I knew I was in trouble when the second book of my Bride trilogy started with the hero dead, and the third began with the heroine dead.
Now this is genre romance, so I told alarmed readers to trust me if they were worrying about the story. With plotting sleight of hand, and maybe communications difficulties in the past, things aren’t always what they seem. So I guaranteed there’d be a happy ending.
But the fact that I was driven to such extremes of plotting on The China Bride and The Bartered Bride did suggest to me that I was in danger of burn-out in straight historical romance, and that had a lot to do with my shift to fantasy historicals for several years.
Death as a plotting device has a lot of merit because it raises the stakes for the reader. The story literally becomes a matter of life and death. Lots and lots of writers do it, and Shakespeare is solidly in that pack. Humans are hardwired to react powerful to the threat of danger. Heck, even people who don’t like children will react instantly when a child is threatened. (In contrast, humor is much more individual, which is why writing comedy is harder than melodrama.)
I probably torture my characters more than most romance writers. The hero of my first Signet Regency was a wounded Waterloo veteran (The Diabolical Baron), and the hero of the second book was a friend of his, dying of wounds and opium addiction in a military hospital when we first meet him. (The Would-Be Widow, later rewritten as The Bargain.) Really, it is no fun being one of my heroes, and the heroines often have a rough time of it, too!
The list goes on—One Perfect Rose is a genuine death-and-dying romance, which deals with the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that are the commonly accepted stages of grief and reaction to trauma in general. People who might never read Elisabeth Kűbler-Ross’s On Death and Dying could read that book and learn something about dealing with death—and yes, One Perfect Rose has a happy ending. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_kubler_ross )
Danger and death are a staple of storytelling, of course. Happy people usually aren’t as interesting to observe. <g> And it isn’t just fiction—look at the cheery field reporters on the Weather Channel, who practically jump up and down with glee when a hurricane is coming, or better yet, blowing their hats off.
Of course, being a high minded sort, I like to think there are good reasons for torturing my heroes. Most of my books are set in upper class Britain during the Regency period, and having money and power in any era can warp one’s perspective and create a vast and irritating sense of entitlement. In addition, the often brutal private schools of the time (perversely called public schools) could definitely harden a boy to the point where he had minimal empathy for others.
It other words, such guys weren’t likely to be good husband material in the real world. So I often give them experiences of pain and loss to make them more sympathetic to those who are less fortunate. I’m not sure the average reader cares about this, but I do. I need to believe that the characters are capable of forming a committed love relationship.
This also means they can’t be too wounded, either. I’ve read books where characters have suffered so much abuse and pain that it’s hard to believe that they can ever become healthy romantic partners. Luckily, studies have found that even kids with a truly terrible backgrounds have a reasonable chance of a healthy adulthood if at some point, an adult took a positive interest in them.
It doesn’t even have to be for a long time, as long as there is at least one patch of sunlight in a dark world. So even my most stressed characters probably had a mentor, an aunt, a sea captain, or whatever who offered them affection and hope for a better life. Hence the power of Big Brother and Big Sister organizations, among others.
But I digress. (No regular reader of WordWenches will be surprised by this. <g>)
How do you feel about life and death drama in your reading? It’s common in all genres, and mysteries and thrillers are basically all about life and death dramas. Have you read books when characters seemed too wounded? Too improbably understanding? What works for you in making characters and relationships believable?
And have you ever seen a character come back from the dead and wished that he’d stayed dead?!!
Mary Jo, who is writing a straight Regency historical now—and it starts off with the hero dead. <g>