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8 Fictional Relationships That Avoid Plot-Swallowing Tropes

When the romance is one part of a well-balanced whole.

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It’s Spring. “Love” is in the air, right? Like, literally. Tree love, flower love—it gets in your nose and makes you sneeze, and … okay, so I’m exaggerating, and my science leaves something to be desired, but you get the idea. Depending on where you hang out on the Internet, it’s become somewhat of a popular idea lately to be critical of romance plot lines in our entertainment. It comes, I believe, from people’s frustration at the entertainment industry’s insistence on shoehorning in a romance, even when it might not fit the story, and leaving the viewer/reader with the impression that without some sort of romantic angle, a story will always be in some way incomplete.

Now, I’m not opposed to peppering a story with romance. I enjoy it, often even when others are rolling their eyes and lamenting yet another story that could have been told without it. That said, there are more kinds of love than the romantic, you can have love without a triangle, and there are also good stories with solid characters who just happen to be in love, and whose romance does not overshadow the plot and other characters. I want to focus on characters and stories where the romance is subtle and/or unexpected and does not “take over” the other elements of the story. Obviously, I can’t cover every single possibility, so you might find your favorites left out. No worries—that’s what potential future articles and the comments are for!

Leela and Fry from Futurama

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He may be an idiot, but he’s her idiot! Leela and Fry have been consistently sweet in a weird, humorous, irreverent way that could only have been presented by a weird, humorous, irreverent show with just the right amount of heart, like Futurama. As only one aspect of a show featuring an ensemble cast, Leela and Fry’s romance was only sometimes the focal point of an episode or arc, but when it was, it was worth waiting for. I think my favorite exchange between them was in the episode “The Why of Fry”:

Leela: “You know, Fry? I don’t care if you’re not the most important person in the universe. It really makes me happy to see you right now.”
Fry: “Then I am the most important person in the universe.”

Normally, that kind of sweet, romantic stuff might make me roll my eyes, but coming from these two, it was just the right words at just the right time. Just enough, and not too much—just like the show.

Nym and Eogan from Storm Siren by Mary Weber

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This YA novel does not assume that love has to be a triangle. The romance between Nym and Eogan stays between the two of them, and the other characters who might have been used to make a tripod of their love are firmly in the realm of friendship. This fantasy novel is set in world with super powers, warring kingdoms, and contains themes of nonviolence as well—although Nym’s power has killed and is very strong and dangerous, she does not want to use it violently. The elements of romance in this story settle in between the cracks of the other themes: freedom, violence, and identity. Storm Siren is Book 1 of a trilogy, including Siren’s Fury (Book 2) and  Siren’s Song (Book 3).

Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres on Star Trek Voyager

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With a long-running science fiction show with a large cast, it might be easier not to let the romance get in the way. Paris, the sarcastic, calculatedly chill ace pilot, and Torres, the half-Klingon engineer with anger issues, seem like an unlikely pairing, but their slow burn of a romance started for real in the episode “Day of Honor” when they were floating in space, running out of air, and the previously non-serious Paris unhooks his air supply to give B’Elanna the last of it. There were only a few episodes that featured their relationship. Usually, it was expanded in bits and pieces as the plots and arcs advanced, and each snippet showed how each character was encouraging the other to grow and change for the better.

Nomi and Amanita from Sense8

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For a show where the romance, plot, and action are all given fairly equal footing, there’s a bit more graphic sexual content than one might expect; however, this did not detract from my love of this show. Nomi and Amanita’s relationship was probably my favorite, with Amanita’s determination to rescue her lady and get her to safety as a leading reason. They’re supportive, fun, and stable (well, before the whole “weird powers” thing happens and their lives fall apart).

Even compared with some of the other romances and potential romances on the show, Nomi and Amanita seem healthier and more together. Neither of them is a career criminal, engaged to someone they don’t love, hiding a closeted lover, or suffering debilitating, crushing loss of a previous partner and child, and although Nomi’s parents are not particularly savory characters, both women have surrounded themselves with supportive friends and families of choice. My favorite quote is when Nomi is in danger and Amanita says, “I will burn this building down before I let anyone touch that beautiful brain.” I believe her. And I believe in them.

Eve and Wall-E from Wall-E

Fresh from the Tear Farms of Pixar, where they imbue inanimate objects, artificial intelligence, and even actual human emotions with the essence of our feels, Wall-E made me fall in love with the musical Hello, Dolly all over again. Not to mention that it answers the age old question: yes, robots can love. … Shut up. Just watch Wall-E and tell me it’s not real! *sniff*

Zoe and Wash from Firefly

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Okay, it’s too soon. It’ll always be too soon for this bereft Browncoat, but let’s talk for a moment about Zoe and Wash, and how many people gasped out loud in the theater when the Leaf-On-The-Wind Incident occurred. It’s not okay, and I don’t expect to feel anything but sad about it for the foreseeable future, but before The Jossing, they were pretty great, weren’t they? There were the few, stolen moments where you just knew that, behind closed doors, they were probably at it like mad weasels, but the show tended to close the curtain, so to speak, on a lot of those moments and let the audience infer from their public behavior that their marriage was cooperative, communicative, and … active.

Raisa and Han in The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima

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Raisa is a young princess who will become the next Queen, and Han is a street orphan with a heart of gold. I don’t want to spoiler the book too hard, but Raisa is unwilling to sacrifice the good of her Queendom for her personal happiness, and Han isn’t willing to be anything but the best he can reach for and be. They are two of the most determined young protagonists in a YA series that I have ever met, and I love that through it all, they manage to retain their senses. Raisa isn’t messing around with the future of her people, and Han isn’t going to just stand there and pine away for her. Any “triangles” are due to potential political arrangements and are never used just for the sake of complication. If you like complex characters who think, act, and love, and if you enjoy YA fantasy with strong female leads, this series might be for you!

Bob and Linda Belcher in Bob’s Burgers

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I feel like Bob’s Burgers follows the Futurama formula in that it’s a cartoon show for adults that uses irreverent humor but never lacks heart and empathy. At the heart of the show are Bob and Linda, who run the restaurant and keep their kids fed and alive. They have their issues from time to time, but their priorities are in order: each other and the family first. In the episode “Seaplane,” Linda is bored with their date nights and takes a flying lesson from the notorious “Upskirt Kurt,” who proceeds to fake-crash on an island and try to seduce her. Linda doesn’t even flinch; she’s like, “I’m married, you idiot!” and punches him.

Meanwhile, Bob’s rescue attempt ends up with airplane shenanigans that rekindle their romance. Bob and Linda always have each other’s backs, whether it’s putting up with weird relatives (Linda’s sister and her paintings of animal buttholes), or dealing with their own kids: the precious unicorn that is Tina and her erotic friend fiction, Eugene’s table setting competitions, or Louise’s tendency to run a scam given half a second (shh, it’s Art Crawl). The Belchers have it together in all the ways that matter, even if the restaurant doesn’t bring in the big bucks, and Bob and Linda’s love story is both touching and real.

So, from where I’m sitting, single on the couch with my cat and a degree in library science, what I’m saying is that if someone asked me what kind of love I’m looking for, I would say that I’d rather be Linda to a Bob, Raisa to a Han, or Leela to a Fry than play Sexy Sex Sex With Sad Vampires or let my romance overshadow my other relationships and life. I didn’t mention Zoe to a Wash because, well … it’s still too soon.

Sara Goodwin has a B.A. in Classical Civilization and an M.A. in Library Science from Indiana University. Once she went on an archaeological dig and found awesome ancient stuff. Sara enjoys a smorgasbord of pan-nerd entertainment such as Renaissance faires, anime conventions, steampunk, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. In her free time, she writes things like fairy tale haiku, fantasy novels, and terrible poetry about being stalked by one-eyed opossums. In her other spare time, she sells nerdware as With a Grain of Salt Designs, Tweets, and Tumbls.

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Sara has a B.A. in Classical Civilization and an M.A. in Library Science from Indiana University. Once she went on an archaeological dig and found awesome ancient stuff. Sara enjoys a smorgasbord of pan-nerd entertainment such as Renaissance faires, anime conventions, steampunk, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. In her free time, she writes things like fairy tale haiku, fantasy novels, and terrible poetry about being stalked by one-eyed opossums. In her other spare time, she sells nerdware as With a Grain of Salt Designs.