Platonic Love Between Men In Fiction

One time I brought a story to a workshop and came across a problem. The platonic male friendship in the story read, to almost every single person, as a romance. Maybe a lopsided, obscured romance, but a romance nonetheless.

The overwhelming response meant the misinterpretation was my fault. I'll own that.

I wanted to tell a story about a platonic male friendship, but no matter how I revised, the story didn’t turn out the way I wanted. It was hard to carve out even a couple thousand words about a platonic male friendship.

Why? Why was I struggling to tell a story I had lived? What was keeping the story from taking the shape I intended?

Why is it so hard to tell stories of platonic love between men?

Pre-Apology and Definition

It’s not like I was furious about people interpreting my characters as being in a romantic relationship. It’s that I was trying to write characters who were in a different, specific type of relationship, and romance kept finding its way in. And I want to explore why.

I don’t want anything I say to come off as anti-gay. Because that’s not how I feel. This is not me prefacing with a huge “I don’t mean to sound homophobic, but…” This is me saying that if you feel like I’m saying something anti-gay, I’m sorry. I’m trying to express something, and I might not get it just right.

Also, I do want to be clear, there’s nothing about the phrase “platonic male relationship” that excludes gay men. Gay men can have platonic male relationships. If you think that’s not true, you are probably one of those people who also thinks a straight man and straight woman can’t be platonic friends, and you’re a dope.

And because we’ll be throwing around the term “platonic” I want to be clear that “platonic” means “(of love or friendship) intimate and affectionate but not sexual.” So, a platonic relationship can be loving, physical, and affectionate. It’s simply nonsexual.

Blame It On Literary History

This comes from a good place. Authors want to be understood, and readers want to understand them and connect with them.

For a long-ass time you couldn’t just write a book about being gay. I think we all understand that. Hell, Oscar Wilde was locked up for two years for the “crime” of being gay. It was an actual dangerous, suspicion-arousing act to write fiction about gay characters.

How does one express something that’s illegal yet essential to the self in a way that’s cathartic, emotionally honest, and provides maximum deniability? Subtext! Beautiful subtext.

Gay relationships in fiction were relegated to the world of subtext for a time. And that’s fucked up. We probably missed out on a lot of goodness as a result, and the authors writing fiction about gay men had to be super talented, not only writing the stuff, but obscuring it while still keeping it interesting, emotionally honest, and real. If you want a challenge, write something that works, encode it, and make it so it still works. It’s almost impossible.

I think part of the legacy of this is that readers, many of whom have plowed through classics, are very attuned to any subtext in male relationships. I think we’ve become accustomed to seeing literary affection and intimacy between men as indicative of something more in most instances because, for a long time, that’s as far as an author could go. You almost HAD to ask that question about male relationships whenever you read.

This comes from a good place. Authors want to be understood, and readers want to understand them and connect with them. These are good things. And I think there’s still some residual feeling (and perhaps still some need) of this.

It does, however, make telling a story of a platonic male relationship more challenging.

Fancy Book Learnin’

I was an English major in college, and there I was taught something that I’ve started to unteach myself. I was taught to view things with a critical lens, but not a lens of “here’s where the story succeeded and failed” or “here’s what I genuinely think the author was trying to say.” I was taught that every text is saying something other than what’s on the surface. I was taught to look for angles. What’s my “hot take”? What can I do to write a 5-page paper about this book that has been written about endlessly? Can I sell the idea that George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men are in a sexual relationship? Does the pig slaughter scene in Lord of the Flies actually represent a rape? Is all that horse-land stuff in Gulliver’s Travels really about...well, I don’t even know. I feel like you could go just about anywhere with that. But if you want to ace that class, take my advice, something is a penis, something represents a birth, something represents a race/class/political situation at the time of the book’s writing, and if you can throw in a Jacques Derrida quote, you’re golden.

I was taught to never accept the surface appearance of anything in fiction, especially a relationship. Which is good, but I may have learned to overstep too, asserting more than questioning, thinking that just because a theory CAN be justified, it is worth developing, and that authors are ever obscuring their true message. I don’t think my schooling was unusual in this aspect.

Reading into texts isn’t a bad thing, but I do think it’s a contributing factor that makes platonic man love difficult in the world of fiction. Two male characters having feelings for each other without explicitly acting on them in a sexual manner is exactly the kind of thing that launches a thousand theses. And once you start reading this way, it’s hard to slow down and let the text guide you into a reading that’s less about interpretation and more about listening.

Touch: So Important In Fiction, So Taboo In Life

The bro hug is a symptom of where we are now. We’re learning to be more accepting of physical male affection, but we’re not there yet.

Touch is huge in fiction. A necessity. Physical touch between people is something most of us crave and don’t get enough of in our real lives. Touch is huge in signaling, cementing, and maintaining a relationship between humans, and when a story is not going the way it should, writers often reach for the tools of plot and dialogue, but they should be reaching for touch.

Touch between platonic males is still taboo. We like to think we are all progressive and cool with it, but we’re not.

Think about the bro hug, that hybrid hug where you low five, grip each other’s hands, and then hug with one arm, usually while staring off into the distance. The hug is really more of a slap combined with a shoulder bump. The bro hug is a symptom of where we are now. We’re learning to be more accepting of physical male affection, but we’re not there yet.

Google “Tom Brady kissing” and most of what you’ll see is stuff about Brady kissing his son and father on the mouth. The kiss between Tom Brady and his son, depicted in the documentary Tom Vs Time, is probably the most overanalyzed kiss since me preparing to kiss someone else for the first time in 6th grade.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Not me! I’m totally okay with men in a platonic relationship being physically affectionate with each other.” And that’s fine. It’s my opinion that any individual’s take is up against a feeling men have, whether it’s internal or external in origin: Touch between platonic male friends is observed and scrutinized in the real world. Lingering touch between men, whether in reality or in fiction, will be analyzed.

The message received by men is, “Bro hug is the limit.”

We Don’t Understand Male Friendships

I’m sure, at this point, many of you are saying, “But what about Watson and Sherlock?” “What about Batman and Robin?” “What about Peter Derk and Chip Zdarsky?” Okay, nobody is asking about that last one. But I’m trying to make it happen.

One way that men have found to be with each other in fiction is through structured relationships. If two men are working within a structure that has defined rules and roles, they can find a form of intimacy that’s not sexual, not explicit, and not questioned.

Watson and Sherlock are a good example. These two men are solving crimes. They have a useful task to perform, and they aren’t just hanging out for the pleasure of each other’s company.

Batman and Robin have a classic master/apprentice relationship. Both have their reasons for spending all night, every night, with each other.

The guys in Sons of Anarchy were free to be very affectionate with each other, but look at the situation. Very structured, very hierarchical.

Bro comedies are almost always about friends whose friendships will dissolve as they mature out of one structure (usually high school) and into another. Stand By Me, Superbad, American Pie—all of them work this way. All of the friendships are based on something that goes away, and when it does, so does the friendship. 

Chuck Palahniuk has talked at length about fight clubs in his novel being a structured way for men, who don’t know how to be together, to interact with each other.

Highly structured, codified, rule-oriented, hierarchical setups open the door to platonic male relationships because the individuals don’t have to set the rules for how to behave. They don’t have to call each other for no real reason, just to talk. They don’t wonder how their time spent together will be interpreted.

We understand platonic male relationships as goal-oriented. Solutions-based. Means to an end. Working relationships. Combative relationships. Roommate relationships. But I’ve found very few instances where these friendships are nothing more than friendships. Where there’s no external factor driving two men together.

And yet, that's how most of my platonic male friendships function. I'm guessing that's also the case for many a fella. 

Why are we so weirded out by men interacting in fiction without cause?

Is This A Real Problem?

I mean, who cares? Don’t we have enough masculinity in fiction already? Don’t male authors win more awards, make more money, and so on? If men want to be depicted a certain way, shouldn’t they ACT a certain way? Aren’t there other voices that need amplification more than those of dudes?

Yes, there’s truth to all of those ideas. The presence of platonic male relationships in fiction is not a problem that should keep you up at night. It’s not at the top of anyone’s list. I won't require anyone to pay attention to the idea after the end of this column, which is coming up quickly.

Let's just say you're curious about exploring it further on your own. What then?

I’ve got mixed opinions on whether fiction shapes reality or reality shapes fiction. I think it’s very difficult for a book to change the world today. There’s so much competing for everyone’s time and attention, so much good stuff out there. Which might make novels the perfect venue for playing with this idea.

If we can make the world as we want it in fiction, why not make the platonic male relationships we’d LIKE to see? Why not build something up in the world of fiction and see what happens in the real world as a result? 

I’d encourage all of you to try it. Write a platonic male friendship. Play around with the concept. See what happens. See where the lines are drawn. See if it’s difficult to render and how.

Writing about it gives you some time to think about it. It forces you to ask, “If I COULD wave a magic wand and make platonic male relationships the way I wanted, what would they be like?”

Consider the real-life models you’re using for platonic male relationships in your fiction. Do you have good models for them? Do you know men who are affectionate with each other? Do you have to make it up from whole cloth?

Consider whether your fictional platonic male friendships exist only within a structure and whether you can abandon that. Can your platonic male friendships look more like Sex And The City and less like a mentor and a student, partners in a task, or individuals acting out a system of rules?

Ask men you’re close with what they think about platonic male love. Not to argue, but to hear what it’s really about. Ask old men. Ask manly men. Ask dads. Ask teammates. Don’t be surprised if your questions arouse suspicion. Most of us are never asked anything like this.

Before you go, comment below with a platonic male relationship you've enjoyed in fiction. I'm curious. Maybe there's a lot I'm missing(?)

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Hughes Dufour's picture
Hughes Dufour from Montreal is reading Can't and Won't Stories February 11, 2019 - 8:10am

Great column, Peter. Something that's not mentioned a lot, but wholly relevant. Thanks for this. There aren't that many examples, and writing about male friendships always verges on the taboo, strangely enough.

To answer your question, I'd say Nakata and Hoshino share a platonic relationship in Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. Hoshino has a goal, but it's larger than the goal--it transcends it. It's love without the sex. Hoshino, by befriending Nakata, finds true meaning in life. That's almost a love story right there. And then Nakata is so weird that Hoshino can only be a true friend if he's going to tag along--it's actually quite touching. Hoshino gives up his job and his relationships for Hoshino. It's got a Godot vibe, which might be another example. 

Classics-wise, I'd also mention Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses. Father-son? Maybe. But there is genuine affection and caring there, and no goal.