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Building Platonic Friendships (Part 2)

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 9, 2019

Building a platonic friendship has its challenges, not only because as an author or creator of your webcomic you will need to handle the audience's propensity to assume your male and female lead will be romantically involved, but because of the demands you'll need to meet to make a platonic friendship believable and solid.

Signaling to the audience that a romantic involvement is off the table can be done via the characters' parameters or situations- perhaps their sexual orientations don't align for a coupling, or perhaps they're happily married or involved with others, or their age difference is too big. However, at least in this day and age, it isn't necessary that such elements of character design will be enough (even with same-sex friendship pairs), or they may potentially appear gimmicky (i.e. pretense to prevent “obvious chemistry” between the two, frustrating the audience or forcing them to feel the author's hand forcing a situation that would ‘naturally’ be different, assuming there is such a thing in fiction).

Note, that for this article and for brevity, I'm considering the platonic friendship as not involving any of these (that by no means implies they are problematic if used): mentor-student/ingénue, family (i.e. siblings/cousins/etc), incongruent sexual orientations, high discrepancy in power/rank/authority.

The reason I'm choosing to omit them is because my purpose is to explore building the platonic relationship without including any element that potentially bars or even forbids a potential romantic development between the two characters.

In my opinion, a strong platonic friendship between a male and female character needs a set of three elements in order to come across is rich, believable and non-romantic (yet still captivating):

1. A strong backstory

Friendships generally aren't built casually, if they are to last. They require some basis, something that both characters equally enjoy and get from each other that keeps them together: support, common interests, common motivations or common struggles. They must have some kind of bond, no matter how obscure, that has been built through common experiences. This could be school, work, the army, summer camp… or it may be some event or occurrence in their past that made them connect to each other. And this connection must have yielded powerful benefits for both of them, which only are reinforced down the line.

For example, they could be students who connect through their paper-chase “straight A” mentality, helping each other succeed, and through this connection they also gain mutual support for their extra-curricular problems, interests and worries.

2. The personalities have to be distinct, not identical

Friendships aren't built (necessarily) on a basis on similar personality traits. In fact many times, strong friendships are built between people with vastly different personalities, or even polar opposites- an introvert with an extrovert, a boisterous person and a quiet one, a tactician and a hothead, and so on. There's of course reason for it: usually personalities tend to complement each other. Friends will rely on each other's strong points and pick up each other when it comes to the weak ones.

Polar opposites though isn't the only personality combination for a platonic friendship. Two friends might share a lot of traits, but allow them to manifest differently. For example, both might have a short fuse, but one might explode in anger, while the other might appear cold but retaliate in a prank or other type of comeuppance.

3. The friendship must be mutually beneficial

It isn't a friendship when one only gains while the other only gives, even if it might have the trappings of friendship on the surface. An actual platonic friendship is give and take, and sincerity.

In all of this, the sex and gender of the two friends is irrelevant. Though a man and a woman, they don't treat each other as if their sex or gender is a major factor in the equation of their relationship. And this is often where in writing (not in real life) the challenge lies in building a hetero platonic friendship: the way the characters are presented and described, the way they interact tends to guide the audience's attention to an assumption that they are a potential couple rather than an established pair of friends.

So in the next part, I'll attempt to give some examples and ideas of how such a thing is done, and perhaps how it may be avoided.

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Gunwallace at 11:49PM, March 9, 2019

They do end up married though

usedbooks at 6:36AM, March 9, 2019

Partner romances ruin pretty much every police procedural show. They need to knock it off. :P But it is part of the "formula" so they probably won't. It wouldn't be bad if they could find that true strong bond relationship (like Tommy and Tuppence), but they go with the "tumultuous" romance which just makes things unpleasantly melodramatic. When you already have life-and-death stuff in the episode plots, the trivial little relationship drama garbage is patronizing. I stopped watching every single modern "whodunnit" because of that trash.

PaulEberhardt at 4:04AM, March 9, 2019

To quote a friend of mine at the end of a university project some years ago: "When we first met, I wanted to date her, but now that we'd actually have the time and opportunity, I just can't! We've had such a good time together she has become a buddy with boobs, if you know what I mean." I knew. At the time, I felt just the same way about another girl from our project group. You see, in real life, when you reached a certain level of familiarity with someone, but have missed the point when you could have made out, you begin to think of the other as some kind of sister (or brother, respectively), rather than a potential lover. There's even a technical term for that in psychology, which I can't remember right now. For pretty much the same reason, adopted siblings will often find the thought of marrying one another just ridiculous, even if nothing would technically speak against it. If you ask me, this is too good an opportunity for playing with audience expectations to let it go to waste.

PaulEberhardt at 3:58AM, March 9, 2019

Platonic friendships often evolve among people who have been working together for a long time, ideally at some demanding, potentially world-saving occupation. They spend most of their lives together, they know each other better than anyone else, and they enjoy each other's company. They probably meet in their free time, too. Only, a romantic relationship has never kicked off and wouldn't even occur to them. Now, it's of course a classic trope in many stories that such a couple at some point realise what they've been shamefully neglecting all those years and decide to make up for lost time (and just at that point one of them dies or gets abducted or something, because a lot of authors seem to feel that this little bit of tragedy lends their scribblings a kind of depth that it could otherwise never possibly hope to get even cloe to). To my mind, though, a dash of realism would for once be the better idea here...

ozoneocean at 12:06AM, March 9, 2019

Good point about the mutually beneficial part, it avoids all the icky "friendzone" murk where one person has a sexual obsession and the other doesn't. That's not platonic really haha! There are also plenty of friendships where one person is doting and the other takes advantage of that- they're interesting to explore but not truly platonic.

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