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.

Rethinking Romeo & Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, the iconic ‘love story’ in our culture. But now I think it’s appeal comes from something other than passionate love…

Meanwhile, Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is the most popular Chinese-language novel primarily about a romantic relationship.

When I first saw someone suggest that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is to the Chinese-speaking world what Romeo and Juliet is to the English-speaking world, I disagreed because the stories are so different. Sure, both are about a passionately romantic relationship, are melodramatic, and have noteworthy sword fights. But the characters and storylines are quite different.

However, after seeing that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ gets referenced in Chinese-language media the same way that Romeo and Juliet gets referenced in English-language media, I am starting to think that the people who compare them have a point.

And that made me wonder … why Romeo and Juliet? Why Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ? Why not one of the zillion other stories of passionate love out there?

I’m starting to think it’s not so much because the characters are so passionately in love with each other. I’m starting to think it’s because of the characters’ relationship with their societies.

In Romeo and Juliet, the main characters are going against Verona’s social norms. In Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, the main characters are going against Chinese social norms. Presumably, the characters are resisting their societies’ values because their love for each other is that strong (though the main character in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, having previously been homeless, also seems to think that since society failed him him, he doesn’t need to listen to society).

Every society I’m familiar with has a set of rules and taboos about what kinds of relationships are acceptable. Many of these rules and taboos are irrational, and make a lot of people suffer. Yet many people still feel obliged to comply. I think Romeo and Juliet and Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ are so iconic not because the characters are so passionately in love with each other, but because they are brave enough to resist arbitrary social rules and pursue their own personal happiness.

Of course, while Romeo and Juliet are breaking their society’s rules, they aren’t breaking our society’s rules, so it’s okay. While some socially conservative people don’t approve of what the characters in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ do, most people in the Chinese-speaking world think it’s okay (at least, the young people think it’s okay). If the characters were breaking the rules in a more radical way, they would be too dangerous to go mainstream.

Since Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ has never been published in any European language, the only way to read the novel in English is this fan translation. There are actually some interesting asexual themes in the story. I might write some posts analyzing the asexual content, if I think people would actually read them.

Fantasyland Romance

The other day, I had a general conversation about romantic relationships. I described a hypothetical situation, and somebody answered ‘you just described a movie!’ She didn’t mean that I was describing any specific movie – she meant that I was describing the way romance works out in movies. I didn’t consciously mean to do that, but upon reflection, I realize she is right.

Last week, I talked about how places transition from fantasy to reality. This does not just apply to geographic places – it can apply to any part of the human experience. Even though I am well into my 20s, I have extremely little practical experience with romance. I have made some observations of people in romantic relationships around me, and I’ve read/watched some relevant non-fiction, but the vast majority of what I know about romance comes from fiction – novels, plays, comics, movies, TV. Thus, romance is still the Mysterious Land across the Metaphorical Ocean.

I really do love good romance in fiction. People have much more choice in who is their romantic partner than, say, who is their parent, yet in most fiction I’ve encountered, characters have much more trouble getting romance to work than, say, getting friendship to work. It can be touching. It can be exciting. Of course, if I read/watched fiction from a culture which considered friendship to be more important than romance, and where intense friendships were the primary focus of the drama, I might be a big fan of friendship in fiction.

However, loving romance in fiction is not the same as wanted romance for myself (it took me a while to figure that one out). Something else I love in fiction is character death. I love endings where main characters die. I have one friend who used be scared when I recommended a book because she knew that my tastes ran towards wrenching violence. This does not mean I want to be a murderer or that I want to die myself. Thus, desiring something in a fantasy is not the same thing as desiring something in real life.

That said, I am not going to try to avoid romance in real life. If it happens, it happens. If I knew I were going to live for 500 years, I would probably even try to actively pursue romance in order to expand my experience of life. But I am not going to live for 500 years, there are many lands I want to explore, and I can be satisfied with my life without ever crossing that metaphorical ocean and exploring real romance.