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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Jessica’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)
There 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!