This was the one I was dreading, but then, when I thought about it, I realized I had a whole bunch of ideas I’d never considered—not only about why most stories with an arranged marriage in them don’t work for me, but how to make them work.

*examines brain cautiously* Sometimes, I have no idea what’s in there until I write it down.

The “forked stick” is my term for a kind of story that, 99% of the time, turns into one of two equally predictable plotlines. Many stories of sports teams are like that; either the team is going to win or the team is going to lose, usually amid platitudes like “You’re the true winners, because you played fairly!” And most arranged marriage stories either involve the angsty protagonist finding true love with the arranged spouse or running away from the arranged marriage with his/her true love.

Perhaps the problem, though, isn’t the story so much as the failure to question some essential aspects of it.

1) Invoke other emotions besides angst.

So, tell me something: In a world with arranged marriages and manipulative family members and cutthroat politics, all of which the protagonist knows about, why do so many stories start with the protagonist finding out about the arranged marriage and treating it as a nasty surprise?

This is the primary forked stick, the one that sets up the predictable patterns of the story and makes them inescapable. It’s difficult for most protagonists to react to nasty surprises with anything but angst. Yet, given the world of the story and the fact that most of them aren’t sheltered or dense or naïve, it doesn’t make sense for this to take them so out of the blue.

One solution would be to start the story in a different place—say, the day of the wedding or the wedding night instead of the announcement of the marriage. Then the protagonist has to do something other than sit around and brood. Or have the hero notice rumblings among his family members about his getting married and use that to prepare a plan to get out of the betrothal. Then you get anger and determination. Or the heroine looks forward to this because it means that she’ll finally be treated as an adult woman and not a maiden, and so there’s a mixture of nervousness and pleasure and curiosity. Or the protagonist has met his/her arranged spouse beforehand and isn’t sure that he/she’s in love, but the wedding preparations have dragged out so long that it’s frankly a relief that the big day is finally approaching.

All of those set up different emotional paths for your character to follow than, “Sniff, sniff, wail, woe is me, I don’t want to get married [to someone I don’t love]!” And variation in emotion is good, lest your character become Broody McBrood.

2) Decide what purpose arranged marriage plays in your society.

The most common answer is that it’s part of the background clutter of generic fantasy, in the same way that castles and swords and royalty are. But if you poke at it, then you can get plot points out of it, and decide what purpose it serves, and why your character would be getting married and what the consequences would be if he or she refused.

Political alliance is part of it. But can I ask for clearer definitions of “political alliance,” please? I want to know why Random Noble X is powerful enough that the family head wants him/her to be tied closer to the family. Does he control more land? Does she have powerful magic? Does he carry noble blood that would help solidify a claim to the throne or a particular estate? Is she rich? It can be these reasons, a combination of them, or something else altogether. But if it’s just “political alliance,” unspecified further, then one wonders why only marriage will suffice, and the family head couldn’t make offers to share trade or weapons or information.

Then there’s the old favorite, marrying two people to settle the war between two kingdoms or baronies or countries or [insert your favorite political entity name here]. My favorite (ha!) variation on this is when a single surviving princess gets betrothed to a single surviving prince. Nowhere in most stories of this type is there any grief for the slaughtered family. The princess and/or prince—though it’s far more common from the princess’s side, because, my god, they also make her wear dresses and act dignified, how horrid—is exclusively concerned with the fact that the royal parents are taking away her or his freedom. Whine, whine, bitch, bitch! How horrible, horrible, horrible!

Hey, authors? If there’s been a high number of deaths in a short period of time, and if the royal brat heir in question is really supposed to care about his or her people as well as him- or herself, how about some consideration of what refusing the marriage will do, hmmm? Such as continue the war and turn away aid that might otherwise make the difference between survival and starvation. But, of course, death by famine is nothing compared to having to wear dresses.

As well as showing your characters in the context of arranged marriage, show arranged marriage in the context of its society. Your brilliant, perceptive, politically canny character shouldn’t be taken by surprise when her mother announces that she’ll have to get married someday, and though it’s certainly human and in-character (maybe, see point 3) for her to feel upset about it, one great way to demonstrate her compassion is to show her looking beyond herself for one teensy tiny moment. She won’t be the first character to have an arranged marriage in a society that truly possesses a place for it, and she won’t be the last, either.

3) Question romantic love as the primary attachment.

Here’s the point where I come over and say, once again, “Most fantasy worlds are not Western societies on Earth, and neither should they be.”

Play around with kinship structures. Many, many fantasy families are far too nuclear, even when the author makes a point of saying that people live in extended tribes, or clans, or that children are raised close to home and taught to love and obey their parents before anyone their own age. The moment a character falls in love, many of them, even from backgrounds like this, seem all too ready to abandon filial attachments for romantic ones. If the true love asks, they’ll too often run away from the parents who raised them, the siblings who cuddled them and played with them and fought with them, the cousins who protected them and learned with them, the aunts and uncles who advised them and might have been more sympathetic than their parents at times.

Of course, the author might have included another bit of generic fantasy clutter to take care of that: the entire protagonist’s family is horrible and hates her and bullies her, except for the one sibling or cousin who understands her feelings of Troo Wuv and helps her run away.

That’s too easy. Sorry. No points.

In a world where families pull together to survive, the protagonist should have a long and earnest struggle to place romantic love first, or a horrible tearing feeling if she has to choose between her family and her true love, or a damn good reason not to go through either. If a family is brutal and abusive, I bet you that the protagonist isn’t the only one who suffers from it, and her running away might leave siblings or cousins or a parent in the lurch. If her marriage is boring and she falls in love with someone more dashing, then does that mean that she’s ready to leave behind the children she has?

It takes a carefully constructed fantasy world to convincingly contain both arranged marriages meant to connect families and nations and people, and protagonists who can snip all their connections and run away the moment they fall in love, without feeling any guilt or any worries. As I noted above, I believe a large part of their coexistence in many stories doesn’t come from careful background-building, but from not thinking about it. Cheap angst is just that, cheap. I’d much rather plunge into a complicated, twisty story of what it means when someone falls in love and thinks or plays the consequences out, rather than yet another story where the protagonist sheds all responsibility like a child while supposedly feeling an adult emotion. (See point 5).

4) Anyone can react badly to bad treatment.

The sole focus in most arranged marriage stories in the protagonist, who is being made to do things that she considers stupid. (Of course she can’t possibly like to wear dresses and don jewels and participate in formal ceremonies! Only shallow people do that! Oh, and the protagonist when she gets married to her true love). Her love interest commiserates with her and offers her unconditional love, her parents are blindly conformist and traditional, any helpful relatives will do anything she wants to help her out, and the arranged spouse, if he doesn’t turn out to be the love interest, stands around and smiles like an automaton, or is blatantly evil and lecherous. (Of course the arranged spouse wants the protagonist, to the point of rape! How could anyone not love and admire her, unless they’re both evil and stupid?)

Have you ever seen a mother trying her best to get a crying or screaming child home? Now imagine that this child is—supposedly, anyway—at adult age, and knows that this marriage is important to more people than just her mother, and has just torn up another formal dress or thrown a screaming temper tantrum in front of an audience. I wouldn’t wonder if said mother starts feeling a bit snappish and put-upon.

Imagine the servants who have to clean up after the messes the protagonist creates to prove her “independence,” in the middle of also preparing the elaborate ceremonies that surround most fantasy weddings. I wouldn’t blame them for having some negative thoughts about her, however sorry they felt. By the end of the wedding preparations, they might be praying for the arranged spouse to marry her and get her the hell away from home.

The arranged spouse came here—perhaps as reluctant as the protagonist was to marry, perhaps grimly determined to do his duty, perhaps eagerly anticipating marriage because he’s heard good things about the protagonist. I don’t think any of those reactions will be improved by the sight of temper tantrums or heated arguments about how the marriage is “so stupid” and the protagonist’s parents obviously don’t love her or care about her happiness. On top of that, she’s not making any effort to hide how unhappy she is with having to marry him in particular. (He’s probably ugly. Who would want to marry an ugly person?) Tell me, why is he evil if he reacts with something other than unmitigated patience and endless statements of “I understand”?
You don’t have to have other people in the story reacting badly to the protagonist, especially if you took point 1 into consideration and have other emotions besides angst in there. But if you do, start thinking about why they’re doing so, instead of deciding “They are evil! And stupid! And doubtless ugly!”

5) If the protagonist really doesn’t want to get married, have him or her do something about it.

I love proactive people. I love people who complain for a while, then realize that the universe doesn’t care and get up to take care of their own problems. I love people who have foresight enough to see this day coming—like I said, how the fuck does someone who’s seen arranged marriages happening all around him not know he’ll have to get married someday?—and prepare a means to escape the marriage, or make it more tolerable. I love people who seek out help instead of lying around looking pathetic until someone helps out of pity. Those people are really damn rare in most arranged marriage stories, replaced by Broody McBrood once again. That gets combined with a current of indignation that the protagonist’s parents don’t take one look at her face after the marriage announcement and rescind their decree, or that it takes a while before the powerful magic or god or Destiny shows up and announces that Broody McBrood here can’t get married, she has to save the world.

You really hate this situation, hero/ine? Then do something about it.

Depending on your character, that might range from running away to assassinating her arranged spouse in an untraceable way, from bargaining with his parents to finding a different spouse who’s more appealing to him. Actually, I think stories of this type are far more likely to be fun and unpredictable than the ones where the protagonist just whines about not wanting to get married. But then, I prefer stories that aren’t structured like romance novels, even if they are romantic at heart.

6) Write stories about marriage, and not just love.

The one gets equated with the other, often the same way that love gets equated with sex. The author can’t imagine one happening without the other, so reduces everything to a too-simple equation. Yet I’ve known—and I imagine that you have, too—people who had sex without being in love, and people who were in love but didn’t have sex, and people who stayed married without being passionately IN TWOO WUV, and people who got married because they were in love and then divorced when the love withered.

I suppose an author might say, “That’s boring. If I write about love, I have sexual tension and jealousy and love triangles and romantic attachments to play around with. What do I have if I write about arranged marriage as marriage?”

Well, let’s see:

  • issues of celebrity and masks and public image—how these two people feel knowing they’re looked on as the solution to a war or a means of cementing an alliance, and that these images may be quite different from who they really are.
  • themes of strength, permanence, and, once again, connection—not a bond that one of the pair can just walk away from when they get tired of it.
  • slow growth of emotions other than love—respect, strength, trust, absolute faith in one another.
  • slow growth of love, for that matter.
  • issues of entrapment, the dark side of the permanence issue—if the marriage is unhappy, show the ways in which it might be unhappy other than just simply being arranged.
  • ideas of family, especially children. If very few fantasy protagonists are married, even fewer have children. Parents are rarely protagonists, and more like punching bags.
  • how marriage functions in that particular society. How much time is a couple at this level expected to spend with each other? Does a mother raise her own children? Do they have separate bedrooms or a single one? Do they set up a regular schedule for having sex? Do they turn a blind eye to each other’s lovers, and what would make them stop turning a blind eye?
  • issues of honor and duty. They’re unfashionable compared to issues of individualism and freedom, as I noted in the rant on duty-bound protagonists. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting, and for many fantasy worlds, they would make much more sense than the continual focus on mavericks.

Why was I scared of that again?