On Romantic Relationships in Fantasy Literature

Seriously, how cute is this? Makes you want to gag, right?

LOVE CHANGES EVERYTHING

The song “Love Changes Everything,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love,” recently came on my iTunes playlist, and one of the verses really got me thinking about the place romantic relationships hold in fantasy literature: and by this, I mean more traditional fantasy, with sorcerers, mages, elves, dwarfs, witches, dragons, and the like. Urban fantasy with its vampires and werewolves is fine, but I don’t read it, and I’m aware the focus of these stories is often romance (thinking of “Twilight,” for instance.) I’m thinking about fantasy along the lines of “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings,” where love is NOT the major plotline. Here’s the verse that stuck with me:

Love, love changes everything:

Days are longer, words mean more.

Love, love changes everything:

Pain is deeper than before.

Love will turn your world around, and that world will last forever.

Yes love, love changes everything:

Brings you glory, brings you shame.

Nothing in the world will ever be the same.

RAISING THE STAKES

What the verse made me realize is that the lyrics are kind of cliché and melodramatic, but they’re also true in a way that explains why romantic relationships make such great subplots in epic fantasy. Epic fantasy, just by the name, can’t really throw too much attention on romance as the major plotline, but even Homer’s Hector has his Andromache and his infant son at home. Odysseus has Penelope, who has to thwart all those annoying suitors. While the “epic” aspect of fantasy often involves conspiracy and confrontations between good versus evil of a military nature, a good romantic subplot helps to raise the stakes. That’s why Arwen matters in “Lord of the Rings.” As if the whole fate of Middle Earth hanging in the balance isn’t enough, Aragorn has his one comfort–that of thinking the elven maiden he loves can at least escape with the rest of her race–pulled out from under him. Why?

If you want your readers invested in the fate of a world, then your characters need to be ALL IN. Not just their lives and/or livelihoods, but their hearts can be at stake.

Because love makes pain deeper and triumphs greater. It lengthens that deepest dark before the dawn, and we can all relate to love. I, for one, find it hard to imagine storming a castle or confronting an army in battle, even if I write about those things from time to time. I’m perfectly capable, though, of putting myself in a frame of mind to consider how I would feel if faced with the prospect of never seeing those I love again. Imagining a fake kingdom toppling, that’s a bit vague. Imagining never being able to hear my two-year-old nephew’s voice again or to tell someone I love what he means to me: that’s real. That’s terrifying, to be honest. Like C.S. Lewis notes in his book “The Four Loves”:

Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.

There’s nothing epic about a heart intact, and none of us escape life with a heart in tact. Who would want to? Who would trade that “security” and “safety” for the real essence of life?

THE DANGERS OF ROMANCE IN FANTASY

I can only speak from my own experience here, and the major danger I have faced concerning romance in my fantasy trilogy is putting a bit too much emphasis on who loves this person or that person and will they end up together? This is especially the case in book two, “The Magic Council,” where I’d say the greatest percentage of page time is devoted to a love story than in the other installments. Each story is different, though, and should be. This shift in the prominence of romance is accompanied by a lighter tone and a shorter word count, because those adjustments make sense given the changes to the kind of story the second book tells. A healthy balance is needed between your fantasy love story and magic, and battles, and various other subplots. For me, striking that balance is one of the great challenges of writing, but it’s so amazing when you finally feel you’ve found it! Readers don’t pick up a fantasy story for a simple romance, after all. When people want to read a romance pure and simple, they go for a romance novel.

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21 responses to “On Romantic Relationships in Fantasy Literature

  1. I agree. Romance works to raise the stakes and emotional investment in the story, but I read fantasy and SF for a sense of wonder, not romance. I want the emphasis on the story and fantasy, not the romance.

  2. I learned how to treat a woman by reading fantasy novels. Fantasy has better romances than many romance genre books in my opinion.

    I include romance in most of my fantasy too. However it’s not the dominate part of the story. Another thing that makes it stronger is family relationships, such as a parent and child torn from each other. That can have just as much power as the romance.

    Love helps justify some of the more ridiculous plot lines too. 😉

  3. I’d never really thought of that, but you’re absolutely right! I’ll have to keep this in mind when I embark on my own attempts at writing high fantasy. Eek.

  4. We agree completely. Romance adds spice and spirit to an adventure but the danger is adding too much. I once read a science fiction book that was supposedly about mutant spies but put so much emphasis on a garden variety love triangle I ended up hating it.

    The ‘fake kingdom’ toppling is a great example. Kingdom, nation, empire, etc are abstract concepts. If the fated of a loved one is tied in its fate then it becomes real.

  5. They just talked about this exact topic at the Baltimore Book Fair.

    Romance can and does add an investment by your characters, making the story richer. Remember to focus on your story. Romance readers don’t look for fantasy and fantasy readers don’t look for romance but each can add or enhance the experience. Balance is the key.

    Great post

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  8. I hope it was Michael Ball singing!

    Of the four books in the series that I’ve written so far, three have had romance playing a significant role in the plot. Now I’m wondering why. Maybe because they’re retellings of fairytales. Ever noticed how much romance is in fairytales? But maybe it’s because I’m a hopeless romantic. I write fantasy romance because that’s what I most want to read. I’m always a little disappointed if there’s not at least a hint of some courtship on the side. Or maybe it’s because most of my main characters have disabilities and I want to dispell the myth that we have no sexuality. Maid Marion can totally win Robin Hood from a wheelchair.

    • It totally was the Michael Ball version!!! 🙂 And it totally makes sense to have romance more front and center in a fantasy romance retelling of fairy tales!!! I LOVE what you say there about Maid Marion. SO so true. Amazingly true.

      A side dose of love adds a lot to a story that isn’t a “fantasy romance” too…. when romance isn’t supposed to be the main point is when I start to wonder “am I putting in too much?” Because romance novels aren’t my thing and that’s not what I set out to write. I think my books have less romance than some people would like or expect because fantasy romance is so popular nowadays…. but I’m more sword and sorcery/epic. That’s a bit different.

      • Well, if you ever need a beta reader, look me up. I can be a discerning lover of all sorts of fantasy…if that even makes sense.

        • it totally does!!! tahnks kendrame!!! maybe by the end of the year, if all goes well, I’ll have another fantasy ready for beta readers. It’s in first draft phase right now, completed, but needs TONS of work on my part first 🙂

  9. How characters cope with conflict is always revealing, but love is a trope that works just as well when it’s turned on it’s head. What if part of love between two characters is trust and respect for each other? Richard and kahlen (sword of truth) or carrot and angua (Jingo/discworld) come to mind. If you see your love riding toward you through a field full of carnage, readers expect stress and worry. How great would it be if the one true love shows up as an equal — cavalry, a returning ally, something like that. That’s the strength of love : someone you can depend on as a dynamic force in your life. Or story. Same deal.

    • Oh my gosh, so true! I agree with everything you say here: two equals is key, and it’s so wonderful when things work out that way. That makes me think of so many great fantasy pairs: particularly Arista and Hadrian from The Riyria Revelations

  10. Wonderful post! This resonates with me a lot. I’m currently working on a fantasy novel. My partner read it and said: “You know, this is nice… but there’s too little romance!” (my partner doesn’t read a lot of fantasy). There sure is romance – but it’s more beneath the surface. The real romantic moments are rather rare because there is no time for romance, because this is not a love story, because the focus is not in who gets together with whom. Love is a driving force for some of my characters, it keeps them going, keeps them fighting and keeps them from losing hope, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not the key point of the plot.
    I write that way because I’m not a big fan of simple romance myself (one reason why I’ll probably never read Twilight), and I love and admire how Tolkien or Rowling made love a part and a force within their works without writing love stories.

    • “The real romantic moments are rather rare because there is no time for romance, because this is not a love story, because the focus is not in who gets together with whom. Love is a driving force for some of my characters, it keeps them going, keeps them fighting and keeps them from losing hope, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not the key point of the plot.” I could not agree more!!! My books function the same way. I LOVE what you say about Rowling and Tolkien here. It’s so true! Like you, I have no plans to ever read Twilight. That kind of story just doesn’t interest me. At all.

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  12. My books are dark fantasy/fantasy romance. Fantasy is the predominant genre – elves, magic, dark overlords etc but the characters have relationships. They are people, people who love, desire, hate and suffer. I think it makes them more real. The romance and sex are there, but they are not the main focus. The plot is dark, it covers slavery, abuse and the MFC has had a terrible life but there is love, there is light if only you have the courage to look. Someone is more likely to fight for a cause if that cause risks their family, those they love.
    I like the romance elements within fantasy but I also like fantasy without that side of things. Either can work.

    • I totally agree either can work. 🙂 There is something generally inspiring and empowering about reading about a fantasy character with a miserable life who somehow perseveres and can see what good exists in the world.

  13. Reblogged this on Library of Erana and commented:
    An interesting discussion on romance in fantasy.

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