Over on Comet Tales, Stephanie Osborn has a bunch of writers talking about elements of modern storytelling. She asked us first to consider where does romance fit in a modern tale. How did we do it, and why that way and not another? The answers were fascinating, and all over the map. My response follows.
Where does romance fit as an element of modern storytelling?”
Stephanie Osborn asked this question, and my immediate thought was “as a subtle puzzle piece.” I know that is not the usual response to the question. Half the fiction books published in this country every year by major New York publishers are romances, in almost every flavor you can imagine. (That is, if by flavor you are imagining one woman and one man who end up in a HEA–Happily Ever After–or, more recently, HFN–Happy For Now–relationship. Everything else slides in from the shadows, makes a surprise appearance, or even has a small independent publishing line somewhere else.)
Where does romance spring from?
I’m not asking in a technical sense, or a scientific sense. We know that chemistry and biology triggers the first flush of attraction, and we can research to find out where the modern Western concept of romance began. I always think of it as starting with Jane Austen—a woman choosing to reject offered security for the hope of at least liking and respecting her partner. That she ended up with a man whom she also loved, who was solvent enough to support her and their children, was a bonus. For most women, having it all was a fantasy, but a lovely dream. We can go back further, into legend—but most of those famous lovers did not end well.
Thinking about it now, I wonder if romance novels were simply a woman’s first reach for respect and mutual affection in a relationship—to regain the ancient courtesies between the sexes, the respect for each sex’s wisdom and knowledge that still lingers in some tribal cultures. The current tribal forms may not be at all what modern women want in relationships. But in the past few hundreds of years in Western culture, women were mostly shut out of commerce and expected to make the home (and that was big doings before the Modern Era of electricity and convenience foods.) All they could hope for was a marriage where their intelligence and personality was respected. Marriage was often a financial transaction, or a melding of two families’ talents and assets. Respect, humor, liking the person you were going to share a life with—those were traits to be desired. Romance was the dessert, the last thing you wanted but could only dream of, because so many failed to get it.
Then more people began to marry for love—for better or worse. But did they understand each other? I think women learned to understand their men, to try and keep a home their husband wanted to return to, a refuge for their men. But too often the men had no clue what was going on in the heads of the women.
A thesis was once written proposing that women read romances—pure romance, not the newer stories escalating in sexuality—because it is a story where a man becomes obsessed with a woman and is spending all his free time trying to figure out how to understand her, please her, win her. I suspect that the root of romance lies in understanding The Other—the other sex. Or if they do not completely understand the other person, they still unconditionally accept them.
I don’t write pure romance, I write fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. I am interested in putting people into unusual or challenging situations and watching them work their way back out to their new life. But there is always a romantic thread in my stories, because whether people plan on it or not, romance happens. Sometimes one of two people thinks “hummm….” and starts working at it, like my young would-be rebels in Hidden Fires. Sometimes two people look at each other simultaneously and think “Why did I never notice this person in this way?” as the protagonists of my short story “Feather of the Phoenix” do. And sometimes people are working together, surviving together, laughing together, and along the way they realize that something new is growing between them, even as they are saving their corner of the universe, as in Fires of Nuala.
Sometimes there are challenges to the relationship, or temptations. Some fans want to see Alfreda and Shaw from my Night Calls series finally make a match of it. Shaw and Allie are only young teens, and they have skills that demand training—they aren’t the kind of people who will fall willy-nilly in love. But if they awaken to it, after challenges, and others who attempt to lure them in other directions (for if they are both worth winning, they are worth winning by others) then they will fight the world to stay together.
But getting there can be subtle—until the moment it is everything. I think I write romantic subplots for those of us who position ourselves in things we love in life, and hope to be surprised by love. Just like in a romance!