When I curl up on the sofa with a romance novel, two things are a given (and if not delivered there will be major Book Sulk). One is that the relationship between the hero and heroine will be front and center. Their love story will provide the spine of the book and all the major turning points; all subplots will feed this central story in some way. The other cast-iron guarantee is that no matter how dark matters become, everything will turn out beautifully in the end. Our Girl and Our Guy will make a commitment to one another and will live happily ever after.
I expect that Our Girl and Our Guy will both have a goal, and a motivation that drives them tirelessly towards that goal. The story will get its juice from the clash of those goals, which must be so important to them that neither can give up, so they push and challenge and change each other in an escalating battle that most likely ends with a victory for one and a psychic death and reinvention for the other.
Which brings me to my question.
If Our Girl has a goal that’s incompatible with her attraction to Our Guy, then no matter how credible that goal is, we kind-of-sort-of know that by the end of the story she’s not going to get it (or want it). Does that detract from the story? And if not, given that we know what’s going to happen to that goal, how much attention do you pay to it? It has to be real, it has to make sense, and it has to be important enough to sustain a whole story, but how much is that? Do you need lots of information to give the goal power and establish it as a credible obstacle to the love story, or would you prefer a deft sketch with minimal details?
In Tessa Dare’s most recent book Say Yes to the Marquess, the heroine, Clio, has been waiting years for her fiancé to come home and marry her. It’s beyond embarrassing. When she inherits a castle (as you do!), she gains the means to support herself and decides she’d rather start a brewery than marry a highly eligible man who obviously doesn’t care about her. She asks her fiancé’s brother (Rafe, the hero) to sign the paperwork bringing the engagement to an end. Instead, Rafe decides to persuade Clio to go ahead with the wedding, even though he’s had the hots for her since forever.
Very fun setup. We know what’s going to happen, and we can sit back and enjoy watching it unfold. How much do we learn about the heroine’s brewery goal? Just enough to flavor the story and show us she actually does know how to make beer and has a realistic plan for her new business. Would you want more than that? Personally, I’m happy that Clio has a goal that has launched the story and that I’ve had enough details to satisfy myself that she’s on a mission and the mission isn’t completely token. I don’t really care about hops or brewing or light ale or dark, and honestly I don’t give much of a damn whether she ends up making beer or not. And by the by, I don’t need too many deets about Piers-the-fiancé either. I want to see Clio wrangling with Rafe over flowers, dresses and cake, and I’m glad to say that’s exactly what I get. Yay!
Or, in the fabulous Oscar-winning movie Moonstruck, Cher is engaged to marry Nicholas Cage’s older brother, Danny Aiello. It’s a match that’s all about security and community, not love, and it’s clearly doomed from the moment Danny makes his cringe-worthy marriage proposal. Fortunately, he disappears to Sicily immediately afterwards and stays there for almost the entire movie, leaving the stage clear for Cher to discover passion and true love with Nick. Works for me 🙂 .
I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot over the last few days after an email exchange I had with regular 8LW visitor Rachel Beecroft (hi, Rachel!) about my recently-finished manuscript Dealing With McKenzie. A comment she made prompted me to go back and look in more detail at the very different ways individual beta readers had responded to my heroine’s goal.
So where do you stand on this? As long as a character’s goal makes sense and sets up a good story, do you care if it’s clearly destined to fail? And if it’s doomed from the start, does that make a difference to how much you want to know about it?