Burning Up For You: Toxic Relationships Aren’t Inherently Bad (February Special #3)

So, a common topic in critique of literature is the concept of “toxic relationships”, be they romantic, platonic, familial, etc. The last one is the most common to appear in fiction, as familial bonds require absolutely no other forms of investment on the part of any character involved, meaning you can make it as toxic as you want, including having them be full-on enemies, with almost no limitations. Ditto with the similar concepts of “former friends” and “former lovers”, both of which often just add more layers of drama to existing adversarial or uneasy relationships. But I’m more interested in something a lot rarer, and comes with a lot more baggage: romantic relationships that are currently ongoing and contain elements of toxicity. When these crop up, they are almost universally criticized, often with good reason. Topics like abuse, dependency, and the like are extremely sensitive and need to be treated with respect and care. Indeed, as I said last week, many authors remain completely unaware of the heavy implications of their writing and end up accidentally writing an extremely toxic message into their story, an unfortunately common result when people try to write these kinds of relationships. However, a common thread I’ve started to see in a lot of criticism is the painting of all depictions of toxic relationships as condoning the toxic elements, and that’s something I would like to push back against.

Broadly speaking there are a lot of different ways of depicting toxic relationships, and there are two I would like to focus on. First, and more common of the two, is one where the toxic element is noted and addressed, with the arc of the story about characters healing from and moving past that toxic element. This is fair enough as a premise, it gives opportunities for interesting scenes of drama and introspection, but it’s also very easy to fall into some common writing traps that distort it into something horrifying. Most often, this comes from placing the responsibility for ensuring that growth on the person who doesn’t actually have the issue. “Your partner is broken, and you need to fix them” is an incredibly toxic theme to present to an audience, because it shifts responsibility onto the wrong person, effectively blaming the victim for not being good enough to live up to an unrealistic standard. So, whatever you do, do not ever do this. It’s very important to remember that, while the emotional support of loved ones can be very beneficial, the responsibility of changing always falls on the shoulders of the person who needs that change. More of this next week. So long as you remember basics like this, you ought to be able to do this just fine.

Something extremely uncommon, but most interesting of all to me, is depictions of toxic relationships where the toxic element is extremely evident to all involved, but never actually goes away, either because it can’t or because characters won’t do it. Outside of really hardcore drama, most authors are gun-shy about this, and I think that’s a crying shame, because there are issues that can’t just be worked through so easily, or worse, cannot be done because one or both characters involved rely on those issues to keep themselves together due to other problems. A case of the latter is what ultimately inspired me to write this, coming from my favorite source of good writing examples: Umineko. Now, Umineko had 4 romantic relationships playing key roles in the story, and the one that really comes to mind is that between the characters of Lambdadelta and Bernkastel. Their relationship is easily the most complex and fraught with issues of the four, and that’s exactly why it’s so compelling. Lambda and Bern have developed a complex codependency based on their years of surviving Hell together, and Lambda in particular is fully aware of how much their need of each other’s support combined with the masks of detached cruelty has absolutely destroyed them both, but neither could bear the weight of their trauma without the other, so they stay together. And it’s not like they don’t have genuinely sweet moments together, but in large part their relationship is defined by their codependency, which is the best thing about it. It adds layers upon layers of complexity and drama from everything to their bickering, to Erika trying to muscle in on Bern, to their mutual scheming against Beatrice, and so on. So, when they fight to the death in the final book, all this drama and buildup makes the confrontation all the more tense. It’s so much more than just “lovers on different paths”, and it saddens me that a lot of people would dismiss this kind of complex dynamic as some kind of toxic messaging, or a lost cause that cannot be done well simply because it’s got toxic elements to it. When you really see the potential of adding elements like that to relationship writing, it makes you wish that you saw them explored more often and in more depth.

I said that I was gonna focus on two, but I lied, there’s room for a bonus type, something much more specific: the Enemies to Lovers trope and how it can turn toxic. And if you’ve been tuned into online discourse at all in the last two months, you can probably guess I’m talking about Reylo. For those of you blissfully out of the loop, Reylo is a particularly galling ship from the new Star Wars trilogy that was extremely popular among an extremely loud and angry community online, who spent 4 years straight begging for it and screaming at people who criticized it, up to and including the cast of the films themselves. Making this ship canon was the worst mistake they could’ve possibly made. And the thing is, I saw it coming and dreaded it. Back when The Force Awakens came out, I predicted that the series would go that route and expected that it would be awful. But the thing is, then The Last Jedi came out, a movie which actively criticized this idea and showed in the clearest possible terms that trying to reach out to the kind of person Kylo Ren is depicted as is a bad idea start to finish, because not everyone fits the mold that makes the kind of arc that fans were expecting, and taking a chance on the wrong kind of person can have terrible consequences. And after that movie came out, I had some hope that maybe the series would go in a different direction. But then Rise of Skywalker came out, a film that did everything possible to placate fan desires, and dove straight into the proverbial trash bin that was Reylo. Not only was it a bad idea to begin with, but it was also executed in the most terrible way. Could I believe Ren would try and redeem himself? Yeah, I could. Could I believe he’d sacrifice himself to keep Rey alive? Yeah, I could. Could I believe people would forgive him for all the shit he did? No, absolutely not. Could I believe Rey would decide to spur of the moment kiss him right in the instant before he dies? First off, no, and second off, yikes, after every horrific thing he did throughout the series, both in general and to her specifically, having her turn around and kiss him is the worst possible way to conclude that story thread. For a better example of Enemies to Lovers done well, I recommend checking out Promare, which came out only a few weeks before and did the idea fabulously.

In general, the point I want to convey here is that including toxic elements in relationship writing is not inherently bad, as it can create interesting drama and add unique depth to relationship writing that would not be possible otherwise. It’s a worthwhile tool that I would like to see used more often.

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Author: WhenSomethingCriesAgain

Several years ago, I found myself positively brimming with opinions and insight, with no way to express them, so I began writing, and found that I liked it. I decided to start a page to keep records of my writing, and hopefully convince a few people to agree with my ideas.

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