Why I resisted including romance in Keeper of the Dawn
There were many struggles on the road to publishing my first YA fantasy novella, Keeper of the Dawn. One of the biggest struggles came when Lai, my leading lady, came out and told me she was in love with her roommate, a woman named Tara.
I immediately resisted the idea, though probably not for the reason you think. I didn’t care whether my character fell in love with a man or a woman. What bothered me was that she fell in love at all.
You see, I was raised a feminist, by feminists. And as both an avid reader and a writer, I grew up knowing exactly how powerful stories can be. I knew how easily we get caught up in the narratives society imposes upon us as “normal”, and I wanted to challenge those narratives with every one of my stories.
One of the most pervasive narratives of them all is that we must all find our one true romantic love or die alone and unhappy. The types of relationships permitted in these narratives is expanding, but characters still always seem to end up in one kind of romantic relationship or another.
Romantic relationships are obviously important for the continuation of human life and the right relationship can infinitely improve your life, but they are not absolutely essential for every human on Earth. I know several people who have never had a serious romantic relationship, and most of them enjoy their lives anyway. Some of them are interested in romance, some aren’t.
Unfortunately most of the media we consume doesn’t seem to believe these people exist. A character who is single at the beginning of the story is rarely still single at the end, especially if that character is a woman. They find their “one true love” (who is actually a creep half the time, but that’s another rant), and when the story ends they get married and live happily ever after. The same story plays out in all genres, across all mediums, over and over again.
The narrative telling us we must find romance or be sad and lonely pushes people, especially women, to stay in bad relationships. It tells us that if we do not find our one true love by a certain age, we never will, and without that one true love, we will be sad and alone until the day we die. It preys on the greatest fear most people have: that nobody will give a damn when we die. Any relationship, no matter how terrible, seems better than that.
I’ve had a few books in intensive editing for the past few years, and until a year and a half ago Lai was my only main character who didn’t fall in love at any point during the story. I was immensely proud of her, this warrior woman who needed nobody but herself. A character who challenged many harmful stereotypes all at once.
Her falling in love with a woman was a little outside of conventional norms, but not part of the narrative I wanted to tell. So I resisted the idea for months, until I realized I couldn’t properly finish the story without the romance. Part of me felt like a bad feminist—some part of me does this every time I do something that is part of society’s “normal” narrative—but in the end I knew that a good writer always listens to their characters.
And her relationship defies many other aspects of the common narrative. It’s between two women, it doesn’t end in tragedy, and there’s absolutely no sex. After all that resistance, it is one of the things I love most about this book, and I hope you will love it too.
ABOUT KEEPER OF THE DAWN
Sometimes failure is just the beginning.
All Lai has ever wanted is to become a priestess, like her mother and grandmother before her, in service to their beloved goddess. That’s before the unthinkable happens, and Lai fails the trials she has trained for her entire life. She makes the only choice she believes she can: she runs away.
From her isolated desert homeland, Lai rides north to the colder, stranger kingdom of Alanum—a land where magic, and female warriors, are not commonplace.
Here, she hears tales about a mountain city of women guardians and steel forgers, worshiping goddesses who sound very similar to Lai’s own. Determined to learn more about these women, these Keepers of the Dawn, Lai travels onward to find their temple. She is determined to make up for her past failure, and will do whatever it takes to join their sacred order.
Falling in love with another initiate was not part of the plan.
Keeper of the Dawn is a tale of new beginnings, second chances, and the endurance of hope.
Lai practiced until well after dark, ignoring the call for supper. She tore a massive hole into one of the dummies with a training sword in her rage, but it didn’t make her feel better. She had spent most of her life training for this day, and Kaiden ruined it with a few words about their father.
Eventually she gave up and collapsed in a heap on the ground, pulling her knees up to her chest so she could rest her chin on them. She forced herself to breathe deeply, using all her willpower to push the rage into the ground. Bit by bit it drained into the soil around her, dispersing harmlessly.
She sat like that in the clearing until clouds engulfed the stars and rain started pouring, one of the last rains before the dry weeks of summer. Lifting the hood of her robes to cover her head, she rose and hurried towards the temple.
Her left foot caught on something and Lai flew through the air, losing her grip on her sword and landing face first in a puddle. Her nose shattered when it smashed into the tough ground, and when she grabbed it to feel the damage her hand came away covered in equal parts mud and blood. Her stomach churned as she picked herself back up, her whole body aching.
Something sharp pierced her back, tearing into her skin and muscles like sharp fire. She screamed and fell face first to the ground. She caught herself on her forearms, avoiding bashing her head against the rocky path.
Lai’s attacker pulled the knife out of her shoulder. She screamed as warm blood flowed freely down her back, mixing with the rain. Fiery agony filled her body, blurring her vision. She gritted her teeth and flipped over to face her attacker.
She froze at the familiar sight of white robes with golden cuffs. Another initiate. Her hood hid her face completely.
Lai gathered her strength with a deep, ragged breath and reached for her training sword. The initiate kicked Lai in the back then stomped on her wrist, grinding bone under her boot, sending sharp waves of pain up Lai’s arm.
“You understand, it has to be me.”
Lai knew that voice, but she couldn’t focus on it through the pain, couldn’t remember who it was.
The initiate seized a clump of Lai’s hair and yanked her head backwards. She knelt and raised her knife towards Lai’s exposed throat.
Something knocked the initiate into Lai’s back. Black spots appeared at the edges of her vision as agony surged outward from her wound. The other initiate didn’t move, suffocating Lai with her weight. Lai tried to lift herself up with her elbows, but a fresh wave of pain knocked the wind out of her. She collapsed onto her stomach and closed her eyes, willing her body to die quickly.