Friends, Not Love Interests: How to Avoid Unintentional Subtext
There’s some saying that no matter what, when you put two people in a room together, people will want them to fall in love. Among fandom circles, two characters don’t even need to be in the same universe!
No matter what you do, if you’re writing two people as friends and not romantic interests (especially if one is male, the other is female), there will still be readers who want them together.
Why even bother trying to keep a clear distinction in your writing?
Most importantly: Because it can be really confusing to a reader if you’re accidentally implying one thing, and then you never follow up on it. High-quality writing looks and feels intentional, like you have a plan in place.
Writing is like juggling. If you throw a ball in the air, you have to catch it later on. If you use romantic subtext between some characters, you need to resolve it at some point later on.
If you’re writing romantic subtext and don’t even realize you’re doing it, then… you’ll drop that ball and leave readers confused.
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This Article is Based on Personal Experience
While I was reading a friend’s story, the two main characters seemed like they were set up to be love interests. There was adorable bantering, they kept saving each other’s lives, they opened up to each other and shared intimate parts of their lives. And somehow, through the writing, there was a romantic, almost sexual tension between them.
I told my friend that I thought these two characters would make an adorable couple. She just stared at me and said that she’d never even thought of that. She had absolutely no intention to have them as anything more than unlikely allies.
Sure enough, later in the story, any hints of the “romance” I was picking up on were immediately dropped. As a reader, it was incredibly jarring to see these two set up in a romantic light, only to have them hardly interact as friends a few chapters later. With no explanation!
Readers like to hunt for clues. They like to guess what’s coming. If they pick up on info they THINK is a clue, only to realize there was no purpose to that information after all, they may end up disappointed and feeling mislead.
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How to Avoid Unintentional Romantic Subtext
1. Go easy on the flirting, which may include teasing.
Friends can tease each other, but be aware of what the subject matter is. Steer away from teasing that one likes the other.
Likewise, be aware of their friends’ dialogues. Don’t have a mutual friend say “when are you two finally going to date?!” and they object “it’s not like that!” because that sounds suspiciously like foreshadowing.
2. Keep physical contact innocent.
They can hug and hold hands, because some friendships are like that. But not all friendships.
Don’t have hugs linger, don’t have fingers brush against each other. And maybe it’s not physical, but don’t have smoldering eye-to-eye contact. Word choice like that has a sensual connotation, so be aware of what effect your diction will have.
3. When one describes the other, keep it tame.
Don’t talk about his handsome face or the way his lips curl when he smiles. In general, focusing on the more tender spots of another’s body (such as the lips or neck) will come off as more sensual. Language like that is typically reserved for romantic relationships.
They can find their friend attractive, but you’re probably more likely to describe your friend as “dorky” or “good-looking” than something like “dreamy.” So watch your word choice.
4. Don’t let the characters even think in that direction.
Don’t have them explore the possibility—maybe don’t even mention it.
I mean, you can. Maybe you could give a background like “I thought it was a crush, but after a few weeks I realized he was just my best friend” or something. But if you don’t mention the possibility, a reader should be less likely to consider it.
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If it’s applicable:
5. Express interest elsewhere.
Maybe one of them has another love interest, even if it’s just a crush. Then it shows they are capable of having romantic feelings, they just don’t have any directed towards their friend.
6. Make them romantically or sexually incompatible.
Self-explanatory. Still, even if you choose this it’s important to consider all the above tactics as well, because you will always have readers who think one will “fix” the other or something stupid if your connotation and word choice is making it seem like they have a not-just-friends chemistry.
To summarize, watch your word choice.
The descriptions you use will shape how a reader interprets the characters’ feelings towards each other. Connotation can work wonders, so be aware of the tone you’re writing out between them!
Some more things to consider about friendship vs romance:
First, your readers will always make assumptions that you don’t intend.
There’s no getting around it: sometimes, readers will come to conclusions on their own. And that’s fine! That’s part of the fun of reading a story and making up your own theories.
But theories are born from clues in the book. When you’re unintentionally misleading, what SEEMS like a clue is actually nothing at all. It could leave readers feeling lost and confused. They thought they were on the train, but it turns out the train didn’t even exist.
Of course, it’s fine to be intentionally misleading. Plot twists and red herrings can be great for a story’s tension. But that’s the difference—intention.
Readers often pick up on tiny hints in your word voice, so you should be aware of your connotation and how it might sway a reader’s interpretation. They’ll think you’re purposely trying to set something up when in reality, you’re not. Later, they might be confused/frustrated when this assumed plot point is seemingly “dropped” with no explanation.
These tips are just pointing out ways to avoid being overly and accidentally misleading.
Second, friendships are very unique to certain individuals.
Some friendships will be more physical than others—even something typically more romantic, like cuddling or kissing, might be normal. Some friendships do lean more toward romance/romantic friendships.
It’ll depend on the situation, too. A lingering hug might be a right fit during a heartfelt moment. It all depends on your specific friendship. This article focuses on broad and most typically common distinctions between friendship and romance.
Third, I do NOT mean to imply that romance is “better” than friendship–because it’s not.
Both are important and both should be seen for what they are: an unique and irreplaceable relationship between two (or more) people.
Both will have intimate moments, but there’s usually a difference between sexually/sensually intimate moments and emotionally intimate moments.
Do NOT interpret this post as advice to “downplay” your friendship in fear of people assuming it’ll turn romantic. People will assume anyway, so be true to your character’s unique relationship. But there is a LOT of power in watching your word choice and being aware of connotation.
This post originally appeared on TheCharacterComma.tumblr.com.