The more that I’ve become part of SFF online communities recently, the more I’ve been surprised by what sometimes feels like a general aversion to, or even active dislike of, romance in fantasy novels.
Recently I read this brilliant article by Baird Wells about the disdain that romance suffers as a genre. I advise all fans of literature to read it.
What comes to mind when we think of fantasy?
- Long journeys
- Dark lords/ladies
It probably isn’t a search for romance, heartbreak or getting freaky. But fantasy has a long history of being a platform to tell what are ultimately our most humanising stories. Romance is perhaps not a great way to describe love stories; it has too many connotations relating to delivering flowers, being wistful, and adhering to modern social conventions. So for the sake of this blog I’m just going to categorise romance as being the stories of two people who have some kind of non-platonic feelings for each other, or as Baird so beautifully puts it, “Better together.”
Fantasy might involve a lot of dragons and swords, but ultimately, they aren’t really the point. Fantasy is about people. Yes, there are tropes and conventions that are often adhered to, but characters are what drive good stories forward. Flat characters leave us empty, even if there are blazing fireballs and sparkling gizmos, without strong characters you don’t got shit, son. It’s one of the major omissions that starting writers make: they write magical battles and sword-swinging action that is of absolutely no interest whatsoever because we aren’t deeply invested into the characters. Relationships help us to connect to the (allegedly) more important events, because a well written character lets us recognise something of ourselves in them.
One of the big criticisms that gets put towards romance in fantasy is that it can feel unnecessary.
Going all the way back to Le Morte D’Arthur, there are a number of magical tales that stay with us: the sword in the stone, the lady of the lake, the green knight – but the most poignant of all is the tortured courtly love between Lancelot and Guinevere and the ensuing fallout. There is little character development in Mallory’s great work, but the Lancelot-Guinevere friendship and adoration is a great example of romance driving a plot. The friends that Lancelot cuts down are of less interest to us than the heartbreak.
Jamie and Cersei. Kvothe and Denna. Regnak and Virae. Fitz and molly. I could go on.
The best stories are driven by love. Nothing motivates us like it. We might dream of saving the world, but why? When I was writing Blackwing, I knew that Galharrow was jaded, bitter, consumed with implementing his own slow destruction, and ultimately at times, a bit of a prick. I knew that I needed a reason for him to do the things that he had to, and it couldn’t be anything as mundane as duty, or a general feeling of rightness. It had to be something that would fundamentally change him as a person, even if he didn’t want it to. I also knew that there had to be a reason that the Deep Kings were the bad guys. When you’re writing what gets called Grimdark (though I dispute that I do, sometimes, maybe, whatever it is) then why does it matter who wins if everyone seems to be a self-serving shit? The Deep Kings take away a person’s individuality, and with it, their capacity for love.
Love is the driving force in Blackwing, which is about as anti-Grimdark as you can go. Not love for mankind. Not love for a country. Those things are small. But selfless love for another person? That kind of feeling will drive us to reach heights that we never expected. It makes us irrational. It makes us courageous. It terrifies us, weakens us, and empowers us. It doesn’t matter if you’re facing down the savage hoard or soaring on the back of a dragon; neither of those things are going to give your protagonist the same intensity of feeling as standing before the love of your life, not knowing whether you’ve just told someone that doesn’t care about you that they dominate your thoughts, or whether your dreams are about to come true. Those few moments of horrifying uncertainty are as potent as taking on gods and demons.
Love should not be side-lined in a story. It should not be a bolted-on sub-plot. Our lives are driven by it, and it’s written into our DNA. We are pack animals at heart. There are minorities of people that have no interest in it, and their stories may be interesting too, but they aren’t the stories that inspire me.
I’ve always said that Blackwing is at its heart a love story that happens to be set in a bleak, bloody world of monsters and magic. Most people who’ve enjoyed it focus on those things, but if you stripped out the heart, I really don’t know what would be left.