What is your fiction saying about sexuality and relationships? Probably a lot more than you’d think, and I want to talk about the choices we make as writers when it comes to this. No, I’m not talking about how well-endowed you make your characters, or giving people unrealistic expectations about how mind-blowingly amazing sex will be on the first time, every time (but we should talk about that, too… eventually). I’m talking about the gritty stuff: the relationship. The ways in which two characters interact and how that is received by the world. I struggled for a long time thinking of how to start this conversation, but I finally settled on relating an experience to you all from my earlier years as a college student.
A friend of mine wrote an amazing short story about a young man who ends up giving shelter to a woman fleeing her abusive boyfriend. She waits at his house for a friend to pick her up, and then thanks him and heads out with her friend.
When I first read this story, I thought it was amazing. I still think it’s amazing. The emotion and the raw display of humanity in this story felt just perfect. It was a snapshot of real, gritty life, and it just captured so much about our generation (us 20-somethings) in the small details of the story. More importantly, it captured something distinctly human in the characters.
While it was well received by many people in the class, three young men took issue with something: the guy did not get the girl at the end of the story.
Let me break that down for you. The guy (a random stranger to this woman) does not “get” (as in a kiss, a good fuck, a phone number, a date) the girl (the woman who was just beaten by an abusive ex). This bothered them.
Just the thought of turning it into a love story made me go a little berserk. Why? Because the main character, the guy, and this woman were not meant to be in a relationship. For one, the story was not about that. It was about what a painful, messy experience life can be, and sometimes we can actually be a decent person for someone else.
How would letting the guy “get” the girl ruin that message? For one, it has the chance of reducing the female character to a “prize”.
What is probably the worst part, however, is that it cheapens the main character. I liked him as a character, a lot. He was written to be a decent human being, and the reader got to see him struggling in a dilemma of what the right thing to do is. For him, he questioned whether or not to call the police, whether to take the woman back to his house in the first place, and whether or not to confront the much larger and scarier guy she ran from. These are all feasibly real-life problems someone may have to confront, and this character, while he may not have been the most supportive or helpful, did try to help this woman. If his only incentive for helping her is that kiss, or date, at the end of the story, it warps his actions and the audience’s perceptions of what to expect in these situations.
What does it say about how sexuality and relationships are portrayed in media if three guys in my writing class wanted the main character to get the girl in the end? In reality, the last thing a person fleeing abuse wants is to be ravished by a stranger (think about it for a second, you’ll get the ‘creepy’ vibes). Not one of these guys in the class would (hopefully) try to get with a random lady fleeing an attacker. But for them, the story felt incomplete without that promise for intimacy at the end.
I don’t blame them. I blame the formula people establish for so many books, shows, and movies out there. Most fictional works involving a guy and a girl have them get together at the end. Hell, even the gay stories do it. The hero conquers evil and the protagonist wins the heart of their true love. It’s how it goes. It’s textbook narrative structure. I even happen to like this structure, but I think there are some social problems we need to be aware of when we write in it, and that’s what I want to talk about, after that very long-winded introduction.
I recently finished up a novel for publication (Warrior will be out in July! Lesbians and fantasy adventure awaits! Tell your friends) and when revising it, I noticed something… annoying about the main character. Can you guess what it was?
This girl cared way too much about ending up old, alone, and a virgin, and it wasn’t even in a comical way. Why did I write her that way? Why did I make the main character’s drive something as simplistic as “to get the girl”?
I can’t say for sure, but it made me realize that I was saying something with my characters. I was saying what I expected people to act like, I was showing what I expected the hero to act like. And it wasn’t necessarily the best message.
To give the short story, I found redeeming qualities everywhere, and the character was not so far gone to save her. One thing I did pay a lot of attention to in the story was the portrayal of gay and lesbian relationships (the main characters are lesbians, come on guys).
Here is where I break out the pet peeves. I am very, very tired of seeing lesbian relationships portrayed in stories where the entire plot hangs on the acceptance of that relationship as something socially acceptable.
Why? It raises the question of whether or not LGTBQIA relationships are acceptable, and the only answer to that is yes, they are. I understand a need to explore prejudice and struggle, but seeing it played out every time and in every story can make the audience feel as if there is something deviant about these sexual relationships.
And it does not have to be an LGTBQIA relationship. Portraying the female character as the passive damsel, the male character as the sexually dominating force, both of these are perfect examples of how a story’s portrayal of relationships can set a standard for those reading it. These portrayals are not a standard, they are not a norm, but we can begin to see them that way if we are not careful about how we write our worlds, especially fantasy and science fiction universes, where any construct of relationship is truly possible.
I made sexual relationships between characters of any gender a norm in my universe, save for the royalty who are expected to pop out a baby because, you know, babies need to happen. And even then, there were ways around that minor detail that the characters discussed. There are so many other ways to explore relationship dynamics between characters, however. It never just has to be, “the hero gets their true love.” Yes, that’s an important part to a lot of base fantasy narratives, but it does not have to be the defining aspect. Like the main character in my friend’s story, the quality of writing does not have to hinge on the character’s sexual conquest.
What I am trying to get at here is that writers set up what is “normal” in their worlds, and readers pay attention to that. Not every story needs to break out of these molds we created, but all stories featuring a strong romantic relationship should contain some level of awareness.
I’m going to leave my thoughts on the subject there, because any further efforts to expand have left me dissatisfied, and I’d rather tease out more meaning in conversation, if you’d be obliged, readers.