And now, time for the marriage rant. (Yay).
1) Provide patterns of establishment.
One reason that I end a lot of fantasy novels gazing at the main couple and thinking, “That’ll never last” is because more fantasy authors seem to concentrate on the first flush of passion and the love that could pass or end as easily as endure. Yes, first kisses and first bouts of sex and first loves can be exciting, and so can the resurrection of love after one character has tragically lost his dear darling Princess Ixi, but it doesn’t necessarily provide a good basis for a marriage.
When you’re meaning this couple to last, just not go out in a flare of passion that can be excused because it’s the end of the book and readers won’t see what happens next, include some, well, lasting things. One could argue that physical attraction lasts, but for every story of a couple still passionate about each other in their 70’s, there’s a story of the man who left his wife when she turned 40, or the woman who married a rich older man just to get his money. Also, saving the world together? It might forge lasting bonds. On the other hand, the couple might engage in a whirlwind romance, get married, and then find that, when they aren’t being forced to cooperate, they don’t cooperate. At all. And even in fantasy worlds where divorce is part of the culture, the author is usually reluctant to write the disintegration of his major couple. I know of only one long-running fantasy series that has done that, the Vlad books’ Vlad Taltos and Cawti, and a lot of fans hate Cawti as a result.
What are some things that will last?
- Similar worldviews.
- Weaknesses and strengths that complement each other, rather than replicating in one person what the other person already has. (Two perfectionists might well drive each other nuts).
- The ability to make peace.
- The ability to compromise.
- Love that doesn’t end with the physical, or the mental, or the spiritual, or the intellectual. All of those are things that could be wiped out by changes in the person over time.
- Sheer enjoyment of each other’s company. If these two people go through the “Hate! Want! Hate! Want! Marry!” pattern typical of bad fantasy romance, I end the story not convinced that they enjoy each other’s company. They might enjoy having sex with each other, but that’s not the same thing.
- Goals and ambitions that allow room for another person.
- Shared determination to do something in the world. In a fantasy, that might be as large as ruling a country or as small as getting a farm going on what was once blasted land.
There are others, of course. I think the main mistake made here is that either fantasy authors get so caught up in the physical tension that they forget to write in other parts of the romance, or they take as gospel truth a cliché like “Opposites attract” and forget that a cliché is, without the support that shows why these two opposites attract, just a cliché.
2) Weddings are not cure-alls.
Please don’t treat them that way.
Again, part of the culprit here is that weddings, like coronations and announcements of peace and the hero returning home, often come at the ends of fantasy books. The author knows this is the last chance they’ll have to show off, so they do. The wedding is big and gaudy and shiny and beautifully described.
The problem comes when the author forgets to nod back to how the characters have changed in the book. Suddenly, a heroine who went through mud and blood and lost her right arm (nope, can’t have that, otherwise she wouldn’t be beautiful) lost her right arm and was given a silver one in its place and fought the Dark Lord’s lieutenant to a standstill is smiling “as though all her cares had been taken away.” She might have dealt with heavy grief, “but she knew, somehow, that the past wouldn’t matter, that the future was bright and ahead of her. As she kissed her husband, she felt the cares of the past melt away.”
*Limyaael looks for some sense that this wedding belongs at the end of this book*
Most of the time, it doesn’t. It could belong at the end of a book where the heroine had never suffered very much, but that isn’t this one. It could belong at the end of a book where the author hadn’t indicated that the grief the heroine suffered would mark her in any way, but usually the author is careful to insist that the wounds will last for a long time. It could belong at the end of a book where a wedding is supposed to heal all ills—
Please to go put the panaceas in bad romance novels now. The poor readers could use them. A wedding in fantasy that gets rid of all the ills that the heroine or hero suffers at one sweep abruptly shreds that grand setting and grand concerns that have been the focus until now. It suggests that the heroine or hero didn’t need to have any high principles or high goals in the first place. So long as they get married to their one true love, who cares about suffering, either theirs or anyone else’s?
If your heroine really did suffer all this for love, it might work. Might. I still think it’s a cheat to insist that a wedding compensates for everything she’s endured and gone through. But many heroes and heroines are represented as wanting to save the world or at least their country or village. This, therefore, is a cheat. If the heroine’s main goal was to bring dead villagers back to life, and she didn’t succeed in getting them resurrected, why is kissing her husband supposed to “make the past not matter?”
3) Show the struggles under the surface.
The struggles in the “first love” part aren’t something most fantasy authors have trouble with, though clichéd dialogue, bickering that isn’t a substitute for sexual tension but simply childish whining, and glimpses of people bathing slow them down considerably. Once a couple gets married, however, it seems to be smooth sailing a lot of the time.
Marriage doesn’t involve, most of the time, the ability to go somewhere and complain to the wise matchmaking mentor until you’ve calmed down a bit. And while the couple has had years, at this point, to get to know each other’s good points, they’ve also had years to get to know each other’s faults, and learn how to press each other’s buttons, and have arguments that may return to the surface when other wounds are picked out, and develop shorthand that may seem innocent to outsiders but invokes a whole lot of bad memories in the other person.
A loving relationship doesn’t have to mean a perfect one. Show that this relationship is not dead, which is my personal opinion about a lot of fantasy marriages where the couple just smile and simper and feed each other fruit and never have a bad moment. Perhaps arguments are not going to be a major part of the storyline, but in that case, evoke them subtly.
4) Children don’t need to be the sole goal of a fantasy marriage.
Most fantasy married couples either show up as adoring parents, or angst because they can’t have kids. (The author usually finds a way to let them adopt). Yet I would say at least two circumstances could hold true in fantasy novels that would mean the marriage doesn’t have to aim at children as the sole reason for its existence:
- Danger. Simon R. Green’s husband-and-wife guard team, Hawk and Fisher, haven’t had kids (though they have a vision of the children they might have in the future) because, well, let’s see what their daily schedule consists of: patrolling the city of Haven, where the people they have pissed off try to kill them with great regularity. They barely have time to eat and sleep. Though Green certainly has no qualms about portraying sex or violence, Hawk and Fisher never have sex on-screen in the series. They simply don’t have the freakingtime. If they did have a child, they would either have to take him or her on patrol or leave him or her in the care of someone else. And given how many people they’ve pissed off, said child would be a prime target for a hostage situation. They also have enemies who would be clever enough and cruel enough to simply torture their child to death or kill him or her, just to cause Hawk and Fisher pain. Do think about this when you have a fighter hero, or a fugitive one, or a hero who’s pissed off a lot of people and gone into hiding. He might still have kids, but he might want to wait until, oh, his head’s not in imminent danger of being separated from his body. When fantasy parents do have children in such situations, my main thought is not “Awww, how cute/sweet!”; it’s “Dude, how fucking selfish do you have to be to leave the child in that kind of danger?”
- Not being prime candidates for good parenthood. I sometimes think that there’s a special scene fantasy authors all know about but don’t actually write in the books wherein the parents are taken away before the birth of the child, drugged, and only then permitted to see their kids. The author feels free to toss all previous characterization out the window when the parents have children. Yes, I know having children changes people, but Christ on a pogo-stick, people, when did the man who has a short temper and is possessive of his wife and prefers hacking thugs apart with a sword to asking them questions become this tame thing who never gets angry and never wants time alone with his wife and hasn’t touched his sword in years because it might scare the kiddies? He doesn’t have to beat his children, but I would expect what he’s gone through in his life to leave some marks, so that he doesn’t become a Perfect Loving Robot. (Children should not be used as cure-alls, either. See point 2).
5) If you mean the marriage to be an equal relationship, show an equal one.
Fantasy novels used to have a problem with women being nothing more than the passive playthings of men. (Some still do).
And lo, some fantasy novelists said, “Ah-ha! We have only to write relationships where the men cower before the women, and all will be good!”
And lo, they did so. And yea verily, it was not good.
Listen, people. If you mean equality between the two marriage partners to exist as more than an ideal in the book, you have got to show it, not tell it. I know you can use telling in most parts of a fantasy novel. This is not one of them.
If an author tells me that a man respects his wife, but then shows him cheating on her and her forgiving him “because she understands”… that fantasy novel has malaria, so far as I’m concerned, and I will never pick it up again.
If an author tells me that this is a marriage of a strong man and a strong woman, but then shows the “strong man” getting nervous whenever the woman has PMS and giving up his own desires to satisfy hers…that fantasy novel has yellow fever. I’m never picking it up again, either.
An equal relationship seems strangely difficult for most authors to portray, however much fun it is to think and dream about. And lest you should think from the above that I mean only heterosexual equal relationships, think again. One refreshing thing about Ellen Kushner’sSwordspoint was that it showed a gay male relationship without destroying one of the two characters in the name of the other being “strong,” or having one have a more “tragic” background than the other, reducing the second to the role of a cooing nurse.
Show true equality. And lo, that will be good, yea verily.
6) Even if the marriage is unequal, give the less important partner more of a role than ‘rescue object.’
This is one place where the Tamuli Trilogy took the one David Eddings series I liked, the Elenium, and trashed it to hell. Ehlana, the Queen of Elenia, doesn’t really do much in the first series, but since she’s stuck in a crystal coffin after being poisoned, that’s understandable. Then everybody goes to another continent in the second trilogy, after she’s married the husband she wanted and supposedly become a political force to be reckoned with and showed everyone that she’s her husband’s equal…
And then she gets kidnapped. So her husband can come rescue her, of course! And because it’s so easy to kidnap Queens.
*Limyaael finds small brick wall and bangs her head against it*
Why oh why pair your hero or heroine with someone whose only role is to be rescued? It doesn’t give them much to do. It doesn’t make them interesting, since when the husband and wife are separated by a thousand miles and one is sitting in the “care” of the evil guys, the author usually focuses on the one questing and fighting and, you know, doing stuff. It doesn’t show the reader why the hero or heroine loves the other. Oooh, she smiles just so. Oooh, he always let her sleep in late. Hell of a thing to get married and go a thousand miles for.
It’s interaction that can, and should, make your married characters love each other—not mindless daydreaming, not some action that they performed just once, and not the stupid fucking overused sucky rescue object plot.
7) Bind the marriage to other parts of the story.
I often feel as if I’m reading about a romance or marriage in isolation. The characters go from being dramatic and tense and traumatized at other parts of the story to happy and sunny when they’re with their spouse.
This, in a way, is number 2 for a couple who’s already married when the story begins, or goes into a sequel series married. A wedding can seem to have no connection with what went before, and a marriage might not, either. If you say that the character is distrustful of everyone, then portray her as utterly trusting of her husband…well, why? Did you mean “distrustful of everyone but her husband?” Is she faking trust for some reason? Did he do something in the past to overcome her distrust, and what was it? Characterization should hold consistent across a few pages, please.
Likewise, if your married couple’s relationship, or an ongoing argument, or a journey to rescue a child (that’s a favorite) is part of the plot, then show it as part of the plot. I usually find it quite easy to sit back, squint a little, and forget that these are the child’s parents questing for him; they could be any two halfway decent people who heard about the kid’s abduction and decided to help him. They show no qualms about splitting up just the way they would if they were relative strangers. They’ve apparently been keeping secrets from each other for years that come out in dramatic, distracting revelations. They never have sex, or if they do, it’s fraught with ‘first-time’ tension. In other words, authors tend to write a married relationship the way they write a typical fantasy romance where two people are meeting for the first time.
Quit it. An established marriage is different than a first-time relationship. Even if it shares some characteristics with the typical one, your characters would have themselves been different when they were in love for the first time. Don’t use a married couple as an excuse to tell a love story all over again. If you made them married, you must have had a reason to do so. What was it? Find it and use it.
Well, damn. The creating good rulers and explanation vs. overexplanation rants are now at equal numbers of votes. I’ll have to see which one I do next.