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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taking Risks with the Happy Ever After

I'm a huge fan of the Happy Ever After. It doesn't matter which genre I'm reading, I still want to feel warm and satisfied and, yes reassured, when I get to the end of a book. Of course this doesn't work out well for me sometimes. My favourite reads include crime and thrillers and although the ending may satisfy in the sense that the mystery is solved and the bad guys caught, there's an unhappy ending for someone, usually the corpse. If the victim wasn't very pleasant then that's fine. That's why I enjoy watching Midsomer Murders. Maybe that's also why I don't read much gritty crime with random violence in it. I hear enough about that on the news. And then there's non-fiction. I love reading historical biographies but frankly I know that if I'm reading about Anne Boleyn, for example, then there's an appointment with the executioner waiting and history isn't going to change. So even as I read the book I'm preparing myself.

When I taught creative writing we did a session on the importance of endings and the different types of endings that there are in books. “And they all lived happily ever after” is the classic last line. It’s easy to dismiss this as a formula but it's far more important than that. It’s a reassurance and it sums up the theme of the story. In fairy tales, folk tales and romances the story is about conflicts and barriers to happiness. The reassurance for the reader is that all is well and will continue to be so after the end of the book. Jane Austen uses this theme to end her books. Emma ends with the words: "the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” Perfect happiness. That's what I want.

In other genres, though, slightly ambiguous endings do seem to be popular, as though hinting that although things seem okay for now, who knows what is going to happen in the future. Perhaps this is a reflection of the world we live in. But again, that's the world I'm trying to escape in my reading. I remember being slightly disappointed when I got to the end of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and the last line was: “Tonight, for the first time ever, I can sort of see how it’s done.” It didn't inspire me with confidence. Even worse, when I finished Fatherland by Robert Harris and I was on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happened: “He took off his cap and threw it, sent it skimming across the grass the way his father used to skim flat stones across the sea. Then he tugged the gun from his waistband, checked to make sure it was loaded, and moved towards the silent trees.” AND? I assume there weren't pages missing at the end of my copy.

I'm an unrepentant escapist in my fiction, and in my writing I can make those HEAs happen. Which makes it all the more shocking when occasionally I hear from a reader who tells me that they weren't convinced by my Happy Ever After. This, after all, is the pact that I make with the reader. I will provide a believable and satisfactory happy ending. Actually I'm trying to provide the best damn story I can with an ending that will blow readers away. I want to make sure that they believe my hero and heroine will still be together in fifty years time. So when I first got feedback like that, for Lord of Scandal, I thought: "I've failed. Where did it all go wrong?"

Well, of course I had failed with that individual reader. There's no getting away from that. But I'm not so sure I've failed overall. For me part of the enormous challenge of writing historical romance is to twist the conventions and to give my characters deep and fundamental conflicts that means that their behaviour puts their happy ever after at risk. Then I do my very best to show the change and growth in those characters which ensures that they will be happy. I know this isn't going to convince all the readers all the time but if it works for most people most of the time then I'm very happy and I think I've done a good job.

With Lord of Scandal, I always knew that the character of Ben Hawksmoor was going to be controversial. Born into poverty, disowned by his father who denounced him as a bastard, Ben had to fight for everything in his life and as a result valued financial security above everything else. He was selfish, self-interested and utterly materialistic. When asked by his cousin if there was anyone he wanted to love and cherish he replied simply: "Yes, me." Ben wasn't a rake but he was a scoundrel of the first order and he was completely ruthless in going after what he wanted. Unsurpringly there were readers who thought that the book was too dark and Ben too heartless ever to reform. For me the excitment was to create a character like that and then challenge his value system by showing him another one, that of the worth of love over money, as demonstrated by the character of Catherine, the heroine. It was a hard journey for Ben, but I felt that at the end of the book, when he turned down Catherine's dowry because all he wanted was her, he had learned a tough lesson. And I didn't believe that a few years down the line he would revert to type, go back to Catherine's aunt and say: "You know that thirty thousand pounds you offered me? Well, I've changed my mind about taking it..." In other words, it was a life lesson. He had changed.

Most recently, in The Undoing of a Lady I created a heroine, Lizzie Scarlet, whose characterisation my editor described as "brave." When your editor says something like that you that you know you're on dodgy ground and that some people are going to hate the character. But as with Ben, I hoped that to know Lizzie, to understand her background, is to love her, forgive her and enjoy watching her change. Readers will let me know whether the risk I've taken has succeeded and whether they buy into her happy ending.

Of course it isn't just the individual characters who dictate whether that HEA will work, it's the combination of the hero and heroine and the way that they resolve the deep differences between them. Again I have a tendency to take risks by putting together those characters who really shouldn't be perfect for each other and then working to show that they are the other's ideal match. In my next book, Whisper of Scandal, I have a hero who is an explorer, A Bear Grylls, Born Survivor type, matched with a heroine who is a Regency fashionista. He lives to travel. She lives to shop. It shouldn't work. I hope the readers think it does and that after taking risks the books deliver perfect happiness.


Linda Banche said...

Like you, I read to escape the real world. I want a little fantasy in my life, and a break from the gritty reality of newspapers and television.

Part of the reason I read romance is for that happy ending. I know a romance has a guaranteed happy ending.

I liked Ben Hawksmoor, and I can understand his need for financial security. I firmly believe the only people who say "Money isn't everything" have always had tons of it.

I found myself a little disappointed in Dexter Anstruther in "Confessions of a Duchess". I liked him from "Unmasked", but he turned out to be really nasty to Laura, and I hated him for it. I also thought Miles Vickery was too nasty to Alice Lister in "The Scandals of an Innocent".

I'm a little scared to read "The Undoing of a Lady" because I'm afraid Nate will also be a little too nasty for my taste.

I hate really mean heroes. I don't think such men deserve the title of "hero" and I've tossed books that have that kind of hero.

Heroes do not have to be completely good, but I do like a little more niceness than I found in the first two books of "The Brides of Fortune".

Nicola Cornick said...

Wow, Linda, I'm kind of shocked by that! Thanks for sharing those thoughts, though. Clearly the books didn't work for you and in that respect I failed to deliver the HEA and I'm sorry.

All I can say is that I think this illustrates the point I'm making in the blog post. If the motivation convinces the reader, then they can see why the characters behave as they do and can buy into their journey and their HEA. From my perspective, Dexter's behaviour flowed from Laura's treatment of him. According to Newton's Law every action results in a reaction; Laura's actions resulted in Dexter's response. But my job as an author is to convince all my readers of the validity of that - which clearly I didn't!

In Miles case I think you are absoultely right - Miles is very tough, cynical and disillusioned and feels that he doesn't have an ounce (or a thimbleful) of the milk of human kindness left in him and this shows in his treatment of Alice. Miles is not a nice person. In his case, as in Lizzie's in Undoing, it is his background and experience that has made him the person he is. With both of them I hope that to understand their experiences is to see why they behave as they do. Miles comeuppance is being brought to his knees by Alice and under her influence he learns to be a better man.

I'm always disappointed when people don't like my books and I take those comments very seriously and try to learn from them because it would be an arrogant author who didn't. I still believe that I have to keep taking risks with the HEA, though, and pushing my characters as far as I can. My job is to make sure that the motivations are so strong and so convincing that I can carry readers with me.

Linda Banche said...

I wasn't convinced of the motivations of either Dexter and Laura, or Miles and Alice.

I was surprised that Dexter would use an innocent child to blackmail Laura to do his will. I was equally surprised that Laura, with her background with her husband and her role with the Glory Girls, let him get away with it.

As for Miles and Alice, yes, Miles was abused. He did a lot of rotten things, but I couldn't see that he made a habit out of abusing innocent people. Because that's exactly what he did with Alice. He blackmailed her as much as Dexter did Laura. And she, after all the trials she suffered as a servant, let him get away with it.

I really doubt these marriages will succeed. Both men are blackmailers, ie, bullies, and the only way to disarm a bully is to confront him.

I understand you have to try different things. Maybe I just want to see a better world in romances than I see in the real world.

Keira Soleore said...

Nicola, as I've said elsewhere before, I loved your new series.

For me, it's more fascinating when an author starts with not a perfectly slotted h/h, sometimes even very disparate ones, but convincingly unravels their story and brings about their solid HEA. Its not who the characters are in the begining of the book, but in the how, in the middle of the book, that either I'm rolling my eyes or I'm glued to the book, which is where magic happens.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you very much for your comments, Keira. I too love watching the way that the hero and heroine change and grow, both separately and together, towards the HEA.

I am very glad that you enjoyed the Brides of Fortune series. Thank you.

Michelle Styles said...

I think more than a HEA, you need an emotionally satisfying ending.
Close ended plots where all the threads are tied up are the commmerically successful of all plot types. People do want to know.

If you are getting feedback about niceness etc, it is not the ending, but the beginnings you should be looking at. The Save the Cat moment/hint that the hero or heroine is redeemable possibly (see Blake Snyder Save the Cat) needs to be more pronounced than it already is.
And of course I tend to think your heroes are to die for.

Louise Allen said...

Niceness sounds a touch "vanilla" for my tastes, I have to say. I like a flawed hero and I have confidence when I pick up one of Nicola's books that I'm not going to find a man who is incapable of growth and redemption. I also know I'm going to find a heroine who can stand up to him until he finds his way there! Once a bully, always a bully IMO,and my tolerance for that is zero - but I never saw any of these men as bullies - misguided, hurt and therefore capable of hurting, dangerous until they learn better, yes. For me the capacity for empathy is key - the moment when they see the other persons pov and emotions and can sacrifice their own needs to that, and I felt that in all these books and that's what gave me the emotionally satisfying ending I look for.

Alison said...

I don't mind heroes having issues, and having a journey to go on, to a certain extent to their happy endings. I have to confess that I haven't read your new series yet, but with some of the comments I've become more intrigued.

On a separate note, I was very pleased to see the picture from All For Love or St. Ives! Now, there's a bit of a scoundrel who had a lot to learn!

Jenny Haddon said...

Oh no, Nicola, don't go for 'nice'. I love your multi-faceted heroes.

Much looking forward to your Bear Grylls traveller, but ALL your guys are the sort of people you could depend on if the carriage lost a wheel in the middle of a lonely moor on a dark and stormy night.

Surely, the hero who is at odds with the world and only the heroine can get near is the essence of romance? Think Vidal, the ultimate romantic hero. But your Ben can give him a good run for his money.


Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks so much for contributing to the debate, everyone. I haven't come across Blake Snyder, Michelle, so I will read his thoughts with interest.

Louise, I thought you summed up the flawed hero beautifully. It's all about growth, redemption and a strong heroine to balance him.

Alison, I glad you're intrigued! I've just heard that MIRA Books will be publishing the Brides of Fortune trilogy in the UK next year so I hope UK readers will want to get their hands on the books then! And I'm glad you like the picture. I love it - so romantic!

Nicola Cornick said...

Jenny, thank you. I'm very happy you think my heroes so resourceful, amongst other things!

Yes, Vidal is a wonderful example of the flawed hero. I remember being genuinely shocked when he shot that fellow and left him lying in the road. I found that really hard to deal with. And he was pretty foul to Mary to begin with yet I loved the way she was his perfect foil. To me that book is the ultimate example of a hero who reforms through the love and influence of his "bright, particular star."

Alison said...

Oh, you both mentioned my fave hero! Yay Vidal :)