Happily Ever After

Six weeks ago I complained about the lack of happily-ever-after romances in the Star Wars series.  It occurred to me that it would be useful to take a look at what exactly makes for a “happy ever after” ending (“HEA” in genre romance code).  What do we really mean by that, anyway?

The Thrill of the Chase

All the world loves a lover.”  We enjoy seeing stories about people falling in love, whether it’s with someone they’ve just met or by discovering someone who was always “right before my eyes.”  (Unless, of course, we’re too cynical to give any credence to so vulgar and sentimental an idea; in which case it’s the trope we love to hate.)  I’d call it the courtship phase of a relationship, if that term weren’t so archaic.  But “courtship” does express in a useful way the stage I’m referring to, when the lovers-to-be are maneuvering around each other, trying to figure each other out, and (almost invariably, in fiction) overcoming initial obstacles to their mutual attraction.

Couple silhouetted against sunset

“Forever Mine” by welshdragon at DeviantArt

It’s not hard to see why this is.  The courtship phase includes a lot of fun stuff.  We get to see the thrill of discovery, the novelty, the tentative reaching-out and missing connections, the achievement of initially establishing a base of trust and affection.  There’s uncertainty and thus suspense in those first contacts.  The process reminds me of the “handshaking” by which communications systems establish a protocol for exchange of information (anybody remember that windy ‘modem connecting’ sound on a dial-up connection?).

And this process is both tricky and essential.  The relationship can’t move forward until the common foundation is established.  I’ve quoted Lois McMaster Bujold before:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.  (Response to a reader question on Goodreads (10/30/2017).)

And the relationship does have to move forward.  Courtship is only a prelude.  It inherently looks forward to something else:  a life together.  (Even to “forever,” but that’s another subject.)  We feel something is missing in a case like that of Romeo and Juliet, where circumstances cheat the lovers of that opportunity.

Falling in love is fun to watch.  But if that’s all a character is interested in, we get the self-centered thrill addict who keeps wanting to have the same experience over and over again—as if they wanted to relive high school graduation repeatedly, Groundhog Day-style.  We can’t fall in love indefinitely; eventually we have to land somewhere.  Whether the story ends with a wedding or just a commitment, there has to be a conclusion.

Yet the conclusion itself is only the kickoff for the real relationship—the HEA.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”

What It Isn’t

“Happily ever after” doesn’t mean the initial thrill of falling in love lasts forever.  That simply isn’t possible; human emotions can’t remain at that fever pitch.  At some point, the “dizzy dancing way you feel” is going to ebb.  If we expect to feel the same way always, as I’ve just noted, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and unnecessary disillusion.  On the other hand, that thrill can always reappear from time to time.  Wise couples will take steps to encourage and renew that early glamour throughout their marriage.

Couple dancing, from Dancing in the Minefields music videoNor does HEA mean freedom from all troubles.  We can put this aside momentarily to celebrate a wedding, visualizing only a life of unimpeded bliss; but real lives invariably encounter problems and difficulties.  We may even want to remind ourselves of this on the occasion of union itself.  When I ran across Emily Hearn’s wedding video online, I was struck by the fact that the first piece of music set to the video was Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields”:  “And it was harder than we dreamed / But I believe that’s what the promise is for.”

Even the vision of a couple facing adversity staunchly side by side isn’t always going to be valid.  We’re told that even healthy couples have their arguments and disagreements.  Indeed, a couple that never disagrees may be harboring unresolved issues under the surface.

It seems to me that all these flaws or troubles can still be accommodated in the “happily ever after” archetype.  Couples can recover from adversity; it can make them stronger.  Even crises in a lifelong love affair can be healed or overcome.  It’s the overall trend or direction, and the overall tenor of the romance, that leads us to call it “happy.”  Of course, when we wish someone happiness forever, we hope that their troubles will be relatively few and their recoveries maximally joyous.  But a life together need not be perfect to be “happy.”

What It Is

If the ever-after need not be perpetual bliss to count as HEA, what is it made up of?  I am hardly so wise as to prescribe sure-fire ingredients for a happy marriage.  But if we think about what we’d expect to see in a story that depicted a happy couple, we can point to a few things.

Carly Simon singing The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

If it’s going to compete with the initial falling in love, being in love has to gain in depth and resonance what it loses in surface intensity and thrill.  It’s “the slow and steady fire.”

What can a couple that’s been together a while do that lovers who’ve just met can’t?  Consider the cumulative pleasures and joys of two people who know each other well and have learned how to please and help each other.  If they continue faithful to each other and to their union, their mutual trust will grow and deepen.  And the more they trust each other, the more each can express their individual strengths (and admit their individual weaknesses).

Since loving someone doesn’t consist only in having a feeling about them, but in enacting love for them, we can learn to love someone better through experience and attentive learning.  I may start by giving you a gift I would like—but eventually I learn how to give you the gift you would like.  Meanwhile, the sharing of memories and experiences, families, running jokes, can enrich and strengthen the bond.

All these things are compatible with the imperfections and difficulties noted above.  They make up what we’d expect to see, down the road, in a story that goes beyond the courtship—a happy-ever-after.

How We Tell the Story

Because the HEA lacks the surface glitter of the falling-in-love story, we see far fewer stories depicting it.  But for purposes of example and illumination, it’s very useful to see depictions of ongoing marriages.

Such mature romances can crop up in odd places.  For example, in a series that goes on beyond the resolution of initial relationships, or perhaps longer than the author expected, we may see the original lovers ‘age out’ of the focus, but still have the chance to watch them practice the art of love.

Shards of Honor coverExhibit A is Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  The first two books in the main sequence, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, deal with Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, whose son, Miles, is the principal character in most of the stories.  So we see Cordelia and Aral fall in love—but then we see them continue through a whole series of other tales as both parents and political prime movers on Miles’ homeworld of Barrayar.  We get to see them working together in common causes, both personal and cosmic.  We see their continuing affection and evident harmony.  Each is so distinctive a personality that we never think of either Aral or Cordelia as merely an extension of the other; rather, they provide an ongoing example of the kind of relationship we wanted to see in their initial stories—and to which Miles aspires for himself, having that example always before him.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us another example.  In the first book (as published, not chronologically), Dragonflight, we see the rocky road of the strong-willed main characters, Lessa and F’lar, to love.  Both of them are so stubborn and willful that it’s hard to picture them in a peaceful marriage.  And indeed, on Pern, nothing is ever entirely peaceful for long.  But as more couples come and go through the long series of sequels, F’lar and Lessa remain onstage a good bit of the time.  Neither is ever tamed, though they both mellow a bit.  The scrappy young Lessa becomes a little steadier and more mature as she gets older and has a child, but she still retains the original fire.

I frequently refer to the classic Lensman series, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the final novel, Children of the Lens, shows us the lovers whose activities dominated the three middle books, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall, as middle-aged parents a generation later.  The story is so action-oriented that we don’t get to see much of the family in peace, but what we do see gives us the satisfaction of knowing that Kim and Cris have lived a happy life together (and will continue to do so).  And since the surclimax (if I may invent a word for a secondary climax occurring after the main one) involves Clarissa’s use of the power of their mutual love to retrieve Kim from an otherwise unsolvable trap, it’s clear that the romantic connection consummated at the wedding in the previous volume (twenty years earlier) has not lost its fire.

Second Spring coverAndrew Greeley wrote a whole series of novels in which the romance is generally about falling in love.  But in his O’Malley family saga, in which the titles all refer to seasons (of life), he continues the story of one such couple from the post-WWII era right through their “Golden Years.”  The young lovers of A Midwinter’s Tale have to grapple with some pretty serious psychological issues themselves, as well as family drama, over the course of years.  But the “crazy O’Malleys” emerge stronger from their troubles as they go on, giving us a picture of people who are always becoming more themselves as they adjust to changing circumstances.

God is an Englishman coverThere is a subgenre of family sagas—the kinds of long-running, multicharacter stories that always make me think of TV mini-series—and some of these also give us extended looks at maturing romances.  In some such stories, the conflicts arise from the dysfunctionality of the family itself; Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels are a case in point.  But in others, we can see a couple holding strong.  I recently reread R.F. Delderfield’s God Is An Englishman, the first book of his “Swann saga.”  His central couple, Adam and Henrietta, grow in significant ways over the course of the story.  Their love waxes and wanes, but after it wanes, it always comes back.  I’d count that as a HEA.

The novella I’m just finishing up, Time Signature, takes place in the Deerbourne Inn common setting created by the Wild Rose Press.  This gave me the chance to show how a secondary couple who were engaged in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace was getting along, a little later.  While their appearance is brief, I enjoyed the opportunity to represent a growing post-courtship romance, even in its early years.

Real Life

For purposes of inspiration and example, of course it’s even more helpful to be acquainted with real-life successful relationships.  My parents, for instance, lived long and happy lives, and despite religious and political differences, they always remained in harmony.  Though they argued about many subjects, they never, so far as I know, quarreled.  While their lives could not be said to be untroubled (after all, I was one of their children), I’d say they qualified as a happy-ever-after.  I’m privileged to know a number of other couples whose romances have flourished over many years, on whom I’d be glad to bestow the accolade of HEA.

The accumulation of such real and fictional examples gives us the wherewithal to refute those who scoff at the happily-ever-after ending.  None of the characters of our favorite romances will have perfect later lives unmarred by any suffering or any down times in their love affairs.  But if we’re willing to accept that solid happiness can be consistent with life’s inevitable troubles, we can look forward with hope to a satisfactory ending for those couples who approach their lives with both realism and love.

The Stroke of Lightning

Love at First Sight

In French it’s “le coup de foudre,” “the stroke of lightning.”  Love at first sight—if we’re going to be talking about it so much, let’s call it LAFS for short (an especially good term if we’re doing romantic comedy)—is one of the most ancient, familiar, and infamous romance tropes.  But contemporary genre romance has its own spin on the matter.

Scene from It Only Takes A MomentThere are, of course, innumerable songs that memorialize this phenomenon, from the classic “Some Enchanted Evening” (from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific)—“you may see a stranger, across a crowded room”—to a more recent Colbie Caillat song, Brighter Than the Sun, which actually uses the phrase “lightning strikes the heart.”  Or simply consider the title of “It Only Takes a Moment,” which originated in Hello Dolly (1964) and was used to poignant effect in WALL-E (2008).

Shakespeare goes so far as to say “Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” (As You Like It, III.5.81), an homage to Christopher Marlowe, who’d said it before in his 1598 poem Hero and Leander (according to Wikipedia).  I need not mention Romeo and Juliet.

Aside from romance strictly speaking, LAFS can be useful in an adventure story, by way of what TV Tropes calls The Dulcinea Effect:  “the compulsion many male heroes have to champion, quest for, or die for girls they met five minutes ago.”  This can be contrasted with, or may lead to, a romance “forged in fire”—the notion that a couple may bond through having an adventure together.  I’m fond of this one myself, perhaps applied with one spin or another.

For the moment, let’s note that the instant-love convention is fun, but often seems implausible, not to mention clichéd.  One can see LAFS simply as a dramatic convention, like the Shakespearean soliloquy—but perhaps that’s not all there is to it.

Lust at First Sight

Shanna, book cover

The contemporary romance, more preoccupied with eros.

In modern genre romances, a great deal more emphasis is placed on physical desire than was the case in earlier tales.  As a result, LAFS takes a slightly different form.

In a “Some Enchanted Evening” or Romeo and Juliet scenario, the lovers’ beguilement may be almost spiritual, a sort of epiphany.  They are attracted to each other’s beauty, but there may be an element of reverence mixed in.  In the contemporary romance, on the other hand, the first impression is decidedly physical.  Once the main characters meet, they can hardly keep their hands off each other.

This sort of LAFS is both more plausible and less substantial than the more general sort.  It’s plausible because physical desirability can be evident at first sight.  It can be intensified by further acquaintance—getting to know the voice, actions, words, varied aspects of the beloved.  But the sexual attraction, at least, can be immediate.  This is traditionally true for males, but contemporary romance makes it abundantly clear that in at least some cases women react the same way.  Examples are so omnipresent as to make it unnecessary to cite them.

To do these stories justice, they recognize that insta-lust isn’t enough.  The main characters typically take an entire novel’s worth of events to really fall in love.  Lust (or, less tendentiously, sexual desire) is just the initial driver.  There’s a lot of “getting to know you” to be done before the story is over.  And a good deal of that usually happens through meeting obstacles or countervailing forces that need to be overcome.

Tension and Obstacle

If the romantic leads fall in love immediately, there have to be obstacles that prevent them from getting together at once.  Otherwise, the story will be very short.  I believe it’s from an entertaining opus entitled Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies that I recall the sage advice:  “If your story is ‘they came, they saw, they dated,’ then you don’t have a story yet.”  With intense attraction pulling the lovers together, they’ll collapse into each other at once unless there’s also something to push them apart.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t precisely true.  One could simply depict a couple gradually growing more interested in each other.  At first the romantic interest is just somebody they know or meet.  Then a greater interest awakens, attraction strengthens, and they reach that obsessive fascination that marks the “falling in love” stage.  This type of relationship might be the most common and realistic of all.  But it’s the hardest to manage for an author:  it requires depicting a whole series of attitudes developing at just the right pace.

I would love to see such a story.  But it would be much subtler and more gradual than the tempestuous narratives audiences tend to prefer.  Your average handbook on fiction writing will dwell at length on the importance of conflict in holding a reader’s interest—and for good reason.

Count to a Trillion coverThe obstacles that keep the lovers apart, then, may be external or internal.  The simplest external problem is physical separation.  In John C. Wright’s “Count to the Eschaton” series (it begins with Count to a Trillion, 2011), the star-crossed lovers connect in volume one.  However, the female lead, Rania, must embark on a slower-than-light interstellar voyage that will last twelve thousand years.  She will survive due to time dilation.  But it’s a good thing her earthbound partner, Menelaus Illation Montrose (there’s a name for you!), has ways of prolonging his life over the intervening millennia.  In the meantime, their relationship is on hold.

A more conventional separation can be seen in tales from the Age of Sail, when sea travel around the world might take years—shorter than millennia, but long enough in a human life.  Captain Jack Aubrey, for example, the perennial hero of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, frequently spends months at a time apart from his beloved Sophie.

External obstacles may also include dangers that keep the characters otherwise occupied—from immediate peril in an action-adventure story to blackmail or other threats—as well as social or cultural barriers like those faced by Romeo and Juliet.

In a less action-oriented tale, the obstacles are more character-based or internal.  The love affair may be interrupted by disputes (You’ve Got Mail), misunderstandings, antipathy for one reason or another (Pride and Prejudice), or by one or the other person’s inner character issues, such as previous bad experiences or trust issues (where the Big Lie often plays a role).  External and internal problems can be combined in romantic thrillers like Don’t Look Down (Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, 2007).

In each case, the characters’ initial attraction, the LAFS moment, keeps pulling them together in spite of the difficulties, ad astra per aspera.  They just can’t resist each other, no matter what plausible reasons might be given for trying.  The combination of opposing drives creates the fruitful tension that keeps the reader’s interest.

White Smoke coverIt’s worth noting that Andrew Greeley counterposes desire in a similar way to the more mundane obstacles of daily life.  In White Smoke (1996), Blackie Ryan, a frequent Greeley spokesperson character, observes:  “human sexuality is distinct from the sex of other primates in that it is for bonding as well as for procreation.  The bond between husband and wife stretches like a rubber band. . . . Then, when it is at the breaking point, the force of passionate love draws them together again.”  This is a constant theme in Greeley’s novels.  In other words, lust or desire isn’t just for beginnings, for LAFS.  It continues to play a vital role throughout a love affair and into marriage.

But I digress.

Retrospective Love

One of my brothers once asked the other two of us whether we believed in LAFS.  The three of us ultimately came to the same conclusion.  You can fall for someone at first sight, yes; but you won’t know if it’s love until much later.

The instant attraction is a good starting point.  But it can’t ripen into love unless the participants come to know more about each other’s personality, character, interests, and so on.  We have to see someone in a variety of circumstances:  what they’re like with family, friends, enemies; when they’re mad, happy, sleepy; over the long run.  (The plausibility of the “forged in fire” adventure-romance is that strenuous situations reveal more about someone’s character than more ordinary casual interactions.)  As an old Orleans song puts it, “love takes time.”

Later on, when the couple has grown closer enough to know that they really do love each other, they can look back at their first meeting and say, that was when we began to fall in love.  And they won’t be wrong.  Chances are they felt that initial attraction right then, and now they know that was the beginning of a love story.

But that couldn’t have been predicted from the moment of LAFS.  Some such moments sputter out:  they prove to be mere temporary infatuation, or the admired individual turns out to be unavailable (already married, for instance), or on getting to know them better they find that they aren’t as good a fit as they thought.  We can’t know, from the initial thunderbolt alone, that it’s going to lead to a true love story.

So we can fall in love at first sight; but we can only say that retrospectively, after the fact.

Emma, coverThis points up an important difference between stories and real life.  If we’re reading a story—particularly a genre romance—we can generally be confident that LAFS will lead to a deeper relationship between the characters.  We predict that not from LAFS itself, but from genre and narrative expectations.  This isn’t always borne out:  some tales will start by introducing a romantic interest who doesn’t turn out to be The One, later to be displaced by the real article.  Jane Austen’s Emma is a brilliant example of this twist:  among other comic errors, the heroine thinks she’s in love with Frank Churchill, but it takes the entire novel for her to realize that it’s her longtime friend George Knightley that she really loves.  But as a rule, if the heroine is devastated by the attractions of someone in Chapter the First, that’s who she will end up with in Chapter the Last.

In real life, we have no such guarantee.  Life is a story, but it’s not always constructed according to our narrative rules—at least in the short run.  We cannot know in advance whether the object of desire who’s just swum into our ken is really our destiny.

Conclusion

As the famous sage Wikipedia observes, LAFS fits in neatly with the notion, put forth as far back as Plato, that the beloved is our “other half,” the one who makes us complete—what we might call the theory of complementarity.  In Plato’s dialogue, Aristophanes suggests that meeting our other half leads directly to an intoxicating attachment to the other person.

Would that it were so simple.  If our whole selves were evident at first glance—if our appearance fully expressed our selves—that might work:  who you really are would be “written all over your face.”  But in fact a given moment or aspect expresses something about who we are, but not everything.  Even in the best case, we can’t possibly absorb everything about a person at first sight—which may be a good thing, as it allows us some privacy and reserve.  In worse cases, though, the other may deliberately deceive us or conceal things that would compromise our love.  That’s why love takes time.

Lois McMaster Bujold once said, “The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not ‘Do these two people get together?’ but rather ‘Can I trust you?’  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.”  The answer to that question we can only learn by extensive experience—though perhaps that experience can be compressed to some degree by experiences that show our true natures in condensed fashion (the “forged in fire” trope).  Only at length can we really know love at first sight.