I’m going to warn you in advance: I’m going to be talking about sex in fantasy again.
And the reason I’m going to warn you is because this is apparently a divisive issue in a lot of readers.
And the reason I’m going to be talking about it is because this topic has been weighing on my mind a lot lately.
Earlier today, while carousing the twitter feed of Shanna Germain, I happened across an article at the Telegraph discussing the need for authors feeling commercial pressure to include sex in their literature. The headline happened to resonate rather clearly with me today, since sex and relationships in fantasy have become something of a hot topic lately. Whether it’s a (admittedly good-natured) diss on Rothfuss for the sex in his work, whether it’s a (admittedly necessary) discussion on rape versus consent by Kate Elliott, whether it’s a (admittedly stupid-as-shit) implication that relationships are the dominion of icky things like “girls” and their dreaded “romance genre,” relationships, sex and romance have extremely weird intonations when uttered within the language of fantasy fiction.
My latest project (which I’ll discuss at length another time) features all three to some extent, thus you can see my current fixation on the topic.
And, as I inch closer to announcing this project and what’s going on in it and turning it over to my editor, I don’t feel pressured.
I feel fucking (har) scared.
I don’t read my own reviews, so I have no idea what people are taking from my books (though, if you’d like to share your thoughts, I’m always happy to have someone drop a line). But I kind of hope it’s obvious that I’m a little bit in love with the idea of love.
I was the kid that paid rapt attention whenever Drizzt and Cattie-Brie were alone. I was the kid that played FF7 primarily to see where the love triangle between Cloud, Tifa and Aeris was going. I’m still the kid that reads a passage about his hand brushing hers, two fingers lingering just a moment too long, and blushes and then feels silly for doing so.
I like romance. I like relationships. I like sex. I don’t like them simple and I don’t like them easy, but I like them. I also like blood, swords, anger and poop jokes. Frequently, I like all of them together. And it’s a little discouraging when I want to venture out into something I haven’t done before and see people still reacting to the idea of sex and relationships in fantasy with the sort of thing you might see in a schoolyard.
I’ve heard the arguments, of course. There are those that say a sex scene doesn’t add anything to a story. There are those that say a relationship is always gratuitous. There are those that say romance detracts from the story at large. These are arguments that hinge on the idea that two people are at their best when they are walking in lock-step side-by-side. Anything more is a distraction from the story at large.
And to be honest? I don’t always blame them.
Let’s be brutal with ourselves a minute here: when it comes to the hierarchy of tasteful depictions of sex and relationships, fantasy authors probably rank only a few notches above pornographers in respectability and a few notches below in finance. Truth be told, there has been a long tradition of sex in fantasy being overblown and gratuitous, of romances being saccharine and uncomplicated, of relationships hinging more on prophecies and swords than on chemistry and motive.
Truth be told, it’s always going to seem a little gratuitous. Because sex is just plain fun to write. We owe it to ourselves to make it fit the story, but that doesn’t mean we have to be joyless shitpails about it.
But that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that, as we struggle with the definition of “epic,” we find that it doesn’t fit our definition of a relationship.
I think there’s an element of denial still at play in fantasy, in writers and readers alike, that we only recently came to overcome these past few years. We’ve come to accept the fact that good people do bad things and bad people sometimes have good reasons. Hell, we’ve come to embrace it, shunning our past of white-hatted heroes and hand-wringing villains with names like “The Destroyer.” And yet, somehow, we’re still clinging to the idea that relationships are, at best, a pleasant distraction that shouldn’t bite too much into the main story.
When the truth is: relationships are the story.
We’ve come to embrace the fact that character trumps plot when it comes to fantasy. We know now that characters drive the plot, not the other way around. But what we have yet to realize is that relationships make the characters. They shape the motives. They force the expression. They create the action. They are the difference between doing the right thing for the wrong reasons and doing a bad thing because any of us would have done the same.
The concept of epic, until recently, was relegated mostly to maps, magic systems and histories. Lately, we’ve come a little closer in putting it to rights by including the word “epic” in things like politics. We’re perfectly fine to accept relationships if the end goal is to screw someone over. But we have yet to really accept the idea that any relationship can be epic.
We think relationships are supposed to be intimate, honest, heartfelt (or, if you’re jaded: unnecessary, sappy and overwrought). We think of them in the same way we view them in Dragon Age: bonus content, fun to play, but ultimately irrelevant. It’s at odds with our idea of what epic fantasy ought to be: high stakes, complex, gritty and hard to handle.
Anyone who has ever been in love can tell you the disconnect here.
Relationships are all those things. And in a good story, they are the driving force behind the characters. They are what makes Jaime Lannister throw Cersei’s note into the fire. They are what makes Kvothe feel like a bumbling, preening idiot. They make the decisions more difficult, the plot more complex, the consequences more severe. They condense the most important things in the world to two people.
There’s a reason Casablanca is a classic.
That’s if they’re done well, of course.
If they’re done poorly…well, then, yeah. They do feel like someone hit the end of their manuscript and went: “Oh, fuck, I forgot to put a romantic subplot in.” And yeah, there’s no shortage of shit like that in fantasy. There’s also no shortage of male power fantasies, blatant racist analogues, heavy-handed morality plays and aggressively weird kinkiness. But we’re getting better with those, as well.
So much better that it’s a crying shame that there seems to be this part of us that’s reluctant to accept that the best stories are human stories. And the human stories that don’t always involve humans are even better.
We owe it to ourselves, as readers and writers, to begin exploring these avenues a little more and start accepting that they are there to enhance the story instead of detract from it. We owe it to ourselves to start being interested in this and accepting the humanity of it, and that includes sex scenes. Because just as relationships are an avenue of conflict, sex scenes are an avenue of expression, a way to tell the story without so many words.
Joe Abercrombie sometimes gets shit for the sex he put in The First Law trilogy (I’ve heard the word “embarrassing” tossed around). Having devoured his books messily, that’s never what I got from his writing. Take two people: Logen Ninefingers, berserker terrified of his own past, and Ferro, warrior woman with a grudge against a world that failed to live up to her expectations. Put them together. Maybe we were seeing different things. Maybe you saw the clumsy prose, the awkward thrusting, the grunting. What I saw was two people who, at their core, just weren’t quite sure how to be human anymore, reflected in their quivering buttocks.
Sometimes it seems like I’ve said this all before. Sometimes it seems like I’ll be saying it forever. Fuck, maybe I will. Maybe this is less about you than it is about me. Maybe it’s me getting over my own hang-ups about sex and love and just forcing you to take in my textual diarrhea. Maybe this is something we’re just never go to see eye-to-eye on.
But, as I come to the end of this blog post and inch a little closer to hitting the “publish” button, as I prepare to go back to work on this project, yet plagued with doubt as to whether this will impress or alienate, I realize the worry is futile. This blog post was futile. Ultimately, it will change nothing about what I’m doing right now.
This is the story I want to write. Thus, it is the story I have to write.
It is complicated. It is messy. It is violent. It is romantic.
There is sex. People cry. Love is still the most dangerous thing in the world.
I think a dude fights someone while naked.
This is the story.
And I cannot stop it.