Does romance belong in Science Fiction?

By Jane O'Reilly

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This question was posted recently in the writing section of a SFF forum that I am a member of. The poster was considering including a romantic subplot in the story they were working on but didn’t know if it was allowed or if it would violate one of the unwritten laws of science fiction. Whilst it’s true that certain scifi readers (and writers) have rigid ideas about what is and is not allowed in a scifi novel, that doesn’t mean that romance has no place in a futuristic world. SciFi has a long history of tangling romance with science. Frankenstein’s monster wanted a wife more than anything. John Carter found love on Mars. Star Trek is full of romantic subplots. They’re in Terminator, The Matrix, Back to the Future and of course Star Wars.

However writing a romance into your story can be more difficult than it might first seem. There’s a lot to think about, especially in a science fiction novel. If your love story is between two human characters, then you might have some idea how they’re going to interact, but if it’s between two (or more!) characters from different species, then that’s going to take a bit more work. There might be physical differences, such as in Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series, when Jax falls for her alien friend Vel. There will almost certainly be cultural and ritualistic differences. Consider the Vulcans and Pon Farr.

But whatever those differences are and however they are overcome, it’s important to make sure that your romance arc is just that, an arc. If you follow the ideas of the Writer’s Journey (Vogler) then your romance plot will need turning points. A romance arc also needs to have what is called external and internal conflict. The external pushes them together. The internal keeps them apart. The external is basically your plot, and the internal is how your characters react to and feel about each other. In order to be a romance, it also needs a happy ever after.

So let’s consider Han and Leia. I’m going to focus on the original trilogy and not include the star wars novels (and ignore Force Awakens and pretend we don’t know how it turns out in the end). They first meet on board the Death Star when Han goes with Luke to rescue her (external conflict). However she isn’t impressed by their lack of forward planning, and their first impressions of each other aren’t good. We already know that the path to true love is not going to run smooth. Excellent! Their escape from the Death Star is the inciting incident that pushes them together. Han brags about his skill, but Leia has a different view, and is sure they were allowed to escape. This difference in opinion is their internal conflict at work. But we see a little growth from Han at the end of the film, when he leaves to go and see Jabba, but at the last moment decides to return and help the rebels.

The Empire Strikes back is the film that gives us the most development in their relationship. At the start, we see they are still at loggerheads. Leia is in charge now, intelligent, powerful, a true leader. She puts personal feelings aside to focus on that role. Han is a distraction and she doesn’t like that. She also dislikes his arrogance and his assumption that he knows what she’s feeling, as evidenced by the scene in the medical bay when she gets him back for goading her by kissing Luke. External conflict put them all in the room, but it was the internal conflict that motivated that famously incestuous kiss. Han, however, has different priorities. They are once again forced together by external plot when the arrival of the imperial troops forces them to flee together on the Falcon (when they could easily have left on separate ships, had she gone ten minutes earlier). Through this film we see the key scenes of their relationship play out, each one pushing them closer to the high point of the story, which is when Leia finally tells Han ‘I love you’ and he follows with the glorious and perfect ‘I know.’ Giving them that brief moment of joy makes the dark moment that follows all the more heartbreaking, as Han is frozen in carbonite and sent to Jabba the Hutt.

To sum up, the romance arc of Empire Strikes Back works like this:

Ordinary World: They are on the rebel base on Hoth, not getting along.

Inciting Incident: The imperial troops arrive, forcing Han and Leia to flee on the Falcon

Turning point 1: The Falcon is damaged, and they are forced to land on an asteroid and repair the ship. It seems things might finally be moving in the right direction when the two of them kiss but C3PO interrupts, giving Leia the chance to slip away.

Turning point 2: They travel to Cloud City where Leia is introduced to Lando. Now Han has a little competition but Leia’s opinion of him has been subtly changing, and her head isn’t turned.

Turning point 3: Vader arrives at Cloud city and they are captured. Han is tortured, and seeing him treated that way forces Leia to face up to how she really feels about him.

High point: ‘I love you’ ‘I know’

Black moment: Han is frozen in carbonite and the two are separated.

You could also map out a bigger arc to include all 3 films if you wanted. It is vital to make your characters work for their happy ending. It shouldn’t come easy, and there should be external and internal roadblocks thrown in their path. The best way to learn how to use a romance arc in your story is to look at books and films where the arc works, and see if you can map out the path the writers took to create tension and conflict and how they tied this in to the rest of the story.

Science Fiction novels with romance:

The Sirantha Jax series by Ann Aguirre

The StarDoc series by S.L. Viehl

Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

Saga series (graphic novels)

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan


 

Jane O’Reilly would like to say that she’s the secret love child of Wonder Woman and grew up on a tropical island in the Pacific, but in reality she grew up in the north of England where it was quite cold and if anyone had any superpowers, they kept them well hidden. After university and a brief and very misguided spell as a teacher, she decided it would be better for everyone if she stayed at home and looked after her children. But what she really wanted to write was a book about a space pirate in which she could blow things up . .

You can find her on twitter as @janeoreilly, on instagram as @janeoreilly2032 or at her website www.janeoreilly.com. Her latest novel, Blue Shift, is available from Amazon and in bookstores.