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Polyamory Won't Fix Your Love Triangle
We all get sick of love triangles in our fiction. We often find ourselves wishing the characters in these triangles, and other assorted shapes, would just go poly and love each other freely. But we also know that poly just doesn't always work like that in reality. Not everyone has the propensity towards polyamory. Sometimes the genders and orientations just don't match up. And very often, some of the characters who are in love with the same person couldn't stand to be in the same room together even before they fell for the same person—much less attempt an honest and intimate relationship together. Are there good dramatic (or comedic) reasons to employ love triangles? What other ways could we attempt to fix them? Do they need fixing? How would making them poly change them?
M: Debbie Notkin. W. L. Bolm, Ariel Franklin-Hudson, David D. Levine
#nomorelovetriangles for twitter
[once again I missed the intros - oooops]
When I came in, someone on the panel [not sure who] was saying they became poly after watching the movie Splendor (YES!)
W.L. talked about people being dismissive of poly because "hot threesome sex is not the same as a happy relationship".
David used cellphones as an analogy - cellphones fix plots. Look at any 80's movie and see how the existence of cellphones could have solved things. But... cellphones can also be used to create drama. Same thing with poly - it creates as much drama as it solves.
Ariel said you're not writing a good story if poly just fixes everything.
W.L. said we don't want a whole story about people trying to organize their google calendars (Ariel actually expressed great interest in a story told solely via google calendar entries lol).
Debbie asked about the difference between poly and porn.
Ariel discussed poly as a fic trope vs. real lived poly - they both have value.
W.L. related it to kink communities - there is poly, open relationships, swinging, lots of different ways to do ethical non-monogamy. You should know the difference if you're going to be writing about it.
David talked about the difficulties of depicting a realistic complex poly relationship in a story that isn't about that.
Debbie brought up Vonda McIntyre's Starfarer's series [sidenote: yes!] as having a good balance of setting up the poly relationships without sacrificing the other elements of the story. You can set up poly relationships the way any writer sets up relationships by just making it a part of the world building.
Ariel said you can say the same thing about some monogamous relationships in fiction needing a lot of set-up. Poly can be normalized within a story's verse.
Debbie related this to the deaf brother in Three Weddings and a Funeral - it's normalized but also a really brief scene.
David stressed that to really dig deep into showing what poly is - you have to do more set up for it. World building needs to set certain things up and that costs word count. You have to set up what poly means in this particular world.
Debbie said it all comes down to choices - writing IS choices.
W.L. brought up Torchwood - there was a love triangle that could be read as a healthy poly relationship. You didn't need things explained each episode - using context as you go means it doesn't have to use as many words to set it up initially. She used the example of historical novels where there are tons of mistresses and court intrigue - we don't have to have the concepts explained in detail, we catch up as we go.
Debbie brought up worlds in which poly is part of the world building vs. just putting poly into an existing world.
David added describing pre-existing poly relationships vs. setting up new ones is a similar thing. You can choose to expend the effort to convince the average reader that this is ok, but you're kinda going against history.
Ariel replied - well, recorded history anyway.
David referenced his new book, Arabella of Mars, in which people are doing poly badly. Napoleon is involved. As David was describing the interweaving of relationships and who knew about who doing what, he was using his hands and eventually stopped and looked "what is that a Z??"
He went on to say that a way poly might not be able to fix your love triangle is that society would not have accepted it.
Ariel argues that poly could have been happening a lot in history that we don't know about - only some people's histories were recorded.
An audience member talked about their first time wanting poly to be in their fiction was reading the Arthurian cycles as a kid. There was some discussion about a way to have a poly relationship in these types of historical fiction by switching the focus of tension from the love triangle to society/culture not accepting them.
Ariel - "we've all read the terrible threesome in Mists of Avalon right?" So it can be done very badly too. Also, characters can be poly and also miserable - that's ok.
She talked about Leverage, which ends things open to interpretation but it's obvious at least that the clear romantic duo are not placed as more important than the non-clear-romantic third person in the group. It's three people living together as partners in life.
Also Gentleman Jole and The Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold is referenced.
An audience member asked about fixit fics where they fix love triangles with poly where everyone is equal and cozy.
Debbie said that leaving poly out of it - there are no totally equal relationships.
Ariel talked about tropes as narrative choices not reflecting reality.
David brought up N.K. Jemisin's Fifth Season.
He also talked about how you can resolve a love triangle without it being an equal triad - it can be a vee, for example. Additionally, people love other people with different levels of intensity and in completely different ways.
W.L. talked about the "unicorn" thing in poly culture where the married couple is looking for their girlfriend. But there are so many different ways to be poly. She wants to see those explored more. Poly is messy, and that's what's fun about it.
David talked about the standard mono-romance story ending of "happily ever after" - that ignores the complexity of relationships too. Now, it's okay to ignore complexity sometimes and that can be true with the "happy threesome" trope too.
An audience member asks about audience expectations - specifically love triangles in ya fiction.
David answered that all fiction uses audience's pre-existing concepts against them (momentum jujutsu). Fanfic uses shared information as part of it's assumptions in set-up, allowing it to be more economical in word counts. There is a lot of male/male fic where the writer clearly has no idea what men do in bed together - but it's still a satisfying story.
An audience member brought up historical fiction and/or fiction in Southeast Asian cultures where the standard might be men with lots of wives. If the women in a harem, for example, have relations with one another, that can be seen as poly. It's not considered cheating because the women are seen as property not humans with agency. But can this be called poly because the power differentials create a lot of consent issues. If you are choosing not to be angry because you don't have the power to fight back - that is not the same thing as consent.
Also the idea that poly only really exists today because people do have more social equity.
David addressed this by saying that we're using the word poly for past situations similarly to how queer communities embrace historical figures as gay or bi. Those identities did not exist then, but this is the model we have to talk about them now.
Ariel added that history and language vs. the reality of sexual politics means we can still use narratives to tell stories in ways we understand. It can be interesting to explore a non-monogamous example from history that's not really poly.
W.L. addressed the not really poly if one person is seen as property thing by bringing up Hild by Nicola Griffith.
Debbie said that even in Western cultures - the definition of marriage has changed a lot over time, and even recently moreso.
David added that's also true for definitions of love.
An audience member tossed out some examples - Heinlein, Delaney - specifically Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.
David recc'd the movie Slash which is about slash fic.
An audience member mentioned that the word poly has only been around for 40 years or less. Even concepts like "open marriage" and "non-monogamous" are fairly new. Audience and panel members discussed some historical examples.
A member of the audience brought up that even in fairly recent years in Western culture, when a woman is financially dependent on a husband, consent is about how much power you have.
An audience member asked about putting any non-standard relationships in their writing and worrying about saleability. W.L. replied that there is more and more of this kind of representation as publishers are seeing a need for it.
A member of the audience recc'd Grasshopper Jungle, as well as an author whose name I didn't fully catch (Isabelle something?).
Debbie mentions A Brother's Price by Wen Spencer.
Ariel brought up Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Debbie mentioned Marge Piercy's Summer People.
An audience member brought up the movie Gone Girl for the "cool girl" rant re: consent and power.
One member of the audience used the phrase "standard poly culture" and everyone laughed. There is a narrative that it's hard work. Also the marginalization of people who have decided that it's too hard for them.
W.L. mentioned coupled privilege in poly culture.
Ariel said poly is not a magical unicorn fix - either in life or in fiction.
I tossed out Starhawk's Fifth Sacred Thing as a book with some poly examples.
Debbie and David both agreed that we're going to continue to see more examples of non-standard relationships in our media. It's coming.
[I wrote this one up too - haaa I write up a lot of panels. This was sort of a response to last year's panel about love triangles which was fabulous but I found myself getting tired of this idea of "just add poly" to fix them because poly doesn't necessarily Work that way, so I was a little nervous about how this panel would go over, but it exceeded my expectations and was mostly really cool.]