I have a good friend from my STAR TREK convention days who used to believe that Happily Ever After was a myth. She and I and another friend argued passionately one afternoon over whether HEA might be a stupid concept in reality and in fiction. Her TREK fanfic was dark and tragic; mine offered at least a Happy For Now for Jim Kirk—something I felt he desperately needed in his emotional desert of a life.
My single friend said there was no such thing as HEA. I disagreed, having then been married to the love of my life for some 20 years. (It’s 37 now.) A few years later she met the love of her life in an online TREK chat room. They’re still married as far as I know. So there.
All of this is to say that there is a reason the answer the question Pippa posed in her blog earlier this week is “No. You cannot have a non-HEA romance”. I’m called to riff on her topic at length, and also to lift some inspiration from a few of her commentors—thank you, Heather Massey and Rachel Leigh Smith—because, as y’all must know by now, this subject is one of my favorites.
By definition, a romance ends in Happily Ever After, or at least Happily For Now. Romance readers buy it because they expect that ending. Cheat them of it and you will never get them back. Because romance is about a certain dream of the human experience, the dream my friend and I were talking about. Promise someone that dream and then dash it on the rocks of tragedy with no warning? Wow. Thank you Nicholas Sparks.
Now, Sparks is hugely successful, but, as Rachel said, he doesn’t write romance. His readers all know what they’re getting when they pick up his books. Sometimes you just need to retreat to your couch with your cat and a king-size box of tissues, and Sparks fits the bill for some folks. (I like INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, myself.)
Sparks, and, yes, Shakespeare, too, if we are to admit it, fail in the romance category because love really doesn’t change their lovers. Well, it might, but we’ll never know will we? BECAUSE THOSE LOVERS ARE DEAD! At least in Sparks’s case he gets it 50 percent right. One person goes on, forever altered by that summer on the beach (we presume). But Romeo and Juliet are young and impulsive when we meet them, and even more young and impulsive when they poison and stab themselves at the end of the play.
We learn the first rule of fiction early on in our literature classes: the protagonist must grow and change from the beginning of the story to the end. In the romance arc, love is the agent of this change in the hero and heroine, opening them up, or healing them of old hurts or allowing them to do great things together or allowing them to feel at all. The resolution of this change is that they can sustain the relationship. The proof of the growth of their characters is that they stay together over the long haul. To have them go through this change together and then separate is to destroy all the work they’ve done throughout the story. It shows they never did the work properly to begin with.
Of course, all this happens right along with the external plot, which may be set in Regency England or contemporary California, but for our purposes is most often set in outer space or on a distant planet or in the future. In other words, our external plots are science fiction, which are woven along with the romantic arcs. So is a HEA unrealistic in science fiction?
Only if you propose that the captain of a starship will suddenly give up the stars because he fell in love and wants to be with that woman forever. Or that a lone wolf trader loves a pirate captain so much she’ll give up everything for him without a second thought. Love doesn’t instantly turn your brain to mush and your principles to dust! If that’s what it does to your characters, no wonder the SF dinosaurs throw up their tiny little paws!
Those seemingly impossible situations are the very essence of romantic conflict. Romance readers eat, sleep and breathe that stuff! Yes! Make it so that starship captain can’t possibly be with the woman he loves and stay with his ship (until you find a way to make it happen). Great! That trader flies off forever leaving the pirate captain behind in a black moment to make the ages weep! (Until you find the best resolution ever to their dilemma.) But you’ve got to make it work, and you’ve got to make it credible. Given the vast distances of space and the independence of our characters, it ain’t easy. But, as my martial arts teacher says, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Of course, if you want easy (or at least easier), you can just avoid calling your stuff romance. Science fiction with romantic elements, okay. Straight SF, maybe (though the dinos will roar if the kissy stuff involves any kind of emotion). There really doesn’t seem to be a science fiction counterpart to urban fantasy, where female protagonists and sometime lover/friend sidekicks are common (and accepted). But your potential audience will be smaller (see my last post), and the going might be rougher than we ever suspected.
For most of us writing SFR, the romance is too big a part of the story to pull back. For a full romantic arc, a HEA or HFN is the only emotionally satisfying resolution. Not just because of the rules—which are legitimate whether you’re writing SF (you wouldn’t write that your starships used pixie dust to get across the galaxy, would you?), mysteries (don’t step in the blood!), thrillers (the CIA does some things; the NSA others) or anything else—but because you have to respect your readers.
Lord knows Diana Gabaldon broke some rules with her Outlander series. It was too long for a romance (which didn’t start until 150 pages in); it was too romantic for a straight historical novel. She put her hero through prison hell (including rape). She continued the story over nine volumes. I’m sure her agent and editor were pulling their hair out.
But Gabaldon created two whole new categories of romance—the time travel romance and the Scottish Highlander romance. And her millions of readers love her. Why? Because her characters, Jamie and Claire, were changed by love. They grew together and worked toward that HEA. Gabaldon never let us think they wouldn’t have it. And in the end, like many, many actual living, breathing humans, they achieved that dream of love everlasting.
This is why millions of people read romance. This is why HEA is important. There’s no reason why characters in science fiction can’t have it, too.