I have a confession to make: I love writing grimdark romances. Which, immediately, I know, has sent roughly half my intended audience into paralyzed spasms of discomfort. Grimdark readers are people who are about as far from the typical romance reader as humanly possible. The reverse is also true. Yet, despite that, I believe the genre has some of the richest and most interesting uses of love you'll find genre fiction. Don't believe me: what do Jaime/Cersei, Ygritte/Jon, Ardee West/Jezal, Yennefer/Geralt, and Jorg/Katherine have in common?
They are all incredibly ****ed up.
Ah, I see I have your attention now. You see the grimdark genre became popular in fantasy because George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and Joe Abercombie's First Law Trilogy deconstructed so many traditional tropes about it. Heroes die pointless deaths, bad people are rewarded for doing bad things, endings are not necessarily happy, and the people who end up doing selfish things for selfish things often find out that's more rewarding than those who nobly sacrifice themselves for crosses only scumbags end up benefiting from. It's about as cynical a take on a genre traditionally defined by idealism as you can find. This also applies to romance. Yet, it can also make it more rewarding. Well, if you are so inclined.
Sometimes romances end badly and they weren't worth the experience. Sometimes romances are great but are cut shortly. Sometimes romances have one partner love the other way more than the other. Romeo and Juliet is the greatest of all romances in modern lore but people forget it's about two stupid teenagers who get themselves killed due to a series of incredibly bad choices. Choices which are abetted by someone who clearly should have realized their actions were dumb as hell. Mature love like the kind between Catelyn Stark and Ned Stark is journeyman-like but beautiful--yet ends because one partner dies suddenly while the other's attempt to salvage the situation ends in vengeance-fueled undeath.
Like in reality.
A lot of this went into writing Lucifer's Star, which is fundamentally a love story. Okay, that's a lie, it's fundamentally a story about starfighters blowing the crap out of one another and the allure of fascism to people being sent to their pointless deaths by the powerful. The romance is still a big part of it, though. It's a romance which begins when the partner of the protagonist is incinerated along with the rest of his planet via an orbital bombardment just shy of Alderaan blowing up in terms of overkill.
For Cassius Mass, he'd had a happy marriage but it ended with death and the awareness it's also his own damned fault. He'd known the war was going badly, suspected every single enemy soldier he killed was just adding to their fury, and yet he still chose to continue playing at being a hero when he should have been seeing to the safety of his loved ones. There's no closure to be had and in a world where memory uploads exist, you might find yourself tempted to try to chase after a digital ghost.
I had a lot of fun with the oft-maligned use of flashbacks. In this case justified by the fact Cassius is constantly thinking back on his memories and trying to either capture the magic of them or examining them critically. Were things actually as happy as he remembered them? Was he ignoring the cracks in his marriage (like the fact his wife is aware he works for a totalitarian dictatorship whereas he is in denial) when they could have been prevented. What about the fact his wife may well have married him because as the poor underclass woman courted by the famous nobleman of their society--she might have had less of a choice to accept or decline his advances than he realized. These things eat at our (anti)hero.
My favorite romance in A Song of Ice and Fire is the non-mance between Jaime and Brienne. I say non-mance because nothing ever happens there, unless George surprises us by finishing the Winds of Winter, nor really could they ever happen. Jaime is an oath-breaking kingslaying ostensibly-celibate knight from Westeros' greatest house in love with his sister. Brienne is an honor-obsessed woman from a minor house driven by romantic notions of a gay deceased usurper. Even if Jaime were to cast aside Cersei, his attraction to Brienne is based on his respect for code of honor that he'd have to break to be with her. In the end, we also have cracks where Brienne is unwilling to die for Jaime and seems willing to throw him under the bus to save her as well as her squire's life.
That inspired me also in how to do the follow-up romances of my main character's life. Ones which have a tendency to crash and burn because they're up against the pedestal he's set his dead wife on. Moving on is something many people talk about as healthy but there's plenty of people who simply can't. After losing everything, I felt my protagonist’s pain was about the only thing getting him through the day. It’s something he wants to hold onto passionately because otherwise he’d just be numb.
Indeed, the only people Cassius is capable of connecting with on an emotional level are ones who are every bit as screwed-up as he is. An ex-slave who finds herself attracted to him because she was literally programmed to be adoring to Crius nobles (before her abusive master drove her to a murder spree of Titus Andronicus proportions) plus a woman who is his friend as well as occasional sex partner but not really someone who has any interest in a deep emotional connection. Something that has its own benefits.
Some of these relations will fail, some will make the protagonist better while others will make him worse. They may not have the same effect on his partners as no one said happy relationships had to be healthy ones--or that they'd end well either way. It's something I intend to explore across the series.
Good, bad, and worse.
Just like real-life.
Except with more techno-undead and planet-killers.