My (possibly controversial) opinion: character relationships are the most important thing in any story. They’re what intrigue me most. I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings not just to see if Sam and Frodo will get to Mount Doom, but because their friendship moves me; I watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine not just to see how they solve the episode’s dilemma, but because I want to know what snarky thing Rosa will say to Charles next; I read Martha Wells’ All Systems Red not just to see if Murderbot will survive, but how it deals with the anxiety of being around people.
While many stories zero in on the “will they/won’t they” romances, there are many other relationship types to be explored. Here are four I want to see more of in science fiction and fantasy.
1. Stable, Long-Term Romantic Relationships
There’s no denying that drama is exciting. Budding romances are rife with tension, and there’s nothing like the emotional roller coaster of volatile break-ups and make-ups. Keeping love-interests apart is a great way to propel plot forward, as it ensures they are constantly still working to get something they want.
But there’s no reason that the dynamics between long-term partners can’t be every bit as compelling as star-crossed lovers or a new romance. There’s a lot to be explored in the depths of long-term relationships, but these aspects are often overlooked in favour of the more-obvious drama.
One of my favourite examples of this is Wash and Zoe’s relationship in Firefly. The two are already married in the show’s pilot episode, and their devotion to each other never wavers. They adore and respect one another, and their relationship is a source of strength and comfort for both of them throughout the series. We get to experience the depth of their relationship and see how they take on challenges and adventures as a team.
See also: Maureen and John Robinson (Lost in Space), Izumi and Sid Curtis (Fullmetal Alchemist), Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane (The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare)
2. Female Friendships
A lot of factors contribute to the scarcity of deep female friendships in SFF. One of the reasons for this is because female characters are underrepresented in general—sometimes there is only one well-rounded female character per novel, with no other women around for her to interact with. Heroines, when they are included, are often written as “not like other girls” and look down on the other women in their lives for being too feminine. Sometimes, women are stereotyped as being “catty” and unable to stand each other. Whatever the reasons, it’s a problem because we need more female friendships in our sci-fi and fantasy.
An example of this type of relationship done well is Buffy and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They go through a lot over the span of seven seasons—vampires, werewolves, addictions, heartbreaks, deaths. Their relationship feels incredibly real; they go through periods of closeness and times when they drift further apart, but no matter what, they are always there for each other. It’s also a huge plus that they are never shown in the oh-too-familiar female-bestie trope of fighting over a guy. There’s no cattiness, no competition, just two women who lift each other up and have each other’s best interests at heart.
See also: Moiraine and Siuan (Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan), Femme Shepard and Tali’Zorah (Mass Effect), Nina Zenik and Inej Ghafa (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo)
3. Purely Platonic Male/Female Friendships
When was the last time that you read a novel that involved a male-female friendship where neither of them had any romantic interest in each other at any point? I’m willing to bet that it’s been a while.
Generally, in friendships between characters of opposite genders, one of two things happens: either they eventually end up romantically involved, or one of them has unrequited feelings for the other at some point. Where are the friendships where neither of these things happen? Give me more purely platonic friendships; I promise they can be interesting too!
One of my favourite examples of this is Katara and Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko joins Team Avatar in the last season of the series after going through one of the best character-arcs ever written (but gushing over that is for another blog post). Katara is initially very distrustful of Zuko’s change of heart, and treats him coldly long after the others have thawed. Over time, however, she forgives him and the two of them become friends. There is never any romance between the pair, which perhaps was the less likely route for the show writers to have taken. The “enemies to lovers” trope is beloved, and throwing Zuko into the middle of Katara and Aang’s relationship would have provided all the drama a love-triangle has to offer. But they didn’t take that path, and the show is stronger for the platonic respect and friendship that Zuko and Katara share. Their dynamic is refreshing and makes me want to see more relationships like this in other fiction.
See also: Female Hawke and Varric Tethras or Male Hawke and Aveline Vallen (Dragon Age II), Harry Potter and Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling), Donna and the Doctor (Doctor Who)
4. Asexual Relationships
There is very little asexuality in SFF, and when asexual characters do appear, they tend to be uniformly written as having no desire for either sex or romance. While this is a valid depiction of asexual identity, it isn’t the only one. Some asexual people feel romantic attraction, some don’t; some asexual people are entirely sex-repulsed, while others could take it or leave it.
Representing people and the relationships they have with others (plutonic and romantic) as varied and nuanced is important. A single character does not encapsulate an entire minority’s experience. Not all asexual people are alike, so not all asexual characters should be alike. We need more authors to depict asexuality in their SFF works, and to recognize the diversity of experience that exists within the umbrella of the identity.
In Season Three of Bojack Horseman, Todd comes out as asexual. His exploration and acceptance of his identity plays out throughout the series. He is a fully-realized and multi-dimensional character. While his asexuality is part of his identity, it is not the only or main thing about him. Todd realizes that while he has no sexual desire, he still experiences romantic attraction; and we watch him navigate the complexities of embracing his identity in a society that loves to erase it entirely. Todd dates multiple people over the span of the show, each relationship unique and differently affected by the sexualities of Todd and his partner.
See also: Elsa (Frozen), Muderbot (Murderbot series by Martha Wells), Varys (Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin)
What other types of relationships would you like to see more of in fiction?