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  • Leah E. Welker

My Favorite Things, Part 2: Romance

Updated: May 31

Two shadowed people riding bikes, the one ahead reaching back to the one behind, with sunset goldened clouds behind them. Photo credit: Everton Vila on Unsplash.

Last post, I began a new blog series on my favorite aspects of the fantasy books I like to read (and write) by talking about magic—one of the key criteria for fantasy. Now I'm going to talk about something that narrows the category quite a bit: romance.

My struggles with romance

Believe it or not, given how I'm trying to carve out a place for myself in the romantasy subgenre, I've had a conflicted relationship with romance in fiction my whole life, and I don't think I'm alone. I always loved it, but it took me a long time to accept that it was OK for me to love it.

First struggle: the cringe

Part of my struggle goes back to that cringe factor I talked about a couple posts ago: the romance genre, just like fantasy, has seldom been taken seriously. If anything, romance is more downtrodden than fantasy. Plenty of people will proudly admit to loving mainstream fantasy who would ridicule people who love romance, whether fantasy romance or the main romance genre. It's sad but true that people lower in the pecking order of things tend to be some of the most petty, scrambling to prove that, even if they may not be popular, at least they aren't them—the people they try to make into the lowest of the low. And romance, in my experience, tends to be that genre that everyone else likes to punch down.

Loving mainstream fantasy is fine—ridiculing anyone for any reason is not. The fact that there's no objective way to prove inherent superiority of one interest over another just adds another layer of unacceptability to that behavior. I think, when the issue is put so bluntly, most of us, even the mild bullies, would agree. But the power in culture, particularly shaming culture, is in the subconscious realm, in the space where words don't exist. Shame thrives in that space because as soon as we can put words to what we are being subconsciously told, we realize how laughably false those statements are.

For one example: Romance is girly.

Well, thanks for that brilliant observation. And what, may I ask, is wrong with that? Especially since I am a girl, thank you, and proud to be one, thanks again. If there's any evidence that the patriarchy is still alive and feminism has just as much of a fight for equality as ever, it's that "girly" is still an insult. Women are still being made ashamed of being women. (And, I'll add, men are shamed for having traditionally female interests.) Traditionally female interests are always lesser, their art is always lesser—simply because it is (traditionally) for women.

But moreover, I ask, what makes romance "girly" at all? Doesn't many a romance (female x male, or even male x male) involve—gasp—a male? And (though I'm not necessarily an advocate for this) those males are often acting stereotypically manly, sometimes in the extreme. If anything, romance is often more strongly reinforcing of traditional male and female roles than many a genre (and this is a problem, I'll admit). Then why is it considered just for females? (And thus, by subconscious default, undesirable, lesser, of inferior quality.)

Here's my completely unresearched and stream-of-conscious theory: it's because it's all about feelings. And our current culture doesn't allow men to have feelings.

I say that with compassion and some level of personal remorse. Because as I discovered when I recently read Brené Brown's Daring Greatly, women are almost as much at fault for reinforcing that cultural rule as men are. Dr. Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher, and by her own account, she initially only researched shame in women, thinking them the primary targets of the emotion. Until one life-changing encounter with a man who countered her assumptions, describing how the women in his life, while embracing Brené's work on shame, still could not bear to hear him be that vulnerable too. Dr. Brown then courageously shifted her mindset and her research focus. She describes later leaving a series of interviews on men and shame with the gut-wrenching epiphany that not only was the man right, that men experienced shame just as much as women do, she had the guilt-ridden thought, I am the patriarchy.

Though I don't think women are entirely at fault (this problem is far too complex and thorny for that), and I don't think that's what Dr. Brown truly thinks either, despite her emotional reaction to her research, I believe in acknowledging my own faults in problematic situations, and I have to acknowledge that as a female, and particularly as a female aspiring to write romance, I might just be part of the problem. I was already a passionate believer in the mentality in not casting all guilt on a nebulous them—that if I am not part of the solution, I am part of the problem. Those values combined have made me determined to be part of the solution.

However, this was a problem I was already aware of at some level, at least, and one I was already determined to do my part in, long before reading Daring Greatly last month. I didn't have the research, I didn't know how to put it into words, but I was already ruminating on this issue when I began writing the Blood of the Covenants series . . . in other words, when I began learning who Ben truly was.

At some point, I might have to write a whole post on Ben, because he is (quite unexpectedly) the most controversial character in the series. People either love him . . . or they hate him. And at least among the beta readers I've had so far (who have not necessarily been fans of the genre) they generally hate him. I would have found this deeply discouraging, except there was one male beta reader, who was already deeply familiar with YA fantasy, who found Ben incredibly relatable. That was when I knew I might not just be wildly off base, that I hadn't completely misunderstood the male psyche despite all my years of painstaking research, reading, listening, and empathizing.

I heard Brandon Mull once answer the question as to how he, a man, could write the Fablehaven series largely from the perspective of a girl: he said that he can't know how all girls think (can anyone?), but he can know how that girl thinks, so well that it's as if she's talking to him, telling him the story.

That, for me, is the key. To make a long story short (the full version will have to wait for the Ben post), when I actually sat down to write Ben's story, he immediately set me straight. (So did Kor, actually, and just as drastically, but that's definitely a story for another time.)

Ben was, as he told me himself, a much more internally complex person than I had ever imagined. He struggles a lot inside, especially in the first few books: with insecurity, shame, and fear—as do we all, including men. Ben swiftly became a man who was heartbreakingly real to me, and being real means being . . . vulnerable. I can't say for certain that Ben's vulnerability is the reason readers react to him so strongly, but a lot of the comments seem directed at his vulnerabilities, and there isn't a one Ben has that I don't see or hear real-life males struggling with, especially young men of Ben's age. And yet, Ben's account of those struggles brought out strongly negative reactions in some readers. Given Dr. Brown's research on how we as a society do not allow men to be weak, to admit to shame or struggle, to fail, and to apologize and acknowledge imperfections . . . I have to wonder.

But I still have to do my part—especially if I intend to continue writing romance. Because romance is about feelings—all the feelings, actually: love and hate, confidence and insecurity, shame and pride, fear and courage, loneliness and belonging. And there is no greater emotion, and thus no greater vulnerability, than the journey of love and self-love (which are always intertwined). If I am to continue writing real characters, characters who will tell me their stories, I have to continue to honor their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and thus honor the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of us all.

Otherwise, I'll remain a part of the problem.

Second struggle: logic vs. emotion

Part of my struggle is with the logical side of me (a traditionally masculine trait). On the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, I'm an INT/FJ, where my most unequivocal trait is my introversion (on the extreme end of the spectrum), and my most conflicted is my thinking (logic, equality, rules, justice) and my feeling (emotion, equity, empathy, mercy) traits. (Yes, I know MBTI is pseudo-science, but it's good shorthand for explaining this conundrum of my being).

Essentially, this means I'm always caught in the middle of the logic/emotion tug of war, and let me tell you, it's an uncomfortable place to be. It's as if I always have the shoulder angel and devil on my shoulder, except both are angels with completely good, valid points of view, and I'm left to reconcile them in order to function as a human being. (Perhaps explaining some of my introversion.)

As I said, romance is about feelings, and feelings don't fit into logical little boxes—in more ways than one. Not only are they difficult to categorize, they are difficult to contain, often reaching out their feelers (pun intended) to tangle themselves in every other emotion they can until they're an unintelligible jumble. That's one reason romance is about all the emotions—because I propose that no other emotion has a stronger tendency to affect all the others than love . . . or the lack thereof.

Emotions don't go away just because you give them a lecture. They aren't reasonable. They're our reactions to being . . . human. Rawly, exhilaratingly, or terrifyingly . . . human. Emotions are part of being alive. They are a crucial part of that programming hard-wired into us to keep us alive; that's why feelings can undermine our logic so thoroughly. They aren't about long-term thinking. They are about survival.

In response to the chaos, part of me has always tried to tame love—that most complicated and vulnerable of all emotions—to break it down or, at least failing at that, pen it in. I've dabbled in examining under a microscope through chemistry and biology or a telescope through sociology or anthropology, but either method is a mechanism to keep my distance. Unsurprisingly, that distance has never been satisfying, and so I've explored it in other ways: through real-life experience and through fiction.

And yet the logical side of me keeps saying it's a foolish endeavor, or at the least, that I'm weighing its value too highly. My logical side has many arguments about why love is good for me (see, again, chemistry, biology, anthropology, etc.), yet it sees no reason I should care beyond that.

My logic is solidly on the side of Plato that nonromantic love is actually the higher form of love. Certainly the kind that makes us do fewer stupid things and take fewer risks, with seemingly greater rewards. What more should matter? What more even is there?

Third struggle: the morality of romantic love

My moral side (which sounds very much like my logical one) is always bringing up the problems with the modern obsession with the idea of romantic love: that romantic love is the most desirable thing in life; that you're worthless if you don't have it; that when you have it with "the one," everything is tingles and warm fuzzies forever after; if it's not tingles and warm fuzzies forever after, it wasn't the one and you should ditch them and everything you've built with them, regardless of any promises you made or the destruction you leave behind; that love is about self-fulfillment and satisfaction; that physical attraction is everything (and if you're not physically attractive, you're unlovable); that someone else has to complete you; that romantic love is a shortcut to happiness past vulnerability and hard work and self-improvement and sacrifice; and on and on and on.

Those are problems—dangerous, dangerous fallacies, causing heartbreak and shattering lives at a societal scale, and I hate feeling like I may be perpetuating them with my interests and my writing. This is the moral sticking point, the hardest and darkest thing I struggle with, because the logical extreme here is to ditch romantic love and romantic fiction writ large as being not just false but evil.

But when I confront that impulse in so many words, I see . . . that extreme might be just as false and dangerous. Throwing out all notions of romantic love isn't the answer; that's what Brené would call disengagement, armoring up, retreating behind castle walls out of fear and the determination to not be vulnerable again. As she says, humans are hard-wired for connection; there's no getting around that or the desperate, screaming lack we will feel by refusing to connect. And a committed intimate relationship is one of those most desirable connections.

What I love about romance

Given all of my above struggles, what still draws me to romantic fiction?

Well, I've actually given some hints already. Despite the arguments of my logical and moralistic sides, there's a dreamer still alive in me that dreams of something . . . more. Some redeeming explanation for romantic love, something magical, something unexplainable, something powerful enough to override reason in the best possible way, something worth moving heaven and earth for. Something pure, encapsulating all that wonder but yet untainted by all those lies about what love really is.

Each year, I have a harder time keeping that dreamer alive . . . in anything but stories. Stories, especially fantasy stories, where anything can happen, and where magic isn't just real, but the greatest magic of all is . . . love.

Romance is about all the feelings, brought into sharp relief because of how romance dredges up all the others. It's about the question fundamental to our survival as human beings: Am I worthy of love? Can I love myself? Can someone else love and choose me? In other words, romance is a story we've collectively told ourselves over and over as an archetypal story on belonging, on being human.

I love the hope inherent in the romance genre. By our modern genre definitions, a romance is a romance if it has a happily-ever-after or at least a happily-for-now ending; if it doesn't have a happy ending, it's not a romance, even if it has a romantic subplot. What I need desperately from my fiction is hope, that believe in the happy ending—that belief that no matter what struggles we go through, there's at least someone mortal and something good and immortal out there looking out for us, and we're strong enough to face whatever it is together and triumph.

Romance fiction is my secret garden where my inner dreamer can hide, exploring that "something more" beyond the borders of logic and practicality, cultivating that hope in being wildly alive, that potential for exquisite connection, that faith in a lifelong commitment.

Society often presents us with false dichotomies, extremes, lines in the sand. I see so many people teetering dangerously from one extreme to the other about romance, either obsession or revulsion, and I'm often swayed with them. Yet the truth is actually found somewhere in the middle. It's not a matter of this or that. It's a matter of and. Nothing more than romantic fiction has helped me dare to say that yes, love has it's problems and it's also wondrous and it's a risk we should take seriously and it's potentially the best educated risk we'll ever take and it's hard work and it's the best work we'll ever do.

I love reading and writing romantic fiction because it is the best place I have found to explore those emotions in healthy ways—to discover both their limits that I must place upon them and limits I must not, the boundaries I must set and the ones I must take down. It has actually helped me cultivate a love for myself, which is a prerequisite to sharing love with another.

In other words, romantic fiction is how I explore what it means for me to give something my whole heart in order to give me the courage to actually do so—to be bravely, daringly, wholeheartedly human.


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