Non-bickering, non-love at first sight relationships
1) Can we get some single ladies on the scene, please? Right, so this is more of an anti-relationship than a relationship. I don’t care. It irritates the shit out of me, so it gets ranted about. Go ahead and skip down to the next one if you’re not interested.
I wouldn’t have such a problem with authors pairing up characters if the pairing mechanisms were equally gender-blind. They’re not. Almost every major female character who appears onstage in a typical fantasy novel, and a good number of the minor ones, is shoved into a romantic relationship by the end. Some male characters will escape, especially if they’re older, have already had a lost love, or made a mistake at some point in the story. But gods forbid that any woman be alone and happy at the end of the story (the one exception is the Other Woman who’s a bitter, jealous bitch, doesn’t deserve the hero, and is usually portrayed as crying or raging while the hero and heroine walk off arm-in-arm).
Stop it, you stupid people. If this is a world not our own, with its own means of gender relationships, then not every woman should snap into the modern Western mindset of “A woman can’t be successful without a romantic relationship!” Even if it is based on Western culture, such as if it’s alternate history, not every woman’s life revolves around choosing a romantic partner. Why shouldn’t saving the world, practicing an art, or recovering from psychological wounds be more important to her than, or just as important to her as, who she sleeps with? This is something not enough fantasy authors ask themselves.
2) “Birds of a feather” can be at least as exciting as “opposites attract.” I’ve heard more stupid, childish, teenage-angst romances between incompatible characters justified with “opposites attract!” than I have brain cells left after reading them. And this is completely, completely moronic.
Want to know why? Well, probably, or you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?
-Just proclaiming a cliché as your theme does not except your novel from having to make sense. See the themes and messages rant, especially the last point, for a reminder of why.
-There’s nothing inherently more exciting about opposites attracting. People just use it as an excuse to write childish whining which they imagine is banter. This is part of the general fantasy author disease of NKWWIIIBT (Not Knowing What Wit Is If It Bit Them).
-Characters who like each other, who develop a romance out of friendship, are going to have a compatibility that doesn’t have to strain the reader’s belief. A common interest (see point 3), a common background, a common experience that isn’t traumatic… all of those are underused means of getting couples together.
3) Give them something in common to talk about, and they may never stop being friendly and clever together. Imagine a fantasy couple. Let’s say it’s a man and woman in this case, though it certainly doesn’t have to be (and if you have a problem with my saying that, you need to go away right the fuck now, as you will not have a long and happy life here). They’re both war veterans. They’ve been assigned to go on a patrol to track down the highwaymen who are making the merchants’ lives hell. They approach each other, uncertain and suspicious, knowing each other only by reputation.
Then the man notices that the woman has a brand on her shoulder. “Six-and-a-half gods,” he says. “You served with Captain Kaellas in the Dravostarian campaign.”
“Yes,” she says. “How…?”
And he draws up his sleeve, and she sees the exact same brand.
After that, good luck on getting them to shut up and leave each other alone.
You can also do this with academics, artists, mages, cooks, servants, sports enthusiasts, poets (there need to be more poet protagonists!), street kids, and players of mumblety-peg. A shared passion is one of the strongest things that can draw people together. (Just look at SF/F fandom). No, the relationship may not always last, but it can give you an excellent basis to build on.
And then there need be no characters peeking at each other while they bathe. And no need for that tire iron that I’m holding, either.
4) Some people like comfort. I’ve seen plenty of people laugh at the cliché of the hero marrying the girl who lives next door. I would join them in the laughter, except that these are often the same people who believe in the cliché that two characters who have never met each other will fall in love after mutual sniping and spying on each other in the bath.
There needs to be more of staying true to one’s characters in fantasy romantic relationships. This means that you don’t bend, fold, mutilate, and staple people who wouldn’t bicker into bickering relationships. And if you have people who would rather marry the girl next door than anyone else they meet on the fantasy journey, and they’re still that way at the end of the book, then let them stay true to themselves. Let them go home and marry her.
Fantasy authors? Some people like comfort. Some people like the familiar. You can’t even argue that only adventurous people who wanted something new would be the heroes of fantasy novels, because so many fantasy heroes are reluctant and get dragged along on the quest by some means other than their free will. /end sneak peek at the active protagonists rant
I’ve written duty-bound characters before, people with minds that grind slow but exceeding fine, and loved them. The daredevils and screaming heroines and mopey pretty boys may be more dramatic, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only possible choices for exciting characters. In a way, I think the duty-bound characters I have read in fantasies are more real, because the authors have to think harder about developing them; it’s not as easy to fall back on a readily available stereotype for how they’ll think, believe, or love.
5) There are people who are just in it for the sex. If I have to read one more fantasy novel where a selfish person and a compassionate person start a sexual relationship, and then the selfish person “changes into” a dippy one who issodeeplyandpurelyinLOVE! with the compassionate character at the end of the novel, I’m going to be sick in my socks.
This is not the same thing as a character arc, where the character changes because of things that happen to him or her. You could call this a character quagmire, because all the paths just lead to the same murky water, and the moment the selfish character’s become a copy of the compassionate one, he or she stops moving. The author is so determined to make the self-oriented person “learn a lesson” that everything else is sacrificed to it, continuity and originality and passion and realism and all.
Why should the selfish character change? What’s wrong with sexual relationships based on admiration and desire and lust and the longing to fuck someone into the ground instead of the desire to shower them with roses and have children with them?
It’s probably that fantasy caters to the sex=love stereotype. Why would you sleep with someone you didn’t love? And if you did, by some mischance, why wouldn’t you eventually fall in love with them? Getting sticky and sweaty together must change a person’s entire mental life in the direction of pink and fluffy bunnies!
I hate to break this to the sex=love people, but, um, well, not always. The selfish character could get attached, but I would frankly be surprised if someone who started out using another person for sex changed so much that by the end he or she was indistinguishable from his or her ditzy partner. Attachment doesn’t automatically equal love, either, by the way.
The selfish character may also be one of those people who doesn’t really need another person in his or her life, which I frankly would like to see more of. (See point 6 for what I think happens when that kind of person does fall in love). Choosing to sleep with someone doesn’t mean that that person needs the other, and it certainly isn’t a sign that they’re about to become codependent.
6) Give me true storms over mizzling rain any day. There’s a quote from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, the original of which I can’t get my hands on right now because it’s packed in a box somewhere, but it runs somewhat like this: “It was occurring to the Duchess that while an alliance of the weak was certainly contemptible, an alliance of the strong to the strong presented rather more problems.”
Those bickering relationships? Only a pale shadow of the real thing. Those relationships where one partner repents and wails about how wrong he (usually he) was? Not here. Those relationships that fantasy’s obsessed with, where one character is nothing more than support for the other, a worshipper groveling in the hero’s or heroine’s shadow, with his or her highest desire nothing but to be with the object of worship? Fuck that.
I want to see more relationships where two incredibly strong people choose each other. They don’t need each other, there’s not an alpha and a beta, and one of them wouldn’t collapse and wail and die if the other died. They want and love each other, they’re both alphas, and if one of them got murdered the other would wreak bloody vengeance on the person who did it. And that person’s children. And that person’s minions. And any little furry animals that happened to be in the area. And then he or she would live, and take another partner if he or she wanted to.
This kind of strength is rare, rare, rare in fantasy. Authors prefer to rely on characters going through some experience and then claiming that the experience has changed them into a strong person. Hmmm. Maybe. But the person who was already strong, and just refused to lie down and stop fighting, and wouldn’t need to wait for her partner to rescue her because they would have been captured only together or not at all, is the one I would be demanding to follow around.
Doesn’t this sound interesting? Passionate? Exciting? And if the characters don’t yield each other an inch of ground, then you have all the competition and fierce play that authors of bickering relationships strive for and so rarely get.
Damn. Now I want to write one.
7) The fantasy genre has enough evil stepmothers. I need a bullhorn for this one. Stand back.
SECOND RELATIONSHIPS ARE NOT EVIL.
No, they’re not. Because a fantasy father remarries after the death of his first wife doesn’t make him evil, it doesn’t make her evil, and it doesn’t mean that the grieving children have the right to consider this woman an “evil stepmother” if she’s never done anything to hurt them. It also doesn’t mean the author has the right to jeer through the narrative at the father, because obviously he should have remained in mourning for the rest of his life, because second relationships are EVIL EVIL EVIL.
First love is horribly and stupidly overromanticized in every other genre. You can imagine what happens when someone lets this stupid virus out in fantasy. It combines with the stupid that was already there and injects the whole story full of the DNA of stupid that declares that only the first person the hero or heroine loved was worthy of that love, and everyone else who comes later must be horrible, by virtue of not being the first person. Then the cells explode, and spread the virus of stupid to readers who say, “Gasp! Why, that’s a marvelous idea!” and proceed to use and worship it.
You’re going to have to make more of an effort with your villains than that. They have to be actually evil, and do interesting and smart evil things, before I’ll consider them that way, not just compete with the dead in a contest that the author rigs before it even starts.
8) There’s a “wander, wander, wander, fall” school. This may only work if you’re an author who can write without an outline, or without knowing the whole story ahead of time. I am, so it worked for me the one time I did it. (Purely personal sulk: I used to write outlines. I keep trying to use them, because after all, they’re wonderful tools, says everyone. And every single one of them stalls the story it’s for until I go back to just writing blind ahead. It’s disconcerting).
This kind of relationship requires not knowing who the character is going to fall in love with. There is no planned “love interest.” There are no coy glances from the beginning. There is no “Somehow, he knew she was going to become very special to him” nonsense. There’s the characters wandering along together, and then one day you blink at the page and realize they’ve fallen into bed together, or fallen in love, and they go on quietly on their way, because, after all, you didn’t notice.
I did this, once, and the reason it worked was because I really didn’t plan it. Elary, one of five protagonists I was using, was supposed to remain single. Then she got more attached to a woman she met through the princess she was guarding, and more attached, and more attached, and so on, until I realized she was in love with Silar. And here was me thinking she was heterosexual, too. Oops.
9) No, he’s never going to love you. Now move on. Ah, unrequited love. The bane of many a fantasy hero and heroine, until the author relents in the final scene and shows the person that the hero or heroine loves—whether it’s the one from the beginning of the story or someone “better” he or she’s met along the way—tumbling into his or her arms.
I can’t have been the only one who’s spent some time staring at such a page and thinking, “What the shit is this?”
Sometimes, it really is not going to work. If you have two people whom you’ve built up in bright, vibrant colors, and they’re real, and they’re breathing, and they’re both true characters, without one being a shadow of each other, I admire you. And if you then realize that one of them is in love with the other, and convey that realistically, I adore you. And if you then destroy the other character, reducing him or her to a shadow just so that the protagonist’s love can be requited, I loathe you, and I will never buy any of your books again.
There are very, very few things I can conceive of as “sins.” This is one of the things that comes closest. Destroying one’s own creation, violating one’s own rules, with a deus ex machina in the name of LUV is stupid, horrible, and beyond redemption.
If it’s not going to work, don’t force it. Have the protagonist sigh or pine or go out and drink a few beers or whatever would be in character, and then send them on to a nicer life.
Yes, bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch. That’s because fantasy authors aren’t going to start writing stories without romance any time soon, so they least they could do is vary the menu a bit.