Romances are full of people with “issues”. Which is great. Who wants to read about well-adjusted, happy people? Not me anyway. But at times it feels to me that there’s a rather simplistic one-to-one relationship between something that happened in the past and the way the character is during the story. Someone hurt them in the past – parents, lovers, society – and that dictates directly how they act now. Until of course they meet our other hero or heroine and Learn to Love Again.
It feels a bit too pat sometimes that there’s such a straightforward line from X happened in the past, so now they do Y. It seems to miss out the complexity of human beings, being a big old mix of innate traits and environmental influences. I don’t think people are as easy to figure out as that. But romance especially seems to want to figure them out. Can they not just BE? It’s good that a writer knows all about why the character turned out the way they did, but does it all have to be in the story? I want to be a reader, not a psychoanalyst.
I don’t blame anyone for doing it, I’m sure I do it too! It’s the standard way of doing things now. I blame Freud.
But there’s a point where I do think it can hurt a story. Sometimes whatever the event that was that shaped them in the past was so traumatic, or just so long lasting that it’s changed their personality in a fundamental way. Just Learning to Love Again isn’t going to cut it for this character. It’s going to take a long time and work for them to change.
Now change is good in a story and an epiphany followed by the realisation that change needs to happen is meat and potatoes stuff in fiction. But I have doubts at the end of a story if we’re given a supposed Happy Ever After before the character has addressed all those issues they need to work on. A Happy for Now works better for me in those situations. They intend to be together, and work through that period of recovery from the issues, that’s great. But recovery means change. The person who emerges at the other end of the process isn’t the same one as at the start. Relationships don’t always survive it.
I just think that’s something a writer should acknowledge – that the Happy Ever After is not absolutely assured in this situation. It won’t be anyone’s fault if it doesn’t work out. It’s just the way things can work. I love a story with plenty of angst and traumatised or messed up characters, but I don’t want them to have easy answers to their problems at the end.
I did try to address this myself in Liar’s Waltz. Greg’s got a lot of stuff to work out at the end, and Karl knows it, because he was in the same place himself a few years back. He knows that their relationship might not come out of the other end of this intact, but the point is he’s willing to try and to support Greg through it all.
In another story I worked on for years (won’t be out as a book, sorry!) one of the characters was severely traumatised when the two leads first met. And his gradual recovery did continually change the nature of their relationship. As he got better the other character felt afraid of losing him, and also had to deal with the guilt of wondering if he preferred him when he was weaker and more dependent. They made it in the end, but it was a long and tricky journey.
Maybe I’m just cynical enough to think that all Happy endings are Happy for Now, not Happy Ever After. Who knows what will happen tomorrow?