird aspect of the character. But to be realistic, a character who does not engage in romantic relationships should probably have at least a couple discussions of that absence (whether it’s someone kidding him over it, someone attacking him over it, someone just asking him about it, or him just volunteering that he’s not involved with anyone packaged with how he feels about that).

Long story short: with an aromantic character (or a character who just isn’t in a romantic relationship), that question will probably come up in his real life just as often as it comes up from your readers, so one good way of addressing it is to answer those questions in the story instead of getting annoyed that people are asking them.

2. Or you could sort of write in a semi-utopia. What I mean by that is that if you desire, your fictional society could be NOT our society. They may not have the same norms, so perhaps in your universe it would be WEIRD to just “expect” everyone to be romantically involved unless there’s a “reason.”


Doing this is tricky, because some readers will always interpret it as “unrealistic” even if it is internally consistent. Internal consistency is always the most important thing in creating a world, but sometimes if the world is enough like ours, people will expect the social, political, and historical details to be identical when they don’t have to be. You can sometimes avoid the criticism by lampshading the issue a bit; in other words, create opportunities for showcasing the norms of your world and how they differ from ours by making explicit statements about them. (It’s sometimes tough to do this without either confusing people or leaving too many rough edges so it seems constructed, but it’s possible. Author Philip Pullman does this very well.)

An example of a “semi-utopia” I think was done well was David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, which involves a gay main character who seems to live in a town where homophobia mostly doesn’t exist and it’s treated like it would be really silly to treat gay people any differently than people of any other orientation.

I know some people reacted to this with “OMG the author is totally ignoring and downplaying homophobia in this book, therefore I CANNOT believe in it as an authentic story!” but in the internal consistency of the book, that’s “how things are.” (Again, it’s tricky to write a world with a different norm; it has to have roots. Levithan mostly did this by showing the town as a pocket of tolerance and other cities as having homophobia problems that seem ridiculous to the local folks, as well has having a minority of secretly homophobic characters within the town.)

And incidentally the author is gay, and when asked about the strange pocket of tolerance he created and whether this is an alternate world or something, he stated that really it’s his vision of where we’re going--where we’ll be one day (while not explicitly being an alternate universe, a sci-fi concept, or an “issue book”; that’s just not the point).

So, tl;dr: Don’t accept that you must include romance in stories for them to be realistic, but if you do not choose to include it, either acknowledge its absence in-story or create a world in which romance’s absence is normal.

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