Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Character Relationships

Recently I've watched a lot of superhero shows and the second season of Sherlock.  Something interesting just jumped out at me, a problem spanning most of the genre of heroic film/literature.  The characters have problems because they're operating with a dangerously narrow idea of relationship dynamics and they do not understand how to handle priorities properly.

Almost all of the problems fall into a very tight cluster:

1) Hero has a romantic relationship that is constantly undermined by needing to rush off to do hero stuff that the love-interest knows nothing about.

2) Hero has a romantic relationship with someone who knows about the hero stuff, but
... a) the love-interest is a co-hero and they squabble over who gets to save whom, who is in danger, who is in charge, etc.
... b) the love-interest is a villain and they have a love/hate thing going.

3) Hero has a primary relationship which is not romantic and therefore is not acknowledged as the primary relationship.

First, there's a bundle of assumptions throughout human culture that ...
* everyone is sexual,
* everyone is romantic,
* everyone is supposed to form a family based on sex/romance (usually a monogamous heterosexual couple),
* and that relationship, once formed, necessarily becomes the primary one.

This is not wholly accurate.  In most cases, heroism and romance mix like bleach and ammonia.  The few exceptions usually entail stumbling upon someone with nonstandard expectations or parameters.  Heroic tales are full of infinite riffs on that same very small handful of conflicts.  This is fun the first few dozen times but after that you really have to reach to find something interesting.

So, widen the scope a bit.  This allows for new character concepts and different conflicts ...

1) If the hero is asexual and/or aromantic, there is no need to find a partner for sex and/or romance.  This instantly frees up a lot of time, mental energy, and plot space.  However, now the hero has to deal with other people's dumbass reactions to this failure to conform.

2) If the hero is demisexual or sexual, but does not feel compelled to base family on sex/romance, then there is no need to find a spouse.  The hero is free to choose from other options such as one-night stands, hired help, casual dating, short-term relationships, friends with benefits, etc. -- all of which have little or no potential for the kind of plot conflict caused by a long-term relationship.

3) If the hero wants a primary relationship, it does not have to be a sexual/romantic relationship.  It could be a sidekick, handler, roommate, unit buddy, sibling, beat partner, or anything else.  What matters is having someone who is a major part of your life, who you'd kill or die for, who is always there for you and vice versa.  This actually falls between the other two points in terms of plot relevance, because some of the same conflicts remain (i.e. the partner can be at risk in action scenes) while others shift (i.e. most people won't recognize the importance of this relationship, which causes problems of its own).

Supplemental to this is the hidden assumption that most heroes suck at communication.  Secrecy is overwhelmingly the preference.  This consistently leads to relationship failure.  Closely connected is the aforementioned lack of priority management.  In order to have functional relationships, a hero needs:

1) Honesty with self about needs and desires.  You aren't going to get what you want if you don't know what that is and make it your goal. 

2) Honesty with others about priorities and parameters.  If you can't talk about your work, if you are prone to dashing away on a moment's notice, then you need to say that  up front, preferably at the end of the first date or meeting when you have decided you'd like to see more of someone.  People need to understand where they rank in someone else's priority stack, because only then can they decide if they're comfortable with that position and wish to continue the relationship.

3) Honesty with both about expectations.  Don't assume, discuss.  If you require discretion, or patience, or durability, or punctuality, or whatever then specify that -- and choose people  to include in your life who are compatible with that.  Know what other people expect from you and whether you can deliver it.

This would shift most of the way out of the whole field of subplots that dominate heroic storytelling.  It doesn't remove conflict.  It changes  the nature of the challenges that the hero must face... 

1) Was the hero raised to know how to navigate interpersonal dynamics this well?  That's so far above average, it's darn near a superpower of its own.  Expect cultural clashes because this is very rare in the contemporary world (and many others).  Maybe you've got a Quaker hero or one who grew up in a commune. Yeah, that's gonna stand out.

2) If not, how did the hero develop this skill set?  There must be a story in that, because again it's very rare and not easily found.  Maybe the hero studied anthropology or psychology in college, or was chosen by a deity who provided an unusual skill package. 

3) How do other characters react?  There will usually be friends, family members, opponents, coworkers, random bystanders, etc. who think this kind of stuff is weird.  That creates friction, sometimes harmless humor but other times life-wrecking mayhem.  Occasionally they will misinterpret the type of relationship in ways the hero or other characters find acutely embarrassing.

Sometimes the cultural assumptions really get in the way of storytelling.  Delete or alter some of those expectations, and you open up whole new realms of storytelling that are not constructed mostly from cliches.

Not sure how to handle that in a story?  Not sure what kinds of problems people face when the shape of their family doesn't conform to cultural expectations?  Try reading resources on asexuality, homosexuality, polyamory, interracial couples, single parentsmarriage equality, and straight privilege.  Those lists of challenges, withheld rights, and assumptions are plot prompts for heroes who step outside the tiny niche of McHero Relationships. 

Oh, and just for utter hilarity, you know how most heroes have lives that are supposed to suck a lot?  Dead parents, archenemies, freak accidents, that sort of thing?  Well no, the vast majority of them are straight white males, which is actually the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life.  Consider changing those parameters to make things more challenging.

Tags: community, entertainment, family skills, fiction, how to, reading, writing

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