When it comes to the obligatory romance sideplot of the average novel, I’ve sighed enough times to topple the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Not only because I know I won’t see any asexual or aromantic characters, especially as main characters, but because a lot of them read like side dishes to the story that don’t actually compliment it.
“I didn’t order this,” I try to say.
Popular market just winks at me. “All you, big boy.”
Romance sideplots aren’t inherently bad, obviously. I’ve read a whole lot of books and rooted for a whole lot of fictional couples. It’s just that there are some repeat offenders in the “this shouldn’t be here” department.
For those who don’t know, kudzu is an invasive plant so invasive it will smother any other plants in its way, stunting their growth and dominating their habitat.
Also for those who don’t know, James Patterson wrote a popular young adult series called “Maximum Ride.”
“Maximum Ride” is like the fun uncle you don’t realize is also your drunk uncle until he falls spectacularly off the wagon. A group of kids with bird wings and superhuman powers escape lab experimentation and end up embroiled in a conspiracy that gets bigger and bigger. Cool.
Protagonist Max also kind of has a thing for her best guy, Fang. Cool.
But then there’s a love triangle. Then there’s a love square. Then it turns out in the eleventh hour that Max resolving this scandalous polyhedron will determine the fate of humanity. Wait a second, what was this series about?
By comparison (and I don’t mean to pick favorites here), “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” tickled all my sweet spots–commitment to tone, truly unusual fantasy detail, and rich aesthetic. A girl named Karou is raised in Prague by bizarre half-animal demons who do strange magic and trade wishes for teeth. It gave me creative thrills I hadn’t experienced for months.
“Oh, Lord no,” I said when some well-oiled dreamboat with guyliner crashed into the plot. “Get that out of here.”
But the novel surprised me. Before I could go get any ideas about putting it down, it delved into a past where the main character in a different body and Guyliner made a pact as lovers to end the war between chimeras and angels that is currently wrecking Karou’s life. Voila–segue back to main storyline achieved.
The key difference between “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” and “Maximum Ride” is the difference between a romantic sideplot becoming very important to the main plot and a romantic sideplot completely subsuming it. Both are Kudzu romances, executed differently.
Not all love stories have to do with shared motivations or backstories, however.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” is a book I’ve come to appreciate both more and less with age, for a number of reasons. Consistently, though, I hate the romance plot. It’s got a little bit of kudzu to it, but that’s excusable in the context: full historical correctness or not, the book encompasses Sayuri’s quest to become a geisha so that she can ultimately be unfettered from the control of others and pursue her own happiness. That her happiness appears as a life with her true love checks out.
…Except for the “true love” part. An older, married adult man buying you a snow cone when you’re thirteen does not equal mutual, abiding love.
This scene is, of course, very important for Sayuri’s motivation to become a geisha, but she and the Chairman (whose real name we hear exactly once) only meet up again a handful of times. Somehow, though, after long efforts through the years, they eventually end up old and gray together.
Disbelief? Not suspended.
“But it’s love.” Bullshit. I love orange juice, but you don’t see me derailing my life or my novel for it.
This is a Handwave, folks. Why does Sayuri want to be with the Chairman? Love? If she loves him, and he loves her, then tell me why.
“The Night Circus,” on the other hand (admittedly my darling), does this. It poses “true love” as an absolute concept, but then backs itself up. See, “The Night Circus” operates on the premise of two “rivals” being matched by immortal mentors who train them specifically to kill each other in games of magical ability.
However, in order to create a “perfect” game and prove which candidate is the most ruthless, the rivals are also always destined lovers. Oops.
In this case, “because it’s love” is explicitly in play. The rivals can’t help being smitten stupid with each other because, well, they were born to be. The characters acknowledge love as a mystical force and are often frustrated by it or set on avoiding it to win the game. It ruins Marco’s prior relationship, it causes suicides–in “The Night Circus,” love is characterized, like magic or time. It’s both relevant and necessary.
The “Just Because” (AKA the Doppler Effect)
But, sometimes, love has nothing to do with the main plot at all. Maybe it’s there to pander to the audience’s request, or maybe the author wanted a character in a relationship but didn’t want to write about it.
It doesn’t take away from story time. It doesn’t hinder or advance character development. If there was no romance plot, nothing about the story’s outcome would change, except maybe the “where are they now” epilogue.
It’s there Just Because. Or it might not even be totally “there.”
One example is Eowyn in “Lord of the Rings.” She’s mostly a minor character, right up until the point she slays the Witch-King, but in the movies, she mostly vanishes afterwards. In the books, she…also mostly vanishes. She has to go heal up in the wake of it all, and bythewaysheandFaramirareinlovenow.
Zoom. Blink and you’ll miss it. The romance is past. It’s the Doppler Effect, and for a single blip it mattered.
Given the nature of this phenomenon, the “Just Because” usually doesn’t hurt the novel. It runs the risk of being destructive, if it becomes the Kudzu, but a few extra scenes don’t usually ruin the integrity of a standing narrative.
It is possible for a “Just Because” sideplot to have an avatar doing its dirty work. Observe a cast of characters from a story written this way, and its possible you’ll find a character who doesn’t have a purpose. Her (it’s almost always a “her”) only reason for being written is to be a love interest to someone. Nothing more, and nothing less–though she might do a few miscellaneous plot tasks to give the hero reasons for staying love-interested in her.
The “Redwall” series is commonly guilty of this. Pretty young mice, otters, and squirrels always show up when the male protagonist is in the prime of his heroism. Terry Brooks novels also tend to come in this flavor, with the added hassle of love-interest-girls usually being MacGuffins of some kind.
I was not fond of Amberle in “The Elfstones of Shannara.” Or Damson and Quickening from “The Heritage of Shannara.” Sorry, Terry–I loved your ladies in “The First King of Shannara,” though.
Contrast “Hawksong,” where the plot could survive without romantic development–its fundamentally about the rebellion of two young leaders who force a marriage, ending war between avian shapeshifters and serpent shapeshifters at risk of their lives.
Most of the actual story comes from the two navigating racial differences, quelling violent discrimination between their people, and avoiding assassination attempts. Danica and Zane both have love interests prior to their marriage, but (of course) eventually end up romantically involved in the end. The romance exists for the sake of romance. And that works.
The point of all this is that romantic sideplots must be treated with care. They are equally liable to be engaging or obstructing, but a good writer who is aware of their characters can pull off even the most damning cliches. (And I still want my goddamn asexuals.)