Friday, October 16, 2009

For lack of an HEA

According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), a story has to have an optimistic and mutually satisfying ending to be defined as a romance. It’s what romance writers call the HEA or Happily Ever After. If your story doesn’t have one, it’ll get classified as another genre – mainstream or women’s fiction perhaps – at least by RWA.

HEAs aren’t as easy to come up with as one might think, especially for me. I’m much more a pragmatist and have to reach deep into my thinking hat to undue the situations I get my characters into. That’s probably why I write stories with a supernatural twist. Sometimes there’s just no way reality will let people out of the dilemmas they land themselves in. But I possess the power to offer my characters a second chance.

If I could use my magic in real life, I’d offer it to a couple of cast members in Detroit’s mayoral text messaging drama (which, after a year, has finally quieted down.) Not being an eyewitness to the situation, what I read of the affair between former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his Chief of Staff, Christine Beatty, makes great fiction fodder.

I used to live in the city of Detroit. I’m in the suburbs now, but I keep saying that once I (a) have enough money to send my kids to private schools or (b) they’re old enough to attend Cass Tech or Renaissance High then I’d love to return. I miss the vibrancy, the struggle for legitimacy, the potential greatness enmeshed in every concrete fiber. But when I first heard about the Mayor’s dalliances and their ramifications on the city, my inner half full/half empty glass fell over and emptied itself out.

Aside from gasping, "Geez, He’s sunk," I had a few simple thoughts when I heard the stories: Carlita, Lou, Kwame, Christine. Those are the four players in this contemporary romance and I actually feel sorry for all of them – yes, even the two in the wrong – Kwame and Christine.

I can’t imagine being Lou (Christine’s now ex) and perhaps suspecting that your wife is "involved" with your boyhood acquaintance who also happens to be her boss. It’s also tough putting myself in Carlita, the former First Lady’s, shoes. She’s already had her downs with this hubby (Kwame), but (at least publicly) remains by his side – only to have everybody now know what has been rampantly rumored for years.

The text messages obtained and published by the Detroit Free Press (and those they chose to withhold) would probably rate several flames on a Romantic Erotica scale. So Kwame issued a statement saying he was embarrassed. Carlita had to be as well, and a wee bit ticked off, too, don’t you think? Lou, who declined comment on the matter, would be justifiable in citing the trysts as the basis for their divorce. I can’t fathom the depth and sting of Christine’s shame over the revelations either.

However, I’m not looking at this from a political or legal perspective. No, I, the romance novelist, look at these people in the public eye (whom I do not know) as characters in a fictional tragedy. Stay with me here.

Imagine a pair of star-crossed lovers, Kwame and Christine, who because of fate’s merciless hand can be together only at a distance. Write in the secondary characters, the scorned wife, Carlita, and the jilted husband, Lou.

Our main plot features the heroine Christine, a (married) career woman who works for the (married) Alpha Male hero she’s always loved, Kwame. She’s beautiful and smart. He’s charming and powerful. The romance revolves around the long-term unrequited relationship between the ill-fated duo. Lastly, there’s a strong subplot encompassing a lawsuit lost by their employer and the fact that they lied under oath to protect their love.

Wow, great story, isn’t it? Except that. . .hmmm. . .there’s no HEA in sight here.

In real life, both the hero and heroine of this story went to jail. However, short their sentences, the ordeal has certainly created deep scars in their personal and professional lives. Sex, love, lies? Definitely not a romance.

So, here comes the magic: The heroine discovers her strength early in the story and re-writes her tale by accepting dinner with a quiet young man who’s been waiting in the wings. Red herron cast aside, the true hero emerges and forges a new ending to the heroine’s journey. No courtrooms, no time served, no scandal or shame.

Where’s that wand when you need it?

Stefanie Worth


Jewel Amethyst said...

Wow, sounds like a soap opera. The first "romance" novel I wrote didn't have a happy ending but some redemption and I could not get it published as romance. It's still unpublished. Maybe I need some guardian angels :)

The aches of genre specificity...

Phyllis Bourne said...

I get so tied up in the HEA. I forget to give my h/h jobs. I think I expect them to live on love.

Didn't Kwame's mama set up up with a cush consulting job in Texas???? I guess HE got a HEA.

Liane Spicer said...

Phyllis, LOL!

Yup, HEAs are hard. There's ALWAYS a war going on between the romantic and the cynic in me. I'm no expert but I don't think there can ever be a romance novel HEA for two adulterers in a situation like the one you cited. Readers of romance, as far as I know, do NOT sympathize with adulterers, unless the scorned wife/husband is so evil/duplicitous her/himself that the reader has no choice but to think s/he deserved the comeuppance.

And this is where your magic wand comes in, I suppose. As the writer you can manipulate the characters and plot to guide the reader's sympathies where you want to. Unlike in real life situations - like the mayor's.