As the feast of St. Valentine is drawing nearer, it has got me thinking about the concept of the love interest in fiction. It is something I only decided to put into my story recently, or, when I say decided, I mean realised with a start that I didn’t have one at all and conceding that yes I probably should have one.
The reason the idea of a love interest had fallen by the wayside so far in The Road Elsewhere is that I find it very hard to write without resorting to cliché. Love stories in the fantasy I have read (and indeed a lot of general fiction) nearly always goes one of two ways: one – they hate each other to begin with then end up, impossibly, falling passionately for each other. Or, two – from the very moment they lay eyes on each other they have to be together, no matter what. Granted, both of these scenarios can be written well and there can often be a lot of obstacles to overcome to reach the happy ending (potential story-telling goldmine), but the idea of trying to write my own, keep it interesting but make it original and believable all at once, makes me come over cold with dread and has made me instinctively avoid it all together.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy romance in a novel. Love (and all its potential accoutrements: lust, passion, desire, betrayal, despair) provides motivation, insights into character, obstacles, conflict and all manner of other delicious story building-blocks.
Out of the ones I have encountered, my favourite love stories are those between narrator and Max de Winter in Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. These relationships are so wonderfully realised, passionately driven and bitterly human. They are also both (arguably) doomed from the very start because of the nature of the characters. I’m not a misanthrope but conflict and struggle of the heart is inescapably engaging and I find far more interesting than the happily-ever-after type.
In fantasy the love story is often a supplement to the bigger picture rather than the main focus, but that doesn’t make its story-telling potential any meaner. When done well it adds two ingredients vital to good fantasy: Realism and Spice. These are particularly important in fantasy where the world is ‘other’ to what the reader knows and invented either in part or entirely by the writer, so is very precious and important to them but in danger of becoming unconvincing or uninteresting for a reader.
A good example of the love interest being used well in fantasy is Robin Hobb’s Molly in some of my very favourite books, the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies. Simple isn’t the right word to describe the portrayal of the relationship between Molly and the narrator FitzChivalry, but it has the right connotation: the author writes it seemingly effortlessly. It just unfolds between the characters, bitterly human, full of uncertainty and struggle but with a thread underneath too strong to be snapped. It comes to represent a lot of what Fitz has to master on his journey: the war between his duty and his heart. In my opinion, exactly the right way to use the love interest.
The Novels of Astrieant by Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett have simpler plots in a more complex world. Here the relationships between the characters are used, along with many other things, to demonstrate the workings of the world: it is a matriarchal society, so, as the bloodlines are never in any dispute as they are handed down through the women, marriage is almost exclusively a business arrangement. Other sorts of relationship and commitments have different implications and labels. I have never seen world-building like this anywhere else and, just for that and the exposition alone, I would recommend them to any would-be fantasy writer: Point of Hopes, Point of Dreams and, more recently, Point of Knives. (On a side note I do believe the first two are the stronger of the three, but it would take a whole other blog post to explain why I feel this. Another time, maybe!)
So the part of me that hopes to be a good writer, and not just a writer, conceded that my protagonist, Rowan, must end up lusting, desiring and loving in some manner or other, just as most red-blooded humans do.
I had initially toyed with the idea of making him fall in love with his male tutor, the only person up until that point in his life beside his mother that had ever made him feel worth anything. It would seem very natural and, particularly after reading Scott & Barnett, I find love more believable when it just happens between people because of who they are, gender being more of an afterthought. The tutor, Maveer, is who Rowan spends most of his time with, the person who helps him grow into himself and who he therefore comes to respect and cherish enormously. Love would not be far behind in the logical scheme of things. But the question of whether I should make the leap from the love of student to respected master to that of sexual desire is a weighted one. It would certainly at Spice, but unless it had Realism, it would not work.
I love the Novels of Astreiant, the Game of Thrones series and many others, for, among many other things, their liberal range of love and sex. In these worlds it is both exciting and realistic, so you don’t see the writer, throwing in sexuality just to make it steamy or to make a point (not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with either of these for a minute, it’s just they are appropriate to different sorts of projects than the one I’m working on) you just see the story.
I like the idea of my story having the same liberal (and realistic) ranging of sexuality, but my newbie timidity is still in play and constantly makes me wonder whether I have the talent to pull it off.
After much debate I think the sexuality of the characters is something I will work on in the redraft stage, finding the natural places for it rather than setting out to do it for its own sake and therefore making it contrived. For now I feel that having Rowan fall in love more traditionally (i.e. with a woman), but maybe with hints of sexual tension between him and his tutor that are never directly addressed, might be more interesting. It’s always nice to leave something for the reader to make their own mind up about.
So, there is a girl. Carys.
She was there already in the story and up until recently (and, arguably, typically for a love interest) he didn’t like her. I didn’t set out to write her as a love interest but she seems to have naturally drifted that way, which I hope means their relationship is realistic. I realised one day that the reason Rowan and her disliked each other so much was because they were so alike. They both use stubbornness to disguise self-doubt. They both want control over their own lives and their own decisions and both are dissatisfied with the lot they have drawn. The only real difference between them, and the main reason they dislike each other, is that Rowan was born son of a king and Carys daughter of a poor bookseller. They both feel the gulf between them and both are bitter of each other, secretly because they are jealous of the freedom they perceive the other to have.
It was only too natural that if the gap of station were removed, they would start to identify with each other and maybe even come to depend on and then love one another. I also realised that if Realism were to be honoured, they were both too stubborn to bridge the gap themselves and therefore their circumstances would have to change for them to look at each other differently. So it happens that they stumble into each other on the road north, each attempting to run away from home. They are forced to share shelter for the night and, though the bad feeling still lingers (realism makes it so), the pleasantness of finding something familiar in a time so uncertain for them both is impossible to ignore.
Nothing more than that happens that night, I’m a little sad to say. It would be relatively easy to have them end up tearing each other’s clothes off and getting down to business. It would certainly add Spice, but, given that the whole story up until this point has had them disliking each other the rare times they have met, it would compromise the other vital ingredient, Realism. So they part in the morning to go their separate ways without a backward glance. But it that was enough to sow a seed in Rowan’s mind.
So I think it’s started well. The beginning of their potential relationship has come about quite naturally and, as it will be sometime before they meet again, there’s plenty of time for Rowan’s imagination to wander and his feelings to grow. But my main hope now it that it continues to grow in the organic way it has started and not fall into the deadly clichéd trap of hate blossoming into passion from a desire to add Spice without considering Realism.
This is something I will have to work hard to avoid, along with one other of my personal pet-hates: the clichéd Strong Woman character. I really don’t want Carys to become one of these, a female character that is independent and strong, takes no rubbish from anyone, seemingly cold but with hints of loneliness underneath. That character has been done to death and isn’t terribly realistic. The fault often lies in that the writer has written these strong women as a woman first and then a person second. It’s a tempting trap, especially as a female writer, to make a point of their strong female characters. But they should be character first and then female second. The sort of woman they are should come from the sort of person they are, not the other way around. Whatever the society they live in has lead them to become and their reaction to it (both extremely powerful story-telling tools when done well) the person they are will be decide more of their character than their gender.
This is what I need to bear in mind when writing Carys. I hope Rowan’s relationship with her continues to progress naturally, but engagingly. Provided I concentrate on making them two humans that are attracted to each other because of who they are, rather than what they are, then it should do so. The barriers that come between them, therefore, are only those that they put there themselves, just like in real life.