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In my story, there are several relationships between humans and non-humans. While there are the usual with vampires and werewolves, there are also with anthromorphic animals as well. Seeing how despite being able to walk and talk like humans, they are still a completely different animal species. When writing, how far can romance between a human and non-human go, before it ends up being uncomfortable or disturbing?

Note: While I mentioned some fantasy examples, it also applies to AI and aliens as well, for future writings.

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  • Why would you ever want to limit story opportunities in a fantastical setting?
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 25, 2022 at 10:53
  • One word: rishathra. Coined by SF author Larry Niven in the early 1970s.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 25, 2022 at 18:55
  • Are you trying to broaden the reader's tolerance without going so far they won't read it, or do you want a story they can enjoy without having their tolerance challenged? I've thrown away "romance" novels when the relationship between two humans had either too much infidelity or too much pornography. But absent those problems, I'd be LESS put off by a monogamous not-too-explicit relationship between a human and an sentient alien. I would not read a story that depended on bestiality.
    – WGroleau
    Jul 30, 2022 at 22:40

4 Answers 4

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It shouldn't matter if the relationship is between a dragon and a zombie, a werewolf and a vampire, a human and an AI, or a golem and a visitor from the planet Zebulon.

But both parties must have informed consent

However, there are many factors of different fictional species that can complicate things significantly.

Awareness/Intelligence

Both parties need to be smart enough to fully understand what they are signing up for with the relationship.

I'll use dragons as an example. In some media, dragons are little more than big reptiles. Mentally the creature is only an animal and does not even understand what a relationship is, therefore any relationship involving it would be disturbing.

However, many forms of media have dragons who are extremely intelligent, sometimes more than humans. If the dragon can have full conversations and is clearly fully aware, then it's fine. (As long as the other criteria are met too)

Age

This is a big one.

As long as both parties are adults or roughly the same age, there's nothing to worry about, but what if one's 25 and the other's 10,000? What if one is mortal and the other is immortal?

If the mortal's an adult, they're old enough to make a decision on their own, but the problem comes from the immortal's side. If they're so old that they could be the mortal's grandmother, then there's a massive difference in the level of maturity between both parties. But a 1,000-year gap? Or more? That's older than most civilizations. It's an uncomfortably wide gap in knowledge and experience.

Another wrinkle is that some species age faster, slower, or maybe even age in reverse. An immortal species might age so slowly that 10,000 is 13 to them, or they age so fast that they go through an entire life cycle in a day.

If you're gonna go down the immortal x mortal with a large age gap route, at least make it clear the immortal is mentally as old as the mortal. (e.g. they age 400 times slower than humans so one of them reaching 10,000 puts them at an equivalent mental age to a human being at 25).

Communication

Okay, so now you've established that all parties are beings old enough and intelligent enough to fully understand what a relationship is, but there's still another hurdle to cross.

How do the two communicate? If one is a human and the other is an eldritch god, how do they understand each other?

Eldritch gods might only speak through dreamlike images or visions. Humans speak through words, writing, or body language. If they can't meaningfully communicate, there's no relationship to be had.

Worse yet, one party might have a completely incorrect idea about what the other one wants.

For example, the eldritch god might know what sex is, but they might not know why humans do it. It's a foreign concept to them because human anatomy's utterly alien to them.

In the same way, if your boyfriend Cthulu asks you to sgsdfhksldfhewriewrew him, you'll have no idea what that means because you don't speak Primordial and you might not be able to.

Both parties need something to work with, some common ground for the relationship to flourish. Maybe the human doesn't know Primordial but at least they try.

Dependence/Freedom to Choose

A relationship should always be a choice, but some tropes in fiction make it very hard for one party to have a choice.

In sci-fi, a good example would be a robot and a creator. You program a robot to fall in love with you and be your loving wife. But if the robot is bound by her programming and can't help loving you, or you have a remote you control them, then they have no choice in the matter.

Imagine the robot's perspective. They're a prisoner both mentally and physically. Forget romance, that's the start of a horror film.

In fantasy, the trope would be roughly the same. You build a monster or make a contract with a demon, and they're bound to do whatever you say, but that's not a healthy relationship because you have incredible power over the other party. They're your servant.

If you're going to make a robot wife or get a demon contractor, they should still be there by choice, not because you forced them to be here.

The same thing works in the reverse.

When your character's dating an all-powerful demon lord, they shouldn't be there because the demon lord put them under a powerful spell that forbids them from leaving. That's horror, not romance.

When your character is dating an omniscient AI, they shouldn't be there because the robot blocked off all the exits and will vaporize them if they try to leave.

My point is, try not to create unhealthy power imbalances.

If one partner's a normal mortal and the other's a world-ending god powerful enough to kill the other with a single touch, the god had better treat their sweetheart with exceptional gentleness and affection for the relationship to be healthy.

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  • I'd say that last example can never be fully consensual. How can the mortal ever not fear the consequences if they say "no" to the god? The ancient Greeks had this one; Zeus couldn't keep it in his garments and "seduced" -- when that meant raped -- many mortal women.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 25, 2022 at 19:00
  • @ Zeiss Ikon Wouldn't Superman and Lois Lane be a good counterexample, though? He's incredibly powerful, but also incredibly kind, so she's comfortable with him. Isn't that still a healthy relationship? Jul 25, 2022 at 19:14
  • @ZeissIkon Lots of women said no to Apollo, though. It's practically a running joke in the Metamorphoses. In any case, even if there is a huge power imbalance, a relationship could be consensual, as long as there is the trust the more powerful part will take no for an answer. But it's definitely a problem for both the audience and the god to know whether it's truly consensual (unless they can read the inner thoughts of the other party).
    – user54131
    Jul 26, 2022 at 6:01
  • @towr "Lots of women said no to Apollo" -- which suggests Apollo was legitimately asking where Zeus was using his power to get what he wanted, consent or no.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 26, 2022 at 11:01
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Captain Kirk and Commander Riker are both examples from a mainstream TV show that show that in general people don't have a problem with romancing alien species. In that sense vampires and werewolves and anthropomorphic animals shouldn't be a problem either.

But in all those cases the species are very much humanoid. It will get more uncomfortable if you move the species into a more animal-like or alien direction. If instead of an anthropomorphic animal you just have a talking cat or dog or unicorn, well, that sounds kind of iffy.

Even in an anthropomorphic animal, if you make some traits too animal-like, it might be off-putting. For example, usually catgirls will just be given a pair of human-like breasts. But actual cats have 6-8 nipples, so if you think about, 6-8 breasts would make more sense. That would make a lot of people a bit uncomfortable, though.

It gets even weirder if you dive into the wide variety of genitals and sexual practices in the animal kingdom. You have animals with barbed penises, animals with detachable ones, animals that just stab wherever, cannibalism during/after sex, etc. Basically, too much realism and detail ruins everything.

As long as we can imagine it's just a human with some cosmetic differences, it's fine.

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For me it would get uncomfortable if there were disparity in degree of intellect and ability to give meaningful consent.

So I can imagine someone might invent anthropomorphic Pandas, but they may only have an equivalent mental age of about 6, so even if physically mature, that would have a paedophilic air. Or anthropomorphic budgerigars whose though processes don't go beyond whether the image in the mirror is another budgie or not and whether the bell still makes a ringing noise today, where such a relationship would feel exploitative.

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You need to specify the audience. There is no universal answer, because every reader will have a different comfort level.

  • A large part of the fantasy audience will be disgusted by bestiality, and consider the work as fetish pornography. Most of this audience is women, and they don't see a need for sexuality in loving relationships. Aside from this, the simple fact that women and typical men will be seriously disturbed if you create painful imagery of animal/alien/robotic anatomy with female anatomy. You don't need to describe it, just the mere suggestion that "Oru the Ox-man took the tiny fairy to his bed" will be enough to blacklist you forever.

  • A part of your audience will be disturbed when incompatible species are having sex just for pleasure with no commitment. Women want to see commitment, not simple gratification.

  • A large part of your audience will be disturbed if two characters are not agreeing to the sex (like Mordred is Arthur’s son–nephew by incest), but it happens in life as well as fantasy. Don't glorify it. You may be interested to see how modern retelling of medieval incest and rape is handled today by The Swithen.

Generally, as towr said, when the differences are only cosmetic most fantasy readers will be OK with it, but not all. In its time, Star Trek was even controversial when Kirk kissed Lt. Ohura. We are far passed that today.

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