To Hell With Happily-Ever-After’s
As a Romance author, that’s probably one of the most scandalous things to declare, as the “happily-ever-after” (or “HEA” in Romance speak) is a key feature of Romance books. It’s actually one of the attributes that sets Romance apart from other genres of literature which often have a more “realistic” or less than rosy ending. On some level, I get it. Some Romance fans argue that reading Romance is an escape and in that escape they want something that feels good. Ho-hum or sad endings aren’t part of that equation. Pride and Prejudice serves as a case in point; it was Mr. Darcy or bust.
I, for one, like happy endings. I really do. However, what I don’t like, and what I believe is to the detriment of the Romance genre, is the fact that the need for the HEA dictates the flow of the story. It forces the author to needlessly invent conflict when it’s not called for or to fill the plot with endless clichés just to get to the all too predictable ending.
The lack of realism in Romance also troubles me deeply because as a married woman who has had prior relationships, I can say with confidence that HEA’s don’t exist. And frankly the mere belief that they do adds to the problems men and women have in how they approach relationships and what they look for in a partner.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe my husband and I won’t make it. We will, but not because we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that marriage and a single partnership, will automatically bring us happiness. Rather happiness, like everything else, is something that requires work to attain. In no way does finding a person — even the “right” person — assure us happiness of any kind. If anything, it merely promises the potential for some happiness over time.
However, the HEA endings in Romance don’t just spotlight potential. They promise happiness for eternity with a ring and a wedding and sometimes a baby. (And if you have children like I do, we all know happiness is not something one experiences while changing diapers or waking for night feeds or discussing why tube tops shouldn’t be worn by anyone under the age of 21 — or, in my case, like ever). The reality is that a ring doesn’t say much (except that someone just probably spent more money than he/she should’ve), marriage often ends in divorce and not everyone wants or can have children.
Real life is so much more than the HEA, and we’ll never really be able to fully embrace the complexities and challenges we face in life when the stories we read or movies we watch smooth over these rough edges and sell us what we know isn’t real but want to believe is. Can’t we create love stories with more realistic conflicts and endings that show a couple choosing each other, consciously deciding that being together means a greater potential for happiness than being apart?
In Romance, the compromise to that question is the “happily-for-now”, or “HFN” ending. It’s not very popular, but some readers are willing to accept it. To me, love relationships open the heart to new experiences and incredible life lessons, which is what I try to impart in my stories. Had I believed that each of my boyfriends were a potential HEA, instead of growing and learning from them, I would’ve just experienced disappointment after disappointment not understanding why my needs and expectations weren’t being met. Instead, I saw each of them as HFN’s, people who had something to teach me along my path, even if it was something as simple as what not to look for in a long-term partner. So much of what we can learn from relationships has to do with seeing ourselves through a different lens for our own growth. If we commit ourselves to an HEA early on, we deny ourselves the chance for greater happiness and the opportunity for self-discovery.
My latest book, Blossoming Flower, has an HFN ending. Given that my character is twenty-one, I didn’t feel right committing her to more, although I hinted at it. It wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility for her to end up with the MC (Romance code for male character) because her growth and development as a character in the novel derived from more personal and family conflicts than her relationship with the MC. However, I believed it would have been disingenuous of me as an author to write an ending that wasn’t going to happen for a while (in my mind), and I didn’t want to cheat and put it in an epilogue just to give some sense of closure to readers. I wanted them to be able to imagine it for themselves.
It’s this need to know, this desire for closure or to meet defined expectations that can ruin a story. It’s not to say that a story cannot have an HEA or an HFN or some open-ended conclusion. All the possibilities should be available in Romance just as they are in literary fiction. What’s beautiful about Romance, and why I enjoy writing it so much, is that everything is possible. The emotional aspect of writing in this genre gives an author complete freedom over character development and conflict so long as the HEA isn’t set in stone. Once it is, it shapes the story too much, and even if you have a happy ending, it’s not necessarily the kind of ending that would be right for the character.
Just like in life, it’s important to recognize how much our expectations can shape our paths. But by recognizing the potential and keeping an open mind, we’re not erasing our HEA’s but creating the possibility for an ending greater than we can possibly conceive.
Vivian Winslow is the pen name for Elizabeth A. Hayes. She is the author of The Gilded Flower Trilogies and the Wildflowers Series, contemporary, inclusive romance fiction with a strong female narrative. In addition to writing, Elizabeth is a spirtual teacher and healer.
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