Writing Polycules Is Tricky (And Interesting)

In a lot of media, a relationship is treated as a stable default middle to work from, and you can look to webcomics as a whole genre built around the idea where a relationship is either the stable end point you’re pursuing, or the stable middle ground from which all the shenanigans go. The Megatokyo Vs Ctrl-Alt-Delete spectrum, as it were. This pattern is true in most media too – with romantic comedies and family comedies being often two heads of the same horrible hydra, a creature that wants to show terrible people somehow redeemed by the credits when they get married, or lead off with a relationship that has clearly gone bad at some point as it pinwheels out of control. I didn’t need to make it a webcomic thing, but now you’re remembering that Megatokyo exists and it updated last week at least.

The banner still celebrates the webcomic being ten years old. Man, that whole fandom looks so strange from the outside. Still, good for them.

Anyway, I bring up Megatokyo because it is, first, funny to do so, but second because it feels like a wholly sincere artifact of this same concept space of storytelling in relationships that grew out of the 90s weebs who got into anime from a very specific place that probably featured Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo, the place where the harem anime was created and then immediately had its soul removed. In the very genesis of this is an entire generation of storytellers, often lonely and disaffected and creating in spaces without gatekeepers, made our own anime-inspired narratives that overwhelmingly still followed the idea that the story starts with no relationship and concludes when the relationship is obtained, and wow, we have some messed up views about women eh.

The thing is, one of the ideas that always got floated in these spaces was polyamory, second only to the horror of not straightness, which I kid you not, was cited as ‘cheap’ and ‘exploitative’ when introduced in serious discussions of fucking Ranma 1/2. Polyamory was seen as a cop-out answer, and was seen as untenable. After all, it either took the form of a bunch of girls who hated each other moving in together to live as Ranma’s wives, despite their animosity, or, suddenly and spontaneously falling in love with one another, which were both unrealistic outcomes.

This was literally all that was seen as the possibility of polyamory – and again, it was seen as the conclusion of the narrative. You couldn’t put those five characters under one roof! It would be a bad end to the story and they’d all fall apart! Terrible idea that!

I swear this month was not supposed to be so much about Ranma 1/2, but it’s a good grounding to work from. Because what I’m talking about here is in fact about how polycules, the cute term for polyamorous relationships, change assumptions about how you use relationships in media, based on the media you’re dealing with.

Specifically, writing polycules means that there’s just… stuff you kinda have to keep in mind. Characters in polyamorous relationships aren’t necessarily all going to pile into the same bed after the same 9-5 in the same house. Characters in polyamorous relationships don’t have this sort of media-sanctioned, pre-established trope-based ‘default space’ to work from. The binary monogamous pairing is so well worn that we can even signify the way characters interact with gestures and never need to explicate what their lives are like, but a poly relationship?

It’s inherently more complicated. Characters have always got an additional point of input and an additional observer. And that’s a good thing. It’s not that everyone should be in a polyamorous relationship in media work – that would be boring and silly and … let’s face it, would be used by a lot of media to just give the comedian boring man two hot girlfriends out of his league, ‘as a joke.’ But the thing is, fundamentally, polyamorous relationships, at least functioning ones rely on communication. You can’t just assume the two partners have nothing to do and will default to one another because there’s always at least one other person involved. They have to manage the way their lives intersect, who goes where and with what.

And that’s really interesting.

You get to see what people do with balancing commitments, and the thing is, you can do that. It’s not ‘well, I had to choose between A or B at some point, and B won, so A loses.’ That’s just such a… juvenile way to view relationships in any way, even in action narratives or jokey stories! Being in relationships is about communication and understanding, and relationships in media are handled well by giving characters reason to talk about things – why is this so hard to grasp as a bountiful field of exciting, interesting narrative?