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Negotiating the Borders of Intimacy and Imagination: Romance and Fantasy


Last week, I came across Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Big Love Sci-Fi series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3). I had been thinking about how romance, sexual tension, and emotional intimacy is built and maintained in books, and so her suggestion that romance in fiction is actually a negotiation of the borders of intimacy particularly struck me. As I thought about it some more, I realized that in some ways the romance genre and fantasy are analogous. If romance derives its power from the borders of intimacy, then fantasy builds its sense of wonder from negotiating the borders of imagination.

Borders of Intimacy: A Framework for Thinking about Romance

Romance may well be the oldest genre in existence. Since before the written word, stories and myths were full of love, sex, and betrayal. And why not? It’s fun! It grabs our attention, focuses our minds, and gets our hearts racing. What’s not to like? Artists have known for millenia that sex sells, but the methods by which it’s portrayed are culturally dependent.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice manages romantic/sexual tension very differently from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures. 19th century readers had different standards of intimacy: the kind of hot-and-heavy sex scenes we take for granted today would have been off limits back then. Even more graphic 17th century romances like Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess; or, the Fatal Enquiry (which was called pornographic when first published) lack the overtly-described throbbing body parts of today’s sex scenes. Despite the changing standards of intimacy, romances from Ovid to Danielle Steele engage us by bringing characters to an emotional precipice, and then having them finally plunge over it.

The Facets of Intimacy in Romance

An overly-simplistic view of romance says that it’s just sex. But Jacqueline is exactly right when she says that a sex scene lacking emotional depth is just boring. In western culture, the physical act of sex has always been used as a proxy for other intimacies:

Aspects of Intimacy

Aspects of Intimacy

Marriage (which traditionally precedes sex) represents a type of familial intimacy: one person’s family opens up and accepts a new member, or two families join. Probably the best example of this is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the two families alike in dignity reject that intimacy. But nonetheless, the underlying tension of that love story rests on Romeo and Juliet trying – and failing – to negotiate that familial intimacy. Here, death plays the role that sex often does: it represents the culmination and climax of their negotiation.

A different type of intimacy is the philosophical or worldview model that Austen nailed so perfectly: both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility deal with the protagonists adjusting how they perceive other characters. This is a philosophical intimacy, where the climax is the moment of acceptance rather than the moment of marriage (let alone sex). For Austen, sex – of course preceded by marriage – is in fact the denouement, never shown but instead implied by her heroes’ betrothal.

Spiritual intimacy between characters can likewise be negotiated. Unfortunately, I had some difficulty thinking of romances that deal with this facet of intimacy, but ultimately I think Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is probably the most succinct example. Dagny Taggart’s relationships with Hank Rearden, Francisco D’Anconia, and John Galt all oscillate around her most fundamental spiritual values. While Rand might well have spit nails to see those values described as spiritual, there is no change in Dagny’s philosophy over the course of her relationships. Instead, the climax of these relationships is her finding her idealized counterpart, the impossible superman who personifies her ideals. If we were to swap Rand’s Objectivism for any religion, the relationships would still function the same way (though the plot’s MacGuffins would not).

The Borders of Imagination and the Fantasy Spectrum

If the core of romance is characters negotiating the borders of their intimacy, then I suspect the core of fantasy might be negotiating the borders of the reader’s imagination. Love titillates us because it speaks to something deep within our hearts, touching on our innermost desires, exciting us with the promise of fulfillment. But intimacy doesn’t lurk alone in the deep, dark corners of our soul. It shares those caverns with our imagination.

A romance hinges on the borders of intimacy between the story’s characters. Typically, that intimacy is indelibly linked to the story’s plot. For example, the plot of Romeo and Juliet would fall to pieces without the Capulets and the Montagues. But fantasy’s relationship with imagination tends to be slightly more removed from the story’s plot, and it does not need to rely so heavily on proxies the way intimacy often does.

The Borders of Imagination

The Borders of Imagination

Fantasies make us look at reality sideways, utilizing evocative imagery, secondary worlds, strange creatures, and magical powers to broaden our understanding of our own reality. Superficially, elves, monsters, and wizards are cool plotting devices that let us tell entertaining stories. Who doesn’t like magic and monsters? But beneath that surface level, they give us a new lens through which we can see an oblique picture of the world.

Imagination operates on a spectrum that describes a relationship between the story’s characters, the reader, and their environment. At one extreme we have our world, in all its mundane glory. It is at this end that we find mainstream literary fiction, where the world operates according to the real-life rules that govern our everyday existence. The range of plot options or the focus of characterization at this end of the spectrum is nearly limitless: we can deal with a plot-driven mystery, or a character-driven rumination. The focus can be narrow, internal, psychological or just as easily societal, philosophical, or spiritual.

At the other extreme we have a secondary world, where anything goes. A secondary world does not even need to have human characters – consider Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland. Immersive fantasies – which force the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the prima facie rules that govern the secondary world – operate at this level. Just as with mainstream literary texts, their range of plotting options and focuses is nearly limitless. However, unlike mainstream literary fiction, immersive fantasies have the ability to use different rules of existence and their accompanying imagery to cast a different light on aspects of our reality.

Portals and the Broad World Perspective

If we start in our real world, then we can gain access to the rich imaginative vocabulary of the secondary world. But to do that, we have to take our characters from our world and bring them to the secondary world, typically through the use of a portal of some kind. In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn conflates the portal fantasy with the quest fantasy, and while this works at the level of plot, it does little to explain how portal fantasies interact with the reader’s imagination. That’s because we can have an immersive quest fantasy that takes place in a completely secondary world (think Tolkien, Brooks, etc.), but the thematic, plot, and character focus tends to be different if we start in our world.

The moment our characters go through the portal, everything in their new reality is contrasted to our world. Whether it is in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by starting the story in mundane reality we establish the reader’s (and characters’) initial state. Whatever imagery follows can then be related back to our real life, and can be interpreted as a thematic symbol. From a plotting standpoint, the secondary world is often thinned and ultimately by the climax of the book, comes back to some sort of eucatastrophe that leads to its restoration.

Intrusions and Narrow Focus

Intrusion fantasies – where the secondary world inserts itself into our reality – are the mirror image of portal fantasies. Consider Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, or China Miéville’s King Rat. Here, the secondary world is dark, dangerous, and forbidding as a general rule. Its intrusion into our own world tends to be frightening, disorienting, and leaves our heroes struggling to find their own place in the world.

Just as in the portal fantasies, the fantastical elements can be interpreted as thematic symbols. But the mood tends to be darker, and the focus of the story narrower. While portal fantasies tend to focus on the world at large and build towards eucatastrophe, intrusion fantasies focus on the narrower, private world of the principle protagonists. Rather than building towards a climactic eucatastrophe, they instead build towards a moment of personal climax/realization/rejection.

Liminal Fantasies: Philosophical by Design

Liminal fantasies either dance on the border between two worlds (like John Crowley’s Little, Big) or ambiguously hint at the existence of a secondary world (Graham Joyce’s How to Make Friends with Demons). In these cases, fantastical imagery is often used allegorically and the reader’s position relative to the events of the text is always ambiguous. Reading these books, we wonder if we are – in fact – operating within a fantastical reality? Or are we instead merely using allegory to highlight and comment upon philosophical, emotional, and spiritual considerations?

Understandably, the focus for such liminal fantasies is always narrow, focusing on the values of the protagonist. Their emotional climax typically lies not in picking a side: choosing our “real” world or the secondary world. Instead, it rests in becoming comfortable with that middle ground between the two. Acceptance on an emotional, philosophical or spiritual level, as opposed to the more conflict-oriented eucatastrophe or resolution.

Symbols, Imagination, Plot, and Emotion

While fantasy makes it possible to use a rich palette of imagery, fantasy is not merely symbolic: sometimes, a talking tree is just a talking tree. Plot is just as important as the underlying themes of a story, and images are used not just to represent values and thoughts in the real world. They can just as easily be used to evoke certain emotions, to raise tension and the like. What specific imagery we utilize should tie into our goals for a particular scene, whether those goals are emotional, thematic, or both.

And of course, part of the fun is when we combine aspects of romance (negotiating the borders of intimacy) with aspects of the fantastic (negotiating the borders of imagination). Fantasy and romance are genres that can contain multitudes, after all.

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