June 5, 2015

What’s the Difference Between Romantic Fantasy and Fantasy Romance?

There are few stories that aren’t improved by a strong romance; but this does not make every story a Romance in the sense of belonging to the Romance Genre, i.e. a book that would be shelf-mates with Bodice Rippers and Regencies.

The same distinction coheres to the difference between a Fantasy novel with a strong romance (what we might call a romantic Fantasy) and a Fantasy Romance. The former may be High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy or Epic Fantasy, albeit with a satisfying romantic subplot. The latter is a Bodice Ripper with dragons.

By the way, I intend no condescension by the term Bodice Ripper. My purpose is not pour forth contempt upon the Romance Genre, as a cheap way of making some other kind of book look more sophisticated by implication. I enjoy Fantasy and I enjoy Romance, and I like most ways of combining the two. The distinction is not terribly important to me as a reader. As a writer, however, it is very important, since the genres target overlapping but different readerships.

Genre Romance will have the Romance front and center to the plot. It will usually be the first element introduced and the last element resolved, but even if a subplot appears on stage first, or a battle with the Baddie adds the finishing touch to the climax, the Heroine and Hero realizing their love for one another will be the most important and highly developed storyline in the novel.

This means—by necessity—all other storylines will be less developed. In a Fantasy or Science Fiction or Historical novel, that means that if the book is Genre Romance, the worldbuilding, scientific exploration, or historical events will be less complex than in a straight Fantasy, Science Fiction or Historical novel. This is isn’t because Romance writers are idiots who can’t research history, science or mythology, it’s part of the Genre requirements. It meets the needs and expectations of Romance Genre readers.

However, a Fantasy novel, like Enchantment by Orson Scott Card, can still contain a storyline that qualifies as “Romance” with a capital “R.” Enchantment, in my opinion, has too complex and rich a presentation of mythology, history, and characterization to quality as Genre Romance; many readers who prefer more Romance to Fantasy won’t have the patience for details about when the Cyrillic alphabet evolved. And Card eschews traditional roles for his Hero, such as “Alpha Male,” and his characters don’t spend nearly enough stage time pinning over one another (or lusting for one another) to make Enchantment even close to a Dragon Bodice Ripper.

Yet a Romance is still at the heart of the story in a way that will reward the more fantasy-tolerant Romance fan. Even more importantly, Card obeys all the Rules of Big R Romance.

So what are they?

Romance with a capital “R” must go above and beyond a story with a male and a female character who fall in love, a couple in love adventuring together, or a couple in love separated by an external force.

The first set of rules have to do with Conflict During Courtship:

  • The Heroine and Hero must spend most of the novel interacting—not apart
  • The novel must spend time demonstrating how the Heroine and Hero are strongly drawn to one another
  • The Heroine and Hero must have internal needs or fears that cause conflict between them which keep them apart emotionally despite being physically together and being strongly attracted to each other

This may seem counterintuitive. Hero and Heroine fall in love at first sight—wicked Wizard captures Heroine—Hero defeats minions of Wizard and finally the Wizard to save her—they live happily ever after. Isn’t that a love story? Sure. Isn’t that a Romance? Not in the sense of Genre Romance, no.

Romance in the capital “R” sense must be driven by conflict between the Heroine and the Hero. Most Romances will also have an external force trying to pry the couple apart—whether it be a rival suitor, a jealous jade, an evil wizard or a nasty mother-in-law. But a good Romance must have an internal conflict that keeps the couple apart as well. At least one or both lovers must have some secret need or fear that keeps each from trusting the other. Falling in love isn’t easy—it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done.

The second set of rules have to do with the Resolution of the Relationship:

  • The Heroine and Hero must attain a emotional and physical union
  • The Heroine and Hero must choose to be together exclusively
  • The Heroine and Hero must live Happily Ever After (HEA)

In a Sweet Romance, the physical consummation of the relationship may be kept behind a closed door. In a Hot Romance, the legal niceties of marriage may less relevant or explicit. And in a Young Adult Romance, both sex and marriage may be more implied as a future possibility rather than explicitly explored. But exclusivity, monogamy, and happiness are all absolutely necessary. This is called the HEA.

By the way, this is often a distinguishing feature that divides Women’s Fiction from Genre Romance. In Women’s Fiction, the Heroine might fall in love with a married man. The Heroine and Hero might not end up together. One or the other or both might die tragically. Or the story might extend far beyond their realization of physical and emotional closeness to a period of time when they are again riven apart, by changing emotions, by time, by death or by fate.

Some examples of extremely romantic stories are therefore not Romance in the sense I mean: Titanic, The Notebook, The Time Traveler’s Wife…. These are fabulous love stories but they violate the Resolution of the Relationship by either denying their lovers a Happy Ending, or going past the Happy Ending into a bittersweet addendum.

It’s fine to have a romantic relationship in a story that doesn’t hit all the “rules.” But if you do intend to put in a Romance that will increase the cross-genre appeal of your novel, it’s important to understand what notes to hit to make that romance sing.

Tara Maya

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