A bridge over a beautiful waterfall

A bridge over a beautiful waterfall
Nature brings magic

Monday, October 5, 2015

Romance, tragic back stories, and overpowered characters in fantasy and science fiction

So, over the weekend in one of the groups I'm part of on Facebook someone posted the blurb they wrote for their fantasy novel. It was an interesting blurb and made me want to read the book. The very first comment made on the post irritated me though. The person who commented said that she found the concept interesting but she “thought there would be a romantic interest for the MC”. I didn't follow the thread so I don't know what the end result of that comment was, but it brought up a point that made me think.

I write fantasy and sci fi. Yes, I do often put romantic points in my stories. But there are some that I've written/am planning on writing that don't have romantic ties. They have deep friendships, but nothing that lands them in bed with each other or mooncalfing over each other like lovesick teenagers.

One of my current projects, my cyberpunk story I've given a temporary title of Hackers, has three main characters – two male, one female. Guess what? None of them end up in a romantic relationship with each other. In fact, none of them have romantic relationships with anyone. It's not necessary for the story.

I see this most often when dealing with strong female characters. So many authors think they need some kind of partner - male or female - to make them better. A lot of the time these strong female characters end up blubbering idiots around their significant others and are forced eventually to rely on their romantic partners to save them.

I'm not saying that there shouldn't be romantic interests in the story. What I'm saying is if they aren't integral to the story line, leave them out. Also, take a chance and plot around them to see if they can be replaced by other relationships. If they can, give that a try. You might be surprised by how interesting those stories become when you're not putting romance in them.

Speaking of relationships, let's talk for a moment about the family situations of characters in the fantasy and sci fi genres. Specifically the fact that many authors seem to think that the best characters come from backgrounds with some kind of tragedy in them. The death of a parent (or both parents), abuse at the hands of someone (a family member or a spouse), being the target of bullies, being loners because they're too strange to make friends, etc. I see a lot of these things in both fantasy and sci fi.

I've read some interesting stories recently where the characters had perfectly healthy personal lives, albeit with some unusual circumstances they were dealing with. They had parents they could talk to, sometimes siblings that were around to provide support, and in some cases spouses and children who gave a sense of normalcy in the chaos that was their lives. Sure, these relationships also offered some good points of tension when a family member or friends were threatened. But that's part of what made the stories so interesting. There was a very real sense of urgency in these scenes because of the kind of decisions that had to be made.

Tragic pasts can lead to characters making stupid mistakes, trusting the wrong people, and create more problems for the protagonists as they go along in the story. Then again, so can having healthy and normal relationships with family and friends. People don't need bad things happening to them to make mistakes. I've made plenty in my life without needing any kind of help.

Now, don't get me wrong. I write tragic backgrounds too. I think it's something every fantasy or sci fi author plays with at some point in their career. I'm looking for ways to get beyond that, to provide interesting characterization without relying on tragedy. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. Sometimes, to explain something that's integral to the story, you need a little pain in the past (or present). But it doesn't need to be the only thing you use.

I think the trend in fantasy and sci fi – which is thankfully fading – is making characters seem larger than life by making them less than “human”. And I don't mean the characters that aren't human beings in this. Even aliens and elves can be made sympathetic by giving them traits that we can identify with. But I've seen a lot of books where the poor protagonist is given so much to deal with that they're overwhelmed. But they're not allowed to be overwhelmed. They're given outs like special powers that suddenly appear with no other reason than they're necessary to get out of a situation. Or some kind of guardian angel (or something of a similar nature) appears to rescue them because it's hopeless and they're never going to be able to get out of it on their own. Or...or...or… I could go on with examples.

What I look for when I'm choosing a fantasy or sci fi book is real people. Characters that I can connect to on a personal level. I want to believe these people are real. I want to care about who they are and what their lives are like. I want to imagine what their life will be like when the book/series is over. I've put books down halfway through because I stopped caring about the protagonists. I've stopped reading several series because things got too over the top with special powers and allies popping up where there shouldn't be any just because the author didn't want to go to the trouble of letting their protagonists find solutions on their own.

That's not to say that if a character gets into a situation they can't handle that there can't be someone to help. But try to keep the random encounters for that to a minimum. There are probably a plethora of people around that could prove to be useful. Use them instead of inserting someone new for every problem.


Tropes are there because people love them. I get this. But people are beginning to want to wander away from the usual suspects. If they're there, they want something fresh and exciting. So readers and writers need to try expanding their horizons and venturing down a path that's new to them. And yes, I do include myself in this need to expand horizons too.

1 comment:

  1. I so agree with all of your points, Annikka. Coming from erotic romance as I do, I see what I'm expected in the form of tropes as not necessarily being desirable in other genres- heck, I like messing with my own genres tropes (like the 35 and 45 year old MCs in my current WIP :D) My other concern- besides what I see as simple sexism in "the strong female" character too often being set up in a romance- is how hetero- and mono-normative so many of these romances in sci-fi and fantasy are; it's bad enough to even them as a trope in these non-inherently romantic genres, but to force them into even tinier boxes of what's acceptable? Ugh, you know what that woman's complaint about expecting a romance makes me think of? Something I see in my genre where a person will read a blurb, see that adult consensual spanking is a part of the book, and then complain there's spanking in the book. Well, *you* read the blurb- if you don't like what was in the blurb, don't read the book and then complain at the author for not writing the book *you* want.

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