What in the Worldbuilding: Sports in Sci-Fi and Fantasy (Where are they?)

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I’m so, so excited to unveil What in the Worldbuilding, a new blog post series where I’m going to be discussing all things worldbuilding in stories. Because I love stories and I love worldbuilding and I love rambling about them even more.

For the first couple of posts, I’ll be talking about some elements of worldbuilding that, in my opinion, don’t get enough screen/pagetime in SFF media (and see where my brain takes things from there).

And we’re starting with sports. Because this is something that’s always been a mystery to me: how is that these elaborate SFF worlds come with their own ecology and political landscape and four fictional languages with five dialects each, but so rarely feature their own sporting events?

 

Okay, First of all: Sports? Who Cares?

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*Slowly raises hand*

A quick “you didn’t ask for my life story but here it is anyway.” My parents are massive tennis fans and they introduced me into the sport very early, with my dad coaching in the early stages. Same thing with swimming (well, minus the coaching. My dad didn’t fare well in water and I actually ended up teaching him once I got my lifeguard license, which was a nice little pay-it-forward moment). There’s a meditative, cerebral quality to both that’s belied by their physical intensity and that lends to a deep attraction for me.

So I grew up tangled in this hopeless relationship with the two–fueled in part by the fact that I was good at them, but mostly by the fact that I just loved the hell out of them–and they’re as much a part of my identity as books. And crazy enough, I like seeing my real-life passions and experiences represented in media.

But passion isn’t required for one to understand the worldwide significance of sports. And to talk about what sports can bring to a SFF world, I think we need to look at their significance in our world.

 

Sports and Cultural History

Sports can tell us a lot about a culture and its history. Asian martial arts, for example, are rooted in eastern religion and philosophy. I won’t be talking about dancing in this WITW post (that’s for a later one), but it is widely considered to be a sport, and many of the modern forms we see today have their foundations in historical, traditional dances.

Everyone and their grandmother knows Canada bleeds hockey. But curling is just as strong of a national symbol here. Brought into the country by Scottish immigrants, it spread westward as the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its reach and more and more small towns began appearing on the map. So, for us, curling represents long winter months and fledgling communities coming together in solidarity and friendly competition.

The nuances are endless and the inclusion of them in a SFF world can make it so much richer.

 

Sports and Nationalism

Sports is one of the major drivers of national identity and what often unites entire countries together. The Olympics, for example, have become homegrounds for national pride and displays of physical prowess that somehow translates to the overall excellence of a nation. And if we look at the measures that some countries would take, and have taken, in order to stamp and seal their supremacy in these events, it becomes impossible to think of sports as mere forms of entertainment. Authoritarian regimes make use of sports to propagate their ideology in a more palatable way. And even with a democratic country like South Korea there’s an intense nationalistic fervor when it comes to sports, which I often found ugly (because it’s led to mass harassment of athletes) and at odds with the general image of the country .

So many politically-driven stories out there where juggernaut nations vie for power, and so few of them utilize sports as a form of diplomacy and a show of nationalistic strength. That seems strange to me. Whether we like it or not, sports will always be intertwined with politics–its reflection and extension–and I desperately want to see writers use that more.

 


Putting the political implications aside, here’s an undeniable truth:

 

Made-up Sports are Cool

And they become especially cool when they involve magic and future technologies and pieces of a fictional culture. I love brainstorming all the different sports that could exist in a world with a specific magic system (how, for example, Allomancy from Mistborn might translate to a competitive setting), and how they would evolve as the magic evolves.

Also, I’m attracted to the idea that punchy, flashy, dangerous forms of power can be used for more than mass weapons of war. That they can be transformed into something equally physical, but in a more positive and fun setting.

So let’s take a look at some examples of SFF sports in media. Starting with the most famous of them all…

 

Quidditch

My thoughts on J.K. Rowling most days is an intersection of “Oh god, what now” and “Please just stop,” but there’s no denying Harry Potter has become an indelible foundation for modern pop culture and a well of inspiration for many, many writers. Since its inception, magical schools have become a staple of fantasy.

So what surprises me is that the series hasn’t also ushered in a wave of magical sports in fantasy. I mean, Quidditch is such an important part of the HP world. As a bastardization of soccer–sorry, “football”–and other real world sports, it offers familiarity alongside high octane speed and the thrill of microviolence, with an unexpected sweetness to the idea of players protecting teammates from homicidal balls (aka bludgers). It’s brilliantly constructed.

And fans love it so much they turned it into an actual international sport.

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Credit: Scott Audette/Reuters

(Fun fact: I joined my university’s Quidditch club during undergrad and played for a couple of sessions before deciding that running around and inadvertently crashing into people with a stick between my legs was bound to send me to the hospital at some point.)

So why don’t we see more Quidditches in fictional worlds? If there’s room for intricate magic systems and made-up history that goes back thousands of years, surely there’s room for more inventive forms of sports that go beyond gladiatorial combat and racing.

Speaking of which….

 

Racing — Lots and Lots of Racing

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Left to right: Death Rally (Tales from the Borderlands); Chocobo racing (Final Fantasy); Podracing (Star Wars)

Racing is probably the most common one you’ll find in these stories. And with a simple format that allows for such a wide breadth of customization, it’s not hard to see why. Swap a horse with a giant yellow bird, or a car with a small flying vehicle, and you have yourself a made-up sport that’s unique enough to engage and entertain but doesn’t require a lot of meticulous ground-up writing.

Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is a somewhat recent sci-fi book that features racing. Via race cars, specifically, which might seem pretty mundane if you don’t count the fact that they require magic to operate.

 

The Gentleman Bastards

I’m going to be talking more about The Gentleman Bastards in future WITW posts because Lynch does a lot of small yet effective things with his worldbuilding that add an incredible amount of depth to the series.

And The Lies of Lock Lamora is the one example I can think of that features sports with regional and class distinction.

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Let’s take the Teeth Show, a gladiatorial sport unique to Camorr in which female fighters, and only female fighters, go head-to-head with leaping sharks. It’s a grisly, gaudy show of acrobatics and power, and while it’s enjoyed by the poor and rich and everyone in between, there’s a distinct middle to upper class flavour to it–aristocrats and merchants watching from their boats, sipping wine and conducting business while the fight plays out in the background. The luxury of partaking in violence without actually partaking in violence.

Then there’s Handball, which is a team sport played by the lower classes of southern Therin. There’s nothing showy or magical about handball (it’s pretty similar to our world’s version), and we never actually see any of the characters playing it, but what I love about it is that it comes with its own little history of origin and an allegory that may or may not be true but still serves as a valuable lesson for the audience (i.e. when it comes to revenge, either have a long memory or don’t procrastinate). That’s what makes it unique to this world.

The teeth show and handball serve three purposes: they add layers to the worldbuilding, they entertain the readers, and, perhaps most importantly, they tie in with the story that is being told, making it richer and more dynamic.

 


So why do sports get overlooked?

Let’s put on our speculation hats, shall we?

Possibility 1: SFF writers aren’t sports fans.

I’ll scribble in a big fat “REJECTED” for this one. The idea that geeks and sports don’t mesh is an outdated one, and I know for a fact that there are writers who are also sports fans. That being said, I’ve yet to meet another SFF nerd who also plays and watches tennis. But statistically speaking they have to be out there somewhere (and I will find you).

 

Possibility 2: SFF writers enjoy sports, but not enough to be comfortable and interested in writing about them.

…Maybe? At least, I’m sure it applies to some writers.

 

Possibility 3: Sports isn’t something people consciously associate with SFF stories

When we see “sci-fi and fantasy,” we immediately think space battles and gods and dragons and political intrigue and quests to save the world. Maybe sports just don’t cross people’s minds. And maybe people feel, especially with linear stories, there just isn’t room to showcase an activity that’s meant to be for recreation and competition. Not when there are life-or-death events brewing around every corner.

 

Possibility 4: Lack of a solid foundation for sports in SFF stories

I don’t know, maybe if Tolkien and Lewis and all those other classic SFF authors had included made-up sports in their stories, we’d see more of them today.

 

Possibility 5: A combination of multiple factors (including the ones above)

Probably a lazy answer but also probably the best of the bunch.

The thing is, I’m really not sure what deters writers from including sports in their worlds. It’s not like I can snap my fingers and pin the problem on societal hangups or prejudices. Sports is…sports. Innocuous (for the most part), exciting, and popular in the real world but not so much in fictional ones, evidently.

And I don’t know about you, but I would really like to see that changed.

 

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What are your thoughts on all this? Also, sneak me your sport-centric SFF recommendations!

Broken, Awkward, Incompetent, Mismatched Heroes: Why We Need Them in Stories

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I’m not sure what the umbrella term for these types of characters should be. Atypical heroes? Messy heroes?

Well, whatever the term, I adore them. And my love grows stronger every time I come across a protagonist who’s graduated from the academy of perfect heroes. You know–the shiny put-together ones. The ones whose mistakes are just tiny blips in their character designed to further the plot.

My first issue with those characters is that I’m kind of bored of them. Selfish, I know. But I think I’ve seen and read enough of them to last me a lifetime.

My second issue (and probably the more pertinent of the two because it goes beyond “Well, I think it’s boring, so YOU should think it’s boring too!”) is that they spearhead the idea that the only way to be a hero in your story–to win the battles, collect the friendships, score the romance, change the world for the better–is to be confident, bold, determined, to always know what to say at the right times, and have an emergency stash of witty quips in your pockets.

And if you occasionally say the wrong things or step out in the wrong direction? Well, hey, no worries! They’re nothing permanent! Your weaknesses only exist as temporary obstacles to overcome so you can scratch another notch on your Badass Post.

But what about the rest of us?

Because there are many faces to heroism and not all of them involve being extroverted or confident or even necessarily good. Maybe they’re a hero who has crippling shyness and social anxiety. Maybe they’re just not super into the idea of quests and adventures. Maybe they’re trying so hard to be perfect and unflappable that it’s breaking them from the inside out.

So some quick bullet points on why I love these characters and why I want to see more of them:

  • They’re relatable. I mean, that’s kind of the biggest reason, right? As humans we’re all messy and imperfect, and we like seeing that reflected in media.
  • They can force you to look at a well-worn genre from a new angle.Take The Adventure Zone podcast, for example. Thanks to a cast of lovable idiots who could have been pulled out of a sitcom, your typical D&D fantasy story turns into a feel-good, slice-of-life, goofball comedy of hilarious mistakes and equally hilarious successes.And Bright Sessions, which is another (incredible) fiction podcast and one that runs with the idea of superpowered people going to therapy. It’s most definitely scifi, but the characters aren’t your usual X-Men variety, in that they’re messy in every sense of the word and everyone’s dealing with something. It’s almost like a self-help guide disguised as a scifi story and I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.

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  • They show us that no matter who you are–how successful and powerful and magical–being a hero doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Having powers doesn’t preclude you from having doubts. Being strong doesn’t shield you from being broken. And there’s comfort to be found there. We can look at that and feel less alone in our struggles.

 

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Now let’s look at some of the specific character types and examples of them in media!

The Incompetent Hero

A story starring an incompetent hero doesn’t have to be a comedy of errors. Nor does it mean they should stay incompetent from beginning to end.

For me, it means being thrust into a position the character is wholly unprepared for and every step from there on is a hard, awkward learning process riddled with stumbling blocks and many steps backwards. And maybe it takes them a little longer to pick up on certain skills–things like politicking and swordplay don’t come overnight (or overweek or overmonth). Side characters may even have to help prop them up until they can stand on their own. And just as in real life, there’s nothing shameful about that.

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Sansa Stark from ASoIAF/GoT is the biggest example that comes to mind: a sheltered girl who likes pretty boys and the lure of the city and is very good at embroidery. A girl who’s thrown into a pit of vipers and tries her best to learn and survive.

Sansa has also unwittingly become the biggest example of the issue surrounding people’s response to these fish-out-of-water characters, usually the female ones–that they’re annoying and useless and whiny and “Why doesn’t she do x and y and z?” and “Arya is SO much better.” (On the flip side, if they’re “too competent” they’re called Mary Sues. Female characters just can’t catch a fucking break, can they?)

A character who’s bad at something doesn’t make them a bad character. It makes them normal. Relatable. Human. And while a quiet story about learning and survival may not be as a exciting for people as one with swordfights, it’s nonetheless a journey of courage and strength.

I find it interesting (read: frustrating) that WW2 fiction nowadays are often filled with fish-out-of-water heroes and readers gobble them up, and yet when it comes to speculative fiction–fantasy and scifi, especially–people have so little patience for them. Which kind of makes sense–different readership, different expectations–but also not at all, because shouldn’t we expect more incompetent characters in a world that demands that they win wars, fight/befriend dragons, and juggle fire balls all at the same time?

 

“I’m Fine (But Really, I’m Breaking Inside)” Hero

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I see the “I’m FINE” trait more often with side characters than main ones which is kind of a shame. The fun thing about these characters is that from the outside they resemble your typical heroes: proactive, capable, and confident. But peel back some layers and you start to see cracks, which then resolve into chasms.

These are characters who try so damn hard to project an aura of okayness, both to themselves and to others, that they can’t tell where the pretense ends and where their real feelings begin.

Karin Lowachee does this beautifully with Jos Musey in Warchild, as does Seth Dickinson with the indelible Baru Fisher in Baru Cormorant. And if you want non-speculative stories (because heroes can exist outside of SFF settings), Neil Josten in All for the Games series is another great example.

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“Baby, I’m a Fuck-Up” Hero

This part got LONG so I cut some of it out and will probably make a separate post on it at some point. But here’s the gist: we need more fictional characters who fuck up. It’s especially important nowadays when social media has us privy to every morsel of success your friends and family and random strangers have achieved. The amount of pressure that’s placed on young people to get the perfect grades, get accepted into this and that college, get ‘x’ number of degrees by the age ‘y’ is ridiculous and makes you feel like there’s zero room for mistakes. Either you walk that tightrope from end to end or you crash and burn. There’s no in-between. And seeing more of these kinds of heroes in media might have saved me an ambulance bill.

And people can say that’s giving fiction too much credit, but here’s the thing: art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a product of our world and it, in turn, feeds back into the world as a reflection of the things we want to see more of. And if we see more characters in books and movies and games who genuinely mess up and are made stronger for it, then that’s kind of an invitation to ourselves to be less fearful and more forgiving of our failures.

And I honestly believe that can save lives.

Some wonderful examples of these characters include Millie Roper from The Arcadia Project series, who I would give my left arm for, and Mae Borowski from the game  Night in the Woods. She’s a pansexual college-dropout with depression, and I would happily give my other arm for her.

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Awkward, Antisocial, and Shy Hero

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Eliot of In Other Lands is unlike any other protagonist I’ve come across in YA fantasy. To be blunt, he starts out as a kind of a little shithead: he’s prickly and awkward, says the wrong things at the wrong times, makes the worst first impressions and consistently gets on people’s nerves. But it works because it doesn’t come from a place of “I’m doing this because I’m an asshole and want to fuck with people,” but rather, “I’m terrible with social interactions and I feel out of place in this world.”

And how beautiful and necessary is it to see a teenage hero who’s not all that nice?

These characters tell you that it’s okay that you don’t know what to say or how to act in certain situations. You’ll step on the wrong feet and piss people off and that’s fine because that’s life and you’ll learn from it (hopefully).

And seeing that kind of sentiment in media is such a weight off your back, you know? Especially when you’re young and still trying to figure yourself out.

 

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Murderbot from The Murderbot Diaries

People adore this series and for good reason. Personally it doesn’t do much new in terms of plot and worldbuilding (from what I’ve read so far anyway. I still have two books to go), but character-wise it’s everything. Because the story is all about murderbot, and murderbot would much rather spend its time alone watching dramas than interacting with a group of people. I mean, come on–an awkward, introverted protagonist in scifi? And an A.I. at that??

Why isn’t that more of a thing in fiction?

 

 

 

“Save the World? Sorry, I Can’t. I Have to Wash My Hair” Hero

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AKA reluctant heroes.

So, I have this weird attraction to the scenario of characters being offered the role of a  hero or Chosen One or whatever, and them responding with, “Thanks but no thanks” because they feel that there are more important things to worry about. Like, take some penniless college student trying to juggle six classes per semester along with a part-time job, and then one day a Chosen One Messenger bursts through their door yelling, “Guess what, Harry? Yer a–”

“Chosen One. Yeah, I know. And what’s the monthly salary on that?”

“Er, well. You’ll earn satisfaction in the knowledge that your actions will herald the salvation of– “

“Wow, tempting! But I think I’ll pass.”

“This isn’t an optional–“

“Plus, I’m not really Chosen One material, you know? I mean, the other day I dropped my Starbucks cup on the way to chem class and didn’t even bother to pick it up. I don’t think you want a litterer as the poster child for your quest, do you?”

“Well, it’s not–“

“Try the guy next door. He volunteers at the animal shelter or something so he’s, like, literally saving puppies and kittens in his spare time. There’s your Chosen One.”

“But–“

“Also, my name’s not Harry.”

…Ahem. Sorry, I got carried away.

But yes, reluctant heroes! Heroes who, for whatever reason–maybe because they’re afraid of fighting, maybe they’re super busy and this whole quest business is incredibly disruptive to their livelihood, maybe they just really like sleeping in during the weekends–aren’t all that enthused about their new role.

It’s not that they have a disdain for the continued survival of humanity. It’s just that, in their world, “continued survival of humanity” ranks a few entries below things like “Pass the ochem exam” and “Don’t mess up that date on Friday” and “Do something about the gnomes that are eating all the vegetables in the garden.”

I love them because they’re relatable and cathartic and exude Tired Millennial energy. And sometimes I feel like there’s an unspoken rule that SFF heroes need to be eager adrenaline junkies and glory hounds. And those are great! They’re fun! But not everyone wants to risk their lives to save the world. Not everyone wants to be kings and queens and politicians and insert themselves into every major event that shakes up a nation. Some people just want to live their lives peacefully in relative comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Jalan from the
Red Queen’s War series is a great example of how such a character can be done well. At the start of the story, his life basically boils down to gorgeous women, good food, comfortable bed, and …that’s…about it. That’s the height of his aspiration. Well, until he gets dragged into a war against his will. Then he adds “Don’t die” to the list.

While Jalan grows as a person over the course of the series, he still remains true to who he is, in that he’s not going to be leading nations and giving inspirational speeches anytime soon. Yet he’s still, against all odds, a hero.

And I find that super endearing.

 

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And there you go! What are your thoughts on these characters? Send me all your juicy, juicy thoughts!

 

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’*