Writing Polyamorous Characters in Romance

Before getting into writing about polyamory, I feel I should probably explain what it is for those of you may be unfamiliar with this form of relationship. Simply put, polyamory is consensual non-monogamy, and this can take many forms.

There are not many examples of polyamory in media and fiction – certainly not positive polyamory.

In television, there are a few cases of ‘harems’ and polygamy that get shown, but these are different from the kind of polyamory that I practice and wish to discuss, in that they lack gender equality.

In many cases, these sorts of unequal examples are used to show how immoral a villainous character is, and polyamory should not be a calling card for characters with evil morals.

The biggest thing that gets assumed about polyamorous relationships is that they are inherently unhealthy. Off the top of my head at this moment, I can think of five examples in television series I’ve seen and only one seemed functional or sustainable at all. The others ended in one or multiple murders because obviously someone has to get jealous and kill as a result. None were in the romance genre.

Image of Lady Gaga playing The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel

These two examples, villainous and unhealthy polyamory, are not good representations. They can be harmful in the real world, the same way as any other stereotype, by promoting the idea that people who are in polyamorous relationships must be either immoral or unhealthy in some way.

That said, there can be a place for these tropes. They can work in the right setting. But they should not be the only or dominant representation out there.

In books, as far as mainstream romance is concerned, love triangles swamp the shelves of your local bookstores. There are some polyamorous or ‘ménage’ romance novels out there, but they are few and far between in comparison, though there does seem to be a growing ménage à trois (meaning threesome) erotic section, especially online.

I can say from personal experience that polyamory can and does work, and not just in a “let’s have a threesome one-night stand” sort of way. It’s romance times however many additional people are involved. The romance genre could benefit in exploring the intricacies of polyamory, yet in recent years there was an upset in the writing community about a romance writing competition not counting polyamorous stories as part of the romance genre and disqualifying them.

This confuses me to no end and is a ridiculous form of gatekeeping. Just because romance doesn’t look like what someone else might want it to doesn’t mean it’s not romance. LGBT+ romance is still romance if the reader is straight, heterosexual romance is still romance if the reader is LGBT+, and polyamorous romance is still romance even if the reader is monogamous. Romance is romance. Love is love.

What Does Polyamory Look Like? Triads and Vs

From my observation, people assume that polyamory is all about sex. Which, yes, threesomes, foursomes, or orgies or whatever you want to play around with are awesome and can make for some very high heat literature.

And enjoy it if it’s your thing! But writing polyamory is not only about sex, just like the romance genre as a whole is not just sex. It’s about relationships, the dynamics, the personalities, the character growth.

There are many types of polyamory that characters can partake in. I’ll address two of the more popular versions: Triads and Vs.

A ‘V’ is when one person is involved with two people who are not involved with each other. A triad (also sometimes called a ‘thruple’) is when three people are all involved with each other. Further ‘shapes’ can be referred to as a polycule, because when drawn out they can sometimes start to look like a molecule.

Molecule synthesis using AI. Step by step guide to use GAN in search… | by  Neeraj jain | Towards Data Science

There are, of course, other forms polyamorous relationships can take (literally an infinite number) so feel free to be creative if you want. Just being open to other romantic and/or sexual relationships counts as polyamory.

The social interaction and the chemistry and everything that’s involved in a monogamous romance is also in a polyamorous romance, but more. There are more people to handle, so there are more emotions to handle, potentially more drama.

“You belong to me,” – and Why That’s Not Healthy

The best thing about polyamory in romance, in my humble opinion, is that it can remove possessive tropes.

For some reason, many romance novels find possessiveness romantic. Maybe this is a monogamous thing I just don’t understand, but the idea of my husband getting jealous because I just talked to a male friend and then demanding that I not speak to him anymore is laughable. It also sounds abusive in a controlling way, so I’m not sure why it keeps popping up in romance novels.

Edward Cullen meme with the words "Edward Cullen, not a model boyfriend"

It specifically pops up in a decent amount of paranormal romance I’ve read. There’s this “we mate for life” idea, and that’s fine for those who prefer monogamy, but it gets creepy. Specifically, this line: “You belong to me.” Excuse you, but I belong to no one, thank you very much. Even if I’m getting kinky, I am still my own person when the scene is done.

In some cases, you get men (vampires, werewolves, shifters, demons, and even every-day humans) literally growling in frightfully possessive manners if they see another man looking at ‘their’ girl. I recently read a story on Wattpad where the vampire lover viciously attacked and nearly killed someone for looking at his lady love and thinking she was hot, and it was supposed to be played off as endearing that he cared so much about her.

I’m sorry to anyone who likes that sort of romance, but I just don’t think that’s healthy. Especially since if it applied to my life, I would literally never be “allowed” out of the house, because I’m bisexual so everyone would be a potential threat to the possessive guy’s manliness. That would be insane.

Image of Eric Northman played by Alexander Skarsgård from True Blood telling protagonist Sookie, “You are mine,” aggressively

Polyamory does not really have room for this. Sure, there can be jealousy, but for polyamory to work, it needs to be handled in an adult way. And if you want your romance to have good polyamorous representation, then make your characters act in adult ways. They need to have lots of communication, and ultimately either trust or learn to trust each other.

“But,” I hear so many people thinking, “What about the drama! It’s so dramatic to have a guy be over-the-top protective! Love triangles make so much tension!”

Oh, sweet summer children.

Do you think that if you take out extreme possessiveness that polyamorous romance won’t have drama? That there’s a loss of passion if a character is dating more than one person, making it irrational for a man to get creepily obsessed and possessive?

Drama does not need to come from a romantic partner being borderline/actually abusive, and there can be literally twice the amount of passion if a character has twice the number of boyfriends/girlfriends.

Here are alternative dramatic/tension building options when dealing with polyamory:

  • Other people: polyamory is not widely accepted. What is the family’s reaction? Friends’ reactions? Do they need to sacrifice friends or family to be with the people they love? Do they need to hide who they are? Are they afraid of being found out? Are they out and proud?
  • Society: is polyamory legal in your fictional world? What sort of difficulties will the characters run into? Between a non-married partner having no legal rights in a relationship, to something as simple as seeing “plus one” on a wedding invitation, there’s a lot to play with here.
  • Emotions: You think monogamous relationships have emotional drama? In polyamory, everything gets amplified, but it’s not so much “Did you look at another girl? How dare you!” It’s more, “I wonder if I mean as much to her as she means to me, and does he think I’m an equal part in this relationship when he’s already legally married to someone else, and I’m not legally allowed to join on equal footing?”
  • Jealousy: Of course, you can still include jealousy! It just needs to end with a different conclusion if you’re going to keep a polyamorous theme, and so characters have to learn how to manage jealousy that crops up.

There’s plenty of other things you could come up with, I’m sure, but those are a good start to play around with.

Why Choose?

A good point to remember about polyamory is that no one person has to be everything for someone.

Say we have a hypothetical main character, ‘Sara’, and she’s dating ‘John’. John might be extroverted, and bring her out of her shell, take her to parties, and all that fun stuff. He’s outgoing and loud, fun to be around, makes grand romantic gestures. In bed, he’s passionate, maybe a little dominant.

Kate Winslet from the movie Titanic.

Sara might also be dating ‘Janet’. Janet is more sensitive, more intimately romantic. She’s there for when Sara wants quiet nights, a private romantic dinner. Maybe she cooks for her sometimes, maybe she’s an artist and sketches her like one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s French girls Titanic-style. In bed, she’s always gentle and attentive.

In your usual love triangle, the plot would be Sara having to choose between these two. With polyamory, Sara doesn’t have to choose. She can have intense passion and an extrovert when she wants, and a soft, sweet introvert when she wants. Why on earth should she have to choose?

And trust me, there is plenty to write about without making John and Janet rivals. Every new relationship helps people grow. It gives new experiences, new perspectives. In my opinion, THAT should be a main part of the plot – the actual relationship, not a spiteful competition between the two suitors.

*Please do note that while I and hypothetical Sara are bisexual, many polyamorous people are not, and many bisexual people are happily monogamous. This is a coincidence, and one should not assume that all bisexuals lean towards polyamory in real life – it gets offensive sometimes, even to those of us who are actually polyamorous. Stay tuned for a post about writing bisexual characters and the cross-section between bisexual and polyamorous that I favor in the future!

Conclusion

symbol for polyamory, heart entwined by the infinity symbol

Polyamory can be complicated, but it’s beautiful.

There’s so much there, and so much to explore, and the romance community had barely scratched the surface. As we continue to let the genre grow, I think there will be much more room for all types of relationships to be represented. And it will make for a richer selection of stories for everyone to enjoy.

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