How NOT to Write Romantic Subplots

[Warning: this post contains minor spoilers for the Throne of Glass series. Serious mind-fucks and plot twists, however, are not mentioned here.]

Last month I wrote a two-part article on how to write romantic subplots. This month, we’ll be looking at how not to write them and we’ll be using Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series as a case study.

Disclaimer: I love the ToG series. I love the world building, the mind-blowing plot twists, the powerful women, all the different cultures, the characters, all of it. It’s awesome. If you haven’t read it yet, I do highly recommend it. So far there are six books (plus an anthology of prequel novellas that become extremely relevant in book four), and the seventh and final book comes out in October. Cue squealing. I can’t wait!

But there’s one thing about this series that really rankles me. Take a wild guess: it’s the romantic subplots. There are a lot of them in this series. Apparently, Maas can’t write a single character who isn’t pining after another character, and I’ll get back to that in a minute. Basically, the ToG romances fall into three categories:

  • The ones done well, where the characters have romantic and/or sexual chemistry, and that further the story: Sartaq/Nesryn, Dorian/Manon, Dorian/Sorscha, Elide/Lorcan;
  • The ones that are tolerable because they have a narrative purpose, but could probably be replaced with a strong friendship: Sam/Caelena, Caelena/Chaol, Aedion/Lysandra;
  • The ones that need to burn and die right now: Yrene/Chaol, Aelin/Rowan, and every goddamn love triangle

Book three (Heir of Fire, where Aelin goes to the eastern continent and meets Bitch Queen Maeve) is arguably my favorite book of the whole series, in large part because so much of it focuses on Aelin and Rowan’s developing PLATONIC relationship. They spend the first half of the book absolutely hating each other, which does even more emotional damage to Aelin than has already happened. And then after their respective low points, they start an adorable sibling-like relationship that is the bomb. They even say–multiple times–that they have no interest in the other romantically or sexually, which is why I felt so annoyed and betrayed when they ended up in a romantic relationship just one book later.

I had a hard time finishing book six (Tower of Dawn, the one that focuses exclusively on Chaol and Nesryn as they seek help and answers in the southern continent) mostly because of Chaol and Yrene Towers’ unnecessary romantic relationship. It was stereotypical, cliched, and forced. It was six hundred pages of, “She healed him physically and emotionally and that turned him on.” It serves no purpose and speaking as someone who works alongside the medical field, starting a relationship with a patient the way Yrene did and then getting married after a mere two weeks is a terrible, terrible idea.

And then the love triangles. Holy hell, the love triangles. I overlooked the one between Dorian, Chaol, and Caelena in book one because it was quick and everyone (stunningly) managed to be adults about it. But then Maas does it again with Tower of Dawn between Chaol, Nesryn, and Yrene, and it was really only used to cause romantic tension between Chaol and Yrene, which is even more unnecessary than usual because Nesryn had already accepted that she and Chaol weren’t going to work and was already falling for Sartaq (a relationship which is way more interesting than two thirds of all the others)!

So far, Maas has made two critical errors regarding her romantic subplots: she betrays her audience by making them think two characters are going to be platonic only to turn around and make them fall in bed together (Aelin/Rowan), and she falls on tired tropes and cliches for another (Yrene/Chaol).

Her third mistake is having too many of the damn things. And maybe this is why I have so little interest in Yrene and Chaol. Every other major character has fallen into (and in many cases, out of) a romantic relationship, so by the time book six roles around, it just feels like they’re going through the motions. Like, “Well, everyone else is doing it, so we ought to get on the bandwagon, too.”

But that’s more than just lazy writing. The only characters who so far have not been or tried to be in a romantic relationship are the bad guys and the minor characters. All of the major characters who are not romantically involved are absolutely miserable. It’s almost as if Maas is saying, “You can only be considered complete and happy if you have a significant other.”

Which, speaking as a single woman with little interest in finding a romantic partner at this time, is bullshit.