Question of the Week: April 7th, 2015

How do you feel about romantic subplots in stories?

I like romantic subplots which are written well and given sufficient attention.  Although sometimes it seems like the protagonist of a story goes through a romantic subplot simply to check that off the list of story items.  I tend to think such characters should break up so we can all learn the true value of independence or whatever.

Just to use an example that most people would have heard of, I didn’t like the romantic subplots in Harry Potter.  That didn’t seem to serve any purpose, except that any story about a teenage hero has to have a little romance in it.  Harry’s relationship with Cho was fine though since they eventually broke up.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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21 Responses to Question of the Week: April 7th, 2015

  1. Foxnamed says:

    Oh I feel you on a SPIRITUAL level. Post-teenagerhood, I’ve become so confused about gratuitous romance subplots that aren’t meant to teach us anything about the characters, about relationships, or help move the story along. I also very rarely understand why they’re happening. Case at hand: The 100. Without giving away too much, 100 kids are sent to die in the wilderness and nearly all of them immediately start thinking about sex and romance and relationships. On the one hand, yes this does say something about the nature of teenagers on the loose. On the other, the deep, romantic connections formed by certain characters within days seem implausible, especially given the circumstances. Maybe if the show was more self-aware and tried to make a commentary, I’d buy it. But right now, it’s just confusing. Confusing and illogical.

    • luvtheheaven says:

      These subplots certainly don’t bother me. I haven’t read the book(s) The 100 is based on, I’ve only seen the TV series… but… What bothered me was the heteronormativity in all of the romance and sex (until the very most recent eps)… but in general, I totally believe that “life should be about more than just surviving” makes sense for these kids, especially at the very beginning when 98% of them were locked up in prison until they got sent to Earth… it made sense to me they would be using whatever chance they got to bond in this way, although um… the lack of using protection against STDs and especially pregnancy concerns me… lmao… I actually really like how Clarke was able to feel such strong romantic feelings for Finn while still putting them aside for the sake of the matters at hand – surviving, war, etc. I felt it worked well.

      In Harry Potter, I feel more inclined to agree. Between Lupin/Tonks, Ron/Hermione, or especially Harry/Ginny, the romances felt… “off” to me. I think in many ways, it’s because too many of the characters felt very asexual to me when I read the books. I tend to headcanon characters as aro-ace easily, even before I knew the words, and since we don’t see these characters doing, saying, or thinking things that make their sexual attraction for others overly clear… it just feels off to me. Most of the romantic feelings the characters seem to have for one another are things that in my head could easily be simply friendship and appreciation of the other. The way Harry feels toward both Ron and Hermione could easily be interpreted as “romantic” (and often are in fanfiction) because friendships run so intensely in the books, so what makes the romances actually a different category of feelings is unclear.

      In general, I think I agree with you, Siggy. “I like romantic subplots which are written well and given sufficient attention.” – I think I need the “sufficient attention” (and of course the well-written aspect) in order to appreciate it, since I am wtfromantic and asexual and can’t fully relate, I need these things really spelled out for me or else I’m not going to feel it. However, when it is spelled out for me, I can completely love it and sort of “be a romantic at heart”, a shipper fangirl or whatever.

    • Siggy says:

      I’m not familiar with The 100, but that does raise an interesting question. How should characters in an action/adventure-type story deal with romantic entanglements?

      In The 100 (according to your description), it seems like people are overly preoccupied with sex and romance when it seems like they should be more preoccupied with the armageddon. On the other hand, in Harry Potter, Harry just sort of puts his relationship with Ginny on hold while he fights a wizard war. I’m not sure that’s better because the romance is so underdeveloped that there’s hardly a point to it.

      A clear way out of the dilemma is to not have romantic subplots.

      • luvtheheaven says:

        I think a solution is for there to be multiple characters, who all act different ways. Maybe for some of them, romance and sex is at the forefront of their minds, because teenage hormones and they don’t want to focus on the war too much and they need something good in the middle of all the bad, I don’t know. Other characters don’t have time to be bothered, or call out the first characters for putting too much effort into romance at a time like this… or have their own good in the middle of all the bad, but it’s just friendship or other pleasures, creating music or art, something else to make them happy, I don’t know. Variety can show a lot of types of ways for it to work. Harry putting his relationship with Ginny on hold is different than Harry/Ginny never being written into the plot at all, which is different than doing things to keep his romance (and even sex life) with Ginny alive even during the war. And I think a talented writer can make any option work well, because idk… romance and sex is of utmost importance to some people, even in times of war… or presumably the apocalypse… and it really isn’t to others.

        • Foxnamed says:

          This is a week late, but I totally agree with you multiple characters suggestion. I think too often romance is treated in a normative, especially heteronormative, way. The relationships all start to seem the same. Great romances differentiate themselves. Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and I’d even group Hunger Games under here. While I’m only a little familiar with the first couple, as far as I know they explore relationships in realistic, contextual, and human ways.

  2. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Yes. I shall be eternally miffed with JKR about Harry Potter marrying the girl who had a crush on him since she was ten. Also, don’t get me started on Ron/Hermione. I could rant for hours about this while not being particularly original.
    Otherwise, I like romance subplots or (sometimes) romance plots that are convincing. This is not a very easily explained and a somewhat subjective matter, I’m aware of that.
    So, to try and explain anyway:
    I dislike plots where the romance is tagged on as an afterthought. (“There needs to be more human interest!” – “I can’t think of any other human interest but romance.”).
    If you insist on letting the hero end up with “the girl”, please make sure they have actual chemistry, otherwise, why should she choose the hero when there’s plenty of other guys to choose from? That said, any story where there is only one girl for the hero to fall for is a usually a fail in my rather feminist book. (Are there stories where the heroine gets “the boy”?)
    I like stuff that will resonate a little and keep my mind on the story even when I’ve finished reading/viewing. Means: don’t tie up every loose end. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave a romance subplot at artful pining or shortly after a break-up or anywhere else that isn’t the straight way up the relationship escalator.

  3. Sara K. says:

    Romantic subplots are so common that, unless they are particularly well-written or awfully-written, I am emotionally numb to them. That’s how I feel about the romances in Harry Potter – ‘meh’ (with the exception of Hermione/Viktor, which I found interesting). I was even a bit puzzled when J.K. Rowling came out and said that Harry and Hermione should have ended up together, not Ginny/Harry and Hermioine/Ron, because all of those pairings inspire me to do no more than shrug my shoulders (then again, I only like fiction which inspires something more than shrugging my shoulders, so this is a net negative for Harry Potter which is compensated for by its pluses).

    • luvtheheaven says:

      I feel like maybe JKR realized it was somewhat unrealistic that Harry would so easily literally become a part of the Weasleys by marrying the only girl in the family, and hence her “wish fulfillment” comment? I feel like the comment, years after the fact, about Harry/Hermione made no sense, and I wish she’d clarified more what she meant. The way I see it, Harry/Hermione and Hermione/Ron both could make sense, as could neither romance happening and them all just remaining friends… it depends on how she wanted to write it, and she decided to write it for Hermione/Ron. So… yeah. I don’t really get it.

      • Sara K. says:

        Now I have to quote Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which Siggy has also read)…

        Context: Harry Potter is 11 years old, and Hermione is 12 years old, when this dialogue happens.


        After a while, Hermione spoke. “Do you suppose we’ll fall in love with each other later on?”

        “I don’t know any better than you do, Hermione. But why does it have to be about that? Seriously, why does it always have to be about that? Maybe when we’re older we’ll fall in love, and maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll stay in love, and maybe we won’t.” Harry turned his head slightly, the Sun was hot on his cheek and he wasn’t wearing sunscreen. “No matter how it goes, we shouldn’t try to force our lives into a pattern. I think when people try to force patterns onto this sort of thing, that’s when they end up unhappy.”

  4. Hollis says:

    I enjoy well-developed romances. I also like reading about failed romances, one-sided romances, and all the messy things that happen in life, instead of this perfect wish-fulfillment everyone lives happily ever after with the first person they ever had feelings for stuff so common in books.

  5. Writer Ace says:

    I’ve found that I really like long-running or pre-established romantic subplots, like those of Carter/O’Neill from Stargate SG-1 or Mustang/Hawkeye and Ed/Winry from Fullmetal Alchemist. I find them believable and more interesting, because the story is less about “are we getting together, when will we get together, why does our entire life revolve around us getting together when the world is ending?” and more about, well, the story.

    The type that I most dislike is what I tend to find in YA. There are way too many love-triangles where I would rather the character pick neither of them and focus on the fact that the world is ending (or whatever is going on). Also, there is an unfortunate tendency to have the girl end up with a guy who isn’t really healthy for her. Authors (or maybe their editors) like to go towards the guy who is broody, mysterious, and “romantically overprotective” instead of towards something like a close friend who isn’t likely to stalk and potentially murder the main character in her sleep.

    I think romantic subplots can be done well and can have a place in a story, but that only really happens when the author stops making it just about having an excuse to write sappy/manufactured drama-filled scenes or erotica and starts actually making it about interesting character development and interaction.

    • Silvermoon says:

      To be honest, I don’t really like reading romance in my books in the first place (although I do find that I don’t mind in fanfiction sometimes, weirdly enough) so with subplots I’m mostly “okay, can we move on with the plot now?”- although, over time, I’ve become used to it because there’s no other option you know??

      But I definitely agree with you about romantic sub plots in YA fictions and the prolific nature of love triangles. The situations they usually depict seem so unhealthy.

      • luvtheheaven says:

        The main problem I tend to have with love triangles is it’s often everyone finding the same person attractive and it’s just like… I want to tell them to pick someone who’s not taken or pick someone who isn’t “the most conventionally attractive person around”, etc… 😛

        • Writer Ace says:

          I agree. I find that, also, the guy’s (because it’s basically always a guy) good looks end up being an excuse for whatever creepy and/or bad things he does, and it’s like, just because every female (except for possibly the token lesbian, though likely even her because secretly she’s really straight and just pretending to be a lesbian because…the author thinks that that’s what people do) wants to sleep with him or at least wants to be the figure on his arm because he’s also super rich and connected and really likes giving extravagant/useless gifts, it doesn’t mean the fact that he is a possessive stalker who tortured people in a past life is suddenly okay.

          • luvtheheaven says:

            In a lot of the teen TV shows I’ve watched it can be a girl too – in Smallville for some reason everyone is obsessed with Lana, It’s not just Chloe/Clark/Lana from the start, it’s also Clark/Lana/Whitney and a bit of Clark/Lana/Lex and Clark/Lana/Jason and Lana being the center of everyone’s attention makes no sense to a lot of fans. Or on The Vampire Diaries, it happens with both Stefan and Damon being obsessed with Elena. Actually, first they were both obsessed with her doppleganger Katherine (so they looked identical). both Katherine and Elena were not fighting other people for Stefan’s or Damon’s affections. It’s the beautiful girl deciding between two brothers who are obsessed with her, as if there are no other girls on the planet for them to consider dating instead. It’s just a frustrating plot either way.

  6. thezerohour118 says:

    At this point, I’m just pretty resigned to the whole thing. Romance sells, and especially in YA it’s really just business. Subplots that are clearly added in as an afterthought are a little irritating, sure, but at least for me they’re easily enough ignored. Harry/Ginny was eh, to be sure, but it wasn’t particularly upsetting. At least it wasn’t forced down your throat. The biggest problem I have is when they make a Big Deal of the get the girl thing.

    One of the bigger culprits of this I’ve found is the Hunger Games. Reading the books when I was younger (and before I’d discovered the words for aromantic/asexual and that it was actually a thing), having a strong female protagonist who was uncomfortable with romance was huge. In the first book she clearly wasn’t interested in Peeta except for survival reasons and was noticeably distressed by romance. Just the notion that it was okay to be put off by it was so important to me, not to mention how she had her best friend/partner watching her back in Gale. And then the end of the third book happened- she abandoned her closest friend and got together with the one who’d hurt her time after time. Despite multiple times saying she was uncomfortable with the idea of children and especially giving birth, Peeta pesters her until she agrees to pop out a few kids and stay home to raise them. Which I just… There’s romance that doesn’t belong, and then there’s that horrific thing. Most of the time I can get over even badly written romance, but that was just really jarring on a really personal level. Ugh.

  7. I read a book where the “romantic” subplot was literally a sentence here and there about the two main characters having sex. It wasn’t even like it was some steamy scene that just went over my asexual head. It was something like “After we interviewed the suspect, we went back to the hotel, took a shower to wash off the dust of the day, then had sex until dinner time.” Talk about pointless and manufactured.

    • Siggy says:

      I remember something like that happening in Cat’s Cradle! The protagonist meets someone, they have a negative interaction, and in one line it says they had sex later. Of course, it’s supposed to be pointless and manufactured, and generally reflecting poor judgment on the protagonist’s part. Now that’s the kind of romantic subplot I can deal with!

  8. rynwin says:

    My opinion of romantic subplots in any kind of long-running series is generally “leave it for the fanfiction.” Not because I dislike reading/watching romance, but rather that I usually don’t agree with the canon romantic pairings because I only find certain dynamics appealing, and watching two characters who I see as having boring or unrealistic romantic relationship fumbling around in the middle of an otherwise engaging story is just painful (this tends to be particularly true in anime). I’d rather they let me decide for myself how to define the characters’ relationships.

  9. AceBunny says:

    I think aromanticism/asexuality may influence my feelings on it, though it’s partly just my personality I think. Romance subplots like the Harry/Cho one generally get on my nerves at best, because it seems pointless if they’re just going to break up so fast anyway, and why were the characters so stupid, wasn’t it obvious it wasn’t going to work? And why should I care, anyway? But then, this is how I tend to feel in real life (this is not as mean as it sounds considering people for some reason come to me for advice on their relationships, so they must think my outside perspective counts for something). I don’t always really understand why people date people they’re not compatible with, or continue in relationships that aren’t working, or there are other very obvious issues etc, so I get frustrated when fictional characters do – even more so because I can’t tell the characters that I’m not sure it’s working…or that I think they should break up, already, or that their decision making is horrible. It’s especially bad if, as is so often the case, the reader is expected to buy an incompatible relationship, one where the characters don’t seem to know what infatuation is and what love is, one where the characters utterly fail at communication, one the characters aren’t putting any effort into, one that depends on oppressive gender roles, one that is outright dysfunctional, even abusive, and/or one that’s just plain unconvincing, as being ‘romantic’, true love or whatever, and in especially bad cases, may just make me dislike the characters and stop caring what happens in the story.

    (As far as the idea of them not putting effort into it goes, I don’t understand why people want to be in relationships anyway -obviously I do in theory, I just don’t ‘get’ it-, so the idea of going to the trouble, and then not taking it seriously at all, and just risking people being hurt, rather puzzles/irritates/upsets me. I think the fact I literally couldn’t be in one –obviously never ever experiencing it, if I did all of a sudden fall in love I’d see that as a big deal-, and romance is presented as such a big deal so often in fiction, means I find it hard to judge how much importance to place on a given relationship presented. So I get confused or bugged about if it’s serious or casual or if that’s unclear. Usually, if there has to be a romance in a story, I want to see it end well -at least with no hard feelings and being a positive thing on both sides, if not a happily ever after-, because otherwise it feels pointless or a negative aspect of the story to me)

    I think my annoyance isn’t really just about the characters’ behaviour in and of itself, it’s about amanormativity/compulsory sexuality, and how that kind of thing is often framed in narrative as a rite of passage, part of growing up, or for older characters, a positive adult experience, or if presented as a mistake, as a lapse in judgement that’s understandable, human, inevitable, irresistible. If people make poor decisions, I’m not going to be their cheerleader, I’ll call it what it is, which isn’t just to be mean, it’s because I don’t want them to get hurt or to hurt others (I do think how I look at it is influenced by seeing that happen rather too often in real relationships, and hating to see people upset, especially when it seems so avoidable), and I think better of sexual people than to accept that they’re not responsible for their actions. Stories often don’t frame it that way, which I think can be harmful. I realised that the reason romantic relationships in fiction often bugged me wasn’t because I wasn’t interested because I’m aromantic, it was because often the relationships presented genuinely were unhealthy or unrealistic in some way. Friendship still tends to be my priority in media (if a friend character gets ditched for a love interest, I will tend to be ticked off), but I may well still enjoy reading a well handled, believable, mutual and healthy relationship in a story. I may even cheer for them to get together.

    …I’ll skip over any sex scenes, though.

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