Research: Romantic Fantasy, Part One

I’ve been doing a lot of “research” into romantic fantasy recently. I decided that I was going to refocus my efforts to work on a diceless RPG on a Romantic Fantasy idea so I’ve been reading and watching and thinking a lot about the types of stories I want to be able to tell with this game. I’ve realized a few things.

1. Romantic fantasy is an ill-defined genre that very little has been written about.
2. The teen “fantasy” section at your bookstore is likely to yield better results for this type of reading than
the sci-fi/fantasy section.
3. I am not the target audience for romantic fantasy. (I’m male and over 21).
4. Certain trends in romantic fantasy and certain realizations lead me to think that my definition of romantic
fantasy doesn’t fit with what others might consider romantic fantasy.
5. BUT certain other stories that are not strictly “romantic fantasy” still fit the bill for what I want to
do/write about/consume.

Let me examine these in order to discuss where my research has led me – and I’ll be pointing some fingers along the way so come along with me.

1. Romantic fantasy (RF) isn’t really written about very much. Trying to research discussions about RF is like digging in sand. There isn’t much to find. If anyone knows of any other resources that might be useful for discussions about RF I’d love to find out about them.

2. When it comes to teen fantasy and RF, let me say that I recently finished Holly Black’s modern faerie stories (Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside) and they are excellent. Even though they are about teens these stories stand out for me as just plain excellent fantasies. Highly recommended. I’ve also been reading Cassandra Clare’s two series, The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices and these are both fun reading. I recommend them if you like teen stories but not the same way I’d recommend Black’s books. I’ve also been rereading Tamora Pierce and I recently started Hunger Games and The Nine Lives of Chloe King (which is much more raw than I expected it to be).

3. I really don’t want to make too big of a deal about point 3. I mention it because I’ve discovered something interesting (to me). You know how a lot of times people talk about diversity in RPGs as an issue where some groups of people just don’t really feel like they have any characters to identify with/model their play from? This is kind of how I feel as a guy diving into RF. I mean, I was raised almost entirely by women and I’ve had better friendships with girls than guys for most of my adult life but it’s a real struggle to find male lead characters in RF. Actually, forget struggle – I haven’t found one. I mean, guys are there and they are equal participants, friends, lovers, companions, mentors, leaders, followers, and everything in between – but there just really are not male viewpoint characters in any of the romantic fantasy I’ve been reading. This is a problem because, presumably you want guys and girls to play your game. It may not have been done “well” but at least there are female viewpoint characters in traditional fantasy and even sword and sorcery fantasy. Romantic Fantasy though hasn’t really made a leap to male lead viewpoint characters yet. I think this is also a struggle of definitions.

4. This is a touchy one, so I’m going to say my piece and move on. Also, there are some spoilers here for a few series so you can skip this if you want to. Some of what I have read has bothered me so much that I stopped reading it. I’m pointing the finger at two people here, two series that lost a reader. Jennifer Roberson and her Cheysuli books were recommended to me by a well-meaning individual who knows about my RF project. The first book of the Cheysuli series involves a fairly weak female lead who is sexually assaulted multiple times, treated like trash, abused, ordered about, and impregnated. She then repeatedly puts her unborn child in danger to protect one of her abusers who she has suddenly decided she loves despite very little time passing and very little change in his behavior. I managed to finish the first book in the hopes that it might get better, that the characters might mature and become better people. They do not.

The second series is The Troy Game, by Sara Douglass, which starts with Hades’ Daughter. I cannot heap enough revulsion on this book. It was also recommended to me as part of my research, but I’m certain the person who recommended this one just hates me. This is the story of a girl whose beloved family is murdered, gruesomely, in front of her. She is taken prisoner, repeatedly raped, forced to marry her rapist, and then impregnated by the rapist and then… with no change in his behavior or attitude toward her as prisoner, property, and brood mare, she decides that because she is carrying his child she needs to make peace with him – which would almost be tolerable – except that she decides that her reason for doing this is because she might be actually in love with him.

OKAY. I get that bad things happen to people. Rape is awful and it’s real. Domestic violence is awful and it’s real. I lived with it in my family growing up. I’ve experienced it. It’s awful and it’s real and we should not try to hide it. I also realize that some women decide they “love” their abusers or that their abusers “love” them despite all evidence to the contrary. These are real things and they are dangerous and important for us to be discussing as artists and citizens. But when I sit down to read a fantasy story I do not want to read pages and pages of a character pining over a man who repeatedly abuses her and acting like she’s completely okay with it. That she deserved it and expects it and at least he’s paying attention to her. This is a terrible message to your readers and… Okay, you know, I’ve said enough here and I’m going to get off track. Let me just say I put that book down too. When I encounter this in further reading I’ll be dealing with it the same way. But to encounter this same thing in two series like this, it makes me wonder how many more times this happens in the genre?

5. I want to point out a few other authors/stories that fit the atmosphere/mood/idea that I want to capture more than some of the stories I’m reading that are called romantic fantasy. First off is Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. This is one of my favorite stories (and the movie is only a distant relative of the book) and I love the interplay of action and consequence that is the biggest part of this story. The “magic” is incredibly subtle and the power of the book is in the good and bad relationships and choices that our lives revolve around. Second is Guy Gavriel Kay. For the same reasons as above. Kay is a master at making words work for him and he also weaves subtle fantasies full of painful relationships and difficult histories. And sacrifice is a big part of Kay’s work. He makes sacrifice something tangible, and it affects everyone from the gods on down to the mortals. Another one is Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum stories. (I can hear you snickering, I can). As funny as it is, because Stephanie is a total Mary Sue, the level of humor and joy and just plain stupid fun that these books have in them keeps me reading them. The relationships are weird triangles, the supporting cast is ridiculous, and the books themselves are pretty much like eating episodic cotton candy. But I’m okay with that. It’s good to just be light-hearted once in a while. Finally, something I’ll discuss in the next installment – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books. I’ll be discussing why Harry Dresden might be my first Romantic Fantasy viewpoint male – and what that realization taught me about the game/genre.

Phew. That got long. If you made it to the end, thank you for reading. More to come.


6 responses

  1. For me, personally, I tend to define Romantic Fantasy as defined by the relationships versus the activities. Yes, there are great things going on, but the relationship take center stage. For male leads I tend to look at a lot of Stackpole’s earlier works, like Eyes of Silver, Talion: Revenant, Once a Hero, or Dark Glory World (not the trilogy that came afterwards) which tend towards coming of age stories. Stuff where the fate of the plot rest not on what the protagonists do, but more so on how they relate to each other.

    As far as #4 goes – Yeah, I’ve read some of both series, didn’t finish either one. Actually, none of Douglass’ works I think qualify as good romantic fantasy in this sense.

  2. You make an interesting point about the Dark Glory (War). I read it and my remembrance of it has me labeling it as “dark fantasy” in my head — though I think that was mainly to do with the ending… It is a pretty good coming of age story up to a certain point.

    And for #4, well, I’m working off recommendations at this point. I’ve exhausted the books/authors I already know well myself. Douglass was not enjoyable for me. At all. I’ll have to look up those other Stackpole books, though. I really enjoy his Battletech work…


    1. Most of them are way out of print, but I’ll be in town for Madicon if you remind me to bring them.

  3. It sounds like you may have to define your own subgenre.

  4. I could’t finsh the Cheysuli either. I hear enough horrible things in my job I am not that interested in reading about it in moments of escapism.

    Have you ever read Eddings Belgaraid and Mallorean? would you consider them similar to romantic fantasy? just curious.

  5. @Runeslinger

    Oh man, that’s a responsibility I’m not sure I’m really up to… though, to be honest, I’ve actually taken to calling my game, “a game of hopeful fantasy” instead of Romantic Fantasy. Even though that still doesn’t quite exactly fit…


    The Belgariad and the Mallorean are two of my favorite fantasy series. I love them — and I’d considered bringing up the stand-alone Belgarath and Polgara novels in the discussion above. Now that you’ve mentioned them I really feel that I should go back and read them again. I think what Eddings did with that world and those characters represents what I would want in an ideal campaign, if that makes any sense.

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