This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.
The discussion was focused mainly on romance with a little on fantasy elements such as vampires and zombies.
Early in the discussion one of the panelists offered a simple version of a typical romance story:
– Two characters meet
– They overcome an obstacle while falling in love
– The two characters have a happy ending
This serves as a good starting point for discussing various types of romance story. It is a closer description of many romance stories than the more commonly advised approach of two characters meet, lose one another, then get together.
The two characters can be a female and a male, two females, two males, two asexual characters, or any of a range of other combinations. There could be more than two characters in the romance, or multiple pairings as with a ‘love triangle’ (the first character wants the second character who wants the third).
The panelists seemed unanimous that romance is not so much physical as it is about the relationship between characters. The possibility of an asexual romance story was posed by someone in the audience, asking what a story between two people genetically engineered to be completely asexual might be like.
They discussed the idea that romance is often about the journey rather than the destination because romance stories are often about two characters who will get together by the end of the story. However, the characters don’t always get together and, as another audience member and I discussed over coffee after the session, there are variations of romance stories such as Romeo and Juliet in which the two characters can be considered as ending up ‘together in death’ if you believe in an afterworld (or that there is an afterworld in the fiction of the story) but can be considered a tragedy without reunion if you think of it as Romeo and Juliet just dying. When the characters don’t get together in the end, at least they (or the one who didn’t die, get together with someone else or fall out of love with the other) can find some comfort in the idea that, to borrow from Shakespeare, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. When this happens a character may be able to fondly recall the time they had with their loved one.
Fiona McIntosh said: “We can’t write popular fiction without having romance in it.” By this she meant that to reach a very large audience, a fiction writer will do well by including behavior and emotions which a vast number of people will relate to and romance is of very widespread interest to people. She added that, while a number of other animals partner for life and engage in a range of affectionate behaviour towards one another, humans are at the zenith of romance in the animal kingdom. Humans have a wide variety of sophistication and commitment in romance.
The panelists discussed areas of fantasy romance such as vampire romance and zombie romance. Much of the appeal of fantasy fiction can be that it provides something outside the scope of normal life. Elements of fantasy can be used to magnify aspects of human relationships such as desire and mortality.
They discussed how romance in a good story is an integrated part of the story – you can’t just drop in a Harlequin romance scene and change the names. One of the panelists recalled how someone she knew had tried this unsuccessfully.
They also discussed the issue of whether a character needs to be ‘likable’ to be plausible in a romance storyline, asking what the limits of acceptable unlikability or redemption are. Fiona McIntosh said she had no limits for what was acceptable from a main character and, when another panelist replied “But your hero can’t burn kittens, for example”, she replied that one of her heroes had done just that (probably the only author at the convention who could honestly say that). Also discussed was how the villain of one book can be turned into the hero of the following book.
Below is an excerpt from Fiona Mcintosh’s novel King’s Wrath in which romance develops between her characters Elka and Loethar:
“‘Elka, I’m your enemy, remember? You’re not meant to be acting as my conscience.’
‘And still I do.’ She gave a soft sound of scorn. ‘What is about you that makes me want so much more from you?’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You’re such a mystery. I want to hate you and yet I find myself leaving Gavriel for you. You’re supposedly my enemy and yet I want to heal you. You kill hundreds of people, you slaughter kings, you have so much blood on your hands and then moments ago, when I can believe I am watching you at the height of your cruelty, you surprise me with tenderness and brilliance.’ She gave a huffing sound filled with despair.
He gave Elka a searching look, his mind rattled. The woman standing before him made him feel special in a way he had never felt before. Why did compassion or understanding mean so much more coming from her … and why did impressing her feel so rewarding? With warning, without giving himself even a moment to weigh his actions and judge potential repercussions, Loethar leaned forward and kissed Elka.”
In this excerpt, Loethar has not redeemed himself for his past actions yet there is romance between him and Elka. This is based on compassion and understanding rather than the characters finding one another physically appealing.
Satisfying romance stories can involve characters who come to care for one another despite what they dislike about each other.
Storytelling theorist Victoria Lynn Schmidt has described a variation of this kind of romance, which she calls a Beauty and the Beast story type, where one character is stuck in a situation with another character and they come to fall in love. Another variation is a hostage and captor romance story.
NEXT: Steal the Past, Build the Future
The Australian Literature Review