Embrace Me, As a Dude

First things first!  I’ve gotten tons of submissions for the first part of The Skybound Sea ARC Giveaway Contest!  But I need more art!  I need more faces!  The field is prime to compete, with only one or two entries so far!

I hope I get some anyway, or I’ll probably cry.

And while I’m busy shoving links in your face that you probably didn’t want to read, I’ll go ahead and put this transcript of my chat with SFF Writer Chat on twitter right here.  Right here in your face.  Picture me taking this link in my hands, my sweaty little palms, and rubbing its against your cheeks.  Inhale its aroma.  Feel its thousand prickly kisses upon your flesh.

If you don’t read that, I probably won’t cry.  It’s full of lovely information, of course, about me and what I do and who I am as a person and a writer, but you probably don’t care about that, do you.  Still, it’s a fairly average interview until you read and get to the point of what kind of romantic elements I’ve got in my books.

And then things get interesting.

I sometimes think that an unfortunate part of writing genre fiction is choosing which cynics to appease.  There are people who won’t read one book because it has elves, people who won’t read another book because it has elves that it doesn’t call elves but you know they’re elves so why not call them elves, there are people who won’t read another book because it’s not like George R.R. Martin enough, there are people who won’t read another book because it’s too much like George R.R. Martin, there are people who just don’t like to read outside their comfort zones, period, and those zones frequently extend to a few concepts written by a few authors and no further.

And that’s a shame.

Because I think romance is one of those elements that’s gotten swept aside, out of the purview of epic fantasy and into the realm of urban fantasy…or romantic fantasy…or anything written by a woman.

If you’ll read that transcript, you’ll note that Bryan Thomas Schmidt brings up the idea of the romance in The Aeons’ Gate trilogy as being “male-centric.”  Curious about that categorization, I asked Bryan about it earlier today.  I wasn’t upset, of course, merely interested in why he came up with that particular way to describe it.  He went on to explain that he thought the romance was less “sappy” and more “gritty.”  Ultimately, he agreed that these are not inherently and exclusively male traits, but I think it’s fair and unfortunate (unfairtunate) to say that, as a general rule, “romance” and “epic fantasy” are generally considered to be like Lucy and Desi’s bedroom: they can make eyes and talk to each other, sure, but they sure as shit better not get into the same bed.

And maybe we, as readers, are a little to blame for things coming the way they are.

Personally, I didn’t write the romantic elements of The Aeons’ Gate to be male-centric, nor did I really intend for them to be exceedingly gritty or sappy.  An author’s sole obligation, and what he or she can’t help, is to present life as he or she sees it.  When it came to romance, I did just this.  And to me, romance is not something neat and tidy.  It’s harsh, it’s disagreeable, it doesn’t always make sense (in fact, it frequently doesn’t, hence why I often find myself in love with small, angry women when my ideal match is a towering sasquatch).

It is difficult.  The stakes are tremendous.  Killing requires hatred and hatred is based on taking.  The worse you can do is wind up with the same you had before.  Love, though, requires giving.  And failure to find it means you have lost something dear and precious and are much smaller than you were.

Summarily, all story is conflict.  All characters are defined by their conflicts.  And there is no greater conflict than romance.

And to be honest?  It’s worked out very well for me.  Some of the most ardent followers of the romance between Lenk and Kataria are men.  Beer-swilling, football-watching, hooting dudes who desperately hope that these two emotionally damaged kids find love.  And the vast majority of Kataria’s fans, angry and irritable shict that she is, are women.

I suspect that when Bryan, when he suggested that most romance was “female-centric” (inadvertently, mind you.  I don’t want to appear as though I’m putting words in his mouth), he was sharing a view that I think a lot of us have that’s been shaped, forged and tempered in the novels of today.

There are a startling number of “clean” romances.  The vampire is in love with you and only you, because you’re so special.  The awkward flirtation around the lawyer only gets better.  The weird guy in the suit has nothing else going on and his only desire is to tie up the inexperienced young lady and fondle her.  To me, these ring false.

I’m not saying they are false, mind you, to me, they ring hollow (this likely explains why I am still single) and thus, I don’t write that romance because I’ve never seen romance as being quite that clean.

And I wonder…do others?  Do you?

To me, I’ve seen an evolution of fantasy in which emphasis begins to swing back to conflict.  The heroes aren’t always perfect, the villains aren’t always horrible, the problems aren’t always solved by throwing a ring into fire and the world is often a big, fat, ugly, messy, plorbly schmorbly piece of what-what.  And to me, a conflicted romance is just the evolution of that.

But I note that romantic elements are a pretty rare thing in fantasy.  Given our current obsession with grimdark, a lot of the relationships tend to go no further than poorly written sex scenes.  And when they do go further, they’re often as clean: the farmgirl falls in love with the hero because the hero needs a girlfriend, the princess falls in love with the prince because what else is she going to do, the otherworldly angelic fey queen isn’t doing a lot today–sure, she has a tennis lesson at six, but she can move that around a little–so she might as well spend a few chapters fucking the hero’s brains out before he goes on to finish his next quest.

And because it’s my nature to turn inward wherever I see a problem, I wonder if the average fantasy reader just don’t need no stinkin’ romance.  And I wonder if perhaps it’s time we challenge that notion.

The Book Smugglers is one of my favorite blogs because they do just that, and they brought up a point from a post long ago that I sadly can’t remember the name of.  But the point was clear: a lot of people don’t read stuff like romance because they are taught to fear the feminine.  Sappy, squeaky stuff isn’t supposed to be interesting.  We’re supposed to want blood and death and worldbuilding and politics.  Somewhere along the lines, the gulf between romance and fantasy became canonical.

But I think we’re doing a disservice to ourselves, as readers and writers alike, by not thinking that there must be more.  There must be more going on with these characters.  There must be some attraction to explore beyond “the root of his cock” and “the glisten of her honey.”  As writers, I think we can afford to think on this more.  As readers, we can surely afford to be more open about it.

As a genre, I think we can do this.

22 Responses to “Embrace Me, As a Dude”

  1. Kathryn

    Romance is… a tricky thing. And sticky, especially if there’s BBQ sauce… um…

    Yeah. Ahem. I don’t want to say it’s due to fantasy being read by neckbeards, because that’s a disservice to the fandom, but maybe that stereotype – that lack of social awareness, of being Hunky McPertNipples – is what fuels fantasy romance to be THE MOST GODAWFUL BORING SHITE EVER.

    You’re right – a lot of it is Prince Saving Princess Lol or Hunky McPertNipples winning over the buxom farm girl (who’s picture perfect and shags like a demon, of course) and that’s bad. On the same side, you have the Instantly-Falls-In-Love girl – Willow from Brooks’ Landover books, for example. That vomit-inducing WE ARE DESTINED TO BE TOGETHER AND FUCK AND STUFF system where women fall in love in a nanosecond. Yes, you get some authors who mix that up, but does it always work?

    Jim C. Hines turned the princess trope around in his books – the princesses rescue the prince, for example. Even yourself with L&K – it’s a little unusual, largely because K isn’t a modestly busted green waify elf who can’t dress herself (she’s a flat chested pale waify not-quite-elf who can’t dress herself :p ), but she stands on her own well. She’s the kind of female character fantasy needs.

    But… it’s not just that. Where are the queer romances? Where are the women taking men (some do in books, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a trend for women to be at least slightly submissive)? Where are the characters not interested in sticking it in other people or having things stuck in them?

    You know what I hate most in books? Romance. Nothing kills a book for me quicker than a bad romance. Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician books? The romance in book 3 pissed me off to high heaven. The Hunger Games? The romance in that was absolutely shockingly bad. Heinlein’s Friday? Well, she just fucked everything that wasn’t nailed down. McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer? Couldn’t get past the sex.

    • sam

      The whole “queer romance” aspect is something I’ll agree that’s lacking. Yet I’m not sure who should be the one to take up that challenge. And by that I mean, I don’t know if it’s right to put in a queer romance for the sake of putting in a queer romance. I think it would ring out hollow to a reader as a desperate bid to tap a demographic.

      I do think that more writers should be fearless in attempting to write more queer characters, though. I think if we remove the mental block to writing one, we’ll find they come as naturally as any other character.

      • Kathryn

        If it helps at all, two of the best lesbian-containing series I’ve read have been by Straight White Men – Jim C. Hines & J.A. Pitts. Actually, three. Sandy Mitchell wrote Grifen & Magot into his Ciaphas Cain books, and they’ve made a few appearances over the series.

        On top of that, you have authors like Richard Morgan who write books with numerous LGBT characters or you can go the way of, say, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and just slip it in as a Point of Interest – which he did in the third Imager book, if my memory is correct. Elizabeth Moon has had lesbian supporting characters in some of her books (Paksennarion & Serrano, IIRC) and I remember the ones in Paks appearing as a couple.

        You kinda just have to do it. The more you think about it, the harder you make it.

  2. Anne Lyle

    Another great post, as usual, Sam. I’ve had mixed reactions to the romance in my books, which is definitely of the non-sappy variety (at least, I think so). One of my beta-readers really doesn’t like my hero because his attitude is not “clean”, as you put it – his sex/love life is messy and realistic, and the HEA is a long time coming. I put it in there because I like reading a well-written romantic subplot – it’s one of our biggest motivators, after all.

    “But… it’s not just that. Where are the queer romances? Where are the women taking men (some do in books, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a trend for women to be at least slightly submissive)? Where are the characters not interested in sticking it in other people or having things stuck in them?”

    Step right this way, ma’am… 🙂

    • Kathryn

      I appear to have just been propositioned.

      • Anne Lyle

        *looks innocent*

        *fails miserably* 😀

        I have straight, gay and bisexual characters in my current trilogy. I have an idea for an asexual character, but that’s on the backburner…

  3. the yeti

    Romance is not love, which is why it can have so many definitions. Real love is boring, fat, comfortable, too honest and lacking the “Romance” it had in the beginning.

  4. Mike (@NewGuyMike)

    Once again the wisdom and insight intersperced with the swearing on twitter is thought provoking. Golf Clap my good man.

    My first thought was I was surprised I didn’t conciously note it before. Their complicated relationship is a significant selling point of your books and it was such a natual part of the story that it didn’t call out to me shouting “Dude. Romance. Look at it go!”

    I completely think you’re correct that it is accepted when it’s urban fantasy written by a woman. But even then, I think more authors are going for the complicated route. Discount Armageddon comes to mind with that, starting out as a Romeo and Julliet rivals that want to smooch sort of thing but naturally gets more involved than that.

    The first other book I thought of though was Mike Shevdon’s Sixty One Nails. It’s got a complicated thing that takes a whole book for the characters to figure out. But both examples are urban fantasy… well.. Nails is more London fantasy. Those Brits got their own sub-sub-genre going over there.

    The more complicated lives of our genre (I want to stop saying gritty becacause I keep thinking GRRM which isn’t helping anything in this discussion) is coming about I think because people our age (late 20s early 30s) are sick of the genre tropes of the past. I’m sure there’s a lot of things we could dust off out of Sociology 101 to explain why. I know for my part and my observations there has been an exedus away from the Tolkien and Goodkinds of the world. I’m never going to start disliking those anr be dismissive of those that built our genre. But the screwed up mess that is existence needs to be reflectied in the words we read and write. It’s natural for that to soak its way into all corners of a book if we want to tell proper tales. That means not everything ends well. Sometimes it ends in sticky fornications. Cause life does sometimes too. It makes for a hall of a more interesting read.

    And now that I’ve rambled on my cell until my thumbs hurt and blown through at least two tangents in there somewhere, I swear I’m done.

    • sam

      Indeed. I think if the romance isn’t natural (or if it is, as you said, thrown out with a “woo, look at this, this appeals to your demographic” brush-off), then it’s not authentic to the characters. This is where I think a lot of the “male-centric” romances (princes and princesses falling in love because what else is she going to do, etc.) fall. They try to shoehorn some romantic subplot in because shit, chicks read books and chicks have money.

      If it never occurred to you to write a romantic element in the book, then it’s probably because that book didn’t need it. Don’t try to cram one in.

  5. Ingrid Jacobsen

    Normally I enjoy gleaning information without interaction, but in this I must respond. Love is the most complicated and the most necessary state of existence. It drives our actions and opinions, and a lack of breeds the contempt, anger, and revenge we enjoy reading in fantasy. This does not mean it is non-existent, only that it hasn’t been spelled out for the reader. It is understood that a character is hateful or revengeful because of a past hurt against what he or she considered love.

    Romance and sex are the heightened physical responses to love. It is important to remember that there are many forms of love that are acceptable. One person’s version of marital love is just as valid as another’s obsessive love. It is never clean for that very reason. There are too many variables, questions, and concerns for the vampire to fall only for her and be confident in that decision. I tend to avoid romance because it is fake and cannot continue without conflict. I cannot connect to that reasoning or see that happening in the world around me. Romance is a decision and can lead to disaster. It will never be perfect, and, as a matter of fact, it terrifies me. Which is why I’m still single….that and short, angry men. What is up with that??? Of course this also means I’m missing out on a significant opportunity and am acutely aware of it.

    Does that mean I can condemn the sappy romance novels and their desperate readers? No. I also don’t believe those readers buy into those alternate realities. They are popular because they are an escape from reality. Wife reads about strange man in a suit dominating the naïve lass and tells her significant other to spank her and call her names in bed that night. All she wanted was to escape from reality, and it worked! Bills, jobs, Grandma’s cancer, and the plot of the trashy romance (or lack of) didn’t matter anymore.

    While we all secretly hope that Lenk and Kataria hook up, keep it real. There is nothing simple about falling in love, let alone for another species. Great fucks are a treat after a stressful situation in reality, but I like my books without reminders in every chapter about how well he thrusts and how well she pants. It is unpredictable, and yes, gritty. Sex can happen, and when it does, my only reaction should be, “Yes, they fucked!” I don’t want or need an orgasm while I’m reading – let’s get back to killing!

    And for the record, non-submissive female characters are awesome because it’s better on top! 🙂

  6. Jennifer Williams

    I’m not a huge fan of romance books, but I do like a bit of romance in my books. Does that make sense? It’s for the same reason I like books to have at least a degree of humour to them; all stories are about people, and people are funny, having messy relationships, fall in love, have sex, etc. If you leave this stuff out, you’re leaving out a vital component that can make your characters believable.

    • sam

      Perhaps you mean that romance can make up anywhere from a small or a large thrust of the narrative, but not the entire thrust?

      • Jennifer Williams

        Aye, exactly. It’s actually all about the degree of your thrusting. This makes so much sense now…

        Romance, like everything else, is good when it’s written well.

  7. Lor

    Romance is an angry, messy thing in real life because humans by nature are all moonbats who have no idea what they really want. Keeping true to that keeps the characters real, and makes them more endearing. At least I think so.

    That said, of course there are people who find the whole “love at first sight/childhood sweetheart” thing and are happy, so of course it can be written like that, I think the problem arises when it is too “pure”, when there are no problems, no arguments. That’s artificial.

    It is a tricky thing though, because everyone’s experiences of this sort of thing are different, and can’t help but colour our opinions. As someone who has been told repeatedly that I’m destined to be alone (I know some charming people), I’m always more cynical of the clean and happy romances. One like Lenk and Kat’s though, that feels real to me, that fits more with my experiences, so in those terms, you’re doing the right thing.

    As long as it isn’t the be all and end all of the characters, but is still important to them, it fits, and it belongs.

  8. deniz

    Great post, Sam. Even those writing in any other genre would do well to remember this: “The stakes are tremendous”.
    They should always be so.

  9. Bryan Thomas Schmidt

    Sam, nicely articulated but let me clarify my statement presented here as “most romance was ‘female-centric.'” I don’t remember the exact words but regardless, my point is not just as a reader, author and fan but a marketer and someone involved in professional editing and publishing, the people buying books with heavy romance elements are generally female. The demand for it tends to come from females. And the books often are focused around meeting the expectations of females. It struck me as bold and different for yours to approach romance differently, subconsciously or not. And I happen to love Nicholas Sparks and other love stories. I’m not the Harlequin guy at all but a well told romantic story I love. So I am not saying that romance does not appeal to me nor trying to diminish its value, importance, so on and so forth. I am talking strictly from the expectations and approaches I’ve heard discussed on a marketing and audience-centric level at conventions, online, etc. In fact, I was just on a Paranormal Romance panel and ConQuest where we discussed this type of thing. I think men ought to appreciate good romance myself and hope more and more will and do.

  10. Janet McConnaughey

    Interesting & thoughtful post. Anent gay romance in fantasy – anyone read Diane Duane’s “The Door into Fire”? Predates “So You Want To Be A Wizard” (which I also am right fond of) by a good few years — I think I read it in the ’70s or early ’80s — and is definitely not for the same audience. I seem to recall there’s also human-fire elemental romance.

  11. Tina Murphy

    Thanks for the post Sam. I enjoyed it so much that I shared the link with my favorite romance book blog “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” and Sarah (co-founder) loved the article. I’m now also sharing it with my Sci-Fi/Fantasy writing group when the subject of romance/sex in sci-fi/fantasy came up for our next meeting.

    Thank you for the insights and it made me want to share you views and great books with everyone I know.

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