Most stories have a good love interest somewhere in there. The hero or heroine pines after this fella or that girl while in the midst of fighting the forces of evil or passing the bar or getting the band together for one last gig or whatever. We’re humans – we’re saps for a good romance. Fantasy fiction is no exception, either. I might even go so far as to say that the ‘love interest’ angle present in a lot of fantasy novels is, in some ways, more central to the plot than in many other genres. Maybe.
Well, if not more central, then certainly odder and potentially more problematic.
I’ve written previously about my difficulty with the female image in fantasy literature; this isn’t precisely about that. What I’m talking about is less the objectification of women and more about the romanticized idea of love. In fantasy novels, there is a certain male and a certain female character who are destined to fall in romantic love with one another and that is that. We all know who it is, too. Mad Martigan and Sorsha, Conan and Valeria, Rand Al’Thor and Elayne, Min, Aviendha and god-knows how many others in that series…
I could go on, but you know what I mean. Did any of us honestly think Luke was going to walk off with Leia? Nope. She was for Han the whole time. We could tell, you see, because they fought. Fighting means love, folks. If you don’t bicker, you don’t care. I know if I were locked in a rusty old space freighter for what was probably months with some woman I was always fighting with, we would almost certainly fall in love and make babies. Obviously. That’s how love works, right?
Fantasy and science fiction have a tendency to treat romance with idealized and ham-handed attention. They make it into something it’s not, they warp and define it to suit the story. Some of this can be blamed back on the old fairy tales of our youth – normalized gender relations rendered into gory and terrifying metaphors about witches and towers and wolves in the forest. Others can be blamed on the typical audience for fantasy and science fiction literature – young, single men. The idea of romance is tailored to suit their fantasies, as silly as that is. That these fantasies are wrong or even offensive to women (and men!) is only understood by those with a little age and experience behind them. In other words: when I was 14, much like all men, I had certain romanticized ideas of what falling in love would be like, and they were almost all entirely wrong. I blame the books I read for this, and the books I read were primarily of the fantasy and science fiction persuasion.
Some things I learned:
Terrifying Experiences Do Not Enhance Romance: Horror movies are one thing, but actual terrifying things do not make you want to cuddle. Or, if they do, it isn’t the kind of cuddling that involves making out and fondling each other in front of a roaring fire. It usually involves shivering while one or the other of you sobs and the other one tries to find some way to make the other feel better by cracking bad jokes. No sex is had. None at all.
Not All Women Admire Your Competitiveness: Remember that scene in the movie Red Sonja, where Arnold and Red Sonja fight each other all day until eventually discovering they loved one another? Well, that might be a thing if you’re going after Red Sonja, but in general being over-competitive jerk who wants to beat his girlfriend at Trivial Pursuit to the point where he’s grimacing at the game board and cursing at a die roll of ’3′ is not sexy. They think you’re crazy. They are right.
Violence is Not a Turn On: No matter how much you think otherwise, gents, beating the crap out of somebody, no matter how much of a douche they are, is not likely to engender the affections of the opposite sex. Most girls will just be disgusted with the entire affair, since fighting (contrary to fantasy literature) is an unattractive thing to witness.
Sometimes You’re Just Friends: Look, guys, you are not the main character in your own epic saga of fantastic adventure. All the women will not be falling for you. Even if they’re nice and they seem to like you, that doesn’t mean you are just one date request away from deep and abiding love. Sometimes they just like you because they like you, not because they want to be with you. Sorry, them’s the brakes, kids.
The Opposite Thing From That Last: If a girl treats you badly and makes fun of you and abuses you physically and says she hates you, guess what? SHE HATES YOU. It is almost certainly not a game and, if it is, I’d suggest looking elsewhere since this girl seems to have severe self-esteem issues if she feels the need to abuse those she likes. In either event, the whole ’love you until you stop saying no’ concept is both bonkers and borderline creepy. Cut it out. In the real world, people tell you who they are.
Now, the caveat here is that all people are different and all relationships operate differently, so I suppose it’s arrogant of me to say all of the things I said above – ‘your mileage may vary’, as they say. That said, I think it’s fair to assume that basing our expectations of our love lives based off of works where people ride dragons and throw fireballs from their hands is, speaking generously, completely ridiculous.
To give the genre credit, many of the most recent crop of fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and so on) do a pretty good job of interfering with the standard tropes, and romance has become a much more complicated affair in those worlds of late. Still and although, it is often the job of the fantasy reader, hard as it may sound, to separate the fantasies we choose to believe and the ones we don’t when taking our magical journeys into dreamland and beyond.
I saw GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra the other day. It was on television and nothing else was on, just to defend myself a bit. I caught it somewhere in the second act or so and managed to watch the entire thing, even though it had commercials. I did it more as a thought exercise than because I was enjoying the movie.
Years ago, when it came out in theaters, a couple friends of mine were going to see it and were excited. “Have you seen it yet?” they asked me. My answer was no, I haven’t seen it specifically, but that I had seen it before, and so had they. I then told them the approximate plot of the movie, based largely off of the trailer and what kind of movie it was. Now that I’ve seen the film, I am (dis)pleased to see that I was, for the most part, exactly correct. I even predicted who would betray whom and when and more-or-less why, the location of Cobra’s secret base, and the general timbre of the final battle.
I was able to do this for one reason and one reason alone: Star Wars. The original trilogy, Lucas’ masterwork, has had a
pervasive influence on how big budget action/sci-fi movies are made pretty much since the original trilogy completed with Return of the Jedi. The GI Joe movie was worse than most. They had the super death fortress, the guys getting thrown down pits full of lightning, the big gun turrets (and, by the way, why would you install underwater gun turrets on your secret arctic base? Isn’t that sort of a waste of resources? How often will you be attacked by fleets of mini-subs?), the Death Star-esque super weapon, the plucky band of
X-wings minisubs going head-to-head with Cobra TIE fighters minisubs, and even the race against the clock to keep the doomsday weapon from
destroying the good guys’ base. It was so re-hashed it was embarrassing. Even the sets looked extremely similar.
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra might be a particularly egregious example, but there are plenty of others. Avatar and its pseudonatural mysticism, for instance, or Independence Day and its multi-layered battle to destroy the enemy superweapon before it destroyed home base. There are lots of others, too. Now, some of this is understandable and, to some extent, inevitable – the reason Star Wars is so popular is because it, itself, is drawing upon very old adventure story tropes. It isn’t necessarily bad, either - there are always ways to make tropes fresh and fun and interesting. Tropes can create a kind of conversation among works, a progression of innovation and growth within a genre, in the same sense that one can write a variety of waltzes or marches or bluegrass music and not be boring or uncreative.
GI Joe, though, wasn’t doing this. It wasn’t even interested in being interesting, per se. They were being formulaic for the sake of safety. The producers were investing vast sums of money into that film and they wanted a guaranteed return on that investment. The best way to do that, of course, is to mimic those properties which did just that. In this case, that means Star Wars. In a fit of irony that boggles the mind, Lucas himself opted to mimic his own work in Episode I to attempt to achieve the same effect. He didn’t add anything new, though, and he failed to gain the audience’s sympathies for the characters which, itself, undermined the entire enterprise. He couldn’t escape from his own shadow.
It is important, though, for writers (screenwriters or otherwise) to escape from the shadow of Star Wars if writing a story in that genre. Joss Whedon, for instance, managed to do it well in Avengers and Firefly. It can be done. It should be done, so that the geeks of the universe aren’t constantly pandered to by Hollywood with more formulaic nonsense which, honestly, we shouldn’t indulge. I’m not going to call for a moratorium on doomsday weapons or giant space battles or swordfights near power generators, but I think we can all ask ourselves to strive to go a bit further than the minimum when trying to amaze and stupefy the audience. Right?