Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
These last couple of weeks, we’ve been discussing polyamory. Today, I wanted to dive a little deeper into specific methods for introducing polyamory and polyamorous characters to your story.
If you’ve read my Art of Introductions posts before, then you know that there are good, bad, and meh ways of introducing various queer characters. However, like genderfluid characters, there aren’t quite so many cliches when it comes to introducing polyamory to your story, meaning that there aren’t necessarily bad ways of introducing polyamorous relationships encoded into our understanding of fiction. Therefore, today I’m just going to talk about some of the methods I’ve seen for introducing polyamory and discuss how they can be used in both good and bad ways.
Perhaps the most common form of polyamory in modern fiction is a situation in which an established monogamous couple takes on a third. This often happens because one of the partners wants to involve a very special person in the relationship. Sometimes, this is accepted by the other partner — either because they live in a culture where plural marriages are the norm, or because they, too, feel an attraction to the third. Other times, the original partner is hesitant or downright against the new arrangement.
This style of introducing a polyamorous relationship often lends itself to discordance in the relationship — the strain exists between the three members, one of whom might feel excluded or possessive. This sometimes ends in an ultimatum, but more often it turns out that the “invasive” third is toxic or otherwise betrays the primary couple. When the storyline resolves this way — or else creates a hopelessly unbalanced relationship in which one party is clearly inferior to a particular pairing — it reinforces the idea that polyamory is unsustainable, immoral, or greedy.
If you’re thinking about introducing polyamory to your story this way, consider a happy ending, or at least a nuanced discussion of the relationship model after the fact — don’t just have everything collapse back into a monogamous relationship by default!
I would name this as “coming out,” but as I discussed previously it’s a bit up in the air whether or not polyamory is a queer identity, and so I don’t want to automatically prescribe the “coming out” label to them.
However, polyamory is not standard in society, and there are a number of ways to be polyamorous. Therefore, it makes sense for a group of characters in a unique relationship dynamic to explain their relationship to those around them. When done properly, this method of introducing polyamory functions the same way as letting your characters come out. They get to retain agency over their identity, you can present the information in a respectful way, and avoids ambiguity
Sometimes, it just makes sense that three individuals would end up together. This was the case in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season — that Triad/Vee relationship felt completely natural and had lasting impacts on the overall plot, and was satisfying for the reader.
Love triangles can be extremely annoying, and there’s been many a Tumblr shipper who’s pointed out that such frustrations could be resolved if all three characters got together. In practice, this doesn’t always work out — narratively, a decent love triangle like the one in The Hunger Games actually represents a broader choice to the protagonist, rather than a banal decision as to who to sleep with.
However, if the narrative demands that a protagonist make a decision between two distinct partners — and therefore two distinct life paths — but then subverts the reader’s expectations by allowing the protagonist to create their own path by blending the two options after finding them unsatisfactory alone? That would be really damn cool.
This is a space a lot of queer characters live in, and the way some creators score extra diversity points or “get away with” queer rep in their narratives. The best example of this for polyamory in recent media is probably Hollyhocks eight dads from Bojack Horseman.
They are never the butt of the joke, though there are some dysfunctionalities shown. The comedy of their presentation, rather, is that they are presented as just being there. Some people have questions about the sheer ratio of dad to daughter, but it’s not disparaged or shown to be toxic toward Hollyhock herself. In fact, a big part of Hollyhock’s storyline is just how satisfied she is with her fathers.
This can be used well, but know it’s a shallow method of introducing polyamory to your story, and as with all characters whose identities are played as funny it can be easy to stumble into something harmful.
In some stories, polyamorous relationships require no fanfare or special development — they simply exist.
Arguably Hollyhock’s dads fall into this category, with how matter-of-fact their depiction is, but another great example is in Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet.
In Pet, Redemption’s parents are a triad — a mother, a father, and a nonbinary parent named and referred to as Whisper. There’s a brief explanation that these three individuals share responsibility and custody of Redemption, and that they are all equal partners, but there is little focus paid to the dynamics of their relationship. They simply are.
This is particularly cool because it’s so casual, and can present polyamory as a concept as simple as monogamy. Monogamous relationships require no in-depth discussions about how the dynamics play out or what each partner means to the other, because our touchstones for that relationship model are so ubiquitous. When it comes to polyamory, it’s easy to get caught up on the idea that it’s “complicated” — when really, it’s just a network of relationships, and we all know what relationships fundamentally are.
If you just place a polyamorous relationship in front of a reader and say “this is how it is, and this is normal,” people will get it. It’s a bit outside what we might see as standard, but it doesn’t take too many logical or emotional leaps to understand.
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back soon with a discussion about tropes to avoid when writing polyamory, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!