Some Thoughts on What I Like and Don’t Like in Fictional Romance

Generally, when writing all the reviews of asexual fiction I’ve been doing lately, I try to avoid reading reviews written by other people so that what I write reflects more purely what I think and feel about the story. I sometimes make exceptions (especially if I was on the fence about buying a story in the first place, and looked at reviews to make the final call). However, after I wrote this review of The Painted Crown, I decided to go to Goodreads and see what other people say.

It turns out, all of the other reviewers have very different opinions from mine. Now, that’s partially because this story was just released, and most of the people who would have read it this soon were probably already fans of Megan Derr’s writing. I, on the other hand, had never read anything by Megan Derr before, and I read this so quickly because a) I had pre-ordered it and b) I was excited about reading a 70,000+ word story about asexual characters. Over time, as more readers who are not fans of Megan Derr’s writing post reviews, the range of opinions may grow wider.

The comment which most struck me was this:

However, the slow burning love between them is very rewarding. I love how the tension between them drove me quite mad and I needed them to kiss so very, very bad.

As anyone who read my review knows, I found the ‘slow burning love’ the opposite of rewarding. And I cannot think of a single time I have ever “needed” fictional characters “to kiss so very, very bad” – not just in this novel, in *any* story.

So I was thinking about it. There are some fictional romances I have enjoyed a LOT, but I cannot think of a single example where I enjoyed watching characters develop romantic interest in each other. Sometimes, when characters are developing romantic interest in each other WHILE something really interesting is happening, it works for me, but it is due to the really interesting thing that is happening, not the ‘budding feelings’ of the characters.

The romance stories I do like are about characters who already *know* they have strong feelings for someone (even if they have not quite pinned down what those feelings are), and are trying to figure out what to do about those feelings. An example of a romance I like is Viola/Orsino from Twelfth Night, or What You Will. We never see Viola fall in love with Orsino, she simply declares (to the audience, not any other character in the play) at the end of Act I, Scene iv, that she wishes she could marry Orsino. Then, during the play, we watch her deal with those feelings. Also, I enjoy Viola/Oliva because that pairing is clearly doomed and inspires me to eat popcorn.

Oddly, I generally buy the ‘love at first sight’ trope. That may seem odd for an aromantic asexual like me, but the thing is, I sometimes have felt a strong personal connection to people as soon as I met them. It wasn’t a romantic connection, but it does not feel ridiculous to me that people could have a strong romantic connection to someone they’ve just met. And in practice, thinking about stories I like vs. stories I don’t like, I strongly prefer the “fall in love at first sight” trope than tales of “slow burning romance” – the “first sight” trope conveniently cuts out the part of romance stories which I am generally least interested in.

Maybe this is why I’ve never been able to finish reading Pride and Prejudice. I really don’t care whether Elizabeth continues to be prejudiced and Darcy continues to be proud.

Another kind of romance story I enjoy is where the protagonists have a relationship which would be interesting even if it were non-romantic. I can enjoy the interesting non-romantic relationship without needing it to be romantic at all, and if it turns romantic later in a way which fits the story, well, I can often continue to enjoy the ride (caveat: if it is going to turn into a romance, I’d like it to at least be heavily foreshadowed in advance – I don’t like getting 80% of the way through a story, thinking about how lovely it is that a woman and a man were able to work together without it being romantic, only for it to suddenly become romantic at the end). An example of this kind of romance story is – if you have been reading this blog for years, you can probably guess which example I am going to cite – Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ. They knew each other for years before they became lovers, but their relationship as teacher/student was interesting in it’s own right (and very abusive – at one point Xiaolongnü threatens to kill Yang Guo because she thinks that she is dying and does not want him to outlive her) and would have continued to be interesting even if their relationship had never become romantic.

Oh, and I also tend to enjoy trainwreck romances like Viola/Olivia mentioned above.

However, what most boggles me is the “I needed them to kiss so very, very bad” part. Why are people invested in whether characters who do not already have romantic feelings for each other develop romantic feelings for each other? I can understand being invested in whether two characters who are already in love with each other manage to have a happy romance – I can get invested in that too – but wanting people who don’t already have those feelings for each other to have a romance together? That does not compute for me.

Consider my experiences as an aromantic woman. I have never wanted to enter a romantic relationship. However, countless people have told me that I ought to have a romantic relationship, that it would make me happy, that it’s inevitable, blah blah blah. Therefore, I feel that telling any living person who they should have romantic feelings for is extremely rude, and even with fictional characters, I find it unpleasant. Just to be crystal clear: when dealing with fictional characters, rather than real living people, I do not think people who enjoy ‘shipping’ or whatever have to stop doing that. However, it is still something I do not enjoy.

So how does that tie back to my reaction to The Painted Crown? As always, I did not mind if the protagonists never had romantic feelings for each other indefinitely, therefore there was no ‘tension’ for me in that. Okay, I was invested in innocent children not getting hurt, however nobody objected to the marriage, and the protagonists did not seem to have any significant struggle with that, so that was boring.

That is not to say that such stories about people gradually falling in love with each other are bad or wrong or anything, it’s fine for the readers who do find it appealing. It is just something which is not appealing to me.

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13 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on What I Like and Don’t Like in Fictional Romance

  1. SO. MUCH. YES. TO ALL OF THIS. YES YES YES YES YESSSSS!!! This whole “THEY NEED TO KISS” thing does not make sense to me, and I don’t understand shipping as a concept, pairing people who don’t have feelings for each other? Just….why? But whatever. It just makes me happy to read someone else’s thoughts that so closely match my own, because in my circles I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who feels this way. It’s just refreshing. Thanks again for doing your reviews!

    • *high five*

      For what it’s worth, in fandom, I am more comfortable with the shipping of characters who actually do have romantic feelings for each other in canon, than the shipping of characters who do not.

      • Ahh, I can understand that! I would say I’m not an active shipper in that sense–if they’re together in canon I’m not against it or anything, but for the most part I don’t feel any strong investment in it either. There have been a few times where I thought a couple was super cute and I liked the relationship a lot, but it never made me feel like I was “shipping” them because I didn’t go out of my way to think about them unless I was engaging with the canon at that moment. The way people talk about “shipping” makes it seem like it’s an ongoing love for a pairing and I’ve never felt that for any romantic couple.

  2. I doubt that the Goodreads ratings will go down over time. Basically, every book is rated 4, and the only thing that really increases that score is if it’s a sequel; the only thing that decreases the score is if people read it because the author is famous, or because they were forced to read it. Actual quality hardly ever seems to come into it.

    I gather that I do not have similar tastes to you in romantic fiction. However, I also don’t ship characters unless they are already in a canon pairing. I’m not sure I ever would have thought to do such a thing without knowledge of modern fandoms.

    • I tend to ignore the stars in Goodreads reviews because they tend to be non-helpful, and just read what people actually say. I do think there will be more diversity in what reviewers say on Goodreads once it is not just reviewers who read it as soon as they could.

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  4. The only theory I have to explain people who are impatient with developing romance or who ship characters that aren’t together in the canon is that it very often takes the form of “I relate to character x and have romantic feelings about character y, so I want them to have a romance I can vicariously enjoy.”

    So, you could read “I needed them to kiss so very, very bad” as more of a “I wanted to read about what it would be like to kiss this character I am into” if that helps?

    • Yes, that does make sense.

      EDIT: And maybe that is why Teverem is such a blank slate of a character – maybe it’s easier for readers who want to kiss Istari to project themselves onto Teverem if he doesn’t have much personality of his own.

  5. I think I really felt shipper feelings that were close to “needing two characters to kiss” back when I thought I was just inexperienced and straight, back when I assumed kissing was this great thing. Now my shipping feelings steer clear of wanting characters to kiss, but I do enjoy rooting for people to “Get together” in a vague sense, to realize they love each other in a way they could build a life together, or if I believe they have strong sexual attraction for each other then I kind of feel the tension and want that tension to be relieved?

  6. I enjoy romances where there is some barrier to be overcome, whether they know they’re in love from the beginning or not. Love at first sight usually doesn’t work for me, either, so characters getting to know each other is best as long as it doesn’t wreck the flow of the story. P&P works for me because the early bits are written in an entertaining fashion, and once they’re in love there are societal barriers to overcome. North and South also works for me in a similar way, although I find it to be more entertaining in general because there’s more story going on in the background.
    As far as shipping/fan fic goes, I tend to feel uncomfortable with non-canon pairings, but I enjoy canon pairings in well written alternate universes. My main problem tends to be that fan fic writers often seem to skip the interesting (to me) parts where they’re falling in love and go straight to the least interesting part – the physical relationship.

    • Well, it seems that your tastes are a bit different from mine, which is just fine! In fact, it would be monotonous if everyone liked exactly the same things.

      For what it’s worth, there did not seem to be any particular barriers between Istari and Teverem in The Painted Crown. Or, there were fake barriers – Istari was worried that Teverem would feel lonely because he didn’t know the language of his homeland, but it turns out that Teverem has studied the language after all, so that turned out to be a non-problem.

      I also do not care for sex scenes which are irrelevant to the plot/character growth. If, somehow, a Tab A goes into Slot B level of detail in a sex scene is required for the plot to make sense, I am fine with that, but in my experience that is the exception, not the rule.

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