Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Misery, Romance's Essential Ingredient

Romeo and Juliet (1968 film)
Romeo and Juliet (1968 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Or, if not misery, then at the very least, Serious Conflict.

It makes everything in romance better, like baking with vanilla.

Don't believe me? When was the last time you were enthralled by this romantic story:
Once upon a time, two happy, well-adjusted people of similar and appropriate age met and fell in love. Their loving, supportive families and communities couldn't do enough to lend support to the new couple, who shared the same values, goals, religious beliefs, and economic class status. After a dating period that was neither too short nor too long [hey, wake up! I see you nodding off] they married and lived happily ever after.
We want to live that story. We don't want to read or watch that, because as a story, it's boring.

Lovers Against The Whole World

We want class barriers, family feuds, forbidden love.  We want insurmountable odds the couple must battle to overcome to be together, and even if they fail in the end, à la Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story's Tony & Maria, or Titanic's Rose and Jack, at least they got to be together for those few, blissful hours. *wipes away a tear*

In some ways, doomed romances are even better than those that are fulfilled, because we never have to witness the inevitable bickering: It's your turn to get up with the baby; Have you seen my keys?; My god, what is that smell

We don't have to watch Romeo's hairline recede or Julie's breasts sag.

Mind you, even if the author doesn't kill off one (or both) of the lovers, it's usually better if s/he ends the story while the passion is still hot and before tedium sets in.

Love As A Black Hole

Then there's the "pull" of two people with incredible chemistry who fight their attraction all the way, not wanting to be in love with each other. But, like a black hole, we know they're going to to get sucked in eventually. That's the fun of it; we see it, even if the characters don't.

Moonlighting's Maddie (Cybil Shepherd) and Dave (Bruce Willis - speaking of receding hairlines). Romancing the Stone's Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) and Jack Colton (Michael Douglas).

And of course, Gone With The Wind's Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.  That incredible kiss while Atlanta wasn't the only thing burning:
He was kissing her now and his mustache tickled her mouth, kissing her with slow, hot lips that were as leisurely as though he had the whole night before him. Charles had never kissed her like this. Never had the kisses of the Tarleton and Calvert boys made her go hot and cold and shaky like this. He bent her body backward and his lips traveled down her throat to where the cameo fastened her basque...

Oh, my!  *fanning self with hand*

Gentlemen (and ladies), that is how to kiss, as if nothing else is going on, even if the whole world is exploding around you, and your woman thinks she's in love with someone else.

Three's Not Always A Crowd

Love triangles take the best elements of forbidden love and the irresistible attraction, and if done right, we still root for the lovers, even though by society's rules we should despise them. In the myths and legends of King Arthur, we have Queen Guinevere and Lancelot (yes, I know, much of this was layered on later). In real life, we had aging Catherine of Aragon, her husband of 18 years, Henry VIII, and innocent victim? scheming interloper? Anne Boleyn.

However she initially felt about him - it can be quite dangerous to scorn a King's affection - there is no question that Henry was besotted by Anne:  
"...I would you were in mine arms, or I in yours, for I think it long since I kissed you."

King Henry and Anne Boleyn Deer shooting in Wi...
King Henry and Anne Boleyn Deer shooting in Windsor Forest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The thrill of the hunt during the thrill of the hunt
Henry was willing to turn his kingdom upside down for her, to break with the Pope, a kind of breathtaking passion that sounds quite romantic - on paper.  Later, he was also passionate enough, in a different direction, to have Anne's head chopped off. In real life, generally a husband doesn't have the power to have his spouse legally executed when he's sick of her, but tragically, too many women (and some men) are killed by their spouses and lovers.

Back to GWTW - there was the Scarlett-Ashley-Melanie triangle, plus the Ashley-Scarlett-Rhett triangle.  Triangles all over the place, like Southern-fried geometry.

Then there was Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester, and (unbeknownst to Jane) crazy Mrs. Rochester chained up in the attic.

Mad, Mad Love

Juana la Loca via Wikimedia
Another scenario that makes for an exciting story is when one member of the couple or triangle is actually, diagnosably, not right in the head. In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester couldn't be with Jane because of Mrs. Rochester - only nobody except Mr. R and Mrs. R's keeper/bodyguard knows that Mrs. R is still alive. Whether you think that Mr. R is a cad for not telling Jane about Mrs. R., or about trying for a more humane arrangement for the woman than chaining her in the attic, or a hero for not accidentally-on-purpose slipping her a little too much laudanum, her presence certainly adds a certain spice to the love affair.

What happens when you fall in love with someone and s/he goes insane (possibly gets PTSD following a major trauma, like being deployed overseas), or becomes alcohol or drug-addicted? (When A Man Loves A Woman.) This can make for a great story.

Don't go too far, though. In Real Life, Joanna of Castile (aka Juana la Loca) was so deeply in love with her husband Philip the Handsome that after he died, she used to travel with his coffin, and regularly drag his decaying corpse out of the box to caress and kiss it.  Girlfriend, unless you are mated to a vampire and everybody knows this, that whole necrophilia thing is gonna squick people out.

Killing Me Not So Softly

One big genre in romance is the suspense/thriller genre. Few things throw people together as quickly and urgently as somebody shooting at them. To put it crudely, if they're imminent danger of dying, the adrenalin gets flowing, and many people want one last f*ck before they die. *raises hand guiltily*

If your characters do get shot or stabbed or blown up, make sure you don't actually blow them into too many pieces. Remember: life-threatening wounds (followed by mind-blowing sex within a totally unrealistic time frame) = excellent drama.   Actual death of main character = mood (and plot) killer.

Unless it comes at the very end, after we've already had a satisfying consummation, à la R & J, or Titanic.

Back to the "But He's a Muslim Jet, and She's a Wiccan Shark" Thing

When I was a little girl, Meredith Baxter and David Birney starred in a TV show called Bridget Loves Bernie, about a wealthy Catholic woman in love with a poor Jewish man, and the difficulties that ensued, because the religion issue, at the time, was huge. From Wikipedia:
With a primetime slot between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Saturday nights, the situation comedy was #5 in the ratings among all shows for that television season and obtained a 24.2 rating, tying with The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. Nevertheless, CBS executives decided to cancel the show in response to hate mail from viewers who objected to the inter-religious marriage depicted on the series. It was the highest-rated television program ever to be canceled after only one season.
The stars fell in love themselves, married in 1974, and had three kids together. After divorcing in 1989, Baxter remarried and re-divorced. Most recently, Bridget (Meredith Baxter) has announced that now she loves Nancy, another woman, and as far as I can tell, nobody has batted an eye.  I also find it interesting that nobody sent hate mail about the rich marries poor aspect of B Loves B, something that isn't so easy to manage in Real Life.

At the same time as BLB premiered, there were still places in the United States where a person of Caucasian descent could not legally marry a person of African-American descent. Much as today, there are few states where men can marry men, or women can marry women, and even in states where it is legal, it's not yet legal for income tax purposes. I don't think anyone doubts that within the next decade, or at the longest, two decades, "gay marriage" will be legal everywhere in the US.

While there are adoptable children languishing in foster homes, and elderly couples on their second, third (fourth or more) marriages, the whole "but in nature these couples can't reproduce" argument goes flying out the window.

Mississippi Masala
Mississippi Masala (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Still, marriage and couplehood goes deeper than a compatible shade on the Pantone color chart or the way one's plumbing is assembled. Putting aside the whole "Grandma would shit a brick" or "Dad will hit the ceiling," or that "the neighbors will whisper" issue, it is a great challenge to become a couple with someone of a completely different cultural background.

Mix It Up, indeed. 

Mississippi Masala dealt with a romance between an Indian-American woman (originally from Uganda) and an African-American man from Mississippi. Who "owns" the truest African cultural heritage in that situation?

While the whole "Us Against the World" Situation can push a couple together, what if the whole world isn't pushing back, but quietly minding its own beeswax? The dynamic, both for a storyteller, and for someone trying to live the life, is to find and express new ways to understand the inner conflict between two people who want to be together, but are pulled apart by internal, rather than external forces.

Is That My Mother On The Phone?

What if the love triangle isn't between a man and two romantic interests, but between his wife and his mother? That's the premise of Everybody Loves Raymond, where there's a married man still a bit too enmeshed with Mommy Dearest (who just happens to live across the street). It could just as easily be the wife who is still closer to her mother than her new mate, or closer to her daddy, or her friend from elementary school.

Wandering Back to the Main Point

If we want an engaging romance - to read, watch, listen to - we need Misery, aka Conflict. We do not want to eavesdrop on endless pages of goo-goo ga-ga "I love you more," vs."No, I love you more, my Cinnamon Applesauce Surprise."  We need some of that, but mostly, we want the angst, the misery, the "OMG, these people belong together but there's no way they can ever make it work."  And then, somehow, the writer makes it work.

That's the satisfaction of True Love.  When despite all the odds, our couple gets together anyway.

Who's your favorite fictional (or real-life) couple? Why?
(Besides you & your spouse, you don't want me to get all stabby.)
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