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Questgiver

When a friend asks you to write a short story about an otter, you don’t walk, you run! (No, wait, you sit down and write it.) Inspired by this tweet/picture:

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Emma swallowed another sob, trying to make as little noise as possible. It wouldn’t do for a passerby to think the shrub was crying, and the creek didn’t make enough noise to drown her out—just a soft bubbling sound that was no good to anyone. She hiccupped and curled tighter into herself, wishing she’d brought a coat as the dampness permeating her clothing made a chilly spring day colder.

It was the guilt more than anything. The guilt of taking someone’s babies and then not taking proper care of them. Mother Toad was probably cursing Emma’s name right now, wondering where all her spawn had got to.

Down a duck’s gullet, Emma answered her mentally, making herself more miserable. She should have known the ducks would come; she should have protected her tadpoles. All those poor tadpoles!

A rustling noise shocked her out of her reverie. She looked around, but there was no walker on the path beyond the shrubs she’d hidden in, and nothing happening in the creek. A frog jumping, maybe? Misery threatened to pull Emma back down, but before she could go back to her grief her eyes snagged on something—something brown in the field, on the other side of the path. She watched it through the hedges.

Not a deer, and not a bunny either. Curiosity pulled Emma from the hedge, and she stayed low as she crossed the path to stand along the side of the field peering. Her damp clothes were immaterial to her now—because she was looking at an otter.

And the otter was looking back at her.

She’d never seen an otter outside of an aquarium, and she didn’t think they usually stood like that, just staring at little girls as if they were waiting for them to come closer. Emma took a cautious step.

The otter didn’t move.

Another step, another—and Emma could see, now, that it held a stick. A wizard. It was a wizard otter, here to send her on a quest. It was obvious, for a moment—and then it wasn’t. The otter jumped away, the stick falling, and the illusion shattered.

The brief distraction was over. Just as well. A careless protector like Emma didn’t deserve

Hold on. The otter had hopped up to something bright blue, down at the boggy end of the field. It looked at Emma again, pulling at the blue thing. Emma broke into a run to join it, scaring it away briefly, but they were companions now and it didn’t run far. It had led her to a backpack, the zips closed, mud splashed carelessly across its front. Emma hunkered down to open it up, pulling out a plastic bag with a—

She’d no more had a chance to identify the thing as a sandwich before the otter was snatching it out of her hand and running. Hey! Emma glared after it, offended, before bending back over the backpack. Inside were contents she might have found in her own backpack at home: books, notebooks, pencils. But maybe… maybe not normal books. Maybe not normal pencils.

Maybe this was a quest, and the otter had guided her on it. She had to find the backpack’s owner. There was probably a secret diary in here, and maybe instructions on how to get to a magical—no. She was getting ahead of herself. She had to take this backpack home and follow procedure, puzzle out the clue she’d come across. It was definitely a quest, and the otter had definitely chosen her. She had to live up to its expectations.

She looked up at the wizard otter stuffing its face a safe distance away, and was sure the sandwich was just a bonus.

An Abundance of Romances

Lately I’ve heard more & more people say that the sheer amount of romance in various media (mainly YA, but other things too) is unnecessary. I agree. I shivered with pleasure at the lack of romance in Pacific Rim (let viewers decide how to view the main pair! hooray!) and I’ve spent the past month and a bit catching up with Elementary, a show that focuses on the partnership between a man and a woman who aren’t sleeping together or constantly wishing they were sleeping together.

Sherlock and Joan from Elementary. They can't hear you over the sound of how beautiful their partnership is (or at least, I can't)
Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson from Elementary. They can’t hear you over the sound of how beautiful their partnership is (or at least, I can’t)

These films & shows make a nice change from the will-they-won’t-they dynamic we’ve grown used to, and they don’t bore me the way that tired trope does. Romantic tension is exciting, but it’s not the only kind of tension that exists, and I think the world is ready for a little more variety in the romance (or lack thereof) department. The message I’m getting from many vocal sources is clear: we don’t need unnecessary romance in our media.

Is there a clear distinction between necessary romance and unnecessary romance, though? Something that appeals to me might seem forced to someone else, and vice versa. Are there many authors who write romance into their work thinking “this is dull, and I don’t believe in it, but I’m going to write it anyway”? Of course, I know there must be creators who include romance because they think they have to, but I’m also certain a lot of creators who have written “unnecessary romances” don’t do it on purpose; I’m sure many miss the mark quite naturally despite believing in the work they do. Is it because they unconsciously believe they have to include romance, and thereby don’t give its inclusion enough care or thought?

Maybe. I know I used to think a story had to include romance to be interesting, and it’s only in the past six years or so that I’ve changed my mind. Seeing characters care about others is the most compelling thing for me—but that care doesn’t have to stem from desire. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if YA authors hear—from every possible source—that YA revolves around romance. So maybe the answer is just “resist that urge”. Resist the urge to condescend to readers, thinking “they won’t be interested if I don’t give them a love interest”. Resist the urge to think that appointment of the title “love interest” makes a character inherently interesting. I think authors will have an easier time changing this way of thinking than, say, action movie directors, who always seem to need a hot chick to fill the screen and haven’t realised women can do things other than fall in love with protagonists yet. George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) is lovingly excluded from this generalisation.

A group of action movie heroines not being wooed by the protagonist
A group of action movie heroines busy not being wooed by local title characters

Can authors anticipate unfailingly what will make a romance ring true—or false—to readers? Probably not, but I think focusing on what characters actually mean to each other is a lot more compelling than the constant “they loved each other, they loved each other, they were everything to each other” tell-don’t-show of some books. Maybe it’s not love. Maybe it’s mutual need, or just a desire to see a friendly face, or—are we allowed to admit this exists?—physical attraction without an emotional bond beneath. Maybe it’s simply that they make each other laugh.

And maybe it’s not even a romance. Maybe it’s a friendship, which—as I hope some of my pop culture examples have shown—can be just as compelling. Talk to me about the friendship between Jess & Trish on Netflix’s Jessica Jones sometime if you want to lose an hour of your time; I promise I won’t shut up for at least that long. If you’ve read the Sirantha Jax series (and not enough people have), talk to me about the deep bond between Jax and Velith. I’ll rant for days…

…but maybe you’d like to be the one ranting. Here’s your chance: what are some of your favourite fictional friendships?