Feel free to disagree with me on this one.
I have strong opinions on romance in fantasy.
But love can be beautifully written about. This is the opening of Tristram of Lyonesse by Swinburne, and one of the most lyrical descriptions of love I’ve ever read:
Love, that is first and last of all things made,
The light that has the living world for shade,
The spirit that for temporal veil has on
The souls of all men woven in unison,
One fiery raiment with all lives inwrought
And lights of sunny and starry deed and thought,
And alway through new act and passion new
Shines the divine same body and beauty through,
The body spiritual of fire and light
That is to worldly noon as noon to night…
Long, beautiful, tragic poem, filled with natural description and very explicit love scenes for Victorian poetry. Swinburne wrote a lot of bad poetry, but at his best he was a goddamn genius.
I’m wary of writing romance, because I don’t think I’m good at writing tender scenes; they turn sappy, and I start giggling. However, it took me a while to realize that I don’t much like reading about it either, and I usually start wincing when I realize that a fantasy author intends two characters to be together. And that’s because so many fantasy romances follow these well-worn paths.
1) Who’s sleeping with whom should not be more important than the fate of the world.
I sometimes wonder where fantasy characters get the energy to worry about whether someone likes them or likes-likes them, or even have wild sex any time they want, while being chased through the wilderness by enemies, worrying about whether the Dark Lord will kill them all before long, or working as a slave. I would expect someone whose life is in danger to be concerned about that first and foremost. Yes, hormones are what they are, but they can’t be used to excuse everything. How high are your levels of lust really going to be if you have to carry on a months-long subterfuge against the enemy or sneak through the forest to the castle? I can see frenzied couplings on the eve of a battle. I can’t see a tender and lasting love-bond being forged in a desperate campaign against the enemy.
Occasionally, of course, there are authors who manage to skillfully blend stress and love. However, in most of those books, the characters aren’t always in immediate danger, and have moments in safety where the bond can develop. Fantasy books (especially the first books in fantasy trilogies) where the danger is building and everyone is trying to avoid it or figure out what’s going on are not ideal environments for convincing romances, what with all the stress. Yet many authors continue to try to inject it anyway.
Does stress never kill the desire for sex, then, or are fantasy heroes and heroines just possessed of the ability to shut away their dark thoughts and smile and sing love poetry at each other while they roll around in the hay? And wouldn’t any smart enemy take advantage of the characters being so distracted, or are they just nice enough to wait until they’re done?
2) Love triangles are almost never true love triangles.
This is, the hero or heroine in the middle almost never has a true choice. One of the competing characters is obviously the author’s choice, and gets most good things shoveled in on his or her side, including charm, cleverness, beauty, and being on the good side, while the other gets characterized as a bastard or a bitch, incompetent and dumb and probably secretly serving the forces of evil.
This has two problems. First, it kills all suspense; I know who the character in the middle is going to end up with, and can snooze the romance part of the book away if I want to. Second, it makes me wonder how this love triangle ever came to exist in the first place. Wouldn’t any sane middle character take a look at the competition and say, “No, I’m going with the one the author wants me to pick?”
Try to have realistic love triangles, if you absolutely must have them, and characterize all three people realistically. This is especially important in fantasy, because when fantasy falls prey to wish fulfillment, it falls hard. It’s too easy to have the middle character lose definition, too, and become the kind of man women lust over or vice versa for no good reason.
It can happen other ways, but if you find yourself using a character who will lose a love triangle as punishment for someone you hate, or substituting yourself for the character in the middle, probably best to back off now and think closely about what you’re doing.
3) Not every character has to be of just one orientation. Really.
As rare as gay and lesbian characters still are in fantasy, bisexual characters are even rarer. On most of the occasions when they do show up, they “go” one way or the other at the end of the story, with the implication that they’ve finally “seen the light” and are going to be united to the same person of the same or the opposite gender forever and ever and ever.
In fantasy, which has so much potential to create societies where orientations aren’t defined the same way, this strikes me as a ridiculous waste.
Why would someone who didn’t see the world through our patterns of orientation (itself a fairly recent social development) see anything special about whether he or she slept with men, women, or both? In situations where there’s an obligation to one orientation, such as a queen who has a female lover but has to sleep with a man to bear children for the throne, why have her decide never to sleep with the woman again, or despise the man and hate him for an obligation he didn’t impose?
New patterns are possible in fantasy, and I think the use of them should be applied everywhere, including to sexual orientation. There are many, many different modes on which sexuality can be structured, even in our own world. In Shakespeare’s time, for example, sexual power mainly depended on social class; rich men sometimes had sex with male servants as well as their wives, simply because the servants couldn’t say no. That could be used to profit in a fantasy, along with so many others that would break the tired pattern of inflexible sexuality.
4) Some characters don’t have to be interested in romance, either.
If bisexual characters are rare, asexual characters in fantasy are almost non-existent. A hero and heroine (defined in this case as the main male and female characters in a fantasy novel) almost inevitably get pushed into a romance and/or love triangle. Most of the time, the author isn’t at all subtle about it, which leads to the death of suspense that I mentioned above.
Even if your character isn’t asexual, why push him or her into a romance with someone in the book, particularly if the characters really don’t suit each other? There’s no requirement for sexual love in a fantasy, as far as I know; it’s not judged on the presence of that as romance novels are. And if your hero is caught up from the beginning in a quest to save the world, and has to learn the sword, defeat the evil king, find the magic stone, and weld his squabbling allies into a distinct force, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for him not to spend a lot of time worrying about a romance.
Again, not something that has to be there, but it would sure make a change from the inevitable in a lot of fantasy novels.
5) Avoid trapping your women in romance heroine cliches.
Women even more than men get pushed into romances in fantasy novels. Men are sometimes allowed to escape seemingly random pairings, particularly if they’re minor characters, but a woman shows up and she’s almost immediately linked with one of the male characters (or female, at that).
If you have a woman who’s going to fall in love, try to make sure that:
- she doesn’t lose all her brain cells just because she’s in love.
- she’s not required to forgive all the hero’s faults.
- she doesn’t start dreaming of marriage and babies as all she’s ever wanted, particularly if she’s dreamed of either things before the romance began.
- she doesn’t miraculously love children if that doesn’t fit her character.
- she doesn’t suddenly start needing rescue.
- she doesn’t become a self-sacrificing martyr, or wonderfully compassionate and understanding of everyone around her, if she wasn’t that way before.
Yes, love can be a powerfully transformative experience, but it does not swamp everything about a person, and it shouldn’t be allowed to do it to a fictional woman, either.
6) Don’t exile lust from your story.
In almost all fantasy novels, if two characters have sex, they’re in love, or they’re going to fall in love and end up together. They may think they’re just sleeping together because of lust, particularly on the eve of a traumatic occurrence like a battle, but they will realize The Truth later, and gaze into each other’s eyes, and speak words of undying faithfulness…
My gods. It hurt to type that.
Why are sex and love supposed to be the same? This takes a very idealistic (and rarely faithfully followed) standard from our time and injects it into the fantasy world for all characters, not just those who might realistically feel it- for example, sheltered young nobles who’ve been raised with a Victorian-like moral code. Even peasants seem to feel it, in the middle of lives so wretched that marriage could reasonably be seen as a way to have children (= more workers) and companionship. But no, they must wait for The One, instead.
If hormones really are as prevalent in fantasy as they seem to be, then I would expect at least a few sexual encounters that don’t lead to love. But the only ones that ever show up are portrayed as mistakes, and most of the time those “mistakes” don’t even get consummated. The hero might be about to sleep with the mischaracterized wrong woman, but then remembers the shine of tears in the more uptight right woman’s eyes or some such thing, and stops.
Why is lust such an evil?
7) Don’t use love stories to preach.
I hate what I call message fantasy, stories that read like thinly disguised pamphlets. I don’t care what they’re preaching- family values, capitalism, feminism, religion, gay rights, environmentalism. I hate them, and I slam down a fantasy book now the moment I encounter a lecture. There are plenty out there that don’t have them.
In the case of love stories, the messages preached are usually feminist ones (the right man loves the woman for who she is, not what she looks like or how much money she has), gay rights ones (the society disapproves, but only for bigoted reasons, and the two characters are always right for each other), and sometimes family values ones (all women really want are marriage and babies). All of them smell of rot at this point. They were original the first time they were preached, maybe. Now it’s just the subjection of characters- and characters in a relationship that needs to be as carefully portrayed as possible, because there are so many clichés to avoid- to the author’s opinions.
Along with all the other problems, this preaching goes back to the problem I mentioned in the villain rant, when the villains are castigated for actions that would be all right if the heroes performed them. The author is intruding into the story, very obviously, in order to stamp a moral message. It’s boring, stupid, uninteresting, and sacrifices both fantasy and story on the altar of a “cause.” Show me two or more people, of the same gender or opposite genders, in love. Don’t show me yet more Poster Couples.
8) Jettison soulmates and love at first sight.
Love isn’t perfect. It would be boring if it was, just like perfect characters are boring, just like perfect societies would be stagnant, just like heaven (if there is one) is very hard to portray as exciting. And if your characters are staring at each other through rose-colored glasses, then it’s extremely hard to make them other than boring.
Think back to the first person you thought you were in love with- your first crush, perhaps. Would you really want to be attached to them in some mystical bond that lasts forever? For that matter, would you want to be married to them right now? Most likely not. Reality gets in the way- and it should.
Besides boredom, these clichés are also shortcuts to lazy writing. The author declares, “These people are in love! Why? Because I say so!” and leapfrogs over all the “unnecessary” character development.
9) Keep the descriptions of hair and eyes and souls short.
Very occasionally, this can work, if you have a character who’s prone to poetic rhapsodizing anyway, and so it would make sense for him to go and on about how his beloved’s hair is like a cloud of fire and her eyes are like the heavens with her soul shining through. But with most characters, this prose goes beyond annoying to infuriating very quickly, and beyond purple to ultraviolet.
Your characters can fall in love without having three synonyms for each other’s eye color. Really. Your characters can even fall in love with average-looking people. Really. It’s been known to happen in reality, on occasion.
10) No bickering-sexual tension alternation, please.
One of the items on the Evil Overlord List calls for the immediate death of any couple who bicker all the time except for when they are saving each other’s lives and having moments of sexual tension, and I agree, though for the protection of my sanity rather than any evil overlordship. This is supposed to be a “subtle” signal that the couple will get together. At this point, it’s a whole parade complete with trumpets and tickertape.
Bickering doesn’t involve grand emotions, most of the time; it involves petty annoyance. And annoyance isn’t conducive to lust, never mind love. Couples who are neutral to each other at first or like each other from the beginning would have much more reason to fall in love, and at this point would be startlingly original in fantasy.
Yes, fantasy is supposedly the home of true love, but I still say true love should be done well.