My defence of fantasy last week stirred up a lot of interest, leaving me feeling like an obscure band who have suddenly achieved a hit and are wondering how on earth they can top it. After all, there's unlikely to be anything that fantasy readers and writers agree with more than Fantasy is a Good Thing. So what would my theoretical band do in such a situation? Well, I suspect they'd obey the three main rules of the follow-up single: start with a catchy hook, build to an exciting finale, and – most importantly – make sure there's a half-naked woman in the music video.
Yep, you guessed it: I'm going to talk about sex.*
But first – it being February, the season of valentines and, er, other heart-shaped things – I'm going to talk about romance. Most fantasy novels these days (and I'm referring to mainstream fantasy rather than fantasy romance, which is a genre of its own) seem to have some kind of love story in them. I have no particular objection to that: relationships are a significant part of what it means to be human, after all, and that's what fantasy is all about. Yet at the same time, there are a couple of things that frustrate me about romance in fantasy.
There's nothing worse than feeling as though a romance has been tacked on because the author thought they ought to include one ('readers like love stories'). If I as a reader can't see how the two people in question ever came to be together – because they're completely incompatible, or because they go straight from hating each other to falling into bed together – then my belief in the novel as a whole is completely shattered. It often amazes me how much effort an author puts into every little detail of their world, only to fail to convince in this most fundamental of areas. Your average reader won't know whether it's realistic that a warrior should carry two swords and a throwing axe, or that a city's sewage system is based on bacteria. They will know if a relationship feels forced or unrealistic. As I always say: get the people right, and the rest will follow.
The best romances are the ones where you're longing for the characters to get together, without it feeling as inevitable as a sob story on a reality TV show. Where the romance plays a key role in character development, in that the parties involved have to change and grow in order for their relationship to come to fruition. Most of us know that real-life love stories are rarely as simple as 'their eyes met across a crowded room'. They require time and patience and compromise. For me, there are too many romances out there in which the woman apparently wants the man for reasons as superficial as looks or unusual talents or that good old standby, his alpha male status. In which the man wants the woman for some so-called special 'quality' about her that's nothing to do with her personality whatsoever (yes, Twilight, I'm talking about you). Can we please have relationships that, while by all means involving mutual attraction and a bit of sparky argument, also involve things like shared values and a sense of humour and the gradual development of trust? Thank you.
Now. I promised sex, and here it is – because while romance is a fantasy staple by now, sex is still a contentious issue. For some reason we're perfectly happy reading about people hacking each other to pieces, but as soon as they take their clothes off we come over all prudish about it. Personally, I'm not one to write in great detail about sex – at least, not in any mechanical detail – because that kind of thing seems better left to erotica. But then, nor would I write in great detail about blood and gore and intestines spilling out all over the place. I'm generally of the opinion that imagination is far more effective than graphic description when it comes to both sex and violence. Whether you agree with me or not, the point is that I'm consistent. But if one is going to write about these things at all, I fail to see why people finding joy or solace or simple carnal pleasure in each other is more offensive than people trying to murder each other with a variety of bladed instruments.
If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably psychological. Most of us are taught as we're growing up that sex is something to be discussed only in private. Something to be embarrassed about. A teenager wouldn't be at all disconcerted by his parents walking in while he was watching a violent film, but make that an explicit sex scene and there's a world of shame right there. We're used to killing people in a variety of interesting ways through the computer games we play – we're surrounded by images of weaponry on movie posters and book covers – and as a result we end up being much more offended by graphic sex than graphic violence, when arguably it should be the other way round.
Of course, there may be another reason why the ratio of sex to violence in fantasy is so low: authors are afraid of making their readers cringe. Because, after all, it's very easy to write a bad sex scene. Enjoy!
* The title was a bit of a giveaway in that respect.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
It's a short one this week: don't give up. As I know from trying to keep a diary when I was younger, this is the time of year when initial enthusiasm for new projects begins to fade. But stick with it, and soon you'll break through that invisible barrier to find a place where writing every day has become second nature to you … at least, that's what I'm hoping!