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A Sorta Fairytale
October 2013
Tue, Nov. 15th, 2011 12:07 am
NaNoJouMo: Thoughts on Romantic Subplots and some Tribonds

The Harry Potter shipping war has, I think, forever changed the way I look at romantic subplots in any fiction I consume. Meet cute. UST. Show, don't tell. I learned these things from HP fandom, and primarily from the shipping debate corner of fandom. Now I find myself analyzing the ways in which writers do—or don't—signal romantic vibes between characters in all the fiction I come across with much more attention than I did before.

One common complaint I see across the many fandoms I've come to know since then—whether I dived in completely or just stuck in a toe—is that a canon pairing doesn't have enough “development”. And I want to take a moment to contest that complaint—not for any particular case, but as a general rule. That's not to say that I think such a complaint could never be valid. But I think it is a tired, overused complaint that often doesn't really take into account the full scope of what the author is trying to do.

The first problem with the complaint is that it doesn't take into account the role of romance in the story. If you're reading Twilight or watching Letters to Juliet your complaint about lack of development between a romantic pair would have more validity than if your media of choice is, say, The Lord of the Rings or Naruto. Romance clearly plays a larger role in some stories than in others; you can't expect an author to spend loads of time developing a romance when there's, for example, a war going on. Especially if the characters involved are supporting characters in a large cast. But even if one or both members of the pairing is a protagonist, only so much time can be devoted to the protagonist's romance.

The second problem is that “developing” a romantic subplot in a story where romance has a relatively small role requires tying it to the main plot, or at least to a larger plot line. Hogwarts doesn't have a school dance every year; instead, they have a special Yule Ball that is part of the Triwizard tournament and connects Harry's competitors in the tournament more closely to Harry and his friends. In HBP, the clues that Remus and Tonks like each other are hidden among general news from the war. This limits the amount of information that can be provided about each couple's interactions.

Often those who cry out for “development” will point to examples of stories in which the protagonist and his/her love interest—or else two co-protagonists—share some adventure and through it fall in love. That's all well and good as far as it goes. But it's unfair to expect every adventure story to take that route. This is where I, personally, appreciate a little touch of realism. In some stories, the protagonist pairs off with someone that they meet later in their adventure, or someone they left behind who didn't get to come on the adventure. Or perhaps two supporting characters who only interact a little bit on-screen or on-page while the adventure is going on pair off at some point. The fact is, these examples are much closer to the reality of how people meet and fall in love. The Speed method of romance is by far the exception rather than the rule in real life love stories. Most people meet and fall in love under far more mundane circumstances.

And such mundane circumstances are hard to tie to the main plot. A good example is the story of Arwen and Aragorn, which Tolkien chose to tell in an appendix because it didn't quite fit into the canon proper of LOTR. That's because their relationship was mainly established in quieter times, before the war of the ring began. The cinematic version found a way to work Aragorn and Arwen's relationship back into the main plot, but what worked for the film would not necessarily have worked for the already very dense storyline of the book.

The complaint of lack of “development” seems to set up a false dichotomy. Either the romance is fully integrated into the main plot, or the author is not “allowed” to pair those characters together. IMO, that is much too restrictive. I like romance. I want to see it happen in many different ways, not just the His Dark Materials model of love in the midst of struggle. I even enjoy having a pairing revealed as a “surprise twist” in the plot, as long as it's not involving a POV character, and as long as it doesn't “undo” another pairing that I enjoyed more. (And even then, sometimes I can forgive.) I think authors should be allowed to have a wide variety of options for including romantic subplots in their stories.


And now, some multi-fandom tribonds I came up with in the last day or so:

1. Faramir...Molly Weasley...Ron Weasley

2. Prince Zuko...Eowyn...Luke Skywalker


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Current Mood: accomplished accomplished


Quite a Machiavellian Figure
Tue, Nov. 15th, 2011 08:51 am (UTC)

Yes, let the love stories be free!

1. Had a brother (or brothers) who died?

2. Partially raised by their uncle?

Nate the Great
Tue, Nov. 15th, 2011 11:02 am (UTC)

no, fully raised by their uncles ;p

ReplyThread Parent
Wed, Nov. 16th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC)

Right on both!

ReplyThread Parent
Tue, Nov. 15th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
this is very interesting- but one point- really?

how is two characters interacting little on/off screen more realistic? I don't get it.

like okay if comparing to real life- i can see it as online dating/ speed dating equivalent but i would think they would later get to know each other more and then their relationship grows....

like i can imagine the character who have little interaction on the actual story do have a huge backstory on how they fell in love and grew into a relationship but the author didn't put it in the actual story.
i mean like, to take an example that you gave- letters to juliet the relationship between sophie and what-his-name didn't showed much on the surface- but in terms of learning to find common ground and learn to be a better person- appreciate what the other person has is realistic (it's also realistic that she broke up with her fiancee because they really didn't had much things in common anymore)

i don't know like i find this a subject with like no right-wrong answer for the most part.
(like the only example i can think of bad developed romance was harry and ginny in the movies)

but i liked your post- it made me think a lot

Wed, Nov. 16th, 2011 06:06 am (UTC)
Re: this is very interesting- but one point- really?

Thanks for your response. As to how it may be more realistic to only see the characters interact a little: Basically, if the story is not focused on romance, if it's an adventure story, for example, or a war story, it would be realistic because people don't often marry/pair off with the person they are on an adventure with or fight in a war with. They may end up with someone who was left behind while they go on their journey, or who they meet someone after they get back or possibly near the end of their journey.

I mean, for maybe the most obvious example, take a look at war stories. War tends to be fought primarily by men, at least traditionally (and probably not less than 90% or so of those men would be straight), so there isn't even much potential for romance between characters who interact in the story, esp. if the story is focused on front line fighting. (There's more scope for in-story romance in a story like, say, Pearl Harbor where more attention is paid to the support personnel, e.g. nurses.) So for example, some people dislike Sam/Rosie and Aragorn/Arwen in Lord of the Rings because they are this kind of war romance, where the man was away fighting and the woman waited at home. The focus of the story is on the war, so there's only a little scope for interaction between the characters on the page. Most of Aragorn/Arwen's interaction was relegated to the appendix, but there are a few moments in the canon proper where they don't exactly interact, but there are significant clues that there's a connection between them. However, there is more interaction between Aragorn and Eowyn, because Eowyn didn't conform to the standard of her gender and she made herself more directly involved in the war and therefore she had more opportunity to interact with Aragorn. So a lot of readers prefer Aragorn paired with Eowyn instead. The reality is that many men go off to war and leave behind wives or girlfriends that they return to, and while I have no hard data, I suspect that's much more common than meeting and marrying a woman they find out on the war front. Sam/Rosie is v. similar, except there are even fewer indications--in fact I don't think Rosie is mentioned at all until the very end of the third book when Sam comes home. (She does get to appear a bit earlier in the movies). But again, that's not an uncommon scenario in real life.

Now, even if we take away the unequal representation of genders in certain kinds of stories, I would still contend that it's more likely for people to marry someone they meet under mundane circumstances rather than someone they have some sort of epic adventure with. But again, I have no hard data for this; it's just a general instinct.

Edited at 2011-11-16 06:08 am (UTC)

ReplyThread Parent
Too cute for evil
Tue, Nov. 15th, 2011 10:25 pm (UTC)

Show don't tell is a hugely important bit of advice that far too many writers fail to heed.

I think UST is grossly overused. I chalk that up as a symptom of the fact that many storytellers substitute antipathy for chemistry and don't really know how to bring two characters together romantically. Also, I want far more stories that involve a couple that is solidly together and dealing with other stuff. Too often, a couple gets together and then their bond is tested. Okay, maybe once a bond could be tested, but over and over? Ugh.

While I'm complaining (sorry; I didn't mean to do it), I would like to remind characters that there are 7 billion people in the world. Yes, about half of them are not your preferred gender (unless you're bi or pan), and a whole lot of them are really far away, but chances are, you have more options than this guy who's awful to you or this guy who's kinda creepy or this guy who… (Yeah, I'm talking about Hot Gimmick all of a sudden.)

Wed, Nov. 16th, 2011 06:29 am (UTC)

Show don't tell is a hugely important bit of advice that far too many writers fail to heed.

Yes, I don't disagree, but I tend to feel more forgiving about it than a lot of fans that I've encountered over the years. The thing is, the writers can't show everything, can they? I mean, important as this rule of writing is, it has to be applied judiciously. I'm reminded of a review of Goblet of Fire that joked about the fact that his fourth year of school was the first time Harry Potter had taken a bath! I mean, it was nonsense, of course, and I believe--and I certianly hope--it wasn't a serious criticism, but sometimes I see complaints by fans that an author has supposedly violated this rule that are almost that silly. Not everything needs to be shown. The things that are most closely tied to the themes and to the basic core of who the characters are must be shown, but depending on the focus, the genre, and other factors, some things may reasonably be relegated to a passing mention. (Of course there will inevitably be different opinions on which is which. It's my view that which woman (or man, as the case may be) a person fighting in a war or going on a long adventure marries when he (or she) gets home is one of the things that an author can simply tell me, and I probably won't object.)

Also, I want far more stories that involve a couple that is solidly together and dealing with other stuff.

Agree with this, so much. It's a failing of TV shows, in particular. They often do a really great job spending maybe a season--or two, or even more--getting a pairing together. And then once they're together the writers just can't seem to leave them alone. Instead of creatively finding other ways to create conflict and drama for the TV series, they keep messing with the relationship in order to create drama. This has become a pet peeve of mine in the last couple of years. :/

...but chances are, you have more options than this guy who's awful to you or this guy who's kinda creepy or this guy who… (Yeah, I'm talking about Hot Gimmick all of a sudden.)

I love a good Jerk with a Heart of Gold romance when it's done right (See: Fruits Basket), but too often it comes across as though the heroine likes him because he's a jerk instead of because she sees the heart of gold before other people do. (And sometimes the writer fails at successfully giving him a heart of gold, too. That's usually a failure of "show, don't tell".)

ReplyThread Parent