I’m not well-read in the romance genre, so I wouldn’t say that I am familiar with romance tropes and common themes. However, I’ve been devouring fantastical fiction like it’s my job (btw, I would be happy to make this my job! Hire me to write book reviews!) and I keep bumping into this one character type over and over. He’s dazzlingly beautiful, usually: shiny hair, mesmerizing eyes, cheekbones that could cut a lesser man. He is somehow both chivalrous and distant; he has a secret, this Byronic hero, and he keeps it from you for your own good. He’s preternaturally smart or preternaturally strong or preternaturally gifted–usually a combination of the three. The reason for this is usually because he has had a brush with magic (vampire bite or enchantment, perhaps) and a few hundred years to study the blade, or whatever. He’s your Centuries-old Boyfriend, and he keeps popping up in books I’m trying to read. Here is the example I encountered most recently, followed by a few others that came to mind as I read about him.
Matthew Clairmont in A Discovery of Witches, French templar turned revolutionary turned Oxford doctor who falls in love with a witch.
How old: about 1500 (looks 37)
Smells like: cloves, sometimes carnations
Special skills: Very fast, very strong, very sexy (the better to hypnotize prey), plus has been through grad school a few dozen times
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: She smells intoxicating and her chaotic witchy magic is attractive
Why he pulls away from her: He wants to drink her blood! Also for complicated political reasons.
Edward Cullen in Twilight, flu victim turned repeat high school senior, possibly the archetypal Centuries-Old Boyfriend of our generation
How old: around 100 (looks 17)
Smells like: “honey-sweet” and “like lilacs and sun,” as told by the internet
Special skills: the usual vampire triple threat (v. strong, v. fast, v. sexy), plus he sparkles and reads your mind
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: She smells intoxicating
Why he pulls away from her: He wants to drink her blood!
Darayavahoush in The City of Brass, warrior daeva or djinn (depending on who you ask)
How old: more than 1400 (looks 30)
Smells like: smoke, sometimes burnt citrus
Special skills: djinn stuff, like summoning objects and making carpets fly, plus a glamour to make him especially physically attractive for djinn reasons
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: she’s feisty, clever, and [SPOILER] the enchanted scion of an ancient race
Why he pulls away from her: Distaste, initially, then for complicated political reasons.
Sarkan in Uprooted, the Dragon, unfriendly neighborhood wizard
How old: about 150 (looks… not that old, but not young either)
Smells like: I don’t believe his scent is mentioned; however, if you are an Agnieszka/Kasia shipper, please note that Kasia’s scent is extensively described!
Special skills: wizard stuff, healing and fighting
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: her chaotic witchy magic is attractive
Why he pulls away from her: to be extremely fair, she is very young and also his pupil and it would have been weird if he didn’t resist her advances a little.
Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition, elfy apostate, weakest member of my party, BIG LIAR
How old: Old enough to KNOW BETTER
Smells like: thankfully not described
Special skills: hangs out in the Fade, making friends with spirits and reliving moments of historical importance; mysteriously knows where elven artifacts are hidden
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: If she’s a female elf, he is (rudely) surprised by the force of her character, as he doesn’t have an extremely high opinion of modern elves
Why he pulls away from her: He has a millennia-old axe to grind and, I don’t know, possibly a world to destroy.
The quality that announced these characters to me–that made me realize I was seeing a trope rather than a trend–isn’t simply the characters’ age and supernatural abilities themselves, but the way those qualities serve as the Swiss Army knife of plot devices. Because Your Centuries-old Boyfriend is so aged and experienced, he positions himself as more knowledgeable and capable than the mortal female protagonist. That can generate conflict or resolve it, as needed. Want some dramatic tension? He’s seen things–he knows things–and he won’t tell her. He believes he knows best what she needs to know. Want some romantic tension, with a generous dose of wish fulfillment? In spite of their great differences and his supposed superiority, he finds himself drawn to her intelligence or independence or humanity. She may find his arrogance off-putting, but it’s intoxicating to be desired by one so dazzling. Want a quick solution to a seemingly impossible problem? He picked up some handy special skills during the last great war, or whatever. Maybe he also sensed some great power within her, waiting to be unlocked (perhaps waiting for him to unlock it).
I don’t hate it. In fact, one recent example had me actively rooting for the couple and eagerly turning pages to see if they would kiss. It’s more of an honorable mention: Detective Matteo Kildaire in The Frame-up is not one thousand years old, he’s just an average guy that happens to be above-average handsome and also a good communicator (unlike most of our COBs here). But the narrator, violet-haired comic book writer MG, repeatedly refers to him as an “adult” and marvels at his grown-up apartment and wardrobe. The disparity in how MG perceives their respective put-togetherness creates a dynamic where she both admires and resents his abilities, while her youthful vivacity tempts him to bend the rules–a dynamic that may well have been inspired by the supernatural boyfriends of yore, given the author’s love of sci-fi and fantasy books and film.
As I say, I don’t hate it–I can see how a Centuries-old Boyfriend may be read as an answer to Trinity Syndrome, which reduces an overpowered Strong Female Character to a plot device who accelerates and rewards a male protagonist’s journey from apprentice to hero.
But I don’t love it either, and I’ve had my fill for now, so please… recommend your favorite Fantasy Love Interests who don’t spend the first half of their stories broodily keeping ancient secrets and unhelpfully protecting the protagonist from herself.