Thursday, November 09, 2006

Star-Crossed Lovers

In the latest ROMANTIC TIMES, I read about MaryJanice Davidson's forthcoming mermaid novel. Her heroine is only half mermaid and therefore can appear human and function on land. Romance between mermaids and human men isn't always that easy, though. The heroine of the movie SPLASH magically transformed into an apparently normal woman, but her legs turned into a tail whenever she got wet. The Little Mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale made a much rougher choice. She had to sacrifice her voice for legs, and every step felt like walking on knives.

In the absence of magic to transform a mermaid to a human woman (or her lover into a merman), the two would never be able to remain together, since they couldn't survive in each other's natural environments. I've just read a Silhouette Nocturne vampire romance, FROM THE DARK, by Michele Hauf, in which the heroine is a witch. In this fictional world, witches seem to comprise a subspecies of humanity. Witch blood is poisonous to vampires. Therefore, the hero and heroine are kept apart by their biology. Naturally, Hauf devises a way to overcome this barrier.

The Romeo and Juliet scenario, of course, the theme of lovers separated by a deep-rooted antipathy arising from their different backgrounds, is a perennial favorite among romance plots. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet actually had everything in their favor, aside from that silly family feud. They grew up in the same city, followed the same religion, and sprang from the same socio-economic stratum. If their parents had renounced the enmity between their houses before it was too late, the young couple would probably have enjoyed a successful marriage. Tony and Maria in the modern adaptation, WEST SIDE STORY, have more serious difficulties, coming from rival ethnic groups, but at least they live in the same city at a similar income level. For a truly tragic example of a love affair destroyed by differences in background, look at SOUTH PACIFIC. Both Nellie Forbush and Lt. Cable initially reject the people they love because of racial factors; Nellie's rich planter has fathered half-Polynesian children, and Lt. Cable's innocent Liat is Tonkinese (or possibly half, fathered by another French planter -- the movie doesn't go into details of her background). In James Michener's original book, TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC, Nellie's quandary is more wrenching and her reaction more blatantly racist; her would-be fiance has had multiple children by several mistresses of different races, and Nellie mentally applies the N-word to the Polynesian mistress. The ethnic barrier proves insurmountable for Lt. Cable, who rejects Liat and subsequently gets killed by the Japanese. Nellie comes to realize love is more important than the prejudices she has been "carefully taught," so she achieves a happy ending. To be fair to Lt. Cable, his dilemma really is more difficult than hers. Nellie joined the Navy for adventure and will have little difficulty in setting down new roots as the wife of a planter on a tropical island. In writing home to her family and friends, she can remain vague about her husband's previous "marriage." Lt. Cable would have to choose between abandoning his career and family to "go native" or taking poor Liat back to Philadelphia to face the contempt of his upper-middle-class social circle. Michener's short novel SAYONARA portrays a still worse scenario, a tragic love between an American soldier and his Japanese wife, whose marriage makes them outcast from both cultures. Their suicide affects the protagonist, an American officer also serving in occupied Japan, so deeply that he is forced to embrace his own love for a Japanese woman despite the cultural obstacles.

But suppose a hero and heroine come from such radically different worlds, literally, that they can't possibly form a romantic union? To produce a happy ending rather than a tragedy from this kind of plot, the author has to find a method of overcoming the barrier between them that doesn't look like a cop-out. This is a difficulty I often wrestle with in writing paranormal romances: If the obstacles keeping the lovers apart are convincingly serious, how can I invent a convincing solution to bring them together without, effectively, leaping over the crisis and starting the next scene with the equivalent of "once I got out of that pit..."?


  1. Very thought provoking, Margaret and wonderful examples. It lays out how deeply we crave conflict in fiction and how even more deeply we crave its resolution.

    The desire to succeed on a personal, person to person level is the ultimate. Can I accept him, warts and all, and can he accept me, warts and all?

    When you play this out on a paranormal or speculative fiction stage, everything becomes more intense and much larger.

    Which is why I think we write what we do.

    For me the answer to your question on how to do it is not to solve it all. Sometimes the answer is a minimal HEA--the best the two characters can achieve given the circumstances. Just as we, as writers, avoid the "Mary Sue" (overly perfect) character, we need to consider avoiding the Mary Sue ending.

    IMHO. ;-)

    Sometimes the struggle is part of the solution.

    I know that doesn't satisfy every reader. Some want everything wrapped up in a white wedding gown and coordinating picket fence. But especially in SFR or PNR, this is less likely to happen. Sometimes at the end of the story, the fact that the characters ADMIT their differences and prejudices and resolve to seek an answer is the most workable ending. It leaves it open, then, for the reader to play out any further ending in their imagination.

    Which ain't necessarily a bad thing.

    Let's face it, in reality, none of us know how our real life 'romance' is going to end. All we can say is this is where we are, here and now. Tomorrow our soul mate may pack up and leave. Or tomorrow our soul mate may commit to us even more deeply.

    What I do like--as I mentioned above--is to get a sense that the two characters are WORKING AT IT. This is where Chaz and Sully are left in my GABRIEL'S GHOST, and to a great extent, where Rhis and Trilby are at the end of FINDERS KEEPERS.

    "We're going to give it our best" to me is good place for any PNR/SFR romance to be on the final page. Because it still engages the heart and the imagination.

  2. Good thoughts! That's why I prefer a vampire romance in which the vampire doesn't get "cured" and the human lover doesn't get transformed. That seems almost like "cheating" rather than living with the differences that drew them together. (Of course, many authors use these scenarios quite effectively anyway.) Because my vampires are another species, no changing into each other's kind is possible.