I have noticed in daily conversation the habit many people have of comparing real relationships to those in print or film. They might compare their own platonic relationship to that of Hermione and Harry Potter, or speak of tragic love by referencing Buffy and the vampire Angel. Not only does this create a clear picture in the listener’s mind, but it also reveals the end. We know neither Harry and Hermione nor Buffy and Angel ended up together, so we know the people being spoken about won’t get together either—forgetting this is real life, and not a book, movie, or TV show. But we like to know where things belong in the emotional spectrum, how to explain them, and what to expect.
I begin to think the same goes for many of our beloved SFF readers. When faced with two characters in a room, they may want to map it. Are they going to be lovers? Enemies? Friends? The intrigue is not in the relationship, but in what will aid or inhibit its progression—for lovers and friends, obstacles, betrayals, and misunderstandings; for enemies, the need to work together. And if they are lovers, then the reader might sense one of two ends by the third book—they will end up together, or one of them will die. If they are enemies, the protagonist will eventually be victorious. If they are friends, they will help one another towards victory and one of them may die. What entertains is less the mystery of what will happen and more the path the characters negotiate to a largely predetermined end.
Here I am not calling out SFF novels for being predictable (though some are); I am pointing out what readers seem to desire, whether or not the novels provide it: a way to identify and predict, to feel comfortable knowing what story they’re reading. I do it too. I love knowing the friends will stick together through setbacks and misunderstandings. I love not wondering IF the guy and girl (or guy and guy, etc.) will finally get together, but rather when, and how.
But here is my problem. Relationships are not easily categorized, and life doesn’t move along a storybook path. The guy doesn’t always get the girl (and vice versa). Friends disappear.
With decades of adult life now under my belt, I feel that I can comfortably portray those who are in love, or aren’t; who wish they were in love, or wish they weren’t; who feel attracted to those they do not love, or are briefly unattracted to those they do. I am confident that sex and attraction are not love, that you can have sex with a friend you’re not marrying, and that just because you’re straight doesn’t mean you’ll never look at a same-sex person and think ‘hmm.’ And your friends will not always like you or support you, and sometimes you don’t want them to. Life is complicated and messy and tragically confusing.
I love the movie The Crying Game for this reason. Fergus is not attracted to men, but he cares for Dil, and Dil for him. By the end their relationship has great meaning to both of them. Is it love? Friendship? Something in between, or something else entirely? The movie does not answer this question for us and leaves us in awe of the complexity of our emotions and ability to care for one another. (By the way, I have never heard anyone say, ‘Oh, it’s just like Fergus and Dil . . .’)
In The Emperor’s Knife, relationships took a more realistic turn. No two people were destined, and while there was love, it didn’t map to any well-worn path. Reactions to this have been stratified—some readers being put off by the ‘abrupt romances’ that weren’t and the lack of a clear prototype for interactions, while others have loved it.
To some extent this post follows on my covers-as-categorization post. The need to define, categorize, and sort things can outweigh our spirit of exploration. Is real life frightening? Indeed, it is. That might explain why we try to order our emotions among known paths (Bromance! Frenemies! HoYay! True love!) While that’s fun and I can dish like any other pop culture fanatic, I (like many other SFF authors) have trouble writing that way. Humans are complex and hard to define and our relationships even more so.That's what I would rather explore.