At first I thought this post would be about unequal love relationships. But I just did a post on love relationships.

So I decided to do it just on unequal relationships, which I’m defining here as one where one person has power over the other. Just because they come from different backgrounds or are different genders doesn’t automatically imply ‘unequal.’

1) Know the source of the power differential, and work out its implications.

This, of course, will be different with each different possible permutation. Are the two characters master and slave? Master and servant? Charge and bodyguard? Teacher/mentor and student? Parent and child? Man and woman in a society where power is tilted in favor of one gender or another? Magic-user as versus non magic-user? (As a special request of the fantasy gods, could I get something new done with that last one, please? The evil mages fighting the good heroes and the poor persecuted mages vs. the Evil Church or whatever are both done to freaking death.)

And even in those relationships, there will be different imbalances. Just because you have a society where men are in power doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same as any one Earth culture. Mentor/student relationships will vary depending on whether the mentor is a private tutor, a professor at an academy, or a special instructor in one particular skill, and with the age, stubbornness, and background of the student, and with what skill they’re studying. There are different kinds of slavery. And then, of course, you get the extra complexities of this relationship involving your own two unique characters, not just Master A and Slave B, or Woman A and Man B. (See point 2. And 3. And 4. Oh, hell, just see the rest of the rant).

So, once you know your power differential, you’ve got other things to decide. How deep does it run? What societal restrictions are there on acceptable interaction between two people in these positions? (Especially if it’s a romantic relationship, it will matter, quite a bit, whether they’re supposed to be public at all times or can meet in private without anyone suspecting anything). What things would the characters themselves never think to do without intense pressure, because it’s so foreign to what they’ve learned?

Please work it aaaaaall out. As I’ve ranted before, the master and slave who cross boundaries without hesitation and without consequence, or the prince who has servants as loyal sidekicks while acting like a haughty asshole, make me think not of seriousness or hidden motives, but plain bad characterization.

2) Be prepared for complexity.

Sure, unequal relationships can be simple, even two kinds of simple. In both cases, though, there’s problems. (And bad characterization. Yes, I am going to bang that drum, loud as I can. I have been reading way too many fantasies that fell down on characterization this year).

There’s the first kind of simple, mutual hatred and resentment. But in that case, why would you call it a real relationship? Okay, this woman, who’s in power, hates the fact that she has to marry and treats her multiple husbands badly. But unless something drastic happens to shift it- for example, a mutual obsession between the woman and one of her husbands- it would just remain resentment.

And there’s the second, which unfortunately is rather common in fantasy. The story is written entirely from the viewpoint of the character who’s in the position of power, and he thinks that he understands the person he has power over. So the master really “gets” his slaves, or the man is a hero because he doesn’t beat his arranged wife (even as he does nothing to make life more comfortable for her and continues to sire bastard children), or the mage feels pity and curiosity about the non-mages and tries to interview them. And the characters with less power smile and simper and admire the one in power and say that he’s completely different from anyone they’ve ever known.

I will give you a moment to guess what I think of the tone of this kind of story.


If you said “patronizing,” you would be correct.

This is the part where the logical consequences that you’ve worked out charge in to save your ass. With all these consequences and restrictions, and with the fact that you want this to be about a relationship, which doesn’t have to be romantic and could be a friendship or something similar, you’ve set your course. Avoid the simplistic extremes that too often lead to tales of revenge or tales of everyone fawning over the protagonist. Treat the relationships seriously, and explore them down to the ground. Do it right, and you’ve got the kind of complexity that bland romance would kill for.

Why the fuck would you want to sacrifice that?

3) Don’t sanitize it.

The stories I’m thinking of here are peculiar kinds of disappointments. They don’t fail in the setup. They convince me that these two characters are real people, and that the difference of power is always present in their minds, acting as a testing ground and a hindrance and, possibly, a help. They get around that power difference anyway. They start to work.

Then they collapse, because suddenly the two characters are perfectly in accord with each other, and the power differential is gone as if it had never been.

Huh? Hello? What just happened?

I have never understood this. It’s the equivalent of having a character decide to go into danger even though he knows the consequences and could be punished- in fact, in many fantasy societies that set up unequal relationships, it’s exactly that- and then having the people he thought were his enemies jump out from behind the furniture and yell, “Surprise!”

So the master has to beat the slave, but it’s all right, because the slave understands. So the man and woman in a world with greater power given to one gender or the other suddenly are in Twoo Wuv, and that excuses all the indignities that one or another has to suffer. So the child runs away, and that encourages the parent to see them as an adult and regret ever treating them as a child.

By now, my scalp is bleeding from how hard I’m scratching it.

This invalidates the whole system, at least as much as points 1 and 2. Instead of ignoring the complexities from the get-go, the author starts ignoring them further in the story. The Sudden Epiphany, beloved of writers who don’t want to do all that nasty complicated emotional working-out stuff, saves the day. It’s nothing one of the characters does or says, not really. The author just flips a switch in their minds and that’s it, end of story.

*Limyaael gives in to desires and administers the thwap to authors’ heads just once*

Why? Why why why why why? I will never understand anyone’s desire to write a simplistic (as opposed to a simple) story. If you’re going for an unequal relationship and all the nasty questions that entails, don’t decide halfway through that you’re tired of playing now and the nasty questions should just cease.

4) Develop both characters equally.

I think it’s a mistake to try and tell a story like this from the viewpoint of just one of the characters, unless you’re going for some gaps and misunderstanding. (On the other hand, I also think it’s a mistake to try and tell a true, complicated romance from the viewpoint of just one of the characters, which happens all the time, so what the hell do I know?) There’s three traps waiting if you don’t want the gaps and the misunderstanding. Two of them I’ve discussed in Points 2 and 3, where people either write patronizing stories or give up and tell me that this character “loves” and “understands” and “forgives” without showing me how love and understanding and forgiveness are possible.

The third is the trap I think most common to fantasy, where the authors tumble so in love with their heroic protagonists that they don’t think twice of making other characters shadows and satellites of them.

That is utter death to this kind of story. Once again, it wouldn’t be a relationship; it would just be a character, mostly the one in power, getting a reward or being able to show off his/her kindness, empathy, and enlightenment in a society where everyone else was unfair. Often, it’s both at once.

I bet you the character with the lesser power has Some Things To Say About That. Gestures that the ‘higher’ character may think of as kind and loving look very different from below. If the power differential is based on freedom- and I also bet you freedom is implicated in that somewhere- the character with more freedom will take certain privileges and rights for granted, and will probably not understand the first time his or her lover, friend, comrade, or whatever tries to explain why they’re denied to him or her. And, most especially, there will probably be lingering traces of certain indelible differences that the more powerful character has been trained to believe the other character has from him or her. No one throws their whole cultural upbringing off after one night of passion or emotional confession.

It would be exhilarating to see an author write about a complex unequal relationship where both characters transformed, rather than the higher-class character just becoming magically enlightened or, equally magically, elevating the lower-class character to join him. I’ve seen very few of these, and almost all of them have been from the viewpoint of the lower-class character.

5) What do the people outside the relationship think?

Go look at point 1 again. There’s someone or something, or, more likely, multiple people and things forcing the power differential, right? I think they’ll have certain things to say, just like the character with less power, if they see both these people crossing the boundaries.

Not all of it is going to be motivated by sadism or jealousy, either, so please put that out of your heads. A family in your typical aristocratic pseudo-medieval society could very well have good reason to be worried out of their skulls when their ‘virgin’ daughter is found in the stablehand’s arms. The stablehand’s family will have reason to worry. Put in the stablehand already being married and you have a powder-keg, in which you have handed everybody lit torches. Now go write the story like a powder-keg with lit torches.

A master becomes friends with a slave. Why? Aren’t there going to be raised eyebrows? Can the master really afford friendship? Can the slave, when he has to live with other slaves? How can the slave possibly trust this person, or that someone won’t do something to him because of it? What is going to happen to all the interactions that may have taken place between them before they became friends? Why should the slave help the master when he needs his help? Even if they’re both fundamentally kind and decent people, the system of slavery is going to work on them. (All of these questions get answered satisfactorily, I think, in Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah series, where the narrator, Seyonne, is a slave when we meet him, and has been for sixteen years).

6) Realize that some odds may be too great to conquer.

Most unequal relationships I’ve read are fundamentally “happy-ending” stories, whether they’re about a pair of friends and lovers who become equals or who find accommodations with their inequality and are happy that way. But there’s so much ripe potential for tragedy and despair there.

And you know what? I don’t think it even has to come from the outside. It’s so much fun passion to watch people in helpless, hopeless situations self-destruct, which I think is another thing many authors underuse.

This is where brutal honesty comes in. Look at the society you’ve set up. Look at the kind of people these are. Look at their past backgrounds, both with and without each other. Look at the way each thinks of the other. Look at the complexities they’re coping with from other people who may disapprove.

Can you write them, convincingly, as people capable of getting past all those challenges and achieving a happy ending?

If you can’t, you know what you have to do.

Phew. I think we have interesting heroines next.