Romance in Fantasy

There’s a lot of talk in writing circles about romance in any fiction. What is a compelling romance? What’s a bad romance? Why is it there to begin with? And so on.

Personally, I love romance. I think seeing how characters approach love and relationships can help flesh them out. But I also roll my eyes when I see it done wrong, come off as forced, doesn’t make sense, or feels rushed.

This is an issue in fantasy especially, I’ve seen. Romance is often thrown into a plot out of nowhere or for no reason that it feels fake and contrived.

So let’s talk about love.

All characters need to be developed.

I keep saying this over and over, but I’ll say it again.

What I mean by this is don’t create a character for the sole purpose of being a love interest. These characters are so obvious to the reader: They have no goals, no motivations, all they want is to be a good partner to the hero/heroine, they want everything the hero/heroine wants, they are the other character’s dream “guy/girl”. They might as well be cardboard cutouts.

The relationship ends up looking so fake. The hero/heroine loves them and this love interest can do no wrong because they are so perfect. The main character falls in love with them within a few minutes of meeting and the relationship goes through no ups and downs, and they just get together in the end.

It’s becomes really obvious the author looked at the main character, who is a great character and really well developed, and said: “This guy/girl needs something else to do or needs some kind of reward for being the main character. [Insert cardboard cutout].”

Your main character can absolutely have a love interest. After all, love and romance are big parts of real life too. But if you do create one make sure that they feel like they belong there/have to be there and that you develop them just as much as any other character.

You will create a much more interesting relationship if you create a character that isn’t just a perfect love interest for the main character. They should have their own goals, background, motivations, good reasons to even like the main character, flaws, and so on.

Age

Age and life experience play a huge role in the kind of relationships people have. Friendships fade and change over time, as does romantic interest. Someone who is just starting their adult life may not be ready to settle down with someone yet. Someone who is older may be more interested in companionship than unbridled passions. An 11 year old may still be in their “boys/girls have cooties!” stage.

So you need to consider how old your characters are and their maturity levels. If this is teenage romance, how mature is this relationship going to be?

You need to consider how these characters’ ages have an impact on what they want, how they act, and what experiences they have.

Background and culture.

Different cultures have different “rules” on how relationships are done. What is “right”, what is “wrong”, what love is, etc.

Since we’re talking about fantasy, remember that you are not bound by current cultural attitudes about these kinds of things.

In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the player character interacts with the Nord culture of Skyrim. A lot of the Nords (in that location) are frowned upon partially because they do love “the Skyrim/Nord way.” (paraphrasing). They find someone, hang out and live together often long before being officially married, yet it’s considered by them to be the same strength of commitment.

In A Song of Ice and Fire the Freefolk/wildlings, deal very little in marriage. They just love who they want to love, sleep with whom they want, and go about their lives. In the same universe, the Dothraki have no shame about sex/nudity, and while they do have marriages, the culture is a lot different.

So keep in mind that your characters’ backgrounds and cultures will have an impact on how they view love.

As such, you should think about the roles of parties in romantic relationships. These don’t have to be gender roles either. Does one party work while another stays at home? Are they partners in work and love? Are tasks just delegated to whichever person is best at them?

Consider:

  • How important is marriage to them? Is marriage the only way to “legitimize” sex/intimacy? Do they have arranged marriages? Do parents/elders play a role in arranging marriages/finding suitors? Is marriage for the creation and legitimization of children?
  • Are there cultural standards around children and domestics? Are these based on gender?
  • Is this a culture that upholds monogamy? If not, is infidelity acceptable? For only one party or both parties? Is this a polygamous society? Is monogamy more important to be upheld depending on social class?
  • Do your characters divert from their cultural norms? If so, why?
  • How is sex treated? Is it not a big deal or seen as completely natural? Is it very hush-hush and belongs only in a married couple’s bedroom? Are the rules followed by the majority of society, or is it not a big deal if they’re broken?

Political marriages.

Fantasy often involves royalty and political marriages. Usually one of two things happens: A character is pushed into a political marriage to someone mean and horrible, or they end up falling for their new spouse within a short amount of time and end up happy by coincidence.

The truth is probably closer to the middle. Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones (the show) talks about this to her son Robb when she doesn’t want him to go back on his vow to marry someone, just so that he can marry another woman that he actually cares for. She tells him that she didn’t love her husband (Robb’s father), Ned, when they first got married, but they built it up over time to strengthen the family and the alliance. She says, it’s not as exciting as sudden passion, but it lasts longer and is stronger overall.

I really liked that scene because it was fantasy that didn’t portray political marriages as one of 2 extremes: horrible or amazing. If your character grew up in this kind of culture and kinda knew they’d be married off for political reasons, then they’re probably more cool with it than the average modern person.

A lot of historical political marriages weren’t bad. Of course, some of them were, and the parties’ personal feelings on the matter might never have been recorded, but still. The husband-wife relationship in many instances was much different than we consider it now.  The power dynamics were different and there was more at stake in these marriages than just “being in love”. There was money, war, entire economies, status, and so on.

Henry VIII might be a bad example, but let’s look at his marriage to Anne of Cleves. It was short and ended in them annulling the marriage, but down the line, Anne and Henry actually became good friends for some time.

So don’t make your political marriages in one of two extremes unless it’s important to the plot. Your characters don’t have to like being in a political marriage, but if that’s the case the reader has to know why and it may be more interesting to explore different dynamics in that situation.

Love isn’t everything.

Unless you are only writing about a romance and that is the source of the conflict in your story, than the romantic subplot should not trump everything else.

If your character is in a high stress situation where they are in constant danger and have the overall goal of defeating the big bad, romance probably goes on the back burner as far as priorities go. They can delve in love, they can get lonely and seek companionship, but they probably aren’t going to try and form a long term bond with someone in this situation because they have other stuff to do.

Also would your character willingly put others in danger or not focus on other bonds for a romantic partner in a high stress scenario? Especially if the romantic partner is someone they haven’t known a while? If your character is the leader of a rebel militia, would they really just ditch their companions to have trysts with the love interest because “it’s the most pure and loving bond?”

If they are the type of person to do that, what are the consequences? Do they get distracted? Lose their sense of duty? Do their companions get annoyed or even angry?

Jon Snow loved Ygritte in A Song of Ice and Fire, but in the end he chose the Night’s Watch and to keep his vows to his faction than to stay with her. They still loved each other and it was messy, but that was what he chose. He chose duty over the woman he loved and it was heart wrenching.

There are also other bonds that need work: Friendship, family, and so on. Those bonds don’t suddenly become unimportant because a love interest shows up. If they do, you need to show the consequences of that.

Don’t compromise the characters’ goals for love.

If your character has sworn off romance or marriage, they shouldn’t just suddenly change their mind because #BAE showed up one day. If your character never wanted children, they shouldn’t just decide to have babies because their spouse wants them (*cough* Katniss. *cough*).

The only way to make this work is to show it as unhealthy or otherwise give it consequences, internal or external. Maybe your character does do just that, how does it turn out for them? When I read these things, I don’t see “True love so powerful it can make me change everything.” I see codependency, infatuation, immaturity, or that their original goals weren’t even important to begin with so why did the author even bother.

A character whose entire arc was based on one goal or want shouldn’t have that want thrown completely out of the window because Lord/Lady Love Interest came over. This is pointless and it’ll make your readers roll their eyes.

If your character has a set of moral principles, would they really sacrifice those principles for love? Jon Snow didn’t because that’s not who he is. It was painful, he hated it, but that’s the choice he made.

This is a great source of conflict that you can use as well. It can be hard and a struggle, and it can also serve to create tension. Characters who really have to do decide between principles and love can be really compelling.

Love is conditional.

Some stories can do the true love thing and it works, like was done in The Princess Bride. That story was one of the most trope-tastic romances ever, but it totally worked and I was rooting for them the entire time.

There’s a famous line in the book (and movie) Love Story where one of the main characters says: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” My dad always hated that line because his personal view on the matter is: “Love means having to say you’re sorry ALL THE TIME.”

While I understand the meaning the original line was trying to convey, reality may be closer to my dad’s interpretation. And unless true love/destiny/whatever fits in with your narrative and you can execute it well, it may not be useful to you.

Everyone has their limits. Everyone has deal breakers even with friend and family bonds. A lot of people have had experiences with toxic family members or friends that they just needed to end after reaching a breaking point. Romantic bonds shouldn’t be any different.

If you’re writing a romantic relationship where one character does something bad to another (whether malicious or not) they don’t get the “true love” write off. If they cross a line or do something that the other wouldn’t tolerate if it were anyone else, they don’t get special treatment. The relationship doesn’t need to end, but it should be a lot of time and work to get that trust back.

And don’t cheap out on it by making it a misunderstanding, like the main character hugs their relative and the other one mistakes it for infidelity. Or a secondary character puts the moves on the other, the love interest sees it and runs off before seeing the main character push the secondary one away.

These misunderstandings happen in real life sometimes, yes, but in fiction they can grow tiresome and overused. The characters should not get free passes all the time for crappy behavior just because they’re “good” characters. There should be real consequences even if they aren’t trying to be malicious.

True love and the “Real me”.

Like I said, some stories can make this work, but they need to be a center point of your story, like it was in The Princess Bride.

The problem with the true love scenario is that, as explained above, it becomes a “Get out of Jail Free” card for crappy, even abusive, behavior.

Subsequently, increasing the love interest’s importance by saying “only he/she can know who I really am” feels contrived, especially when rushed. It also cheapens the other relationships the characters may have like friends and family. It makes it look like the author doesn’t want to do the work of actually showing how this relationship develops over time and shared experience, and just cops it up to “True love/the real me”.

Now these are valid feelings that some people do have, but they aren’t always useful in narrative form. In real life sometimes they can feel melodramatic or borderline insulting to other people who aren’t the romantic partner.

So if you’re going to have it, you need to tell the reader why and what consequences or impact it has.

In The Witcher series, Geralt has a relationship with a sorceress named Yennefer. When they meet, they become bonded by destiny (not necessarily love) through some magic stuff. They have a weird, on again and off again, relationship over many years. They both have their own lives and goals, but keep bumping into each other. Geralt (whose POV we read) is borderline obsessed with her. He sleeps with other women, but can’t bond with them as far because they aren’t Yennefer. It’s heavily implied that Yennefer is Geralt’s true love.

The thing, in the series, it’s not depicted as always healthy or even stable. It’s passionate, sometimes obsessive, and both characters each have their own lives and things. Their relationship is built up over time, they share a lot of significant and profound experiences. It’s not always happy, it’s chaotic and angry as well. They’re both stubborn and argumentative. They fight a lot. They are eventually brought together by a mutual goal and care for another person (their more or less adoptive child). Both these characters are old, been through so much, and so on.

So even though it’s implied that their love is true and there is some funky “destiny” stuff involved, it’s still a really compelling, conflict ridden relationship. Both characters still manage to have friendships and create bonds that are significant and not just to each other.

Time

Love at first sight is also a valid feeling that a lot of people feel. That’s well and good, but again it’s not always helpful in a narrative.

Relationships take time, they need to be maintained and built. The initial infatuation or mutual attraction is a weak foundation and the romance in your narrative should reflect that. Otherwise, “love at first sight” feels like an excuse the author made not to build the relationship.

Think about how this romance is going to look after the story is over. How have the characters changed? How will they be in 10 years? 50 years? I’m sure we all know of at least one relationship or marriage that is a good one, but even they will have conflict, disagree, and fight.

Time is the reason why it feels fake for a character to just drop all their goals for this person. It doesn’t mean the romance isn’t real or isn’t significant, but you need to figure out how the relationship (and parties involved) grows and changes over time. These characters should have good patches and rough patches and the writer should show them.

Perfection is boring.

The relationship will become stagnant and boring if it’s “perfect”, no matter how many cute one-liners, or how many times one rescues the other.

Since these characters have flaws, put their flaws in the face of the other person and have them not be immediately accepted by the other because “I love you no matter what.”

There should be bad things that happen, times of doubt, conflict, disagreement, arguing, and things that get in the way of their happiness.

Why do you want to put a romance in there?

Is it to reward a character? Is it to spice it up? Is it just to increase arbitrary stakes? Are you trying to subvert some trope for the sake of subverting that trope?

Don’t throw it in there because you feel like you need it or it’s going to be unimportant to the plot at large. Remember the narrative should be at least somewhat character driven, and throwing one in could actually do harm to that. Don’t do it because it’s “cool” or to make some other point. Your characters aren’t there for you to make some grand point, they’re there to help you tell this story. Otherwise, it looks preachy and the readers will know it.

Like I said, I love romance. I love writing romance, but I still need to think long and hard before I put one in there and it shouldn’t be too easy.

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