Trigger Warning for mentions of sexual assault and explanations of toxic relationships.
The undying question of undying characters — are fantasy age gaps okay? What makes some good, while others questionable? With fantasy being a genre often populated with a mix of mortal characters (the poor, lowly humans) and immortal ones (pretty much everything else you could think of) romantic pairings can get rather suspect. What to do when a vampire is in love with a mortal? What about fair folk falling in (eternal?) love with a human? Does it make a difference if they're a minor? If they've known each other for a long time?
I'll admit this is a messy issue, and everyone is bound to have their own opinions on the topic. In the hopes to spark discussion — both between the people I've asked and in the comments — I've decided to write an article of my opinion on this topic.
Disclaimer: as always, opinions are opinions and differences in them are fine. Please do not kill anyone, mortal or immortal, over this.
And a spoiler warning for the romances of: The Shadowhunter Chronicles, (revealed and written as a major subplot through all of The Mortal Instruments and referenced in almost all other books); A Court of Thorns and Roses series, Books 1 and 2; and seasons 1 to 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Spoiler warnings will be highlighted in red for the beginning and end of each spoiler section.
So age gaps: what's the issue with them?
By far the most common answer I found for this was the power balance, or rather, imbalance. Oftentimes in fantasy, the relationship will be between a teenager (usually a minor) and an immortal. This means a person that has seen hundreds of years of the world, often having lived directly through major events and many experiences, is being paired with a teenager.
Given that a significantly older person is likely to have a greater amount of control over the relationship — and their partner — this can result in relationships with large age gaps (particularly with young characters) seeming toxic and manipulative. The idea of "I'm older and therefore know better, so should have more control" or worse, "I can't control a person who has seen more of life, and knows better" can be seen to happen more in relationships with a large age gap. Teenagers and especially minors are for the most part — sorry — naïve and inexperienced at best, impressionable, confused, and seeking validation at worst. They are unlikely to be as secure in their identity, nor as shrewd, as someone older. This can all lead to a very easy prey in the eyes of a predator. I say this as a minor myself.
This, coupled with the common YA romance trope of "all I care about is protecting you", can very easily fall into suspect situations. An example from a wildly popular fantasy-romance series, A Court of Thorns and Roses (spoiler warning for Book 1) is High Lord Rhysand's (a 535 year old High Fae) treatment of young human Feyre (who is 19), when she is fighting for her life Under the Mountain.
Final spoiler warning for ACOTAR Books 1 and 2
Rhysand, in what the book says is an effort to protect Feyre: assaults her (breaking her arm), drugs her, forces her to give him lap dances, and forces her into a deal of staying with him for a week every month, for the rest of her life. Yes, really. All of this, with no apology, and the narrative vehemently justifying every bit of it because "Rhysand knew better; knew Feyre was never in any real danger/would've been in worse danger had she not been drugged, assaulted, and forced to visit him; and he was doing it all for her own good."
I will say that Rhysand also, at multiple different times, did indeed help Feyre through her trials without assaulting or otherwise being a predator to her. Often (particularly later in the series), he is painted as being genuine and loving Feyre so madly it defies anything else (mating bond, and all that). A lot of the time, the fact that he is hundreds of years older than her, is very obvious, and contributes to the tone of the scenes.
He did teach her to read. He (technically Cassian) did teach her to fly. And he did do other good things I am undoubtedly forgetting as of now; but I've made this point.
Major spoilers for ACOTAR end
Does this justify or make up for everything else he did, and all without apology? No.
There still remains a very apparent power imbalance, especially at the beginning of their romance plot*. Rhysand's previous actions (and justifications) are still what they were from the beginning. And they are pretty suspect.
*This does sort of level out a little in the middle parts of A Court of Mist and Fury.
All spoilers for ACOTAR end
Spoilers for the romance from season 1 to 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer begin — this section written by Asha Swann
I love Buffy — both the character and the show, but there are toxic relationships that I cannot ignore. The early seasons of Buffy are almost reminiscent of the dynamic between Bella and Edward in Twilight. While the main concept of the show isn’t romance, Buffy spends a considerable amount of all eight seasons having different toxic relationships with brooding vampires. First there is Angel, who seemed to be sent from the heavens to help Buffy and stop the apocalypse. Then there is Spike: and perhaps what makes their relationships so compelling is not that destiny obliges them together: it’s that everything he does is a conscious choice to put her first.
As a lover of drama, I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for Buffy to be with both men at different points of the series, but as a feminist, I have to point out that there is a horrific toxicity in both these dynamics. Both Angel and Spike are vampire men who have spent hundreds of years killing. The audience soon learns that what separates Angel from other vampires is that he has a soul; the only thing that stops him from being a bloodthirsty killer. Having a soul was not his choice, however. It was a curse. The only way to break this curse is to experience true happiness: which he does by falling in love with Buffy and the moment they have sex, he loses his soul and turns into the evil killer he once was. I can’t help but notice how this echoes a toxic mindset that sex is the ultimate relationship ideal: that sex is the end-all, be-all, perfect thing. And especially the fact that Angel is written as this much older, more mature, mysterious man: why is his only moment of true happiness coming from having sex with a 15-year-old girl? In true Joss Whedon fashion, a woman can never be happy for long, so Angel is written out of the show and given his own spin-off, where he is no longer evil. But the way Angel interacts with her is like an overprotective parent. Even before meeting her, he spends months secretly watching her every move and obsessing over her from afar.
Spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer end
With already-overpowered immortal characters, power imbalances can get very, very messy.
But it works sometimes!
It does. As far as I've read (which, certainly to many readers, would be relatively little), this is mostly rare. But immortal-mortal relationships sometimes do work in fiction. This usually happens because two balances are struck: a balance of power in the relationship, and a balance of common ground.
Spoilers for The Shadowhunter Chronicles, The Mortal Instruments Book 1 and beyond
An example of this is the ship Malec, which happens to be one of my favorite ships ever. I'm stating that for full transparency: that I do certainly have a bias, which I will justify in the following paragraphs.
When Alec — the human — and Magnus — the immortal warlock — met (and before they began dating) Alec was a legal adult, both in the regular human (mundane) world, and the Shadowhunter world in which he was raised. He begins rather insecure about a lot of things: his identity as a gay shadowhunter, his confidence as a person, and his crush on his parabatai, Jace.
Magnus, very much knowing this, does not take advantage of him, nor does he force Alec to do anything he is uncomfortable with (going on a public date, coming out of the closet, dating Magnus officially) even though he isn't very thrilled about the last one.
They continue on to foster a relationship with an equal power balance, especially as Alec comes into himself as a character in the following books. As of recent canon, Alec and Magnus hold similar amounts of influence within their environments, and communicate in a healthy way about any struggles they might have.
Alec and Magnus maintain common ground and mental age with Magnus significantly not exactly acting his immortal age (which is...unconfirmed?).
That's not to say there have never been problems and imbalances in their relationship: rather, those problems were given time in the plot, and tied to both characters' arcs. The struggles of a human dating and eventually being married to an immortal warlock were not lost on neither the couple nor the plot. They were explored and given time to figure out, instead of being glossed over and ignored.
Spoilers from The Shadowhunter Chronicles end
How can it work?
Age gaps can work, but they have to be acknowledged, and subsequently, the proper care put into writing the relationship. Making sure the characters aren't being manipulated by each other, and communicating properly without condescension or power grabbing, are some of the first steps to making it work properly, in my opinion.
Though really, isn't that how all healthy romances should be written in the first place?
These are all my opinions from what I've seen, and yours may differ. Let me know in the comments if they do! I'd love to hear from another side of the discussion. What makes a healthy romance for you? Can romances with hundred-year age gaps be a thing? Should they?
is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.