In Defence of Romance: What it Can Do in a Fantasy Story (Or ANY Story)

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Today is the start of Wyrd & Wonder (hosted by Lisa, Jorie, and imyril), a month dedicated to the celebration of all things fantastical. Look forward to essay posts, lists, reviews, and more.

Let’s get started!

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“But Kathy, who’s going out of their way to attack romance in fantasy?”

Well, no one in particular. But I’ve always come across people–both on the internet and in real life–who look at romance in fantasy with a kind of…disdain, and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. And with some of the recent complaints about Arya’s character development in GoT, I thought, why not, I’ll write a post on the topic.

So to be clear, I have zero problem with people disliking romance or criticizing the romance they find in stories (I mean, I criticize them all the time). Romance isn’t the end-all-be-all–the holy grail for which we have to plan our lives around–and I ADORE books that focus on passionate friendships often more than the romance-centric ones.

But passionate friendships that are as intimate as romance are few and far between in fiction. Because, I don’t know–a lot of people seem to have the idea that close intimacy between two or more people can only exist within the boundaries of sex and romance. (Which is patently untrue. *points to me and my best friend*) That’s why I usually turn to romance when I want my “intense interpersonal dynamic” fix. (This is a whole separate topic for another day.)

So my problem isn’t with the words “I don’t like romance in fantasy.”

My problem is with people who say “I don’t like romance in fantasy” in a tone they also use with phrases like, “I don’t like YA” and, “I only like literary fiction.” Like they expect a medal–or at the very least, an enthusiastic applause—for their abstinence. People who seem to believe that having any kind of romance in a fantasy makes it automatically inferior to ones that don’t, and the mention of romance in a blurb equivalent to a giant biohazard sticker on the cover. And most damningly: people who make others feel bad for liking it in the genre.

That’s how you get my hackles up.

So dear friends, lovers, and people of indiscriminate relations, it’s time to break out the candles and rose petals–we’re going to have a little chat about romance and what it can do in a fantasy story.

(And obviously these points also apply outside of fantasy. But everything’s better with dragons and magic–romance especially. It is known.)

*Presses ‘Play’ on 10-Hour Careless Whisper Sax Loop*

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Romance as a Whole

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Let’s start out big and talk a little about the romance genre as a whole.

I’m of the opinion that every genre has something to offer to other genres–a lesson you can take away as both a reader and a writer–and the romance genre at its best offers character dynamics, the push and pull between two or more individuals. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted and playful “will they or won’t they”. Other times it’s a more intense tug-of-war of differing values a la Pride and Prejudice.

Does it suffer from tropes that are overused and/or harmful? Absolutely. But it’s nothing more than what plagues every genre of literature.

Are the stories realistic? Sometimes no. Sometimes hell no. But growing up in a conservative household had made me go through a mess of reticence and recklessness about sex and shame about kink, and romance books helped me make peace with some of that. So screw realism. Sometimes I just want my Happily Ever After.

 

Romance as Worldbuilding

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This right here is a patch of grass.

And as far as patches of grass go, it’s not a bad one. There’s bits of green mixed in with the yellows and the browns, which is great because variety’s always a plus. So one might even call it nice and pretty.

The problem is that I’m going to forget about this patch of grass as soon as I come across another patch of grass with a tantalizing green/yellow/brown scheme. Because I’m shallow like that. And at the end of the day, it’s a patch of grass, not the floor of Buckingham Palace.

But. Plop onto it two characters who are in love, or in the process of being in love, or  don’t know (or like) each other very much and are doing that weird shuffling dance where they’re trying to figure each other out, and this patch of grass becomes something very special.

Maybe it’s where a knight from one kingdom and a farmer from another laid down to stargaze and share their cultures’ interpretations of the constellations. And amidst that, maybe there were gazes held just a bit too long and shoulders touching, and then not touching, and then touching again.

And the patch of grass becomes the site of something new and delicate.

Or maybe it’s where an asshole elven mage told you how beautiful you were and then dumped you because he has a greater purpose to fulfill and you’re too much of a distraction.

And the patch of grass becomes a field of heartbreak.

The same principle applies to more elaborate worldbuilding. As humans we remember and latch onto information that have strong emotional significance. So if two characters are doing the courtship dance and worldbuilding details gets mixed up in it, that shit’s going to stick in our brains.

It’s not rocket science. It’s neuroscience.

So worldbuilding isn’t just about how much interesting history and politics you can cram into a single book. It’s about making them seem real to the readers. It’s about making us care–making us see more than ancient stone buildings and paragraphs of dry info scrawled in a hefty tome. And what better way to achieve that than through romance?

Romance can assign meaning to meaningless information. It helps add texture and weight and depth to a world that might otherwise seem like a set of cardboard props. Pretty cardboard props, but still cardboard props.

 

Deeper Exploration & Development of the Protagonist

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Which isn’t to say platonic relationships don’t also do this, but the paths to a person’s heart are many (maybe infinite) and varied, and romance can offer a route of a different flavour than, say, friendship.

And I think it gets particularly interesting with unlikeable protagonists.

Because sometimes romance softens a character, scrubbing away at their hard sarcastic edges. It grabs at vulnerabilities and drags them out onto the surface, allowing us to see layers to them that we wouldn’t see otherwise.

Let’s take a grumpy asshole protagonist with a cocky attitude and a distaste for social interactions. No grumpy asshole protagonist would care if Jim the Barkeeper tells them, “You gotta change your ways.” And we don’t care because, well…it’s Jim the Barkeeper. He’s been given maybe ten pages’ worth of screen time and there’s a 70% chance that he’ll end up dead by the end of the book. So his opinion has about as much weight as the dead flies gathering on his countertops.

But if Love Interest #1 says it? Or implies it? That makes things a teeny bit more complicated. It might even force them to examine aspects of themselves that aren’t all that nice and take the slow, reluctant steps to be better.

Romance can also give strength to a character. A sense of purpose they never had before–a belief that maybe, just maybe, they can do this. They can defeat this monster horde. They can lead this army to victory. They can stand in front of the court and deliver a speech that could prevent a war.

I mean, I can go on for weeks. The possibilities are endless and that’s what makes it so damn fun.

 

Creates & Enhances Interpersonal Conflicts


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This is where we talk about the famous/infamous enemies-to-lovers.

My definition of enemies-to-lovers isn’t “two people who wanted to slit each other’s throats 30 minutes ago are now so deeply in love you can see tiny hearts orbiting them.” That’s just…no. And “I hate you but I love you” isn’t something I find particularly interesting, either. My definition is more along the lines of “two people with clashing values and opinions clash, and then slowly come to find understanding and shared affection.” (Which admittedly doesn’t sound as exciting as “I hate you but I love you”)

When done right this trope can be explosive. Because there are few better ways to create compelling, dramatic conflict between two characters than to have them challenge each other every step of the way. One pushes and the other pushes back. And somewhere amidst all that shoving they’ve mapped the contours of each other’s hearts and explored more of their crevices than anyone else ever has. Somewhere along the way a shove became a bump, which became a touch, became a caress.

So how do you go from two jagged pieces scraping against each other into shapes that curl together? What beliefs have changed? Which values have been discarded? In what ways have they made each other better? And if one of them is the villain of the story, what does that mean for their long-term goals?

I can’t begin to describe how infinitely fascinating I find that process. I could write and star in a one-person musical dedicated to how much I love it–especially in fantasy stories because the stakes are usually so much higher.

Enemies-to-lovers underscores the idea that people can learn to understand one another. That despite all our differences, we have the ability to admit mistakes and empathize and push each other to become more complex beings. And that’s a beautiful thing to see in any genre.

 

Romance as a Beacon of Light in a World of Dark

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The Sacred Band of Thebes was an Ancient Greek military unit comprised of 150 male couples. They were responsible for several crucial victories against the Spartan army–which at the time was like kicking a grizzly in the teeth and getting away with it–and the speculation behind their creation boils down to the idea that people fight with greater courage when they’re at their lovers’ side. That in the darkest hours of the battle, with everything going to hell, their love would give them strength to push forward.

Basically, their whole existence was about staring death in the face with light in their eyes. Which leads to my favourite example of what romance can do in fantasy: bringing light to a spot of dark.

Fantasy stories can get very dark very quick, and both the readers and the characters need reasons as to why they should continue, why any of it matters. With danger and horror looming around every corner, you want to cling to whatever hope and goodness you can find, and romance can offer a hell of a lot of hope. (It’s the same reason why we love seeing romance in World War II stories)

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The Song of Achilles and Girls of Paper and Fire do this brilliantly. Both stories position their romance in the middle of brutal, horrific, soul-draining situations. In both stories the romance becomes a spot of salvation.

And do you know which subgenre I’m convinced benefits the most from romance? Grimdark. And not the “gritty” kind of romance. Not the kind that’s angry and/or borderline abusive. I’m talking about the genuinely good ones–the sweet, passionate ones that make your eyes mist and your hair curl. It’s all about contrast, you see. Our brain is evolved to pick out details that break up monotony, so all that goodness just makes the grim and dark grimmer and darker, and vice versa.

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An example of this would be Ed McDonald’s Blackwing, which surprised and delighted me with a romance that felt fragile in many respects but also honest and heartfelt in a way that stood out beautifully against the rest of the story (which was unsurprisingly grim).

“You say there’s nothing of woman about you? You aren’t some painted vase, delicate and useless. You’re a fucking lioness. The strongest damn thing that ever lived. There’s nothing of you but woman.”

I do feel like I have to defend the honour of painted vases everywhere–they’re far from useless–but you get the point.

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Some closing thoughts: I think we can all agree that bad romance in fantasy can be very bad. Hair-pulling, eye-rolling, I-need-to-throw-this-book-at-the-nearest-wall kind of bad.

But when it’s good?

When it’s good it’s like standing at the edge of dawn and seeing the world exhale. It’s like feeling too big to fit inside your skin and you’re spilling everywhere into everything.

It’s like–

Well, it’s like falling in love.

*Presses ‘Stop’*

 

Then and Now: “Strong Female Characters”

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This idea for a blog post came to me while I was half asleep in bed. It sounded genius then and didn’t seem all too bad in sober daylight, either.

Then and Now is going to be an infrequent series (read: I’ll write one whenever my lazy brain feels like it), and it’s basically going to be a way for me to recount my changing tastes when it comes to fiction. We all have characters that we loved when we were 14 but can’t stand as adults. This is a way to examine the why’s of that change–is it just a matter of growing older and having more experience, or is there something more? Every aspect of what makes a story a story–from settings and character traits to plot tropes–is fair game.

And because I don’t make anything easy for myself in life, I’m going to start off with a possibly controversial topic: “Strong Female Characters.”

When I was 13 and pint-sized, I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness books and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and my whole world shifted on its axis. The idea of plucky young girls wielding swords and walking around in male-dominated settings with casual confidence lit a fuse inside of me. I browsed the YA shelves from A to Z, desperately searching for books that offered similar characters. I would literally Google “YA fantasy with strong female protagonist” and devour all the recommendations.

Now, though? I grimace whenever a book touts “strong female characters” as its main selling point. It’s not that I have a problem with female characters being depicted as strong. It’s the way that the phrase is interpreted by writers and the media as a whole. The way it suggests that there’s only one way to be a strong woman–a genderbent version of a typical male hero. Physically strong or capable, talented, charming, and often snarky. And ultimately bland.

Partly, I think it’s a direct reaction to the way female characters were portrayed in media for so long–as love interests, as damsels in distress, as a long-legged maiden whose sole existence is to be a reward for the dashing male protagonist. But partly it’s also a slightly evolved variation of the male gaze. “Badass” women in skin-tight outfits, brandishing swords or guns. A titillation for men who want a little danger and oomf to go along with the long legs and cleavage. We see this countless times on the cover of paranormal books that star female protagonists. In 2012, SFF author Jim Hines sacrificed his poor body in order to reenact some of the more ridiculous poses women are seen doing in fantasy covers. The results were interesting to say the least (go check out the rest of his blog posts on women in covers here–they’re fun, insightful and brilliant).

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We also see it in video games, with ones like Metal Gear Solid 5 touting out its female soldiers in a bikini and a pair of fashionably-ripped tights because, according to game developer Hideo Kojima, she breathes through her skin (yes, you read that right).

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I mean, just SAY that you want her to look sexy, dude.

And when it’s not a matter of the male gaze, it’s a case of many writers forgetting (or ignoring) that while strong and capable is all well and good, that can’t be all that a woman is–because a real woman has fears and weaknesses. It’s a case of swerving so far into the opposite direction of the damsel in distress, to “badass heroine,” and bypassing this massive, largely-unexplored territory in between the two extremes.

Finally, I think it’s also a mixture of all of these: men and women want to see physically strong female characters kicking down doors and wiping out enemies with casual flicks of their wrists. But maybe for different reasons–women love seeing physically strong women who can go toe-to-toe with their male co-casts; and men just enjoy asskickery in general (according to my friends, at least–male readers, feel free to weigh in).

So what led to this shift in perspective? One simple reason would be that I just gained more real-life experience. I met many different, incredible women during my undergrad years–many of whom were shy, soft-spoken, or non-athletic but I would still consider some of the strongest people I’ve encountered.

But it’s not until Vanessa Ives from Penny Dreadful came into the picture that I could pinpoint what was missing in these “strong female characters.” In my humble opinion, Vanessa is singularly the most complex female character to have walked on television and also happens to be my all-time favourite female protagonist in any media.

In the first episode, she’s the definition of what people would call “strong female character”– she’s confidence and cool and she strides through the world like she rules it.
But as the season goes on we see these layers stripped away. We see her oscillating from a terrified, guilt-ridden young woman to a goddess cloaked in sexuality and anger. We see her devotion to Catholicism war with her fascination and love with the occult. We see her hate herself even as she loves those who mirror her faults.

She’s frailty and strength both.

She’s a woman.

Period.

So I guess the bottom line is that I’m bored and tired of strong, 100% capable male characters and I’m equally bored of strong, 100% capable female characters. For me, “strong female characters” are ones who aren’t written with just a single label in mind–a damsel, a soldier, a princess, an assassin. The ones who are treated as normal people with human struggles and inner demons. You don’t need to wave around a sword, skulk around dark alleys brandishing knives, or make snarky quips to be strong. There are infinite shades of strength. And weaknesses are a part of it.

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Now I pass the mic over to you. I absolutely love discussing these kinds of things (you’ll have to bash me over the head to get me to stop once I start going), so feel free to add your own thoughts and point out things I may not have considered.

Or you can just yell at me. I’m open to that too.