Last week my husband and I celebrated a landmark wedding anniversary. You don’t need the numbers – suffice it to say that we were teenagers when we met, and twentysomethings when we tied the knot, so it’s been awhile. Then a few days ago I had lunch with a friend who’s managing the fall-out from two family divorces within the first year of marriage. The juxtaposition set me to thinking about what makes a relationship work – or not – in real life, and how I could use that information to give my fictional characters every chance of a genuine, lasting HEA.
We judge relationships instinctively all the time – for ourselves, for our friends, families and colleagues. How many times have we been introduced to a new ‘other half’ or attended a wedding and thought privately this will never last? Or he/she deserves better than him/her? Much more often than we think aah, bless, they’re perfect for one another. And since the majority of marriages fail, the likelihood is that we’ll be right.
By definition a romance novel is a love story with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. The climax is a marriage or other significant commitment between the main characters. The book usually ends as the commitment is made, and it is the author’s job to instill the reader with absolute confidence that the hero and heroine will enjoy a long and blissfully happy future together.
I did a little research to see if I could find some useful pointers from real life relationship studies, and found this article in The Atlantic that quotes research from The Gottman Institute in New York. The bottom line seems to be that a spirit of kindness and generosity in a couple’s personal interactions is the key to meeting each other’s emotional needs on a long-term basis. The Atlantic article also quotes psychologist Ty Tashiro’s recent book, The Science of Happily Ever After. I’m intrigued by the idea, I love the title, and I double-love that this book is published by Harlequin. My copy arrived today; I’ll report back when I’ve had the opportunity to read it.
I’ve been thinking about a few of my favorite romances, and I’ve come to the conclusion that yet again, fiction has to be better than real life. Kindness and generosity of spirit are a good start, but I need more evidence if I’m to be convinced that the hero and heroine belong together for the long term, and that there could be no other for either of them. The key elements that immediately sprung to my mind were:
The characters must show that they understand the other person deeply
In Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, the heroine engineers a spectacular conclusion to the story by appearing to elope with an eligible man who’s head over heels in love with the hero’s sister. Sophy’s pursued by a hilarious procession of secondary characters, none of whom understand what she’s up to and all of whom dance to her tune – except the hero, Charles. It’s a delight to watch Charles put the pieces together correctly in the face of apparently damning evidence and respond in appropriately masterful fashion, leaving the reader in no doubt that he’s the only man on the planet capable of holding his own with the redoubtable Sophy.
The hero and heroine must each put the other’s wants and needs before their own
In Elizabeth Lowell’s romantic suspense Whirlpool, the ex-FBI hero is told by his boss to go after the heroine and get a piece of critical information from her using all means necessary. Here’s his answer:
“If I go after Laurel now,” Cruz said, “I go all the way. I’ll be hers, not yours or Cassandra’s. I’ll watch out for her welfare, not for anyone else’s…Still want me to go?”
Each character must want the other for themselves, not for what they can offer
Kat, Kay and I talked about this a lot during our Arizona road trip, especially with respect to Kat’s hero, Reed. He’s a single father and his young daughter needs a mother, but that can’t be the reason Reed falls for Kat’s heroine, Cheyenne. Reed has to love Cheyenne for herself, not because he sees her as potential mother material.
The relationship must be one of mutual respect, trust and honesty
I hate ‘big misunderstanding’ stories. If the characters start off by suspecting each other of terrible misdeeds and try to confirm their prejudices by snooping around and making groundless assumptions instead of addressing the issue, then even if the truth is revealed and the air is cleared for now, I have to believe that at some point they’ll be back to reading each other’s emails and drawing the wrong conclusions.
So, dear reader – what would make you think aah, bless, they’re perfect for one another?