Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past week, you’ll have noticed that our HarperVoyager team have been running #VirtualVoyager – a celebration of their AMAZING digital authors! We are thrilled to support the team and host two incredible authors, Christi J. Whitney and A.F.E. Smith.
Here they are in conversation talking about all things fantasy – with a little hint of romance of course! 😉
Anna: Hi! I’m A.F.E. Smith (Anna), author of fantasy murder mystery Darkhaven. And with me is Christi J. Whitney, author of YA fantasy Grey. We’re going to be having a chat about writing romance in fantasy.
Christi, we’re both fantasy writers first and foremost, but I think it’s fair to say we both like our romantic subplots! What is it that appeals to you about incorporating romance into your fantasy writing?
Christi: You’re right, Anna, romantic subplots are quite fun to write! When I wrote Grey, I knew I wanted the story to reflect some of the themes of one of my all-time favorite fairytales: Beauty and the Beast. But I didn’t want the romance to be the total driving force behind Grey. I definitely explored the relationships Sebastian has with his brother and his friends as well. But yeah, I have a total soft spot in my heart for thwarted romance and the friends-first kind of romance in stories.
What about you, Anna? What types of romances draw you into a book?
Anna: I might as well admit that I’m a hopeless romantic, so I like my happily ever afters. My favourite kind of romance is one where the couple start out at odds and gradually realise the true nature of their feelings for each other. I do love those scenes when a couple who aren’t together yet are getting to know each other!
I really liked what you said about exploring other kinds of relationships. It’s the emotional connection that resonates with me the most when it comes to romance, and that applies to other kinds of love, too: between siblings, between parents and children, between friends. The relationship between my half-siblings Myrren and Ayla is such an important one in Darkhaven. But I have to admit, romantic relationships are my favourite.
I’d agree, though, that the romance in my books doesn’t tend to be the driving force behind the plot. And I guess that’s one difference between writing a fantasy with romance elements and a romance with fantasy elements! So did you find any challenges in writing a believable romance in that context? I mean, for one thing, there’s less room to develop the romance when it’s a subplot rather than the focus…
Christi: That’s so true, Anna. And I think it can be an especially big challenge in the realm of YA fantasy – which tends to be heavily saturated with romantic books – and, as an author, you want to offer something a bit different. As you mentioned earlier, there is a difference in writing a fantasy versus a strict romance. While Sebastian’s complicated feelings are a driving force in Grey, he’s also trying to figure out what’s happening to him and to the world he thinks he knows. I needed to ground the romantic side to things in reality, while also showing this definitely wasn’t the typical fantasy romance.
Also, when writing YA, I believe there’s a completely different tone to relationships. In many stories, you might be dealing with a character’s first true love. Feelings are pretty intense with teenaged characters to begin with, but add certain fantasy or paranormal aspects to the story, and you’re opening a whole additional can of worms, so to speak.
Anna: Definitely! I felt for Sebastian so much in Grey, because he has to handle so many changes in his life – as you say, both the romantic and the paranormal.
For me, I think the main challenge was definitely one of space. Darkhaven is a fantasy murder mystery, so that’s two genres even before you add the romance element! Fantasy world building, murder mystery plotting and believable relationship development is quite a lot to fit into a single novel.
Christi: So did you set out to have a romantic element to Darkhaven, or was it something that developed as your plot came along?
Anna: To be honest, I can’t imagine I’ll ever write a fantasy novel that doesn’t have some kind of secondary focus on romantic relationships. Love is just such a powerful motivator, and so fascinating to write about. It’s pretty much what makes us human, isn’t it? The ability to feel so deeply about another person that they become more important to us than ourselves? I tend to find that my characters fall in love as naturally as breathing. So I wouldn’t say I set out to put romance into Darkhaven, exactly, but at the same time, I’d have been very surprised if there wasn’t any.
One of the things I really loved about Grey was that the romance (and indeed the whole story!) is told from the male perspective, which is quite rare in YA fantasy. How easy was it for you to get inside a teenage boy’s head?
Christi: From the very start, Grey just flowed from Sebastian’s thoughts. It felt the most natural, both for me and for the story. We share some similar qualities, so I mostly began with that, and I drew influences from many students I’d taught over the years. But honestly, I didn’t find it difficult at all, and I really enjoyed telling things from his perspective. His somewhat naïve, self-deprecating teenaged male outlook was just fun and refreshing to write. Looking back, I can’t imagine the novel unfolding any other way.
And speaking of looking back, can you give us a favorite romantic moment or scene in Darkhaven you particularly enjoyed writing?
Anna: My favourite one isn’t obviously romantic at all, but it’s very much a turning point in the relationship of the two people involved. It’s just a quiet conversation. I think sometimes a conversation can be the most romantic thing in the world. These two people have been going around with their barriers up, against each other and against everyone else, but now they’re lowering them and really seeing each other for the first time. And that’s quite a rare thing – in general, I mean. Often we’re too preoccupied with ourselves and the demands of our lives to connect fully with the people around us. So those moments of deep emotional resonance are something to treasure.
Christi: Oh, that’s such a great answer, Anna. Those quiet conversations between characters are such powerful moments in a story. My main characters don’t spend a lot of time together, so when they have a chance to talk, it’s always fun to write. I suppose one of my favorite moments – at least, from Sebastian’s point of view – is when he and Josephine find themselves rehearsing together for the school play. I wouldn’t call it romantic, but it does allow us into Sebastian’s conflicted world in a new way, and gives us a little insight into his thoughts.
Something I’ve enjoyed about writing a fantasy trilogy is the opportunity to really flesh out the romantic elements as the story continues. What can you tell us about romance in your upcoming projects?
Anna: Well, although Darkhaven is a standalone story, it will have sequels. The second book is set three years after the first, and what I’ve really loved about that is being able to write a romantic relationship that’s reached a different stage. So instead of a couple falling in love, you have that same couple navigating all the pitfalls of an established relationship, maybe falling out a little, but growing and becoming stronger at the end of it all. That’s kind of a neglected area in romance, I think – but as someone who’s been married five years and in a relationship for twelve, I guess I wanted to prove that it’s not just the first flush of love that’s the romantic part!
What about you, Christi? Can you reveal anything about what lies ahead for Sebastian and Josephine?
Christi: I think that’s a great aspect of romance to explore, Anna! I like seeing different stages of relationships and how time and circumstances affect couples. As far as Sebastian and Josephine are concerned, I can’t say too much at this point. I can tell you that the second book in the trilogy picks up very closely to where the first one leaves off. There are new characters and new relationships that come about, but we also see some connections re-established as well. Sebastian will get the chance to observe Josephine in her own world, and the two have some major navigating to do, to say the least!
Anna: I’m looking forward to reading it! I do hope everything will work out OK for Sebastian in the end. It’s been really great chatting with you, Christi.
Christi: And you as well, Anna. Best of luck with Darkhaven! And here’s to our characters as they quest for love and romance within the realm of fantasy.