Platonic Protagonists: Can Heroes and Heroines Just Be Friends?

So I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front lately, but I thought I’d get back into the swing of things this week with an examination of some more Uncharted Territory in Fantasy. Full credit for this post’s topic goes to Kumquat Absurdium, whose comment from earlier this year has inspired me to take a closer look at platonic male-female relationships in fantasy stories:

“Why can’t you have a male and female protagonist combo that remain completely platonic throughout the book? We need a movement for this – support #PlatonicProtagonists! It’s not strictly a fantasy problem but it is a problem in fantasy as much as anywhere else.”

Now to be honest, I love a good romance, and I’m not at all averse to sexual relationships in the fantasy I read and watch. That said, I think it would be refreshing to see more platonic friendships between men and women in fiction, because the different dynamic that these relationships offer can be satisfying and rewarding in its own unique way. It might also better reflect the fact that men and women can be friends in real life.

I do, however, think there are reasons we don’t see a lot of male and female protagonists in such friendships: 

  • Readers expect romance – if you introduce male and female characters of roughly the same age who interact a lot (without mentioning a family relationship or alternative sexual preference) people presume a romance will ensue. This is especially true if there are only two main characters.
  • Some readers want romance, and if they expect one between two characters and don’t get it they may be disappointed… or start writing fanfiction, which admittedly would be a more positive result.
  • There is a depth to romantic relationships, not to mention a presumption of exclusivity, that can create all sorts of drama: heartbreak, jealousy, betrayal, desire, sacrifice, promises of undying love and devotion. I’m not saying platonic relationships can’t have similar levels of drama and complexity, but that they might be harder to create.
  • Sexual tension adds suspense to a story and pulls readers in, and a platonic relationship lacks that tension.

I have personal experience with the first point above: I once wrote a male-female platonic friendship into a manuscript, and after receiving feedback I changed one of the characters’ genders so they were both female. This was because people kept presuming it was a budding romance, in spite of the fact I hadn’t written it that way, and changing the gender was the easiest way to stop that presumption. You might think I could have left it as it was (and maybe nowadays I’d try harder to), but the problem was that the lack of “spice” or sexual tension confused readers: it looked like I’d written a weak romance instead of a friendship.

All that is to say, I don’t think it’s easy for writers to work platonic male-female friendships into their stories. However, I’m going to hunt for memorable fantasy books, TV shows and movies that have achieved it in spite of this difficulty.

Criteria

Before I launch into examples, here are the criteria I’ll be working by:

Only Male-Female relationships: you can of course have platonic relationships between characters of the same sex, but since the male-female platonic combo is more rare, that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

No family relationships: I’ll be avoiding any mother-son, sister-brother or other family relationships because those are pretty obviously going to be platonic (unless we’re talking about Game of Thrones I suppose…)

Significant friendships: I’m looking for relationships that are actual friendships, i.e. not just a man and a woman who don’t show much interest in one another, sexual or otherwise. Similarly, I’m excluding mentor relationships that have a teacher-student or parent-child dynamic rather than a friendship one.

Significant characters: as the topic is protagonists, I’m looking for characters that get significant enough treatment to be considered key characters in the story.

Examples of Male-Female Friendships in Fantasy

When searching for these examples, a lot of insignificant platonic relationships came to mind, as well as ones that end up being family or adopted-family relationships – the “surprise, she’s your sister/aunt!” kind of moments.

There were also a few interspecies ones (e.g. dragon-human, cat-human, dog-human, monster-human) that I decided weren’t worth mentioning since the anatomical differences seemed to make these default platonic anyway, usually with a rider + noble steed, or master + pet vibe.

However, once I got through all those, I did find a few male-female friendships that were memorable and significant:

Hermione and Harry (Harry Potter)

Book Cover: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

I know this can be a contentious one, given plenty of fans shipped a Hermione-Harry romance or believed there should have been one… but if you look at the books and movies, there is nothing significant to suggest anything other than a platonic friendship between these two (I don’t think Ron’s jealousy counts, given it is shown to be unfounded).

Perhaps the desire for the Harry-Hermione romance is a prime example of why we see so few platonic friendships in stories… but Rowling didn’t give in to that pressure, and as a result I think this is one of the most prominent male-female fantasy friendships out there. It becomes particularly significant during Ron’s absence in the final book, when they have to rely on each other in bleak circumstances.

Gwenna & Valyn (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne)

Book Cover: The Emperor's Blades

Gwenna was my favourite character in this trilogy, particularly in the later books where she gets more POV chapters. She’s memorable because unlike some of the other female characters, who seem too heartless to form true friendships, she does have a heart (beneath all her rage), and befriends the men around her.

I mention her relationship with Valyn as he is the most significant male protagonist she spends time with, though she befriends other male characters. Granted, their relationship is often one of commander and follower, and they are both difficult characters, but I still think a kind of friendship forms between them, and it was a dynamic I enjoyed.

Tenar / Arha and Ged (The Tombs of Atuan)

Book Cover: The Tombs of Atuan

I’m mentioning this one because it’s a platonic relationship I remember distinctly wishing had been a romantic one, but have since become undecided about. As the wizard and the high priestess are thrown together by fate, and their bleak situation prompts them to turn from enemies to something more, I thought they were surely heading the way of the romance.

Theirs does, however, seem to remain a friendship, which if you know Le Guin and her tendency to buck gender-related trends (which I now do much better than I did when I read this book) is not actually a big surprise.

Black Widow and Hawkeye (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Image: Hawkeye and Black Widow

This choice is a little controversial as I believe in the comic books these two characters have a romantic history. However, in the Marvel films, they do truly appear to be just friends (Hawkeye even has a wife and children at home), and very old ones at that.

I love that their friendship is one with a lot of shared history, and that they have a very strong bond without being an item. In the first Avengers movie when Hawkeye is brainwashed by Loki, Black Widow is the one hit the hardest, and also the one who pulls him out. Of course, Black Widow also forms a friendship with Captain America, but the bond between her and Hawkeye is older and stronger.

Jessica and Malcolm (Jessica Jones TV Series)

Image: Jessica and MalcolmJessica’s recovering-junkie neighbour Malcolm becomes a friend and assistant in this series (and never a romantic interest, as far as I can remember). Although on the surface they sometimes act like theirs is a purely professional relationship, and Jessica can be quite cruel to him, there is definitely a friendship beneath it all. It’s a rocky one, and they’re often arguing, but they are also usually there for each other.

I would have actually been disappointed if this one had turned romantic at any point, maybe because Jessica’s romantic relationships seem so inconstant and messy, and maybe also because I just liked these two as constant, bickering, platonic friends.

Tyrion and Daenerys (Game of Thrones TV series)

Image: Tyrion and DaenerysThere are actually a few contenders in A Game of Thrones for male-female friendships, but I’m picking Tyrion and Daenerys because I find theirs the most prominent and interesting, and because it’s between two very major characters.

I like that, unlike many other followers who are either in love with or blindly worship her, Tyrion is able to view the Mother of Dragons with a more critical eye (though still with hope and admiration) and is not afraid to tell her when he thinks she is wrong – just like a true friend would.

The Police Liaison

This is more of a category than one distinct example, because I noticed that one of my favourite urban fantasy tropes – the police officer who acts as the secret in-the-know helper and liaison for the supernatural people – often creates an enduring, platonic male-female friendship. Some examples include: Karrin Murphy in The Dresden Files, Tony Montenegro in the Mercy Thomson series, Darryl Morris from the Charmed TV series, and Jody Mills from the Supernatural TV series.

Do We Need More Platonic Relationships?

As I mentioned at the start of this post, there are reasons we don’t see a lot of these platonic friendships in fantasy. I for one would be an unhappy reader if all the fictional relationships I encountered were suddenly devoid of romance and sexual tension.

However, I also really enjoy seeing unique and prominent friendships form between heroes and heroines. Some of the examples I listed above are ones I loved and found touching, surprising and satisfying in ways that I wouldn’t have had a romantic element been introduced. Maybe we’re missing out on all sorts of equally fascinating and unique fictional friendships, simply because people don’t write them.

So while I probably won’t be leading the #PlatonicProtagonists charge, I think this is definitely territory that could do with more charting and I would love to see more of these friendships.

_______________

What do you think of male-female friendships in fantasy? Do we need more of them? And do you know of any good examples I failed to mention? If so, share them in the comments!

35 thoughts on “Platonic Protagonists: Can Heroes and Heroines Just Be Friends?

  1. It really would be nice to see more platonic male-female friendships in fiction. I hadn’t thought of Hawkeye and Black Widow, but that is probably my favorite on this list — they’re adults, they’re old friends, and they care deeply for each other without sexual tension.

    You’re absolutely right about reader expectations making this difficult, though. Even male-male friendships and female-female friendships are becoming complicated because online commentators insist that there MUST be a romance. It makes me sad because I feel like friendship itself is getting overly sexualized, not just in literature but in the culture at large — albeit slowly.

    I have to say, though, I’m not sure how to work in such platonic relationships, myself. I did have two main characters who were strictly platonic, but the story ended up working better if there was a little sexual tension (even if they were star-crossed and could never be together, alas!). I suppose one trick is to redirect the romantic element into another outlet (as with Hawkeye’s family, or with Ron). Another is to make one of them a voluntary celibate. xD

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes the online commentators really do like to find romance everywhere, even pairing off villains and heroes. I guess people enjoy reimagining the character relationships though, and it doesn’t change what’s actually in the book or film (well, maybe in some cases, but I think usually it doesn’t), so you can just try to ignore it. That said, some fan movements get so loud and full of outrage, esp. with TV shows, that is must be hard for writers and fans to ignore!

      Yes I can understand that, sometimes the sexual tension does just work well 🙂 I think redirection is a very good trick though if you’re trying for a platonic relationship (almost all the ones I listed above have the characters attracted to someone else). Voluntary celibacy is also a good one, or even asexuality (where you just can’t imagine the character being with anyone romantically). I actually saw another technique in the book I’m reading right now, ‘Blackwing’ (not mentioned in the post because I’m not far enough in to know how significant the friendship is), where the character simply stated in his internal monologue that although people often think he and his female friend/partner in crime are a pair, they are not, and there’s no attraction there. Seems obvious and simple, but it actually worked really well!

      Liked by 1 person

    • That must be really interesting to be in the process of removing a romance – great that you were able to recognise it wasn’t working and that the two felt more natural as friends. I’ve read a few books were I wished they’d removed the romance because it just felt weird and like it should have been a friendship.

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  2. I definitely think we need more platonic male-female relationships in fantasy, and probably all fiction. Without getting into social issues, I think our obsession with love interests and sexual tension between two characters who happen to be opposites is unfortunate. My closest friend is a woman, and even some of our other friends find it hard to believe our relationship doesn’t come with sexual or romantic intent.

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    • I agree! One of my oldest and closest friends is a man – fortunately most of our mutual friends understand it’s a friendship, since they’ve known us for a long time, but it is annoying that people so often presume there has to be something sexual or romantic going on. It can be a barrier to forming new friendships too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I totally agree that we need more platonic relationships in fantasy. It would be refreshing and show that such a thing is possible because it does happen IRL.
    However, I think portraying many romantic relationships feeds into reader expectations because we are conditioned into expecting such things. In some of your platonic relationship examples above, for several of them I expected the two characters to enter into a relationship: e.g., Black Widow & Hawkeye and even Harry and Hermione.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes you’re right, I think we are very much primed to expect romance in fiction. If you see
      “important male character + important female character = romance” enough times you just come to expect it. I guess to get away from that writers have to use other strategies, e.g. alternative love interests, different sexual orientations, different ages etc.

      I also expected Black Widow and Hawkeye to be in a romantic relationship at first, though not Harry and Hermione for some reason… maybe I was too young when I first read it to have learned to expect romance yet! 🙂

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  4. You are correct, in Marvel’s continuity Black Widow had a long relationship with Hawkeye. She also had a separate relationship with Daredevil, believe it or not. Something about all of them being highly skilled normal people, I suppose. Also, in the later Earthsea books, Tenar and Ged do become a couple… many years later, when they’ve both gone through a lot of other stuff. Tenar was married to a farmer and then widowed. Ged was the Archwizard but then lost his power at the end of The Farthest Shore. I think the book was The Other Wind, but I could be wrong.

    I often decide that characters should be “just friends” because there isn’t room in the narrative to pack one more conflict in. So I’ll have one of them be married or something that nips any romance in the bud. Besides, it’s my story, and I don’t have to write it as a romance if I don’t want to!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, when I read it up about it I got the sense Black Widow had been in a few relationships with other superheroes. I suppose the films focus on a period after those relationships are over so maybe that’s the reason for the lack of it in the films.

      That’s so interesting that Tenar and Ged actually do become an item in the end!! I haven’t read beyond the first three Earthsea books so I didn’t know that – thanks for enlightening me. I remember wanting them to get together when I was reading Tombs of Atuan, so maybe I need to read the The Other Wind now and see whether I actually like seeing my wish fulfilled 🙂

      And yes true, sometimes there just isn’t space in a story for a romance – and you certainly shouldn’t feel you have to write one in if you don’t want to!

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  5. You know, I’m also remembering the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows of the Queen” series, where the female main character and her best-friend-who’s-a-boy decided to go on a date and they agreed it was too weird and they should stay friends.

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  6. Great examples. More reason for me to read Brian Staveley. I tend to avoid romance in my writing, primarily due to, as you say, the prevalence of every story turning into a romance. In one of the things I am currently working on, I developed the main male and female leads in a brother-older sister type of relationship. But I did eventually begin writing a romance for a couple side characters. In my defense, that just sort of happened organically. I hadn’t planned for it. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Staveley is great! And that’s cool you’ve gone for a brother and older-sister vibe, I haven’t seen that kind of relationship a lot in fiction but when I do it’s one I really enjoy.

      I think romances that happen organically are probably one of the best kinds, since it probably means the characters have chemistry! Much better than forcing two characters together just for the sake of having a romance.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The two characters in question started as side characters that I had not intended to do much with. One was comic relief and one was a plot tool. By the end of it all, though, they had become my favorites and their roles expanded a lot.

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  7. I think it’s a lot easier to have platonic relationships in movies/shows than it is in books, because you have that extra dimension of seeing the lack of chemistry between two people. That’s not really something you can write, even if you’re the most talented writer in the universe.

    I definitely, 100% agree that there need to be more platonic relationships in fiction, but that also brings to mind the question of whether or not close, platonic relationships CAN exist between men and women. I’ve seen evidence both ways, and heard personal anecdotes to support both. What are your thoughts on that topic?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never thought about on-screen chemistry, but that’s true – if characters just don’t look or act like they’d romantically fit together, it’s easier to accept them as platonic (or even actively not want to see any romance between them). In books readers are freer to imagine the characters and chemistry how they like. Good point!

      As for in real life, I definitely think they can exist, since I have several good male friends, one of whom is a very old and close friend. (and those relationships are totally platonic… to the point where imagining anything more almost has a brother-sister level weirdness factor!). But I have also heard arguments from people who feel they can’t have true friendships with the opposite sex… so I guess maybe it just depends who you are.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. There’s definitely a way in which many Western/European based cultures prioritize the romantic/married couple over most other relationships. And, as you say, few relationships create more conflict than an unstable/new romantic relationship.
    Almost every example I can think of where two characters remained friends featured a different, better match, for one or both characters.
    I think a story where a character remains uninterested in romance is definitely a rarity, particularly among fantasy. Which is regrettable. As you say, it’s an assumption that audiences apply, further limiting the possibilities. But hopefully that will change with time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes true, I didn’t think about it but I’m sure it has a lot to do with culture and cultural priorities. I hope it will change too, I do think there is a growing awareness out there that it’s okay to write male-female friendships and characters who don’t seek out romance. I suppose if you also have writers introducing a greater variety of female characters in less romance focused sub-genres where there might traditionally only have been one or two added in as love interests or minor support characters (which I do see happening more these days), it makes such platonic friendships and characters more likely too.

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  9. Pingback: Platonic Protagonists: Can Heroes and Heroines Just Be Friends? — Thoughts on Fantasy – Julia Scheving's Website

  10. Haha! Glad to give you something to think/talk about. I love a good romance (Precious Bane is one of my favourite books), I just can’t stand it being shoehorned into a story that does just fine without it 🙂 There’s definitely a balance to be struck. I enjoyed reading this, thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for suggesting the topic! I had a fun thinking and writing about it 🙂 And I definitely know what you mean – I’ve read romances that felt shoe-horned in or awkward, and I just wished they’d left them out and let things be platonic, since the story would have been just fine or even better without them.

      I’ve actually never read Precious Bane, but since you say it’s a favourite and the romance is a good one I’ll check it out!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. To the writer of the piece, I wonder what would have happened if the manuscript ( one where gender was changed ) was shown to people of different sexual orientations ( I am assuming it wasn’t, I could be wrong ).

    As for platonic relationships, I wish there were more.

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    • I showed the manuscript to 3 or 4 people and I’m not sure what their orientations were, but probably heterosexual. I don’t know if the response would have differed if they weren’t – I guess it depends how much of a reader’s expectations come from their own personal perspective and feelings, and how much from seeing lots of male-female romances in fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Yeah I do think it would be refreshing to see more platonic friendships. I do think what you pointed out about why they aren’t there seem like fair reasons (especially since I’m one of those readers that want/expect romance). And it can definitely add to the drama. Harry and Hermione are a great example of a platonic friendship done well (especially cos I’ve never shipped it, so it suits me 😉 ) That makes sense about Guin, cos I’ve heard about her tendency to buck the gender trend. That’s a good one with Hawkeye and Black Widow. And Tyrion and Dany are a fantastic choice. Jody Mills is brilliant as well. I agree with you that platonic friendships can be great, though I wouldn’t want them to take over and do away with romance/sexual tension (that would be even more of a pity imo) Brilliant post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!! Yes I’m also reader who expects and likes romance in books, so I think we’re definitely on the same page on that front. As long as the platonic friendships don’t take over (which I’m guessing they probably won’t) give me more Tyrions&Danys any day!

      I also didn’t ship Harry-Hermione so that example suits me too 🙂 I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree with us on that front though!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Fantastic post! I really enjoyed reading this! And you are so right! There definitely needs to be more platonic relationships between charcters. When people of opposite genders can only serve as love interests to one another it tends to become unrealistic and cliched. Honestly, I think there need to be more friendships in stories in general, as often times friendships are overlooked in favor of romance or rivalry, or sometimes both at once. I love seeing strong and unique friendships between heroes and heroines, both in books and film and you chose some great examples!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I have never considered the importance of platonic protagonists before. I think it should be used more. Specifically the example you shared with Harry and Hermione highlights the tension of never having a romantic relationship. Readers want something to happen and when it never does, it drags the tension out longer until finally the reader accepts no romance will develop. This feeling has definitely kept me reading before.

    Also platonic relationships feel more realistic. There are so many times in real life where a relationship seems probable but never materializes. When written properly, platonic protagonists seem like a great tool.

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