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Romance in Fantasy – Part One

Reunion by wlopI’ve said it before: I write romantic fantasy. I never start out a story intending to write romance, but somehow, romantic threads always show up. I used to fight this phenomenon, but I’ve grown to realize that I just like romantic storylines. Not romances, mind—I don’t read much romance that’s just romance for romance’s sake. I seem to need some external conflict for the “boy meets girl” thing to work for me. It’s what I like to read and what I seem to write.

I’ve tried to analyze why this is so, and I think it boils down to a couple of factors. First, I’ve been happily married for over 20 years, and I’ve known my husband for almost 30 years. That kind of relationship sort of tends to wind itself into stuff. I guess there’s a part of me that would like everyone to have a healthy (not perfect) romantic relationship, so I want that for my characters as well.

Halls of Undermountain by Belibr (detail)Second, I’ve come to recognize that romance, sex, lust, love, and all of the stuff that goes on between consenting partners in all of its various forms is just a huge part of life. It’s a huge motivating factor for real people, so it seems foolish to take a totally hands off approach to it in a made-up world. (Note: While I think there’s also room for non-consenting partners and all of the various interactions involved, I think that’s a different discussion that involves a lot of other factors. I’ll confine this column to a discussion of consenting partners.)

There’s room for the full gamut of sexual relationships in fantasy, as proven by George R.R. Martin. I think there’s as much room for the quick hook-up in a brothel or a camp tent as there is for a strong, healthy, committed relationship that’s been thriving for years. In my opinion, I think the genre could actually use more of the latter. I realize that story comes from conflict, but I get tired of reading about nothing but unhealthy relationships, and I think an unhealthy relationship puts just as much emphasis on the “relationship” part as a healthy relationship does. I think it would be lovely to see more healthy, committed couples working together to defeat the villains rather than just tearing each other down or plotting and scheming behind the other person’s back.

That said, here are my thoughts on developing compelling romantic relationships in fantasy.

Think of the relationship as a character.

campaigner by lian-blackdreamThis was a huge breakthrough to me in my own writing. When I started thinking of the relationship between two people as a character in itself, I started to understand the characters better. Suddenly, there were three entities involved, but that actually made things easier. The relationship is a reflexive character, because the growth or deterioration of the relationship depends on the actions of the people involved and the changes in the relationship influence the future character actions.

Thinking of the relationship as a character also helped me evaluate where the relationship should go, because the truth is the relationship can change whether the characters do or not. A character who remains stubbornly committed to unhealthy ways of interacting with his love interest can potentially find himself with a very different relationship (or none at all) at the end of the story.

Wherever you begin the story, that’s where your reader begins, too.

Hades and Persephone 1 by sandaraThis one was tricky for me to figure out, and it’s part of avoiding the instabond problem. As authors, we sometimes rush things along too quickly in our zeal to get to the good stuff—the first kiss, the first sex scene, the first fight, whatever it might be. But for readers, just throwing two characters into bed together can be jarring and unsatisfying unless there’s a good reason for it. Your lead-up should match your circumstances.

Did your couple start out in a healthy, committed relationship that you established from early in the story? Then readers will accept the sex scene you give them on page 40. But if you have two people who just met and are already panting and pawing each other on page 40, you’d better have a good reason for it—one is manipulating the other, one is a prostitute, it’s a temporary relationship, etc. Your reader started the story understanding that these two people just met. They won’t accept that the relationship has developed into an everlasting, eternal, epic love by page 40.

Your characters’ relationships should be consistent with the characters.

Morgana le Fay and sir Accolon by any-s-killHear me on one point: I am not saying your characters can’t change. One of the basic premises in my own book, Ravenmarked, is that my main character’s life of adventure, money, and philandering is something that begins to gnaw at him as a result of meeting a woman who makes him start to look at the world in a less selfish way. Change is good—but it has to be consistent and not sudden (no instabonds).

If you establish your character is known for his faithfulness and moral uprightness, he can’t suddenly start frequenting brothels without a very good reason. Now, this can be the conflict, but you have to show us that his external persona is somehow wrong—that he’s putting on a good face, or he’s secretly controlled by a mystical spirit, or he has a mental breakdown that causes him to behave inconsistently.

To be truly compelling, your characters’ relationships should not exist only to serve your plot.

Certainly there can be plot reasons that you put people together, but this should not be the only reason for the existence of their relationship. I think the most compelling relationships on the page are the ones I can believe would exist in real life, independent of the plot of the book. I’m not talking about just healthy relationships, either. I’ve read many unhealthy relationships that I could envision transplanted into the real world, independent of any plot.

I intended to give some tips about how to do a slow build in a romantic relationship, but I’ve run out of room. So that will be next week’s column: How to make two people fall in love on the page and avoid the instabond.

This article was originally posted on November 9, 2011.

Title image by wlop.



  1. Think of the relationship as a character–what an amazing piece of advice. I will try to work that viewpoint into the novel I’m just starting. After all, my two main characters are male and female, and now there is a third one–them! What more natural than a romance between them? The sexual tension should improve the story, and also give me a destination for the characters that wasn’t there when I first started the tale. Thanks, Amy.

  2. Avatar AE Marling says:

    Charting a relationship as a character is insightful. Also, having an interesting, committed relationship between two characters could indeed both be entertaining and far better than insta-love. In the classic movie, the Thin Man, the detective is married, and his wife and he have loving, witty jabs at each other throughout. The dialog is quite good in that one, and it’s worth a watch.

    • AE, I haven’t ever seen that movie, but I do watch old movies for inspiration when I’m writing dialogue. Back in the day, no one depended on special effects to carry the day. 😉 His Girl Friday and Rear Window have some of the best onscreen dialogue ever, in my not so humble opinion. I will have to put The Thin Man on my “to watch” list (which is almost as long as my “to read” list!).

  3. I love your tip to look at a relationship like a character. What a great tip!

    I love reading about relationships in fiction. It doesn’t always have to be romantic. I once said that I don’t do romance. I simply look at the two characters and try to realize their potential. When two of my characters appear to fall in love, I don’t think of it as “falling in love” but just the ultimate outcome of their association.

    These relationships can also be ways of humanizing and fleshing out characters, even side characters. And it can be another way to give insights into the “hero” or main character.

    • Nina, I totally agree with you about putting two characters together and seeing how it turns out. I tried writing Ravenmarked without the romance at once point, but it lost all kinds of motivation and tension for both of the main characters. And I think you’re right–how people interact on a romantic level does reveal a lot about their individual personalities.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Avatar Amy says:

    Excellent advise. Until you pointed it out I never really
    Noticed the lack of committed couples in fantasy.

    And I agree the Thin Man (the whole series) of movies are
    An excellent example of teamwork and witty dialogue.

    • Amy, I know–I tried to think of examples, and I had a really hard time coming up with any besides Ned and Catelyn Stark. I wasn’t even entirely convinced I should use Richard and Kahlan–their relationship is a bit… I dunno… odd, as much as I really like it. We could point to Belgarion and C’Nedra from David Eddings’ Mallorean, but they’re so young that they need some time to prove themselves. Ah, I know one–Belgarath and Polgara’s mother, the wolf (who’s name escapes me at the moment). After–what–7,000 years of being sorta kinda together in various forms, I think we can call them committed. 🙂

      Eddings did relationships really well. I need to go back and re-read his work. I always loved his character-building.

  5. Avatar Anne Lyle says:

    I know what you mean about trying not to write romance – exactly the same has happened in my writing. The story itself may not revolve around romance – that’s not why we read fantasy – but put two compatible people together and yes, it’s natural for relationships to arise. I try to portray a range of relationships, from casual encounters to happily married couples – if there’s any dysfunctionality, it arises out of the characters and their culture, not an authorial desire for artificial conflict 🙂

    As for committed couples in fantasy – Alec and Seregil in Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series become one over the course of several books. And going back further, James and Lydia Asher are a married couple in Barbara Hambly’s historical vampire series. Married couples and sleuthing seem to be a natural combination, perhaps inspired by the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories (which I love, btw).

    • Anne, totally agree–the dysfunction (or function) should arise from the characters, not from the need for a new plot twist or whatever. Those things can certainly coincide, but they should never feel forced.

      I haven’t read the books you mention, but now I will have to add them to my ever-growing TBR pile. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. […] aside, there’s all that content to deal with, too! Amy Rose Davis talks about what makes romance work in fantasy, but her tips will work for any genre. Karen Strong argues that opening your novel with action is […]

  7. Avatar L.S. Taylor says:

    Excellent post. I find that, too — the romance evolves from the story. Every fantasy piece I’ve written has a romantic element to it. It’s a nice blending of genres, I think.

  8. […] Next time, I’ll look at the romantic relationship in fantasy and discuss what works and what doesn’t. Update: Here it is. […]

  9. Avatar Noneofyourbusiness says:

    “If you establish your character is known for his faithfulness and moral uprightness, he can’t suddenly start frequenting brothels without a very good reason. ”

    Unless of course this is a world where prostitution is considered perfectly decent and acceptable.

  10. Avatar Stephanie says:

    Terrific article! I appreciate your excellent advice. Like you, I don’t read much romance, per se, but I love romantic subplots in fantasy, sci fi, and mysteries.

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