Un-acted-upon mutual attraction in fiction

Here's a situation I almost never see in fiction:

Two people who are friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, find each other at least mildly sexually and/or romantically attractive. Each of them is aware of the other's interest. And yet, they don't become a couple, or even sleep together.

Phrased like that, it almost sounds like a situation puzzle, to be followed by the question “How could this happen?” or “Why not?” Some possible answers, drawn from real life:

  • At least one of them is in a monogamous relationship with someone else (and at least one of them doesn't believe in cheating).
  • They want different things out of a relationship.
  • At least one of them doesn't want or enjoy sex outside of the context of a relationship, and at least one of them doesn't want an actual relationship with the other.
  • Their tastes in sexual activities are incompatible; for example, one of them is kinky and one is vanilla.
  • They recognize that they would be bad for each other, and are strong-willed enough to avoid taking the common “ending up in bed despite knowing that they'd be bad for each other” route.
  • At least one of them is worried about the likelihood of falling in love with the other, which, if unreciprocated, could be difficult and painful for both of them.

And so on.

One reason I notice the lack of this kind of situation in fiction is that I see it all the time in real life. (For that matter, I'm fairly often in this kind of situation.) In the instances I've seen, it's usually not something that the participants are happy about; at least one of them would usually prefer that they could sleep together. But there's nonetheless an acknowledgment, albeit a reluctant one, that no, truly, nothing is going to happen.

In fiction, I can think of only one instance of this off the top of my head, from Parke Godwin's A Truce with Time, and I read it long enough ago that I'm not sure it was quite the same thing I'm talking about.

Well, okay, something similar happens all the time in TV shows, but usually only in the form of Unresolved Sexual Tension; the audience is kept interested by the possibility that the two of them could still get together. That's different, I think, from an understanding that the two characters will not ever get together.

Also different, at least in my head, is the Doomed Love plot, in which two people who are Meant For Each Other nonetheless fail to get together because of Fate. (I'm not sure how they can be Meant For Each Other if Fate keeps them apart, but anyway.) The Doomed Love plot is usually tragic, and I think usually ends with one or both Doomed Lovers dying (ideally in each other's arms); in this entry I'm talking about a more mundane kind of thing, where the people in question can live perfectly well without ever hooking up; there may be regrets, it may be bittersweet, but it's not Grand Tragedy and nobody dies (except inasmuch as everyone dies eventually).

Another thing that's not what I'm talking about in this entry: male/female friendships in which at least one person just isn't interested in the other. Fiction is full of Unrequited Love (or Lust). Grownup fiction is less full of platonic friendships between people of compatible orientations who nonetheless just plain aren't interested in each other (I'd like to see more of those, too) (happens implicitly all the time in kids' books, of course), but in this entry I'm thinking specifically of friendships in which the two people are explicitly interested in each other.

One more thing I'm not talking about: Hidden Love, a staple of romance novels among other fiction, in which both participants are secretly in love with each other but don't show it because they think the other isn't interested. In the situations I'm talking about in real life, each person is quite aware that the other is interested back.

(The reason I'm spending so much space on saying what I'm not talking about is that pretty much whenever I post about a very specific category or subcategory of situations, people think I'm making a much more general claim or statement than I intended. Here, as usual, I really am just talking about one pretty specific kind of situation.)

(Wrote this in December 2010, but didn't get around to posting it until now.)

(Clarification added later: weeks ago, I scheduled this to post on March 23 (an arbitrarily chosen date), and then I forgot about it. As it turned out, I wasn't anywhere near a computer when the scheduled date came along. If I had been, I would've delayed posting it for a few more days; its relatively light tone feels weirdly out of keeping with where my head has been the past few days—see next entry. And in fact, the close-in-time juxtaposition with that next entry is just too jarring for me; I'm resetting the timestamp on this to this morning instead of last night. Anyway, it's live now, so I figured I should just add a note making clear that I really posted this a few weeks ago rather than last night, when I was exhausted and had unrelated and more important stuff on my mind.)

2 Responses to “Un-acted-upon mutual attraction in fiction”

  1. yomikoma

    What would be the narrative purpose of adding such a relationship to a work of fiction? Mentioning that they are attracted to each other is kind of like hanging Chekhov’s Gun – it’s dramatically disappointing if nothing happens between them.

    • Jed

      What would be the narrative purpose of adding any relationship to a work of fiction? Some fiction strives to portray some semblance of the real world, in all its complexity and diversity; such fiction seems less accurate to me when it consistently leaves out certain kinds of relationships.

      I see what you’re saying about dramatic satisfaction, and I do really like dramatically satisfying resolutions, and happy endings. But an awful lot of fiction is ambiguous and bittersweet and leaves various kinds of things unresolved.

      Imagine that you’re reading a story and it mentions in passing that the protagonist has always wanted to end up in Bermuda. There are two major possibilities at that point: either the character ends up going to Bermuda, or the character ends up dying with their great life goal unfulfilled. But there are also a huge number of other stories that can be told in which the character never goes to Bermuda and is kind of disappointed about it but nonetheless has an interesting and fulfilling life in which other things happen, because Bermuda isn’t the point of the story.

      I guess another way of looking at this is that the idea that attraction implies the people will end up together is a genre convention, but it’s a genre convention across almost all genres of literature. The easy resolution is to have them either get together happily or tragically not get together; but there may be subtler and more interesting and less obvious ways that attraction can play out over time, without coming to a Strong Resolution.


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