Love is in the air. No, really – it is!
Romance and relationships play an important part of many people’s everyday lives, and the same holds true in many types of fiction.
Sadly, given its omnipresence across all genres, romantic subplots easily lend themselves to tropes and clichés.
Fantasy fiction in particular often relies on these tried-and-tested relationship dynamics, usually when romantic tension is not the driving force of the narrative.
So, if you’re looking to add a little more love to your fantasy novel, check out these creative romance ideas to see how they can work for you.
#1: Introduce An Established Couple
While it might seem like introducing an established couple will suck all the enjoyment out of the romance, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Of course, your reader will miss out on all awkward flirting and butterflies associated with a sputtering new flame… But this actually presents you with a wonderful opportunity for plot and character development.
And remember: things don’t all have to be roses when introducing an already established couple.
The impact of Jaime and Cersei’s incestuous relationship in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice is no less diminished by the fact that readers missed out on seeing it develop.
In fact, the hidden, twisted nature of their long-running affair is part of what makes it such a compelling storyline.
This relationship not only forms a considerable foundation for a great many plot points, but it is also intrinsically linked to both characters’ motivations and development – something that couldn’t have realistically been achieved were they not already introduced to us as an established couple.
If you want to write a protagonist who’s motivated by their love for a significant other, then establishing the relationship before the opening pages of your story is worth considering.
It’s unlikely that readers will buy into the kind of romance that sees a character make significant decisions for their partner when they only met three chapters ago.
This ‘instalove’ trope is not only unrealistic, it’s also unimaginative, and readers don’t buy it – especially when there are greater things at stake in the context of your fantasy world.
#2: Include A ‘Slow Burn’ Romance
Another method of avoiding the eye-rolling ‘instalove’ trope is by heading in the complete opposite direction.
Yes, we’re talking about the scintillating will-they, won’t-they dynamic of the slow burn – one of the most popular types of romances among genre readers.
Slow-burn romances are a great subplot to employ in fantasy. The gradual development of the relationship between two central characters is welcome break from all the world-saving, empire-toppling, magic-wielding action of your fantasy novel.
Whether it’s love-hate bickering or tiny moments that go unnoticed by the characters themselves, readers lap up this subtle and often tormenting romance.
Taking the time to develop strong chemistry between the characters is paramount to an infuriating (read: enjoyable!) slow burn.
Having strong sexual tension bubbling beneath the surface adds another tantalising layer to your story, propelling the reader through the narrative as they become desperate to know when (and if!) the prospective couple gets together among the greater conflict of the main plot.
The slow burn is often coupled with other popular romance arcs such as ‘enemies/friends to lovers’.
Like the established relationship, this type of budding romance can also affect the plot just as much as the characters (think Damen/Laurent in C.S Pacat’s The Captive Prince trilogy).
But unlike ‘instalove’, where the characters are immediately and inextricably infatuated with one another, the slow burn has developed over time, making any influence over plot and character arcs infinitely more palatable.
This is quite often seen when a romance develops between two distinctly different personalities, as is the case with Agnieszka and the Dragon in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.
However, it’s worth noting that the ‘opposites attract’ trope often relies on stereotypical characters (brooding male hero and manic pixie dream girl, anyone?).
Make sure you invest time in crafting an authentic cast with a range of unique characteristics to keep things fresh and engaging.
#3: Rekindle An Old Flame
If you’re set on having had a quick-igniting passion, but want to avoid the danger of love at first sight, perhaps a ‘rekindled flame’ romance is the way to go.
All well-rounded characters have pasts, and the revelation of such is just as likely to produce previous loves as it is plot-twisting secrets.
The arrival of an old flame can certainly bring some tension to the table. It could even serve as a distraction that knocks your protagonist off their world-saving path.
While it may seem off-putting to effectively go backwards, the rekindled romance provides a great opportunity to add depth to your characters by fleshing out their past and paving the way for future development.
Be sure to establish a strong sense of chemistry between the two parties to keep readers on board.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that if the romance died because of questionable behaviour, you must ensure you’re not romanticising a toxic relationship by pairing them together despite obvious red flags.
As tempting as it might be to dive lustfully into all the pent-up passion of an old romance, remember that broken hearts take time to heal.
What tore your two lovers apart in the first place will have a substantial impact on how long it might be before reconciliation can be achieved – if it’s even possible.
In V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, despite the obvious feelings that linger between Alucard and Rhy, their relationship is not an easy fix.
Situations such as this can motivate your character to undergo a journey of self-improvement, or take a more active role in the plot of the novel in order to prove their renewed commitment.
If you take the time to explore the reasons the relationship failed in the first place, and provide enough evidence as to why it should continue, the rekindled flame can be as thrilling a romance as a first love.
#4: Use A Failed Romance
We’re all about subverting tropes at Writer’s Edit, and another big one you can play within your fantasy story is the concept of the ‘one true love’.
As many fantasy epics feature the journey of a hero(ine) chosen to save the world, combining that with a destined soulmate can be a bit too much to take.
So, what if your earth-shattering romance just… fades out? And, unlike the rekindled flame, that’s the end?
True to life, many breakups do not actually reach reconciliation or offer a second chance at love with the same partner. More often than not, the heartbroken parties go their separate ways.
But what happens when the luckless lovebirds are involved in a tight-knit group of friends, like Adam and Blue in Maggie Stiefvater’s urban YA fantasy, The Raven Cycle?
Are your bitter and broken ex-lovers in the midst of an epic world-saving journey, tied together by fate?
Watching characters navigate their pain and heartache while trying to remain focused on the task at hand certainly does make for a great source of drama, but it’s also an opportunity to explore significant personal growth gained through loss.
It’s important to remember that the function of a character-building subplot still needs to serve a purpose.
If nothing is learnt from this misadventure in love aside from the sadistic fun you had tormenting your darlings, then you’re probably better off omitting the drama altogether.
Another downfall to the failed romance is how often it walks hand-in-hand with the dreaded ‘love triangle’. If your character is giving up one love to pursue another, make sure you inject some originality to give this trope some spice.
#5: Have Characters With Multiple Partners
Despite being on the rise in recent years, polyamory is still widely considered taboo, mostly due to the Judeo-Christian values that underpin much of Western society.
However, this does not need to hold true for your fantasy world.
One of the great joys of writing fantasy fiction is the ability to build worlds with cultures and religions of our own design.
Some elements we may choose to mirror; others we can choose to subvert. What is outrageous in our world could be the recognised norm in another.
The concept of ‘monogamy as morality’ is an interesting point you may decide to play with.
Polyamory can come into play for a number of reasons. Perhaps unreserved and indiscriminate lovemaking is a sacred act performed in the service of the gods, such as the world of Terre d’Ange in Jacqueline Carey’s epic fantasy, Kushiel’s Dart?
Conversely, sexual freedom could be a highly restricted practice, with your characters taking multiple lovers as a form of rebellion against the social norm.
Or maybe your protagonist just has a lot of love to give, and isn’t satisfied (emotionally and/or physically) by having only one partner.
In N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Syen and Alabaster were not able to find happiness in their forced union until the addition of third party, Innon.
This was neither common nor scandalous in the context of the world; it was simply what worked for them and no one made a fuss about it.
Another great use of polyamory is its ability to destroy that pesky love triangle. Unfortunately, this trope is all too prevalent in YA fantasy fiction.
Many popular series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments all have a whiff of love triangle about them, where the protagonist, who is usually female, is torn between two (or more!) potential partners.
While the love triangle can be a source of tension, ask yourself: why does your character even need to choose?
Not only will you make your story more original by subverting a common trope, you’ll also pave the way to more inclusivity by welcoming a diverse range of sexual identities.
And that brings us to our next point…
#6: Have NO Partners At All
Following on from polyamory, and perhaps in stark contrast to it, is the asexual or aromantic relationship.
As the importance of representation and diversity in popular culture becomes more widely recognised, asexuality and aromanticism still remain largely unexplored concepts.
That said, tropes have been unearthed regarding the portrayal of asexual characters in fiction.
While Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy novella Every Heart a Doorway is loudly touted as one of the strongest asexual representations on the market, it has been criticised for perpetuating the newly coined ‘Death-Adjacent Ace’ trope.
Having asexual/aromantic characters being closely associated with death, or rather disassociated with the living, is problematic. But fortunately, it can be avoided with solid research and thorough character development.
Remember that asexuality is a spectrum, and not all people who identify as asexual consider themselves aromatic.
As such, this type of romantic subplot provides the foundation for you to develop the ways in which your characters form deep and meaningful connections without a sexual component.
Perhaps this practice is rooted in the very foundations of your fantasy world. Perhaps the inhabitants of your world do not measure physical acts as an indicator of love and intimacy.
Taking sexual desire out of a romance doesn’t mean you’re taking the fun out, too. You’re merely making way for the opportunity to explore the many other facets of love and relationships.
Many readers love a good romance subplot. Whether it’s bolstering character development or the plot at large, this story component can make for engaging reading.
Fantasy fiction opens the doors to a whole range of possibilities, so you don’t need to fall back on the bland and expected.
But regardless of what type of romance you chose to employ, remember that you must first create believable characters and scenarios.
Be wary of tropes and cliches and find ways to put your own unique spin on things, and you’ll have readers as hooked on the romance as they are on your killer plot.
Do you have any favourite romantic subplots in fiction? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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