Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Dude, Who Broke YOUR Heart?" (Or, My Treatment of Relationships In Fiction)

One question I get asked with some regularity is "Can't you ever let two of your characters hook up and just be happy?" I've taken a rather dim view on happy relationships in my work since back when I was just telling stories to my five friends who played in my RPGs -- any time a couple finally resolved its unresolved sexual tension, you could count on one of the partners dying, going evil, losing their memory, or meeting some similarly dreadful fate. Even those who have been encouraging me for some time to "go public" with my stories have raised skeptical eyebrows at my approach to love stories.

Some people have suggested that I refuse to portray a happy relationship because I've never been in one. I won't bore you with my personal life, but suffice it to say that anyone who's ever met my significant other would quickly laugh at this notion. (Incidentally, folks, she's the best creative mind in our relationship, and I look forward to co-writing some things with her soon so that you can all see how amazing she is.)

Other people suppose that I'm simply following in the footsteps of my (de)mentor, Joss Whedon. There's some truth to this -- Whedon is fond of committing relationship massacres. (See i.e., Buffy season 2, Buffy season 6, Serenity (!!!), Dollhouse season 1).

But mostly, I take this approach to relationships because it's the best way to tell stories. Fiction is not real life, and things that are acceptable in real life are intolerable in stories. For instance, a person might happily accept a period of months or even a year in their life with little notable activity, but writing page after page of a book in which nothing significant happens is the quickest way to make sure the book sits on a shelf gathering dust. (I suspect even the most avid readers would have little patience for "He woke up. He ate Cheerios for breakfast. He brushed his teeth. He put on a suit. He went to work." Etc.)

Stories require conflict to sustain them in a way that real life does not. So while harmony may be desirable in actual relationships, narratives thrive on interpersonal tension.

To put it another way, Unresolved Sexual Tension can add to a story in a variety of ways. It can be a catalyst for character change or growth, or a way of bringing out aspects of a character that aren't otherwise obvious. It  can create animosity between potential suitors in a love triangle. It can create those "awwww" moments that make you want to throw popcorn at the screen. And so on. Resolved Sexual Tension does none of these things.

So no, I'm not a hater or anything like it. The cold truth is that stories are just better when you don't give the characters what they want (romantically speaking, at least). It's like they say in The Godfather: "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."

And who knows, maybe someday I'll surprise you all. Maybe ....


  1. So far, I have had it both ways - a short story where everything is wrong, and 2 books that center on a happily married couple and how they get through things that come. Tension comes in other ways :)

    I've watched most everything of Joss Whedon's and I'm usually wondering "WHY?!" throughout because of his propensity for not only breaking relationships, but flat out destroying them in the worst ways possible. Drives me crazy! But he tells good stories so I keep coming back.

  2. Wow - I must admit, I never gave much thought to whether I should keep two characters apart on purpose. They just did that of their own volition. I believe in throwing well-defined characters together in the middle of some action and letting them 'get on with it'.
    Oh, in one instance I wanted to 'kill off' one of a lovely cople, but couldn't bear it (I hate killing people, even if just on paper). So I staged a fire/rescue situation instead. I think it added another twist to the story, instead.
    Looking forward to reading the sequel to Atticus - will Hunter ever find love?

  3. Wendy - Joss is good at not just killing but DECIMATING relationships, it's true.

    Ella - That would be telling. :)

  4. As a reader, I always like the "friends with Benefits" angle where one or both parties start to get attached and try their hardest to hide it to preserve the friendship. Great drama.

    BTW, Picking up my Kindle fire this month and Your books!

  5. Every week we get a New Yorker, and every week it has a piece of short fiction about how it is impossible to connect with other human beings especially ones you are romantically involved with. I have to say I am totally sick of that narrative. I keep waiting for a story about how you can connect with other people and there can still be problems in your life but then you have other people to solve them with you. I feel similarly about all classic plays about how having a family stifles your creativity and prevents you from becoming the awesome worldly writer you know you can be. You don't really write in either of those genres but since you brought up relationships and story telling I just thought I'd put in my 2 cents which is that I would love to encounter some piece of literary fiction that recognizes the value in and the possibilities for human interaction. I think it could be interesting.

  6. WARNING: Very minor spoilers for "Atticus for the Undead" lie ahead.

    Everything you say is totally legit, but it's certainly not my intent to convey human interaction as without value or as automatically impeding one's progress. It's true that I tend to put friction in the family relationships in my fiction, and that I have a particular tendency to portray strained parent/child relationships. Having said that, I try to glorify the concept of family and of close interpersonal relationships overall in my writing.

    Look for instance at "Atticus". Each member of the Hunter/Kirsten/Sabrina unit (which is a little extended family, albeit not a biological one) is strengthened throughout the book by their relationships with the other members. It's established early on in the book that Hunter would be a much less successful lawyer without Kirsten to back him up, meanwhile Kirsten and Sabrina both develop significantly as characters because of the sisterly bond the two develop. And Sabrina is the one who finally smacks Hunter upside the head at some key moments (much to your relief, I suspect) and opens his eyes in important ways.

    Even romantic love is, in some ways, glorified -- notice what finally gives Kirsten the courage to overcome her shyness and deliver her closing. She was "strengthened," if you want to use that cliched formulation, by her feelings.

    The only thing I tend to shy away from is showing resolved romantic/sexual tension over the long haul.

    In the end, though, the book you read is more important than the one I wrote. If you think I've gone further than I intended in portraying the difficulties in interpersonal relationships, please tell me how. I cannot improve without hearing such feedback.

    Many thanks,

    John A

  7. Incidentally, Ms. Aster, when you get a chance, would you mind copy-pasting your review of Atticus to Goodreads? (Preferably with star count intact.)

    No hurry though, I know you're a busy lady. :)

  8. Oh yeah, I can add it goodreads. Since I have 2 friends on goodreads (you and Geoffrey) I didn't think it would actually help you. Can everyone see my reviews?

    I didn't think Atticus was actually an example of a story about how there's no point in ever making any human connections. I think you're right that there were clearly important and valuable relationships between people in Atticus. Since you were talking about the general role of romantic relationships in stories. I was adding my general thoughts on romantic (and familial) relationships in stories.

  9. Fair enough. On principle you're completely right. Even as cynical as I am, I would find fiction that portrayed close relationships and family bonds as either impossible to achieve or unworthwhile to be both not-enjoyable and not-realistic.