Q&A

How Do I Prevent an Implication of Romance Between a Man and a Woman?

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How can I have a male character and a female character work together and NOT imply they’re romantically destined for each other?

-Dave L

Hi Dave,

I wish the answer to this was just “Don’t give them any chemistry or make them seem interested in each other,” but unfortunately, many people will still assume they’ll end up together. Simply leaving out chemistry worked pretty well for the show Elementary, but those helming the show also outright told people there would be no romance, and even after that, they had to prove they meant it. Few written works have the opportunity to get the word out that way.

So, here are some ways to signal that no sparks will fly:

  • Make one or both of them queer, with no attraction to the opposite gender.
  • Make them family; they could be a sibling team.
  • Make their ages really really far apart; one of them could be a sort of mother or father figure or a mentor long past their prime.
  • If one or both is monogamous and has an existing partner that can help, but writers often eliminate the partner to start a romance. However, if one or both of them are happily married and the spouse is also present in the story, that will help convey the arrangement is permanent.
  • It will also help if you make the woman conventionally unattractive – it doesn’t work in reverse because there are too many stories where ugly dudes hook up with hot chicks. But we could use more women characters who aren’t around to be sexy anyhow.

I hope one of those works for your story!

Chris

Update 7/8/2019: I just wanted to say a little more on the attractiveness aspect, since some commenters have rightly pointed out that it’s bad to send the message that unattractive women aren’t worthy of romance.

While I clearly put my foot in my mouth there, when you are making decisions for your story, using unattractiveness to change audience expectations doesn’t necessarily mean you will send that kind of problematic message. For instance, giving her a happy relationship with someone other than the male protagonist shows she has romance in her life, while also making her seem less like a love interest. It lowers suspicion that you will kill off her partner so a romance can begin. Of course, if everyone starts doing that we’ll end up with a pattern where unattractive women never get romance plot lines, which is not great. However, there are so few unattractive women protagonists in popular stories right now, that frankly, it would probably still be a step up from the status quo. That’s why I decided to include it on the list.

That said, sometimes it’s also worth it to not cater to unfair audience expectations. Your story may take a hit, but you’ll be helping to change them for the next story.

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Comments

  1. Dvärghundspossen

    I’d say it works for Judge Dredd, who’s had a number of long-term female partners over the years, but the comic has been around since the nineteen seventies, and he’s been pretty thouroughly established as aromantic and asexual.

    I agree with Chris that it’s probably difficult to do (although there are good suggestions in the answer) when you DON’T have decades to establish something, since it’s been SO drilled into us as an audience that a man and a woman always gotta have romance.

  2. Cay Reet

    With my first novel, I took the easy route to make sure my female lead (who is also the main character) wouldn’t get into that ‘will they, won’t the’ thing by making the male character she would be most likely to be shipped with gay. They work together as a team – they are going through the big confrontation together -, but there’s clearly no sexual attraction between them.

    I’m not sure whether the age difference will always work – some people do ship characters who could easily be father and daughter or mother and son.

  3. Alice

    I usually rely on setting things up so a romantic interpretation would look slightly creepy, but I don’t know if that’s wrong of me to do.

    Like, in one of my stories, a man and an ancient spirit read as female become affectionate friends. She knew his parents and interacted with him when he was a baby, which I find removes romantic possibilities by painting her almost as a family friend. Age is obviously a factor but is easy to forget in the story since they look and act a similar age, so I hope it’ll work.

    For less specific ideas, I’ve also been clear in some stories to show that the characters have a type that is nothing like their companion. Say, your female character is bubbly and blonde while the male character likes gentle brunettes.

    Sometimes I work on establishing character development, flaws and personalities that make it very (maybe too) clear what type of nonromantic relationship they will develop. Like if the woman is grieving the loss of her brother and a guy with similar qualities comes into her life, my readers (I hope) will get the picture.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      This reminds me of the Swedish sci-fi TV series “äkta människor”… There was a British show, which I think is just called “Humans”, based on it, but I don’t know if they did the same thing there.

      Anyway, in ÄM, there’s a guy we later learn is a cyborg in a romantic relationship with an android woman. She’s one of a minority of androids who think and act autonomously, like humans. Ok, so far so good, nothing weird about this (given the show’s premises, that is). Later on, however, we learn that she’s been basically his nanny since he was a toddler… and when he grew up, they became girlfriend and boyfriend. And that’s… pretty weird to me. (They look the same age, like early twenties, but that’s obvs because she’s an android.)

  4. tealstar

    A lot of good ideas in this response, and I completely agree that fiction needs “more women characters who aren’t around to be sexy.”

    But making a character conventionally unattractive for the purposes of signaling a lack of romance could create the implication that conventionally unattractive women are unworthy of love, which is something there needs to be less of in fiction.

    It doesn’t have to give that impression, for example, if the character in question became involved with someone else, or if the story in question has no romance at all, but I think it’s something to be aware of.

  5. Innocent Bystander

    Sadly, having been in the fandom scene for awhile, most of the suggestions won’t completely deter people from shipping. 1) Some people don’t care about sexuality; I’ve found a few fics where a gay character is “cured” of their queerness by a heterosexual romance. 2) Incest is a thing. 3) Age gaps don’t matter to some fandoms. 4) Killing off or demonizing the love interest is a thing. 5) Is probably the only thing that would really kill off any interest in shipping.

    Honestly? My advice is to just let them be and not worry too much about how people take it. Make it clear that they’re not going to be a couple and leave it at that. You’re never going to convince absolutely everyone, but as long as your intentions are out there, that’s what matters.

    • Cay Reet

      As much as I would like to disagree, my time in the fan-fic scene has also taught me that nothing you do to dissuade people from the notion that those two people need shipping will help.

      You can just do your best to present them as friends, then duck for cover and see the ship wars happen.

  6. Tiberia

    One issue I want to bring up is that having to take such steps does also give the idea that men and women can’t just be friends without something else stopping them from entangling the sheets. But as Chris said, just having them be friends with no such chemistry SHOULD work, but too often doesn’t. It’s like opposing capitalism, but also needing to eat and pay rent, so you have to get a job that props up the system. Just unfortunate.

    I do take issue with the last suggestion however. I think its wrong to use this method. It sends the signal that unattractive women are clearly not wanted. It puts too much focus on looks as the measure of desirability. Its the same as having a love interests only traits be “attractive”, therefore the the protag want’s her. In this case, she lacks “attractive”, so protag not want her.

    Other than that one issue, these are generally good suggestions, that are unfortunately important to keep in mind sometimes.

    • Tiberia

      Oh. Tealstar said almost the exact same thing as me. I should read the other comments first in the future XD

      ALSO, forgot to mention Seargeant Murphy from Robocop. She is a fantastic character to look at for this subject. AND the way it is signaled there is no Romantic interest is done with the Protag, not her. He’s a Cyborg married to the law.

  7. Jacob

    Considering fans tend to ship anything anyway I’d say the best would be to ignore this part (let them dream) and focus on your story.

    And to make it clear in-story that nothing will happen a good solution may be a clear and powerful lampshade. That’ll make thigns clear for those who won’t insist on putting romance everywhere and should be the target of your “no romance message”.

    Something like “Being together would ruin our lives.” or “What kind of crazy match-maker could see us as compatible?”, even something breaking the fourth wall if the story can work with that. should be a good enough message.

  8. Matt

    There’s Dobby x Sorting Hat fanfiction. I’d say it’s pretty much hopeless. That being said those are all good suggestions (except for attractiveness) that will help as much as possible.

  9. Amaryllis

    I wonder also, how to describe a woman as clearly unattractive in a non-problematic way? Because I notice that quite oftenly I tend to assume female characters as attractive “by default”.

  10. Leon

    Friends often have chemestry, but that doesn’t mean they’ll sleep together or have a romantic relationship.
    Why is it important to exclude this reality from a story?

    • Cay Reet

      There’s a difference between romantic/erotic chemistry and the chemistry between two friends.

      Otherwise, there will always be people who read a romantic relationship, even if you don’t write one.

  11. Leon

    No. I’m talking about friends who would be lovers if they were both looking for that when they first met. Or friends who are like lovers only they don’t get stinky together. I know a few people like that.
    Though, the closest example i can think of in fiction is Annie and Kat from Gunnerkrigg Court.

    … Chemistry means personA + personB + catalyst = hot stanky mess doesn’t it?

    • Leon

      Phoebe and Joey from Friends would probably be a better example.

    • Cay Reet

      Not necessarily. Chemistry means the people have a rapport, they work well together, they connect on a certain level. That can be romantic/erotic. It can also be a deep friendship level (like BFFs). Their biochemistry works together, you could say. They trust each other, they rely on each other, they know the other person in and out. That can be construed as ‘possible romance,’ but a romantic chemistry also includes a spark of interest, even if it’s deeply buried or one or both deny it. A lot of queerbaiting which isn’t on purpose comes from writers taking that deep friendship too far.

      I’ve never seen Kat and Annie from Gunnerkrigg Court as a possible couple myself and I’ve read the comic from page 1. They always seemed to be very close friends to me. But, perhaps, that is the problem for some people – that they think all deep friendships must also have a romantic/erotic component, which they don’t.

  12. Aya

    I think those are good suggestions, but then I remember this game called “Ib” and think it is a hopeless war to fight. The girl is 11 years old, the guy is over 18 AND QUEER, and the relationship is like of a protective big brother (or big sister, as there is the possibility he is a trans girl). Guess if people shipped them even though that’s pedophilia?
    We should do our best, but shouldn’t feel so frustrated when readers ship them anyway. People just love shipping characters.

  13. Dave L

    It’s not that I don’t want people to ship my characters

    But if I have a man and a woman work together and people assume they’re going to fall in love, then when they don’t people will be disappointed

    People will feel like I’d set up for something w/ no resolution, when that’s not what I was trying to do

    Thank you, Chris, for your answers

  14. Rakka

    Modesty Blaise does very good job at this. Although the worshipfull “oh no I it wouldn’t cross my mind” attitude Willie has towards Modesty has its own …potentially regretful implications, the “we are adults, sex is fun and something totally separate from this particular relationship” is a refreshing and rare dynamic between heterosexual partners in crime/fighting. The series shows its age in plenty other ways but the dynamic between main characters is still solid gold.

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