Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Friends or Lovers?

After starting the week talking about falling in and out of love with TV shows, and with something I have planned for later in the week, it looks like I've got a good theme week for Valentine's Day set up, so I may as well go with it. Not that I really do Valentine's Day, and it's not just because I'm not in a relationship. Even if I were in a relationship, I don't like the idea of assigning a calendar date to something that should be genuine and spontaneous. Plus, I'm already tired of those "He went to Jared!" gold diggers in the commercials that come on constantly (and, really, aside from the commercials, I've never heard of Jared. I'm not sure I've seen a store. I certainly wouldn't get so excited to get a gift from there that I'd text message all my friends in the middle of a date. I might be mildly excited to get a little blue box from Tiffany, but even there I'd wait until maybe the next day to mention it to anyone).

But still, love is in the air -- or, at least, the commercialized representations of romance are ubiquitous -- this week, so it looks like I've got a blog theme. Yay.

Yesterday on the Fangs, Fur & Fey community there was an interesting discussion about "the friend zone" in books (and other forms of entertainment). The initial question was how can you make it clear to readers that your characters are just friends and aren't going to get together, but then the discussion progressed into discussing reader expectations, storytelling norms and the way human brains are wired.

When you think about it, it's incredibly rare in book series or in TV series for any man and woman who work together or who are good friends to remain just friends. They almost always end up together romantically -- and even if they don't, a large percentage of the fan base will desperately want them to be together. Even the best intentions to keep things in the friend zone can crumble under the weight of 'shipper demands. Look at The X-Files -- in the first few seasons, Chris Carter was constantly saying that Mulder and Scully would not become romantically involved. I remember a specific quote about how some fan told him that if Mulder and Scully ever kissed, he'd throw his TV out the window, and Carter said his goal was to keep that fan's TV safe. And then by the end of the series, they were together, were kissing, sleeping together and calling each other affectionate names. But even that was kind of a cop-out, as it was one of those "Oops, when you weren't looking, they totally got together" relationships that wasn't satisfying for anyone.

But is it because of seeing any couple that works together or is close in any other way ultimately getting together throughout almost all entertainment throughout recorded history that we expect this, or does it have something to do with the way our brains are wired?

The only way anyone in the discussion could really come up with to convince readers that, really, they're just good friends was to have one or both members of the pair in an outside relationship. And I would add that the outside relationship needs to be more compelling than the possibilities of the working relationship, or else needs to show that it gives the character something he/she doesn't get from the working relationship. The best example we were able to come up with was Mal and Zoe on Firefly. They were close friends and comrades in arms who'd gone through hell together and who trusted each other absolutely, but they were just friends, and that was okay because she was married to Wash. With Wash, we saw a totally different side to Zoe where she was funny, warm and even giggly. She was more human with him, with all her rigid control and emotional barriers dropped in a way she never was with Mal.

But, you know, there was still plenty of fanfic about Mal and Zoe being together, so you can't please everyone, no matter what you do. You also can't dictate how people will respond to what you write. No matter how compelling you make a relationship on the page, there will still be somebody who wants a different couple to be together -- and some of those people will be totally convinced that all the evidence points to that being what should happen.

And then it occurred to me that maybe it has nothing to do with the writing. Based on my years of Internet discussions and thinking about what I like, I suspect that a lot of the fun for many people isn't so much in seeing a happy couple together, but rather in exploring possibilities for something that's a little more ambiguous. Subtext is a lot of fun to play with. When it becomes text, it's not as much fun because there's less room for the imagination. I generally classify myself as an anti-shipper for most series, but really what I mean is that I don't want them to overtly get together until near the end. The series relationships I enjoy the most are the ones that take place in that odd little twilight zone where the relationship couldn't be called purely platonic because there is something going on beneath the surface, but it's also not yet overtly sexual or romantic, either because of internal issues for the characters (they're not ready for a relationship or worried about messing up the relationship they do have) or because of external issues (sexual relationships between partners are against regulations, and they'd rather be able to keep working together because that's what matters most at the moment).

In that zone, there's a lot of room for subtext, where each little touch, look, comment, response or action can take on multiple layers of meaning. But because the relationship has not yet gone to a truly romantic or sexual place, there are also lots of other motivations that could be a factor. In that zone, the characters may have to think about and consider the implications of dealing with their feelings -- and contrary to what seems to be the prevailing trend in American popular culture, not every feeling has to be acted upon. Denial and restraint can be extremely sexy. Plus, if they're even a little bit in love, whether or not they admit it, and they aren't sleeping together, that means they have to find other ways to consciously or subconsciously express that, and in fiction that leads to a lot of little things that add up to being sexier or more romantic than scenes of naked people writhing around in bed. It's like the way old movies made during the days of the strict Production Code can be so very, very hot, because they had to get really creative to convey those emotions when they weren't allowed to show so much as a long kiss.

Of course, the trick then is that when you do finally allow the characters to have their happy ending at the end of the series, you have to live up to a LOT of expectations. Part of the problem with both books and TV series is that you seldom know when the series really is going to end. Authors probably have a little more leeway than TV writers in deciding to end a book series when they want it to end instead of getting it dragged out beyond that, but both fall prey to premature cancellation.

So I guess I have to re-label myself from "anti-shipper" to "end-of-the-series-shipper." I like lots of good friend stuff with a little zing to it, followed by them finally getting together in a satisfying way that pays off everything that went before. Easy as pie, right?

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