Every fucking book, grimdark or not, has some love plot. Of course, people fall in love often enough that we have a day to celebrate it! 90% of pop songs? Talkin’ bout love. 99% of stories you read? Same. There’s something sickly-sweet and enticing about whether a couple will or won’t. What obstacles will our lovebirds face? Which sparkly loser is our protagonist going to choose?
Love is such an interesting and universal plot point, theme, whatever, that it’s even in the grimdark. Like other things in grimdark though, there’s a caveat…
This ain’t Disney. Love at first sight usually doesn’t bode well for any character in the grimdark. Singing birds aren’t dancing while our heroes happily waltz down the aisle after knowing each other for three days! Happy endings far from guaranteed, and they have to be earned.
Meet-cutes, “I love yous” and even countless, high-stakes obstacles don’t translate to a happy ending automatically. Since grimdark is grounded in realism, acting on the idea that love at first sight will work out, and blithely going on like nothing bad will happen (or if it does, things will work out) is treated like the naivety it is. Then, it’s given some consequences. Deadly consequences.
We’re not getting too deep into examples in this entry. All I need to say is “The Red Wedding” and you know what I mean. When Robb Stark marries Jeyne Westerling, going against the promise he made to the Freys to marry one of their daughters, he’s in for it. And all for love that happens off the pages of the book (unlike the show where they develop the romance between Robb and Talia of Volantis; in the books, Robb shows up and basically tells Catelyn: “Hey … so I married this girl … “).
Bonus points: the consequences it has are far-reaching and so world-shattering, readers are still talking about it.
Fan Theory: Almost everyone who dies in GoT seems to find the root of their downfall in having inappropriate sex. Just sayin’.
I personally think it would be a million times more tragic, albeit boring, to show characters falling out of love with each other throughout a series. Like, they get married in Book 2, and by Book 4, someone is a serial cheater and someone else is left to pick after the house and kids. That tends to happen in real life when people run head-first into a committed relationship, hence the whole 50% divorce rate. Speaking of…
Also, since we’re often dealing with historical settings in the grimdark, we’re also looking into less savory “romantic” institutions, like arranged marriage, forced marriage, super restrictive social norms on who can love who… I can go on and on.
If you’re writing a book based on medieval norms, understanding that marriage was seen more like a job and a business relationship rather than a romantic commitment. You got married to secure an alliance if you were rich. In peace times, you got a little bit more say in your partner, but if your family was in a pinch and needed to secure an alliance fast, you were getting married to whoever was most politically convenient for your family.
If you were from one of the upcoming merchant classes, your marriage was a business partnership; your supporting partner, usually your wife (because sexism), would help you run your business, so good luck picking someone smart, or someone who wouldn’t ruin you long-term.
All of these historical tidbits make for great plot points outside of grimdark, too. The main difference between these plot points in grimdark and elsewhere is that they’re going to inform your characters’ backstories, not predict a happy outcome.
Love at first sight… or first punch?
Love at first sight is a recipe for disaster in grimdark fantasy, but what about the other fantasy cliché of love at first punch or love at first loathing? Personally, I think this trope came from Star Wars and Han and Leia’s feisty relationship more than anything else. While Star Wars is the farthest thing from grimdark this side of the galaxy, I think the amount of people those films reached probably inspired some speculative fiction writers, including some grimdark fantasy ones. Hello #Reylo enemies to lovers fan fiction?
Conflicts the characters have with their feelings drive tension way more than external anything. You can have the grimmest, darkest plot points, but if the character doesn’t feel something about it, it doesn’t drive the tension in the story. When you introduce a character that a character connects with, in a positive or negative way, that creates an opportunity for the character to feel conflicted about it. If you add dark stakes, like “my boyfriend will be killed in a gruesome way in front of the tribe if anyone finds out about the relationship,” or “I fell in love with my torturer,” and it’s written in a realistic, enticing way, the possibilities are endless.
At the beginning of Raven Queen, Arise, my protagonist has a conflict-fueled conversation with a trickster god. Antagonistic relationship, or the start of a beautiful friendship? Read more to find out.