This one is not really like the other portion of the rant, despite the “part two” at the top. For one thing, the other part could apply to genres outside of fantasy much more easily. For a second, this is just as much about world-building as plot and characterization.
1) Remember that romantic love might not be the most important bond in this world.
One of my favorite ways to create a fantasy world is to alter attitudes, rather than, say, geography or history. (This could be because I have had some unfortunate experiences with alternate history. We will not speak of Harry Turtledove and his refighting-World-War-II-with-dragons series). Thus, imagine a fantasy world in which people have a genuinely different conception of magic than the Western one, to take a very basic example. Or a different conception of war.
Or a different conception of love. If romantic love is not at the core of the culture you’re writing about, then what is?
Try to imagine this, and all the ramifications of it, and I bet that some plot ideas are already popping up. For one thing, what is the art about? American pop culture tends to focus on romantic love in a lot of movies and television shows—and I’m not a casual watcher of those, even—a lot of songs, and a lot of books. Several comments to the first part of the rant mentioned movies that are not primarily about romantic love but have a romance stuck on, apparently because the director/producers/scriptwriters thought it must happen. I’ve seen books that are the same way; the author didn’t write romance well and didn’t seem all that excited about it, but stuck a DLI in so that the main character would have someone to fall in love with/rescue because, well, that’s what you do.
But what if, say, the love bond that your culture is fascinated with is familial. What does the art look like? Even if this culture does not have movies, television, or books commonly available, I bet it has music. What are the songs about? If people tell stories, how do they tie back to the concept of filial love?
What about metaphors that people live by? I’m fairly familiar with the metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ. What do the preachers talk about in this world? Of the gods as siblings—this would be very interesting, actually—as aunts or uncles or cousins or parents? (The parental metaphor exists in our world too, of course, and lots of fantasy has a mother goddess somewhere in the background, but it rarely gets developed this far). What is considered transgressive? While it might be adultery in some other society, it might be betraying one’s elder sibling here.
I haven’t touched on nearly all the implications of this. But you can see what can happen if you dethrone romantic love from the place it seems to hold in the hearts of many modern authors, so unquestioned that an obligatory romance is simply thrown in. Then, of course, one must wrestle this partly alien culture into a story that works with people of our own, and try to avoid letting one’s own unconscious prejudices do something like create a hero who should value his elder siblings the most, but instead values his wife the most for no apparent reason.
This is probably the single thing about fantasy I like doing the most: trying to write about an alien world from the perspective of a person living in that world, and make it comprehensible to someone outside the text at the same time.
2) Give some variety to the commitment.
In many fantasy worlds, there seem to be only two forms of committed romantic relationship: marriage and long-term lovers. Other people the characters have sex with are political manipulators, courtesans or whores, quick releases chance-met on the road, or arranged marriage partners that they have no choice about having sex with, but whom they don’t love. And, of course, friendship is almost always kept distinctly separate from love.
One thing I remember liking about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series was that it had different forms of marriage in it. I can only remember two, unfortunately: di catenas, a very formal marriage symbolized by bracelets, and a kind of common-law marriage that involved sharing a fire, a meal, and a bed. But at least they existed. There was no sign that people in love had to be married only one way and in one kind of ceremony or they weren’t really in love. It’s a variety that makes the lack of it apparent in many other fantasy worlds all the more startling.
What the fuck, people? This is fantasy! A lot of times, either the people are living in a different world altogether, one that has no contact with Earth, or they’re in contact with different species, cultures, and dimensions in our own world. And yet everywhere, in every culture and among every human-like species, is one form of marriage, and long-term lovers who may be prevented from marrying, and nothing else? Come on, now. (Some nonhuman species do receive more variety, but even that is made boring. See point 3).
What can be done? Lots of things:
- Different forms of marriage for varying forms of commitment. People who only intend to stay together for a few years may marry in one way, while others who intend to spend the rest of their lives together use another. This would honor a form of romantic love that is based on self-knowledge and disdains impulse.
- No marriage at all. There is no reason that marriage has to occur among characters who are not human. Even among characters who are, they don’t have to imitate, one-to-one, twenty-first-century notions of what a perfect marriage is like. Perhaps a couple deeply in love with each other have no desire for children, because with children it’s considered a requirement to stay settled in one place to raise them, and they are always traveling.
- Group marriages. Polygamous societies are fairly common (especially as antagonists that mistreat their women), polyandrous ones very scarce on the ground even in fantasy matriarchies. And what about if you have a culture for whom the norm is to fall in love in triads, groups of four, or larger?
- Less attention paid to the length of time a couple spends together and more towards how they behave. In that case, perhaps a couple who treats each other very well and breaks apart after a few months would be granted more honor and esteem than a couple who stay together but constantly hurt one another. (And at least it would give characters something to angst about other than how long their relationships last. That’s all over the place).
I complained once before, long ago, about how many marriage customs in fantasy seem plucked whole-cloth from Earth, including a ring, a priest or priestess to marry the couple, a gown for the woman, etc. Shake things up at least a little.
3) Don’t insist that a “mating bond” is perfect.
If you have werewolf characters, dragon characters, or vampire characters, there may be a mating bond lurking somewhere in the background. I am already eying the text nervously in any book that involves these kinds of characters, and if the word “mate” actually appears, then that long-tailed cat in the room full of rocking-chairs has nothing on me.
Why? Because mates doesn’t usually equal two characters who get taken over by their hormones, have sex, and then perhaps stay together and raise any resulting children. Nor does it even indicate characters who do this and fall in love at the same time. Mate is often treated the same as soulmate. Perfect love forever and ever and ever, and italicized telepathic bonds, and possessive jealousy, and where the heck did I put the silver and the dragonsbane and the stakes?
Please remember that your characters are, or should be, complex beings, even if they’re not human. If you’ve spent a lot of time developing a dragon heroine as nervous, anxious to assert herself but constantly screwing up, and determined at bottom if she’ll only find the courage, then don’t suddenly make her forget all about her nervousness the minute she mates and make her life revolve around the male dragon for the rest of the story. Why? If it’s hormones, then the hormones will go away. And if it’s soulmates, goodbye. And if every dragon in the story does that and thus becomes exactly the same as every other dragon the moment they mate, I think this should have been noted beforehand.
Likewise, with werewolves, I think most people who do this have a romantic notion of wolves. Um. Wolves do not have endless perfect romantic mating bonds. If, say, the alpha female is toppled by her daughter, then the father will mate with the daughter. Likewise, if a pack forms and one of the mating pair is killed, the remaining one does not go off and starve themselves to death. (If nothing else, they probably have pups to care for). And when the bitch whelps, the male usually does not go down into the lair and spend constant time with the pups just so that he can be close to his mate. He might eat her litter.
Nonhuman characters should not have perfect love lives any more than the humans should, just because they’re “mates.” Please.
4) The things one can’t say.
A fantasy culture might well have a conception of love that does not exist in twenty-first-century Western culture. The writer might invent a term for it in a conlang, or simply call it “nameless” (especially if the protagonist does come from a culture that has more “traditional” notions of romantic love, and is encountering this ideal as a foreign one). Or they might describe it as a list of terms that include differences from “pure” romantic love. This can add enormously to the “alien” feeling of the world. Why should another world chop up emotions just the way we do, or assume that when one character tells another, “I love you,” it means the exact same thing it does to us?
I’ll include a personal example, since I haven’t read many books lately that include one. In creating a species whose cultures tended be meritocratic and anarchic—not least because all of them lived thousands of years, had powerful magic, and had emotions many times stronger than a human’s, so, for example, suicide and murder were painfully common, and restraint based on force or age tended not to work that well—I chose to emphasize a kind of love that focused on choice, the partners wanting rather than needing each other. Among one subrace of that species, that got called ‘chatal,’ and implied lifelong commitment, children if the couple was heterosexual and wanted them (since fertility was also a choice), and equal work to make it work, but wanting rather than needing and pretty much instant parting of the ways if one of them chose it so. The people involved in this kind of love valued freedom enough that they refused to say the commitment could bind them against their wills, even if their partner still wanted the relationship to continue.
(Yes, in fact, this species did get involved in genocidal wars frequently and destroyed the created world—as in, magical blasting back to less than the equivalent of the Stone Age—on more than one occasion. They also oppressed humans. This is what I get for trying to come up with an answer to elves that was, well, not quite so wimpy).
More complex romantic relationships, and definition of love by the setting as well as by a period in Earth’s own history or the author’s own values, cannot be a bad thing.
5) Know your motivations.
I hesitated to put this one in here, but, well, something like it went into the sex scene rant, and even into the last one when I talked about authors who create one character in a romantic relationship just to reward the character they’ve fallen in love with. So I’ll put this here, too.
Know yourself and how you write about romance, or try to. This has two purposes. First, it lets you know what you’re genuinely uncomfortable with writing. That isn’t necessarily a barrier against trying it—I tried what was technically a foursome love affair, except that it involved a woman falling in love with a man who had three heads, all with separately independent brains, and had it not work—but, hey, if this story does not need a group marriage and you’re not comfortable with writing more than two partners, why put it in there? Same with writing sex; if a story doesn’t need sex, it doesn’t have to have it, or it can have a fade-to-black instead.
The second purpose is to avoid fetishization. If someone puts group marriages in to be Daring and Transgressive, or because group marriage is so much cooler than boring ol’ monogamy, I think it heads towards false ‘subversion’ pretty damn quickly. It becomes more about the author and what they believe and what they’re doing with this one aspect of the world than it becomes about telling a good story. And then we’re back with pushing a Message at the expense of the story again.
I apologize for this last point, which is the most personal. I appreciate writing that tries to have a good story and insightful/disturbing/thinky thematic elements. But if a choice between the two must be made, I choose the good story every time, because I think pieces that sacrifice good writing, characterization and setting and plot and all, to the Message are not stories. Sorry. It’s the way I’m wired.
Haven’t decided on the next topic yet. Shall have to do that fairly soon.