Anatomy of a Romance

My current work in progress (the second part of a planned trilogy) has no love story, almost no romantic elements at all. Neither does the first part, and nor will the third. This was a deliberate choice. My protagonist is fully occupied with such matters as infiltrating forbidden districts of the city, plotting rebellions and then navigating an uneasy peace with her people’s former oppressors. She has no emotional energy remaining to even develop a crush on anyone, let alone fall in love. I wanted to explore all the different relationships and personal journeys a person could undergo outside of romance, because romantic love is not the solitary pinnacle of existence. I feel like it’s particularly important for a female character, as they are so often side-lined as “nothing more than a love interest.”

Having said that, it’s been a challenge. Not because I’ve to restrain myself from pushing Issa into the arms of a ravishingly handsome young man. Within my story, the choice feels right, natural and uncontrived. It’s just a significant departure for me. Every novel I’ve written previously has contained at least a few romantic elements. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t write much in the official genre of romance, but I really do enjoy writing love stories in the context of a wider genre like fantasy or sci-fi. And right now I’m missing it.

I realized this because I’ve been suddenly finding myself fan-girling pretty intensely about Beauty and the Beast, in a number of different variants. It seems this is my unconscious way of satisfying the inclinations that my current novel isn’t fulfilling. I’d like to explore this, because I think it says a lot about me in terms of my view on romance and how I approach it when I do write it.

It’s always been my favorite fairy tale, and right now it seems just the thing to satisfy my romantic predilections. While wandering around Youtube looking for something in German to brush up my rusty language skills, I found a rendition of Die Schöne und das Biest that was quite charming. And it just happened that the elementary school in the district where my husband teaches was borrowing the high school auditorium to put on an performance of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Jr.), and offered him complimentary tickets. It was also charming, in a watch-these-little-kids-barely-remember-their-lines-and-cues kind of way. And wouldn’t you know, even hearing a fifth-grader sing “Beauty and the Beast” made me tear up a little. Still my favorite Disney movie. I’ve been playing all the songs on the piano pretty much constantly the last few days.

Then I went ahead and re-read my own Beauty and the Beast story, Other. Still the only book I’ve written whose main plot is a love story, a true romance like none of my other novels. It’s about seven years old, and I know it could use a lot of polishing, but I still love it. I liked playing with the tropes in a fresh way by reversing the genders. I liked creating the character of the creature, who is flawed in so many ways but still not really monstrous. From Alain, my male version of Beauty, she starts to learn the meaning of true strength – not being solitary or all-powerful, but being forgiving, gracious, allowing others into her life and forming bonds with others.

Why do I love this fairy tale so much? I don’t like every rendition of it. I don’t like versions that lessen the severity of the Beast’s hideous appearance. I don’t like it when they lean more towards his character being beastly – the proverbial “bad boy” – and imply that he’s all the more attractive for having a dark, mysterious side. Blech. And I certainly recognize that it has the potential to glamorize an extremely unhealthy, abusive, Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship. That’s the wrong way to do it.

Here’s what I like about it, when it’s done right. It fully abolishes the notion of love at first sight. I don’t like that trope; I don’t think it’s real, and I think narratively speaking it’s a cheap short-cut in lieu of actual relationship development. It’s fine to have a character meet someone and notice that they’re attractive, maybe even get those butterflies in the stomach and fantasize about something romantic. But that’s not love; that’s just attraction.

I don’t think you can meet the person you’re “fated to be with” and recognize them at once. In fact, I don’t think there’s any single person you are absolutely destined to be with at the expense of all other potential partners; I like free will and active choice way more than being a slave to the whims of fate, and I think choosing someone is insanely more romantic than being smooshed together by destiny.

Now, I do think you can meet someone, have instant sparks, develop a relationship and then remember that first meeting, endowing it with a happy, hazy nostalgia of how you just knew from that moment that it was the One. But it wasn’t. Not then, at the instant of your meeting. It was the start of a possible One. And now that you’ve had the chance to spend time together, get to know each other, create memories and work through those initial bumps and jolts of two different people coming together, that person can become the one. I feel that way about my husband. If there’s any such thing as soulmates, it’s people who make an active choice to become so, and continue to work at it. Happily ever after isn’t something you receive; it’s something you work at anew every single day. So if meeting someone gives you butterflies, that’s all very nice, but it’s probably just superficial attractiveness. Is there any foundation beyond that? Maybe, maybe not.

Not so with the pair in Beauty and the Beast. The beast is so hideous that you know it can’t be a superficial attraction. If she falls in love with him, she has to fall in love with his soul and nothing else. It’s a love story that takes time. And it’s so, so satisfying when Beauty makes her declaration and breaks the spell.

I like the Disney version because the Beast, at his worst, is basically like a spoiled kid who doesn’t know what to do when he doesn’t get his way. That doesn’t make his behavior acceptable, and in fact when Belle comes face to face with one his temper tantrums she doesn’t put up with it. She walks (runs) straight out the door. The Beast doesn’t force her to come back. Instead he ends up saving her life in the woods. Belle returns the favor, and they begin, bit by bit, to compromise and see different sides of each other. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s definitely a far more developed, convincing love story than most of the Disney fairy-tale adaptations.

When I got the idea to write a version with the roles reversed, I knew there were a few other details I wanted to tweak besides the genders. I felt for my creature it was important that she had no idea how to break the curse, so she doesn’t keep Alain there with the desperate but calculated purpose of getting him to love her.She’s spent years trying to turn herself human again before finally giving up and being resigned and miserable in her solitude. She doesn’t want him there at all. She was careless in one of her spells and it results in him being trapped there.  Alain doesn’t want anything to do with her at first, but once he becomes aware of the magic of the Other World, he is keen to learn more. Their teacher-student partnership is the first relationship they form after being nothing but enemies. Then they arrive at an uncertain friendship. Then she realizes she’s fallen in love with him, but this is of course horrifying for her. Not only is she certain that he considers her repulsive and hateful, she’s also leery of the very idea of romantic relationships, believing them weakness, a ceding of power. It’s only when she lets go of that notion and is willing to completely sacrifice her needs for someone else’s that the climax is set in motion.

I wrote the novel entirely from Alain’s point of view right up until the end, when she tells him her story. I’m not entirely sure if this was the right choice. I wanted to maintain the mystery and give a nice big bunch of revelations after the climax of the transformation….but maybe that means the creature’s character is too cryptic, maybe even unlikable. It would be a pretty sizable rewrite to change that. Or….hah, if I somehow managed to get Other published and it become wildly successful, I could churn out a companion novel from her viewpoint. That’s all the rage nowadays, isn’t it? But I did enjoy writing Alain. In a lot of ways he’s like me – uncomfortable at the very idea of conflict, quiet and thoughtful but passionate when it really counts. I loved writing his journey to realizing he’s in love with the creature, because it’s really quite confusing for him. I did my best to avoid the notion that the creature’s transformation into a beautiful woman is a reward for his goodness – I don’t describe her as beautiful when he first sees her, just “an unfamiliar woman.” He only starts to think of her as beautiful when he realizes she was the creature.

Back to why I switched the genders. The world is unkind to anyone who doesn’t fit within a narrow standard of beauty, but so much more for women than for men. So many stories, particularly YA fiction, have a female protagonist with a rather low opinion of her looks, and a dreamy guy who tells her how gorgeous she is even if no one else recognizes that beauty. I understand the fantasy of that. But wouldn’t it be better, far more empowering, if her looks aren’t the point of interest at all, if he falls deeply and wildly in love with her soul and then everything about her becomes beautiful? Not every girl is lucky enough to look like a model. But every girl deserves someone who loves her, deeply, wildly, far beyond surface attraction. That’s part of why I wrote Other. Sure, it’s not going to single-handedly change the world (especially not if it never gets beyond my own hard-drive) but it was a story I needed to explore, needed to tell if only to myself.

Now back to my romance-free novel….