Writing Romance: Compelling Couples
If you’ve been around the internet or fandom culture long enough, you’ve likely found that in just about every fandom, there tends to be at least one LGBTQ+ ship that is immensely popular despite there being no canon confirmation that the characters are attracted to one another. In fact, in some fandoms, these ships even manage to beat out canon straight ships in popularity and fan approval. Ships like Klance from Voltron: Legendary Defender, Kiribaku from My Hero Academia, and Merthur from BBC’s Merlin (2008) all manage to completely overshadow the main heterosexual pairings of Allurance, Izuocha, and Gwenthur. But why is this? Sure, the quick answer is that the internet is full of LGBTQ audiences looking for content they can escape into, and thus seeking out same-sex relationships in media they can identify with, but these ships are popular beyond a simple notion of belonging from their communities. So, let’s take a dive into understanding the relationships these characters have.
If I had to describe Arthur and Merlin’s relationship in a single word, I would choose: Tense. Their relationship is full of tension. Arthur is the son of Uther, who has banned the practice of magic and raised Arthur to likewise have a prejudice against magic and those who use it. As such, Merlin must hide his magic from Arthur, and thus, with Merlin having to cover his tracks and lie to Arthur, we get our first bit of tension. There is information that Arthur cannot learn without fundamentally shaking up their relationship. Merlin is keeping this secret, and it is building up to when the moment comes that Arthur learns the truth, and all that juicy tension can come to a boil. And because Merlin has to hold his breath and hope that Arthur doesn’t realize his secret, the audience holds its breath too. As such, any time Merlin lies to Arthur, or Arthur comes just a little too close to the truth, we get a jolt of tension as we worry about whether Arthur is going to discover Merlin’s secret and that tension is going to finally come to a boil. To make matters worse, it’s not as though Merlin can avoid Arthur either. He’s Arthur’s manservant. Meaning he has to be in Arthur’s presence a lot. Because Merlin can’t run and hide from Arthur, the tension between them is in constant motion, keeping the audience guessing who will push the tension to its boiling point. Will Merlin confess the truth, or will Arthur discover it for himself?
If I had to choose a word for Klance, it would be: Belonging. For both Keith and Lance, they both help each other find where they belong on Team Voltron. Keith is a loner, used to being rejected and abandoned, having exceptional talent, but viewing himself as a screw-up. He genuinely doesn’t believe he’s good enough to lead Voltron when Shiro disappears. He doesn’t believe he can earn his team’s respect enough for them to follow him. He doesn’t think he can live up to Shiro’s standard as team leader. He doesn’t view himself as worthy of this place on the team. That is until Lance, his rival, and the person he fights with constantly, reassures him of his place. Admitting that Keith is a good leader, just as long as he remembers to listen to his team from time to time. Lance, on the other hand, projects a cocky and boisterous wise-guy ladykiller persona to mask his deeply rooted insecurities about not being good enough to even be part of Voltron, let alone the fact that he doesn’t seem to have a niche talent like the rest of the paladins. He feels like the dud of the group, and constantly doubts himself, his worth, and his place in the team. And in two of the most romantically coded scenes of the show, Keith is actively reassuring Lance of his place in Voltron. Once in the bedroom scene after Shiro’s retrurned and Lance wants to step aside so the better pilots can have lions, and the other time during the sunset scene when Keith reassures Lance not only that he’s good enough to be deserving of Allura’s affections, but that he fully trusts Lance to have his back, knowing full well that they’ll be departing for war the next day. Both Keith and Lance share a character flaw: feeling like they don’t belong and wanting to find their place. Together, both men help each other answer that question.
If Kiribaku is a word, it’s: Perceptions. The biggest problem both boys have is a conflict between view of self vs opinions of others. Kirishima feels like a loser, but is adored and respected by others. Bakugou imagines himself to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but is largely admonished by his peers. They have equal and opposite problems. Bakugou is overconfident and proud, and needs to learn to care about people. Kirishima cares a great deal about people, but is unconfident in himself, and lacks self-esteem. In Kiribaku’s case, the strength of one is the weakness of the other. Bakugou has the overconfidence to encourage Kirishima and convince him of his worth and skills, while Kirishima has the kindness and patience to help soften Bakugou’s serrated edges. Through friendship alone, Kirishima’s influence has already caused a shift in Bakugou’s behavior, as he’s slowly become nicer and more social, to a degree. And Bakugou’s brash pep talks gave Kirishima the push he needed to reach a new level and surpass himself. In the simplest terms, they make each other better, and it’s easy to see why people would view that reaffirming dynamic between them as romantic. It’s helped that Kirishima is obsessed with manliness, and Bakugou has spoken about three lines total with literally any female character that he wasn’t actively in the middle of fighting. Actually, that may also be including his fight scenes with female characters.
Now that I’ve discussed the gay ships that have exploded in popularity and the reasons behind them, let’s discuss a ship that actually utilizes these elements rather well. The best word for Fryla would be: Dance. I don’t remember who I heard this analogy from, but they described writing a relationship as two characters dancing together, shuffling from scene to scene, and/or episode to episode in a dance. And the most effective dance is led by both romantic leads. When only one of them ever leads, the result is Pining, where one dancer is the only one ever signaling to their dance partner. But in a truly great ship, each of them will take a turn to lead the dance, giving and receiving romantic cues, just as real ballroom dancing requires giving and receiving silent signals to your dance partner to let them know your intentions, or to avoid running into other couples on the dance floor. I don’t have a lot of heterosexual ships that I like more than gay ones, but Fry and Leela from Futurama are a perfect example of the dance. They take turns leading and following, and because they’re a canon couple that gets together, we can actually explore the talking points I mentioned before and how they apply to an actualized relationship.
In the pilot episode Space Pilot 3000, Fry sort of begins the dance when he sees her from behind and he makes a noise that indicates he finds her attractive. Later in the episode, Leela makes a similarly small gesture, choosing to quit her job as a cryogenic councelor over giving Fry a career chip he’s afraid of and doesn’t want implanted. However, this is pretty much the only mildly romantic moment between them in the early episodes. The first real dance between them is led not by Fry, but Leela. In the episode A Flight to Remember, Leela convinces Zap Brannigan that she has a fiancé, and she chooses Fry only because he’s nearby. Throughout the episode, Fry has small moments of leading where he makes a move on Leela, which she scolds him for, only to end up taking the lead again whenever Zap Brannigan shows up. Leela also leads the dance when she storms off from dinner, clearly mad thinking that Fry and Amy were secretly dating, and he didn’t tell her. Being upset is one thing, but getting huffy, scarfing down her food, and storming off is a subtle sign that this is upsetting her, which causes Fry to want to check on her, leading them to admire the beauty of space and ‘their nebula’ together. At this point, Fry isn’t in love with Leela yet. There’s just a woman who’s willing to kiss him, and he’s willing to take advantage of the moment to enjoy it while he can. But this is effectively their first dance in the show, and the fake relationship almost builds up to a “caught up in the moment” kiss until the ship starts to be sucked into a blackhole and ruins the mood.
The dance is led by Fry in “Xmas Story” when he hurts Leela’s feelings by complaining about being alone for the Xmas season, and puts his life in danger to buy her an Xmas gift. Later, while they’re running for their lives from Santa, Leela is the one to stop and point out that they’re under the mistletoe.
In “Put your Head on my Shoulders”, Fry starts the dance by asking Leela to be his pity Valentine, but she rejects him. Fry starts dating Amy, but he decides to break things off with her. When a car crash leaves Fry a dismembered head attached to Amy’s shoulder and Amy scares up a date for Valentine’s Day, Leela comes to Fry’s rescue and gets Amy’s date talking about his job to spare Fry of being a third wheel to their date night tomfoolery.
The famous episode “Parasites Lost” reveals that Fry is a romantic person, but for one reason or another, is utterly inept at articulating how he feels to Leela. This is a running theme that would continue in later episodes, most notably, Love and Rocket and The Devil’s Hands are Idle Play Things, both episodes where Fry’s inability to articulate his feelings takes center stage. However, Leela in this episode falls for a perfect, idealized Fry. One which is inhumanly perfect, and Fry decides he’d rather be imperfect and alone, than loved by Leela as some romanticized version of himself.
Fry and Leela don’t actually do much with each other in “The Cyber House Rules”. Leela spends the episode fawning over Adelaide, a boringly ‘normal’ person. Adelaide favors being normal and average over being unique and weird. Leela gets an operation to have two eyes, which causes Adelaide to find her attractive, and Fry objects, stating not only that he thought she was beautiful before she got the surgery, but that the entire crew is made up of beautifully imperfect freaks. By the end of the episode, Leela comes to the same conclusion as Fry. Though I do wish Leela had still chosen to adopt Sally. Leela as a single mother to another orphan could have been such a heartwarming storyline.
“Time Keeps on slipping” is one of, if not the best Fry and Leela episode. When the Planet Express crew collects Chronotrons hot off the nebula, they cause time to skip forward at random, like a needle skipping on a record. Everyone behaves normally between the time skips, but then has no memory of what happened. Throughout the episode, Fry keeps trying to win Leela’s affections, and she keeps rejecting him. That is, until time skips and Fry and Leela are at the altar, getting married. Leela gets angry and quickly divorces him, assuming he tricked her somehow during the time skip. Fry is insulted by this accusation, but ends up apologizing anyway because while he doesn’t think he would manipulate her like that, maybe he did and doesn’t remember it. As the crew gets ready to fix the time skips, Fry shows off one last surprise: that he studied how to fly the planet express ship, which actually does manage to surprise Leela. Not enough to win her heart, but even so. However, Leela does take one small moment to lead the dance in this episode. After rejecting Fry and making it clear her intentions, he’s dejected, and she decides to ask Fry to fly the ship while she goes to prepare the detonator. Fry comments on how great she is, just as he realizes what he did to win Leela’s affections. He used the gravity pump to move the stars to write her a love note in the sky. Just in time for the doomsday device to implode, turning Fry’s love message into a black hole. When Leela and Bender returns, Fry decides not to tell them, and the episode closes on his face watching the black hole.
The season 4 episode “Love and Rocket” has Fry spend the entire episode trying and failing to lead the dance, looking for the perfect candy heart message to put how he feels about Leela into words. Fry keeps getting close but missing the mark, and toward the end of the episode, Leela’s almost lost her patience with Fry. But when Fry notices her Oxygen tank is almost depleted, and she’s too focused on saving their lives to listen to him, he attaches his oxygen tank to her air tube. When Leela finally realizes what Fry did, she takes over the dance, immediately and frantically giving Fry CPR and urging him to live. Fry does cough up a chalky candy heart with the words “You Leave Me Breathless” which Leela holds onto, but the gesture of giving up his oxygen is what makes Leela swoon.
“Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” turns the entire Planet Express crew back into teenagers, and Fry and Leela go on a date. Fry even understands that Leela doesn’t want to give up being a teenager again, and doesn’t try to talk her into becoming an adult with him again. He’s putting her needs first, and Fry says good-bye to Leela in this episode, fully expecting in the moment that they’ll never be together. Leela does become an adult again, but through her own choices, not by being coerced into it by Fry.
In “The Why of Fry”, Fry wants to be important. Not just important to Leela, but in general. Meanwhile, Leela is dating Mr. Important, the mayor’s aide, Chazz. Most of the romance in this episode comes from Leela. After realizing that Chazz was a cretin, Leela asked Bender to burn Chazz out of a picture. She held it up to examine it, just in time for Fry to walk in, his face filling Chazz’ in the picture, and hand her a daffodil that Nibbler had given him for Leela.
Leela spends most of the episode leading the dance in “The Sting”, after Fry is stung by a space bee and dies, Leela starts to fall apart, dreaming again and again that Fry has come back for her from the dead, hating that Fry keeps begging her to wake up. While some of Leela’s obsession could be caused by feeling guilty, it moreso proves that Leela cares a lot more about Fry than she lets on. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Leela was in a coma, afflicted by the space bee’s venom. Fry never once abandoned her bedside, talking to her and begging her to wake up. Which causes her to smile and hug him, letting him know that his words got through to her.
“The Farnsworth Parabox” has the professor create a box which contains an alternate universe, where coin flips have opposite outcomes. Fry has continued to ask Leela out, and she’s running out of excuses. When Leela looks in the professor’s box, she discovers that her alternate self is married to Fry. She flipped a coin to decide whether to go out with him. Leela’s came up tails, so she didn’t, but Alternate Universe Leela’s came up heads, and she did. Alternate Leela tells herself that she really missed out, citing the date as magical. A few months of dating and one diamond scrunchy later, and they were married. When Fry and Leela return to their own world, Leela decides to give Fry one last coin toss. But before she looks at it, and Fry asks what the outcome is, she decides to just go ahead and assume that it’s heads, and the episode ends on the knowledge that Fry and Leela will go on an off-screen date.
The original finale to Futurama is “The Devil’s Hands are Idol Play Things”. Fry is still trying to play the holophoner he played for Leela in Parasites Lost, but his clumsy hands fail to capture what he feels. Fry ends up swapping hands with the Robot Devil, suddenly becoming a holophoner savant, selling tons of albums, and being commissioned by Hedonismbot to write an opera. Fry says he’ll do it, but only if he can make it about Leela. Leela hears beautiful music and goes to find Fry composing the score for the opera. When she comments how lovely it is, Fry tells her he’s just writing down what he hears in his head when she’s around him, but that his old human hands were too stupid to articulate so clearly. However, after a prank by Bender leaves Leela deafened, Leela ends up having to fake her way through the first half of the opera. Until the Robot Devil offers to give her new ears in exchange for her hand. When Leela goes back to hear the second half of the opera, the Robot Devil appears on stage and reveals his sinister plan. He has Leela’s hand in marriage, and unless Fry gives him back his hands, he’ll take Leela with him to Robot Hell to be his bride. After a brilliant musical number, Fry capitulates and agrees to the Robot Devil’s ultimatum. Fry has his human hands once more, and as he feared, cannot play the music that had won him such fame and renown. But as Fry goes to leave the now abandoned theater, Leela asks him to keep playing, eager to know how the story ends. Fry sits back down and plays a far simpler melody, accompanied by a crude hologram of them kissing and walking off into the sunset, hand-in-hand.
There are more Fryla episodes after this, but this post is getting long enough. The main thing we see over and over again with Fry and Leela is that while Fry usually takes the lead in most episodes, every time Fry and Leela’s relationship has any level of development, Leela takes the lead in the dance at least once in the episode. This is why Fry and Leela work so well as a Will-They-or-Won’t-They pairing. Leela never fails to take the lead in the dance whenever it comes up. It’s not just Fry chasing Leela. Leela takes the time to lead the dance as well. Sometimes in big ways, and sometimes in small ways. But she leads the dance regardless.
Compare that to Bean and Elfo from Disenchantment, and it’s the worst kind of pining. Elfo is the only one who ever leads, and Bean refuses to even follow, let alone take the lead in the dance. Elfo and Bean aren’t dancing with each other. Elfo keeps asking Bean to dance, and she keeps telling him ‘No.’ Luckily, Disenchantment seems to be dropping the Bean x Elfo stuff, which is already making Elfo a better and more likable character, but they’re still a good example of what it looks like when the dance of romance isn’t being performed correctly. So, if you’re writing a romance, keep these things in mind. Dancing, like romance, works better when there’s two people, and they work together to perform. The dance of love doesn’t work if only one person puts in all of the work.
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