I’ve been thinking about heroes and archetypes again (which is not actually news: story archetype is a sandbox in which I happily spend a lot of time). Feels like it’s everywhere these days. A few weeks back I was on a panel at the World Fantasy Convention that discussed love and monsters. Alex and Carol have been examining everyone’s favourite Dark Knight on the Gutter recently. And this week I was asked in an interview why the Fantasy genre was so popular. I’m pretty sure I babbled a lot, but among other things I told the reporter that it isn’t not just the ‘good vs evil’ paradigm that keeps people reading Fantasy, it’s the heroic. Not simply in terms of divine power or nobility of action, but in acheiving something against difficult odds.
In other words, success.
That set off a lightbulb. As humans, we spend much more of our time seeking progress than attaining it. Which is not a bad thing: it means we’re not static. We strive. And success is what we strive for. So right now I’m feeling my way around the idea that success is why the Romance genre remains so overwhelmingly powerful. Why the Fantasy genre is still expanding. Heck, it’s why sports are so popular. Think about it. Professional sports have a fixed time period, an immediate and potentially difficult objective, and a winner. Success!
Obviously when talking about Romance novels success does not automatically mean a concrete financial gain, career advancement, or the Stanley Cup. Those things might occur in the story, but as details, not the point. Much more important is the underlying feeling of accomplishment. The sense of fruition. Success is a character taking that step she was afraid to take/ couldn’t contemplate / didn’t know was there… and triumphing. We treasure that sensation in our lives, so of course we love it in our fiction.
The expressions of success are many, and they vary in size a scope according to every personal situation. So what does success look like in Romance? I’ve come up with a few broad categories; there are undoubtedly many more. But before I get into them I want to make it clear that the happy ending is not, in fact, the measure of success. It’s the result. The characters work their way to their happy ending because of the choices they make, because of the obstacles, internal or external, they overcome. Because they achieve other levels of success along the way.
Yes, all right, two paragraphs up I said that career advancement wasn’t the kind of success I meant. It’s still not. But most of us have to work, especially if we like to eat and live indoors and stuff. Most characters do too. And, like us, many of them work at jobs that are just okay. Or possibly less than okay, but pay enough to fulfill their obligations. Or worse, that don’t pay quite enough so they have to take a second job to scrap by and then are too tired and worn down to even try to find something else…
But sometimes life (aka: The Plot) forces you to reassess what you do for a living. It isn’t always easy, or pleasant. It might involve losing a business, or being fired. But when poverty isn’t an issue, having the chance to utterly change what you do can be a real life-changer. To work at something that challenges and delights – that’s success.
Historical: This is a tougher category, because although women have always worked, it’s only relatively recently that they got paid. But there are several. Like: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson (or watch the excellent movie with Frances McDormand); The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt.
Contemporary: Burn, by Linda Howard (although this one is about someone who wins the jackpot, she still gets fired and has to start her life anew); It Had to Be You, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
How many times have you heard the phrase ‘you can’t choose your family’? In fact, that’s not entirely true. You can’t choose the one you’re born into, but you constantly choose the family you create. I’m always suspicious of a character with no friends. A story can start that way, with an isolated heroine who has a problem connecting. But if she finishes with the same stunted social circle, the problem isn’t connecting, it’s her. Romances often celebrate the many connections we make, with collegues, friends, and partners.
That’s what family is: the collection of people you want to be with… and also, perhaps, those you need to leave behind. Some families are badly damaged. Occasionally, that damage can be understood, atoned for, and overcome. Healed. In other cases, the strong decision is to cut toxic ties completely. That’s hard, drastic work, but you can only sail when the anchor’s not weighing you down.
Historical: At Your Pleasure, Meredith Duran; Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase.
Contemporary: Smooth Talking Stranger, by Lisa Kleypas; No Place Like Home, by Barbara Samuel.
Ages ago I was in social work. My clients were teens who had been hurled past ‘at risk’ into ‘danger: quicksand’ without any choice or warning. Working in those circumstances taught me valuable lesson: sometimes success is simply an increase in time between catastrophic failures.
People, far too many of them, have pain in their pasts. Abuses, horrors, losses beyond bearing. Our whole history as a species tells us that we can survive the truly unthinkable. But it doesn’t leave us. It changes us forever and it doesn’t go away.
Romance novels testify that it doesn’t have to. Characters can learn to thrive, regardless of what cut them down. They don’t ‘get over’ their past hurts; they learn to grow despite, or around, or through them.
Historical: The Black Hawk, by Joanna Bourne; Always a Temptress, by Eileen Dryer.
Contemporary: Carolina Moon, by Nora Roberts. And the entire ‘In Death’ series she writes as J.D. Robb. The main character, Eve Dallas, built herself a purposeful life out of the wreckage of her past. But that past remains with her. Sometimes the jagged edges are close and cutting; sometimes they’re mere background noise. No matter the circumstances, Dallas goes on. She lives, works, and keeps making choices that help her do both to the best of her abilities. Watching her grow and change over the course of the series has been a definite education.
Funny thing about success: it can be addictive. In bad ways, which leads to things like wars, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis. But also in the manner of inspiration. We can look at other people’s trials — even when they’re fictional — and take pleasure in their successes. And even, possibly, learn to find our own.
That said, Chris Szego prolly wouldn’t mind if success came with even a few financial dividends. That’d be okay.
Chris, spot on. How can we write characters without families (even those who’ve all been murdered, as in the novel I’ve just completed), or friends? They exist in some kind of vacuum? What! This essay is packed with wisdom. I hope you do get paid.
(and yes, we do)
I found your insights into the idea of success as a motivation for reading a book a fascinating idea, one that I’d never really considered before. It really makes alot of sense though, so I’d consider the article a, well you get the idea.
It’s not the only motivation, of course. But I do think it’s one of the reasons we come back to the same kinds of story.
this is a fantastic line: “sometimes success is simply an increase in time between catastrophic failures.”
A loving and supportive family is part of the fantasy sometimes. Well put, and Watson’s novel doesn’t get near enough notice.