Writing about non-standard relationships

This is me writing as a reader not a writer.

One of the blogs I follow has a post up by the author discussing a certain level of frustration the author is experiencing with reviews of the author’s most recent book.  I haven’t read the book, but according to the post the love triangle in the book is resolved with a polyamorous relationship.  (I’m not linking to it here or naming the author just because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who reads it.)  The author is frustrated by reviews that basically criticize the book on principle.  As in, “Polyamory.  Ew.  Gross.”

(Actually, I’d be surprised if anyone writing a review like that even used the term polyamory, but I could be wrong.)

That post reminded me of a book I read a few years back that I still think of as one of the worst books I have ever read.  A large part of the reason I think that book was terrible was the mishandling of the polyamorous relationship in the book.

(I should disclose that I am not myself polyamorous.  I know people who were and moved on from it.  I know people who sort of kind of are now.  I’ve never ruled it out for myself, but I think it’s probably unlikely that it would work for me.)

So, keeping in mind that I am not myself poly, what did I think was wrong about that book I read a few years ago?

First, I thought the main female character was weak.  As I recall, she ends up in a four-way relationship at the end of the book.  But at multiple points throughout the book we’re told that she can’t possibly sleep alone.  So, she goes to visit some friends/business associates and ends up needing to sleep in the same bed with them because she can’t sleep alone for one frickin’ night.  And earlier in the book she has someone else sleeping with her who she knows has an interest in her even though she doesn’t return the interest because she can’t sleep alone.

As someone who values strong female characters, I was less than impressed with a female character who is supposed to be a leader who came off as that needy and weak.  And a bit of a user.

Second, the polyamory overwhelmed the plot.  Granted, this was a book with plot issues to begin with.  (Oh no – a very important character is going to die.  Well, good thing we managed to find the solution to our months’ long problem within ten hours of that happening.)  But I would estimate that about a fourth of the book revolved around the sleeping arrangements for this particular character.

Third, and I refuse to go back to even look at that book to confirm this, but the whole final arrangement just didn’t ring true to me.  The friends I have or have known that are in these types of relationships, I could see and understand why they were in them.  In this case, it seemed like a plot device.  Or a misunderstanding of how these things work.  (Said by the person who didn’t write the book and has never been in that type of relationship.)

A good author can present you with something you’ve never before encountered and make you believe it.  That did not happen with this book.

So, now that my little rant over that specific book is done, what are the lessons I would pass on to anyone wanting to write about a non-standard relationship?

1. Make it believable.  At the end of the day, no matter who you’re writing about, the reader needs to believe that this relationship could exist in the world you’ve created.

2. Don’t do it because it seems like a cool thing to do.  Or a unique thing to do.  Do it because it’s the right fit for your characters and your story.

3. Don’t force it.  If you have to twist the plot so out of true to make the relationship exist in the first place, then reconsider whether it needs to happen.

4. If you can, research real life examples.  (Obviously, a mermaid/werewolf relationship is going to be a little hard to research.  But you should be able to find information on any type of human relationship.  If you’ve never been there and don’t know anyone who has, then honor the people who have by learning about their lifestyle.)

4. Like anything else in your book, don’t let it overwhelm the overall story.  (The Left-Hand of Darkness has a very unique relationship in it.  But that relationship is something that happened in the past.  It’s threaded throughout the whole book and is part of the climactic final scene, but it’s never shoved down the reader’s throat.)

I’m trying to think of good examples I can give.  And I’m sure I’ve read some, but I suspect that the reason I don’t remember them now is because they were handled well.  So, whatever weird relationship was just part of the overall story.

Anyway.  Tread carefully.  I will never ever read a book by that one author again.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
This entry was posted in General Musings, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Writing about non-standard relationships

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    I admit: I go with that in my series. I had it happening in the second book, but my beta readers didn’t much care for it. And, I admit, I rushed it. So I’m slowing it down and dragging it out (which makes the ending better because the triangle isn’t resolved–you have to get the third book to find out what happens). I think it will end up working. And, at any rate, it’s not the entire plot–just part of it. And my female character doesn’t do it out of weakness..

    • mhleewriter says:

      And I think it’s great to explore alternate relationships. (And the author whose post triggered mine received a ton of positive feedback from readers who appreciated the fact that they had done that.) I just think it has to be done well. (And it sounds like you’ve at least approached it in the right way.)

  2. +1

    You have no idea how much a forced and poorly handled love triangle pisses me off when reading a book.

    (Okay, maybe you have some idea.)

Comments are closed.