Romance in First Empress
One of the troubles I’m finding with writing romance is that there is very little that can be said or done that hasn’t been said or done before. I have thus come to the conclusion that I’m simply not experienced enough a fiction writer to adequately and believably portray romantic drama. While there will be romances between various characters in First Empress, I have no intent of making any of these vital to the central conflicts.
In fact, I think in general, I’m not going to go out of my way to create much in the way of romantic drama—sexual tension, absolutely, but romantic drama, not really. Drama and arguments between couples always feel very cliche to me, and I don’t know how to make them not cliche. And as such tension and conflict are not necessary to advance the story, I see no reason to bother with it. Likely there will be assorted love scenes over the course of the story—how explicit those will be I haven’t decided yet.
By way of examples, Ronnius—the queen’s steward—and his wife, Tanna, marry only a few chapters into the story, and were sneaking around behind their families’ backs to be together well before the story even begins, and thus there’s no real need for extra drama. Similarly, I opted to have Captain Vola‘s marriage to General Derron, the queen’s military adviser, be a healthy marriage. Pella, the four-armed girl and Zahnia‘s best friend, eventually marries a very talented Deaf sculptor. I like the idea of him being Deaf because the image of a four-armed woman using a sign language delights me to no end. One of the tragedies of Zahnia’s character is that because she doesn’t age, she essentially is stuck in the body of a nine-year-old until she dies. Because of this, romance is a pleasure denied to her. She’ll never develop the hormones necessary for sexual enjoyment. And while sex is by no means necessary for a healthy romantic relationship, I think Zahnia is justified in her discomfort with the idea of kissing and cuddling with someone who is comfortable kissing and cuddling a nine-year-old.
The romance most central to the overall story is that of the Queen Viarraluca and her handmaid Elissa. When first setting out to write First Empress, I knew going in that one of the tragedies of “immortal” mortals is that everyone they care about must eventually die while they go on alone. From the very start I’d intended for Viarra to have a true love who she must inevitably watch die. I had two or three potential characters in mind, initially considering giving her sort of a “Prince Albert” figure—someone who not only functions as a lover, but as a teacher and mentor. I eventually abandoned this idea, however, because the situation of Viarra suddenly assuming the throne, then having to fight a war two chapters later required a greater amount of independence in her character than what made sense if she was dependent on some mentor to help her make these decisions.
It was when I was fleshing out Elissa’s character that I discovered the handmaid’s private lust for her queen. While it was unintended, a lot of things clicked into place for me at that point. Granted, in my later stories Viarra marries and has children with various men over the centuries, but there’s absolutely no reason why her first love couldn’t be a woman. More than anything, I want readers to view the Queen and handmaid’s relationship as sweet and beautiful. I don’t want their love to be seen as lewd or salacious. I hope that readers will admire them, cheer for them as they stay strong through difficult times, and mourn with them as Elissa ultimately passes on and Viarra must go on without her.
The background that I’ve set up for my leading couple is that Elissa was a slave taken from the north as a girl and given at seven years old to the five-year-old Princess Viarraluca. As the little princess has only brothers, Elissa almost immediately becomes the closest she has to a sister. The intelligent and precocious Viarra even secretly teaches Elissa how to read and write. While I haven’t fully decided on all of the circumstances surrounding their mutual attraction, I did decide a while back that it works better for them to have acted upon and established their feelings for each other prior to the beginning of the story. Though I don’t reveal it right away, Viarra and Elissa are already lovers when the prologue starts. I simply decided that even if I am capable of writing a convincing “coming out” scene between them, it wouldn’t add anything new to either character and would most likely distract from the rest of the story.
I establish early on that Elissa is not pretty. She’s skinny and plain—about as humble a human being as can exist without her being self-deprecating. I don’t think Elissa completely understands why Queen Viarra returns her affection, but the handmaid dutifully and modestly serves her beloved majesty in all things—lovemaking included. And while her modesty occasionally affects her judgment, I see Elissa as being reasonably intelligent. I think I kind of want readers to view the handmaid as being basically average in all things save humility—here she is clearly above average in all ways. I also want it to say a lot about Viarra’s character that she’ll reserve her deepest affection for this humble, skinny, plain slave woman, when the queen could have almost any man or woman in the kingdom.
The following scene is part of a conversation between the Queen and two of her other handmaids. While I have a tender, pillow-talk scene between Viarra and Elissa that I could have excerpted for the blog, I felt this chat did a better job of illustrating the Queen’s feelings for the handmaid, despite that Elissa is not present. In the scene, Viarra puts Gwynnet, one of the other handmaids, in her place for copping a superior attitude on learning of Elissa and the Queen’s liaisons.
“Gods dammit, little fiend,” her majesty swore as Corsair leapt, claws out, from her lap to her shoulder, once again seeking her shiny earring. “Gwynnet, would you take this little monster from me for a while?” She held Corsair out to her at arm’s length. “Last time I wear earrings around you,” she told the troublesome kitten.
Corsair squirmed irritably and squeaked in protest as Gwynnet took him from her majesty’s hands. “I suppose I was just surprised to learn that you and Elissa were lovers,” Gwynnet ventured as she sat down, attempting to calm the annoyed kitten. “It’s just that she’s not…” she hesitated, trying to find the right words.
“Beautiful?” her majesty suggested. “Vivacious? My intellectual equal?”
“That wasn’t what I was going to suggest,” Gwynnet said, half in protest, half in embarrassment.
“No, but I could tell you were thinking it,” the queen replied. “And you’re not incorrect. But I’ve never met anyone like Elissa. On top of being the most loyal human being I’ve known, she’s the most humble and self-sacrificing. She serves me unquestioningly for no other reason than that she loves me. She asks no reward for her services, and in fact gets embarrassed and uncomfortable with any reward I offer. And she genuinely believes I can do anything I put my mind to. Her devotion is gratifying, yet humbling at the same time. Elissa drives me to prove to myself that I’m worthy of that devotion—without even realizing she’s doing it. I can’t imagine a better friend, lover, and confidante.”
Gwynnet stared down at the kitten on her lap, feeling humbled by the queen’s words.