Since I rag on them so often, I suppose it’s fair to depict what I would consider a good romance in fantasy—not a healthy one, necessarily, since twisted relationships can be fun to read (and write) but a well-portrayed one.
1) Don’t use “love” to force two basically incompatible characters together.
I have read fantasies by authors skilled in characterization, who managed to convince me that these two separate and very different people would never live together peacefully. Their weaknesses wouldn’t complement each other. Their bickering was shallow, fueled on annoyance instead of lust. They frequently disparaged each other’s beliefs and ideals, and made no effort to empathize with each other. They had backgrounds so different that it seemed as if they would never be able to compromise.
And then the author declared them in love.
I mean, why? Why not show them engaging in compromises, arguments where they realized their differences instead of shoving them in each other’s faces, companionable moments when they managed to get past their differences and see each other as people instead of sex objects? I’m always reading over these kinds of romances, hoping to find the magical turning point where the author might have indicated how these people could last in a relationship. I’m always disappointed.
The idea that “opposites attract” has some merit—just as does “birds of a feather flock together”—and some couples might run more on lust and antagonistic attraction than on traditional fluffy romantic love. But if they share no bond of common interest and don’t reallylike each other, why are they “in love” instead of people who have sex? (Probably because most fantasy authors can’t conceive of sex without love). Either show how they’re able to function, or give up the notion that they must be in love because it’s destiny, and so on.
2) Rely on dramatic situations other than the last-minute rescue.
Fantasy has a whole cluster of problems representing female characters. To their credit, a lot of fantasy authors do try to portray women who don’t fall into either the “helpless princess” cliché, or the “warrior woman” cliché. However, in a fantasy romance, the female, even if strong, spends an unenviable portion of the story falling apart and getting rescued by the hero.
First of all, why does there need to be a rescue? Fantasy authors overuse this dreadfully, and at this point it’s one of those plotlines where you can predict almost every trope, down to the rats and straw in the dungeons and the rescuer charging in just as the prisoner is about to be raped/sacrificed/killed. Second, why is the heroine always the one getting captured, and why is she always bait to lure the man (assuming that she’s involved in a heterosexual romance)? In fantasies where the heroine is the protagonist and powerful in her own right, she’s still more vulnerable to capture, for, um, well, some reason. Don’t ask me. And the object is almost always to get at the male protagonist or trap him, despite the woman’s being powerful. I can recall very few fantasies where the villain captures the heroine just in order to put her out of commission, or kidnaps her lover in order to make her come and get him. When and if the villain takes someone important to the heroine, it’s almost always a child or a younger sibling, a play on maternal stereotypes again.
Try putting the people in love in some other situation that touches or strains or proves the strength of their bond. Some other ideas beyond dramatic rescues:
- one of them conceals an important secret (not something stupid and petty that he or she just didn’t want to tell), the other finds out, and they actually talk about it.
- they fail at some important part of their mission.
- they make a decision that causes harm to other people.
- they lose one of their children.
- something happens to one of them that the other had an indirect hand in causing.
- there’s abuse or an unequal relationship involved (very common in “evil” relationships that the author never meant to work out, very rare in actual supposedly loving romances.)
3) Show rough patches and sweet patches all along the way.
The pattern of many fantasy romances is to start out with the couple bickering and hating each other, until they have their epiphany (usually built on sexual lust or that completely unconvincing bolt from the blue that “they’ve loved each other all along!”) After that, everything is fine. The bickering is always affectionate, they might get angry but they apologize at once, their magic combines and saves the day, they defeat the Dark Lord because they are in love—please to look at point 6—etc.
I object to this kind of romance for the same reason I object to the romances where the lovers can hear each other’s thoughts/are reincarnated lovers doomed destined to be together throughout eternity/are soulbonded (all of which temptations are incredibly, well, tempting in fantasy). It’s boring. The author strips all conflict from the story past a certain point, for the sake of creating many cutesy scenes where the characters peek at each other and giggle. It is, in fact, a special form of flaw-scrubbing. The author cleans all that messy conflict up, for the sake of creating a relationship that the reader supposedly can’t help but love.
Retaining conflict in the romance gives you another source of discomfort/pain/intrigue to explore. Done right, every problem solved will bring up another problem to deal with, and every compromise can’t be permanent, and there may be long-lasting, nagging little things that will never go away. The people in the romance remain people, not transformed, as they too often are, into perfect shining idols that the reader is fit only to grovel before.
4) Place the romantic partners in the center of danger, too.
And I don’t mean just danger of breakups or jealousy, which many authors do do. I mean fantasy kind of danger: battle, murder, big nasty magic storms, Dark Lords, plagues, riots, and so on. Another thing that often happens when the author proclaims thus-and-so to be the protagonist and thus-and-so to be the love interest is the prompt diminishing of danger to them. The audience knows that the hero is unlikely to die, but let him be in love and he’s unlikely to get maimed or seriously hit by tragedy as opposed to angst, either. (Can’t have scars on that handsome face, after all!) And his love interest shares the immunity. There goes some of the story’s tension right out the window.
If you do feel utterly unable, as an author, to damage the lovebirds, then you have to get really, really good at crafting the illusion that you could. This is what I call “suspension of disbelief as to suspense.” I might have the strong suspicion, based on my familiarity with other fantasy books, that the heroine is going to survive and triumph and get her guy, but why should I read the story at all if the author agrees with me and presents every possible “danger” as silly or trivial? Once again, conflict= story. Lack of conflict= tedious and boring hymn to the character’s perfections.
And every once in a while, it really is nice to see a couple growing closer, apparently on top of the world, surviving everything—and then the author cripples one of them, or gives one powerful magic that causes jealousy in their partner, or kills one of them, and the other has to wallow in devastation. That’s using the contrasting, usual conventions of the genre to good effect.
5) Avoid the “real me” syndrome.
The “real me syndrome” is what I call it when a character falls in love with another character in fantasy, and they promptly declare, or muse, that no one else has ever seen the “real me” and they put on a false mask for everyone else. It’s especially true when people from different social classes, like a princess and a peasant, fall in love, or people of different races, or people of different species, or whatever. Somehow, despite the characters often having a loving family and friends, they feel compelled to lie to them (why?) and their lover is the first one to see them “as a real person” (why?)
It seems to be the lover’s difference that compels the characters to show their real selves, which often aren’t that varied from the supposedly false selves they’ve been showing to other people. The notion of making two different people fall in love just so that they can show off their scars to each other is, well, puzzling. If the point is supposed to be that these people are crossing class or cultural or racial or religious boundaries, particularly when their peoples have been enemies (an honored and time-worn plot), wouldn’t they need to have an open-mindedness to want to perceive the humanity within the difference anyway? A self-absorption and a longing to show off their self-pity to other people seems to contradict that.
6) Don’t make love the solution to everything.
Right behind the mage somehow discovering his love for everyone and using that to control his magic in a cliché fantasy ending are the couple who, joined in their pure and wonderful love, are able to defeat the Dark Lord.
Yes, they’re happy and I’m sure they’re both good in bed, but is that really enough to change the world?
Speaking seriously, I think such an ending cheapens the romantic relationship, not deepens it. It isn’t allowed to exist on its own, as a bond that the characters enter into, fall out of, wrench, break, strengthen, and so on, the way that friendships and parental relationships in fantasy more usually function. It’s reduced to a plot device. The hero might as well have a checklist:
- Bicker with pretty girl.
- Snatch glimpses of her bathing.
- Angst about defeating the Dark Lord.
- Fall in love/have sex.
- Defeat Dark Lord.
Is that really the way that you want readers to perceive your characters?
Love can be part of the solution, but I think it’s better to have the lovers trusting each other enough to make hard decisions, to follow each other into battle when no one else can (something I find much more interesting than the dramatic rescue), and to let go if necessary. None of this elevating above other lovers, who apparently couldn’t defeat the Dark Lord even if they tried. None of this exalting them simply for being in love. Show the consequences of their being in love instead, and maybe those really would be enough to change the world.
Must think about what rant to do next.