This month at the Speculative Salon, we're discussing blended genres in fantasy fiction. It’s easy to see the popularity of adding romantic elements to fantasy, as evidenced by the thriving paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres. Even many epic tales include stories of love, yearning, and passion. Why?
Two good reasons. Fans of fantasy crave an escape from ordinary life. Authors in the genre pride themselves on world-building techniques that will deliver those thrills. Give an epic fantasy book to a non-fantasy reader and their heads will spin with the number of characters and details of setting. To me, I love to visualize nooks and crannies of an alternate world, looking for hidden joys and treasures I might never find in real life. Why then would an author be wise to include something as ordinary and commonplace as a love theme?
While escapism does fuel the need for most to read fantasy, readers usually don’t want to become totally lost from all known mores and customs. Without some familiar elements, it’s difficult to judge character development and interactions. As much as we eagerly anticipate the wildly imaginative worlds, we also need a thread of normalcy to allow comparison. Otherwise, readers would be incapable of feeling connected to the characters. The depth of emotional commitment to even the most rigorous fantasy quest would be intangible—the thrill of the adventurous ride meaningless. So authors seek to include a universally known element. Love relationships are part of our everyday lives. The associated feelings transcend language and culture. What could be better as a commonly understood theme to allow the reader a comparative ruler?
Using that technique, romance can serve as a lifeline back to reality for a fantasy aficionado who becomes overwhelmed by the newness of the fantasy world. Also, readers can hold onto the love theme while cautiously immersing into the newness, like sticking a toe into the unfamiliar environ. Urban fantasy is an entire subgenre that purposely employs this writing device as a foundation, requiring the works be set in a known city.
While that reason is a highly technical, writerly answer, there’s another that is more alluring. Consider all the highs and lows the average person faces during a lifetime—schooling, career, finding a partner, caring for family, aging. The part that most closely approximates the otherworldly rush of emotions, where you feel like you’re living in a fairytale, is romance. It’s an everyday magical experience, where you expect your dreams to be fulfilled. Of course, many times they aren’t and we suffer heartache, but most often we soon get back on the horse and renew our faith in the promise of magic in someone’s smile.
That fantasy is too tempting to avoid. We yearn to find someone who believes we’re special beyond compare. That tendency is imprinted in our human nature, as evidenced by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs. The need to be loved is level three of five, just after safety and security. This is more important to the human psyche than self-esteem or self-actualization of individuality. Considering the importance of being loved, it’s not hard to understand how adding romance to our fantasy plays on our inherent nature. Romance undeniably enhances that dream-world. Little else so immediately recognizable releases such a rush of oxytocin and dopamine neurotransmitters, transporting us to another place—our own cloud nine where the birds sing more sweetly and the sun shines a bit brighter. A perfect complement to a fantasy plot.
Art credit: By Creator:John Anster Fitzgerald () [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons