fantasy romance

The importance of worldbuilding in sci-fi and fantasy romance

Contributed by
Aug 30, 2018

As a genre, romance is expansive and wide-ranging. This particular category of fiction is home to a number of different subgenres, from historical to contemporary to sci-fi to fantasy to steampunk to paranormal to monster/alien, and the list goes on. Yet in spite of the variances, romance, on the whole, is also fairly universal, and a large part of that is due to the authorial commitment to crafting an HEA (Happily Ever After) for the story's characters. While an HEA is part and parcel — it's actually a mandatory requirement — for any romance novel, another facet of storytelling in genre romance that doesn't often get much well-deserved notice is worldbuilding.

In non-romantic genre fiction, worldbuilding is an aspect that gets frequently critiqued and subsequently praised, depending on whether or not the author has successfully crafted a memorable universe. Indeed, it's impossible to think of some of the most successful genre fiction series without recalling the expanse of the fictional worlds in which they take place: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Discworld, Arrakis. Worldbuilding is an essential aspect to genre fiction in general, but it's the stories with a romance at their center that can host worlds that are just as rich. In genre romance, worldbuilding can accomplish several things from a storytelling perspective; it can establish power and societal structures, technological advances, cultural differences, and gender dynamics, just to name a few. Yet it's frequently overlooked or viewed as lesser-than in comparison to its non-romantic equivalents, a landscape that often assumes a male default both in terms of readership and writers.

"I think there’s a mistaken impression among some people that the worldbuilding in sci-fi romance is lesser, not because of any lack of expansiveness or complexity but merely because its wrapped around a story that is at its core a romance novel," said Sheerspace author Jessa Slade (who also writes as Elsa Jade and Jenna Dales). "It’s a prejudice that every flavor of romance author faces, but there’s extra nuance for writers crossing the streams with genres that traditionally favor authors (usually male) who prioritize a narrative of aggression, non-cooperation, and domination."

As an individual who frequently consumes SFF (sci-fi and fantasy) romance, I didn't have to look very hard or long to find examples of well-done, rich, epic worldbuilding in the genre — not to mention many authors who were more than happy to speak about the importance of it in their writing. "The very first use of the word romance comes from the Middle Ages, from the tradition of courtly love. It has always belonged in these adventure stories," said author Jessica Thorne.

Slave to Sensation
For many genre romance writers, the most epic universes can often begin with a single idea — or, in the case of New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh, it turned out to be a question that sparked the start of her hit Psy-Changeling series, which now spans dozens of books, short stories, and a newly-released spin-off series. "I remember thinking how amazing it would be to have telepathic abilities. And then I remember thinking, what if those abilities made you insane? What if that was the flip side or cost to great mental power? What would you do to survive?" That jumping-off point sparked a desire to write the first Psy-Changeling book, Slave to Sensation, which she says she completed in three weeks while working full-time. "I don't remember consciously mapping things out — it was as if all those years of thought had built the world in my subconscious. I sat down and began writing and the pieces fell into place page by page."

Author Mary Fan admitted the world of her YA sci-fi novel Starswept was inspired in part by her real-life experiences in the performing arts and the competitive nature of that environment, which created a similar question around which she wrote her story. "I thought, 'What if there were an alien world without music, without dance, without the arts? And what if they came to Earth, 'discovered' the beauty we create here, and desired it for themselves? What would it be like to be a performing arts student in that kind of world?' In this world, performing artists are often treated as commodities. I thought it would be interesting to explore that idea in a sci-fi setting that would allow me to exaggerate certain aspects and highlight others."

For other romance authors, there are times when the love story comes first and the world is later constructed around it, as was the case for authors Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen when they began conceiving their intergalactic Chaos Station series. "We approached it as a romance first and foremost," Burke said. "The worldbuilding had to be solid, and we wanted our galaxy to be unique, but we were cognizant of the fact that the galaxy was a backdrop to the story of Zed and Felix, and not the main focus. So we kept it relatively simple. We concentrated on the aliens present in this galaxy and what role they played; what humanity's expansion into space looked like; and what technology was used and what its limits were. And because the galactic war was a huge obstacle to our main characters, that conflict had to be detailed as well, even though the war ended six months before the first book of the series opens."

Kit Rocha, who writes dystopian erotic romance and has a new upcoming series in the works with Tor Books, adopted a similar approach when tackling their popular Beyond series. "It’s not so much that we decided to write a romance against the backdrop of our world. We were always going to write a romance. But we created a world that would make it possible for us to tell the type of romance story we wanted to explore."

But what happens when writers try to tackle romance within a subgenre that may also be home to some darker elements? A.J. Hackwith (writing as Ada Harper) shared that she had some hesitancy about putting her first sci-fi romance, A Conspiracy of Whispers, against the dystopian setting of an authoritarian state. "I wasn't certain a romance could be written against the world I created at first. But, the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to demonstrate how a supportive, healthy relationship is always possible, can be sustaining, and how things can change. How love doesn't mean losing yourself."

A Conspiracy of Whispers
That said, the environment in which a romance novel is set can have just as big an effect on its lead characters as the elements of the plot that factor into bringing them together. Hackwith said that part of her worldbuilding process involves "taking one little concept ... and trying to scrutinize how that would change things." She added, "Not just in a 'now we have flying cars' kind of way, but the trickle-down effects. How does this change how people think about work, money, entertainment? And of course, in the realm of sci-fi romance, how does it change how people think about love and relationships? Our concepts of love, courting, relationships and power come from our cultural influences."

Sexual politics are an incredibly important part of romance, but something that isn't always highlighted when taking into account the scope of worldbuilding. Rocha expanded on the importance of highlighting reproductive issues, even in a fictional universe. "Romance, love, and sex are often reduced to a Silly Distraction Feels thing, or an obligatory subplot pasted on to reward a hero with a Sexy Damsel To Kiss. But people who dismiss sex and romance, or who just import their version of 'default' sexual politics unexamined, are missing how drastically these things can shape a world. Imagine the 2020 elections if abortion and LGBTQ rights couldn’t be used as wedge issues. Just imagining a United States where we can love and have sex freely and without potentially devastating consequence is a profound act of worldbuilding."

Sometimes, genre romance authors are motivated to craft their own worlds after noticing areas in which their non-romance counterparts could stand to improve. "I’ve read non-romance SFF for ages and often wanted the main characters to have more romantic entanglements," said author Cathy Pegau, who writes the Charlotte Brody historical mystery series as well as award-winning sci-fi romance. "I think it adds depth to the characters, giving the reader another dimension to discover. Worlds are filled with people (or however you define that if you write about non-humans). How would these people manage a relationship on top of their quest or mission?"

Keeping characters constant within a rich fantasy or sci-fi world is just as important as the world itself, as steampunk romance author Corrina Lawson noted. "I see so many science-fiction writers make mistakes with their characters and how they develop in relation to their worldbuilding that romance writers, who are so focused on characterization, would not make." Torn author K.D. King agreed. "I've read books that are so caught in the detail that the characters are lost. At the end of the day, it's a story about a character moving through the world and a plot that advances. It's still a romance, which means no matter the world it's still about the journey to love, but [also] specifically how this world conflicts with or enhances the journey to love for the protagonist."

Ultimately, though, what makes a world most memorable in SFF romance is uniformity, something many of the authors I spoke with reiterated to me time and time again. "At times, it's inconvenient — which means either I write my way around it or go back and re-arrange that part of the book to keep it consistent," Odin's Bastards author Sheryl Nantus told me. "Because your readers are going to catch it. And they'll let you know when you break your own world-building rules. Never doubt that!" Fan also cited the importance of following pre-determined canon. "You can do whatever you want, as long as you stick to your own rules. Or, if you're going to break your own rules, you give a good reason for it. Readers of SFF are willing to believe a lot when it comes to fantastical worlds — as long as it makes sense within the boundaries set. And it's important to set boundaries of what's possible and what isn't."

In the realm of SFF romance, however, anything is possible when it comes to the types of characters whose stories are reflected on the page — and open worlds might have their own boundaries, but they're only as restrictive as an author creates them to be. "You're creating an entire world or galaxy to play in — make it diverse!" Burke said. "Think about race (and not just alien species) and how you can be inclusive. Think about sexuality. Think about culture. Don't follow the default of white, Eurocentric, cisgender and heterosexual. Remember that representation is important, even in worlds that exist only within the pages of our books."

Given the richness that can be found within the pages of SFF romance, it's clear that more readers and genre lovers should be willing to open themselves up to the possibilities in spite of the public misconceptions still held about the subgenre. "For me what we need to make progress on as a society is how romance as a genre is dismissively treated by the world," said award-winning fantasy romance author Leanna Renee Hieber. "It’s still constantly undermined, still thought of as a ‘guilty pleasure’ genre and that’s harmful and reductive. Life is a cross-genre, complex experience of capacity, emotion, and relationships of all kinds. Fiction should reflect that truth, without bias or caveat."

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