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Romance as the Emotional B-Plot in Speculative Fiction


If you live in the United States, then no doubt all of the chocolate manufacturers have made damned sure that you know today is Valentine’s Day. I know plenty of people who grumble that it’s a made-up holiday, developed and popularized with the sole purpose of schilling chocolate and greeting cards. That may be true, but I like it anyway. And since romance is in the air, I thought I’d briefly ruminate on how romance can provide the emotional core of a story.

The Ubiquity of Love

There’s a reason why most stories are – at least in part – love stories. The cynic in me says it’s because sex sells, but I think the reality is a little more complicated. While we might read for very different reasons at different times, the capacity for love and affection automatically promotes emotional engagement. Don’t believe me? Check out this photo:

Kitten & Bunny, via The Sound of the Nosing Machine thru Google Images

When we see pictures like that, our response doesn’t end on “Awww, cute!” We engage with their subjects emotionally because we automatically feel affection for any living being that does the same. And the same holds true for characters in our fiction. Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and author of Second Sight (which I reviewed here) lists Fourteen Qualities of Attractive Characters (they’re mid-way through the linked post), and it is telling that six out of those fourteen can be shown through romantic attachment.

The reason why love works so well is because it immediately exposes the emotional core of our character. By its very nature, love puts their motivations, fears, and value systems on display. But in speculative fiction, the love story rarely drives the action. How does the emotional journey relate to the adventure?

Love as the B-Plot

In realistic literary fiction, love is often the central pillar of the story. Conflict is internally generated by the characters, and with its emotional highs and lows, love is an effective source of both conflict and pathos. In speculative fiction, however, we have much wider options for generating conflict: the fate of the universe can and often does hang in the balance. And with tremendous adventure, danger, and excitement it’s tempting to quote Short-round and say “No time for Love, Doctor Jones!” but as Indy shows us: there is always time for love, even if it’s just a side plot.

That’s because when it is shunted into a story’s side plot, the romance can then buttress the story’s entire emotional journey. I found a great example of this at work in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Ostensibly, it’s a fun epic fantasy adventure, stuffed to the gills with monsters, magic and mayhem. The action of the story centers on Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, an aging ghul hunter who rather than retire must instead battle a threat greater than any he’s ever faced before. The danger is physically and spiritually existential, but Ahmed uses his characters’ romantic relationships both to structure his story and provide emotional depth.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is principally told from five perspectives, and it is notable that four of these five are matched pairs: Raseed with Zamia, and Dawoud with his wife Litaz. Our central character, Adoulla, is pointedly alone. His love interest, Miri, has basically given him the old heave-ho. Structurally, his companions’ relationships present varying stages of Adoulla’s (now failed) relationship with Miri: Raseed/Zamia are young love, nervous and fiery. Dawoud and Litaz are the settled, comfortable love of long-standing companionship. Adoulla has neither of these, precisely because Miri has kicked him to the curb. And why has she done so? Because despite the fact that he’s getting old, Adoulla still insists on haring off after monsters out of his sense of duty.

Now that paragraph provides a neat summary of the romantic relationships in the book. But you’ll note that it doesn’t really touch (at all) on the action of the story. That’s primarily an adventure / mystery, where our heroes must figure out who is creating these monsters, why they’re doing it, and then stop them before they destroy the city (and eventually the world). But the romantic relationships add depth to all of the characters, and get us to invest in them. Without that romantic dimension, the characters would be cardboard.

Adoulla’s relationship with Miri employs a classic device when romance is a side-plot: duty versus desire. Adoulla wants to stop adventuring, to retire to a life of domestic pleasure and comfort with Miri. But his innate sense of duty will not let him. And through this opposition the first chapter of Throne of the Crescent Moon already provides us with a profound insight into Adoulla’s character.

By complicating his hero’s love life and then structuring his characters’ relationships in contrast to that emotional conflict, Ahmed creates an emotional resonance chamber: each supporting character individually gains depth through a deeper understanding of their motivations, desires, and values. And together, they escalate the hero’s emotional conflict by dangling an emotional brass ring before the hero and the reader. It is an elegant structure.

The Structure of Love and Thoughts on the Love Triangle

Structures like Ahmed’s are only effective when the emotional arcs they produce are either reflected or opposed by the action of the main story. In this case, Adoulla’s duty (the action) opposes his desires (the emotion). Another example is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss’ emotional desire for familial security is intrinsically bound up with her conflicting feelings towards Gale (a hunter/provider type) and Peeta (a feeder/reliable type). Unlike Adoulla, Katniss’ emotional arc and the story’s action are not in opposition: the relevant themes reflect and amplify each other, where decisions in Katniss’ emotional life mirror those in her political life.

Collins’ love triangle is also an excellent example of a classic romance structure executed well. I love the love triangle as an emotional structure because when done right, it has a multiplier effect on the story’s emotional and thematic resonance. However, it is not without significant risk: the failure mode for love triangles is utterly atrocious. And since one can’t swing a cat in a bookstore’s YA section without knocking over a bookcase full of such triangles, Sturgeon’s law takes hold and most of the those I come across these days fail.

Love triangles only work when they mirror or oppose the themes of the story expressed through its action. When I look for classic triangles, there’s no one better than Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables both feature amazing love triangles that are packed with emotion…and which reflect the story’s broader action.

Hugo is interesting because his love triangles (in particular that of Marius/Cosette/Eponine) simultaneously reflect and oppose the action-oriented themes of the student revolution. Hugo is often called melodramatic for that reason, but c’mon…is there any way to have a love triangle avoid melodrama? Either in life or fiction, I don’t think it’s possible. And melodrama can and does add to many stories.

But if a love triangle fails to oppose or reflect the action-themes of the story, I find that my engagement with the characters is destroyed. Characters who would otherwise be engaging and interesting, suddenly become incredibly self-centered. If a love triangle, or even a love story, has no thematic or emotional relationship to the story’s action, it just becomes an exercise in narcissism. I love well-constructed narcissistic characters: they often make amazing villains or foils, and their emotional journeys can often be incredibly fun. But there’s a world of difference between aiming for and hitting a narcissistic character, and trying for engagement and getting a dreadful jerk.

When it comes to romance — triangular or not — unity is absolutely essential (see my earlier thoughts on unity here).

Techniques for Expressing Love

Honestly, there are so many ways to express a love story that trying to outline some of them is rather daunting. While I continue to try and put together a concise set of notes, I’m constantly reminded of Kipling:

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

As I try and put my notes together, I’d really love (terrible pun absolutely intended) your help:

What are some stories that you’ve found do a good job with romance? And why do they do a good job?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. NOTE: My Viable Paradise classmate L. has got a great post discussing dimensions of romance and their relationship to world-building over on her blog. Here’s the link.

    February 14, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A Rather Romance-Heavy Linkdump | Cora Buhlert
  2. SF Tidbits for 2/14/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
  3. Characters’ Age: Musings on How it Affects Writing | The King of Elfland's Second Cousin

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