In my Dahlia Trilogy, I created an all-around fantastic guy who would make most Romance readers cream their pants. He was a good guy. A really hot guy as a matter of fact. A self-made millionaire who was humble and down-to-earth. A surfer too. Then, I killed him off. Some days I’m sorry I did, but most days I’m not.
After killing him, I went into mourning and experienced one of my first real episodes of writer’s block. A friend told me that if it went on any longer, I was going to have to rewrite the story and keep him alive. That’s what got me going again. Because no matter how I felt about killing Shane Walker (Shaaaane!), he was going to have to stay dead or my heroine was never going to have the story she deserved. And, in the end, the story was about Dahlia not Shane. She was going to have her HEA (Romance code for “happily-ever-after”), but it couldn’t be Shane. The only way to allow her to grow organically, to do the deep work required to evolve and develop as a person, was to have her heart broken in the worst way imaginable. Breaking up with Shane would not have been enough.
Shane had to die, and some of my readers were not happy about it. HEA’s are one of the hallmarks of the Romance genre. Many readers of Romance won’t read a book that doesn’t promise an HEA. In fact, when I first solicited reviews for my books, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the first questions that bloggers would ask is if the story has an HEA. They just need to know. But, in my view, it’s not the responsibility of the author to give the reader what she wants instead of the ending the character deserves.
While literary fiction is often expected to have some sort of unhappy or “realistic” ending, Romance is a different beast. We don’t watch Rom-Coms expecting the hero or heroine to die in the last scene. Romance is the same. The happy ending presupposes a particular storyline, which more often than not makes Romance plots too predictable. Even if twists and surprises are promised in the book blurb, they often have little to do with the central relationship and more about the conflicts or back stories of the characters. By already anticipating the happy ending of the central characters, very little can happen in a story that yields that much surprise, especially when most Romance stories involve so few characters.
My goal in writing Romance is not to fulfill expectations, but to challenge them. Of course I thought about giving my characters an HEA or at least a “happily-for-now,” which is a concession some readers are okay with (although it’s like going out for your favorite ice cream and discovering they’re out of your flavor so you have no choice but to settle for your second choice). I liked the idea of my characters finding someone they want to be with. I wasn’t about to put them on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs without giving them—or myself—some kind of satisfying ending.
This is when I learned to appreciate the genius of George R.R. Martin. Game of Thrones has made a sport of killing off beloved characters (the list is too long, just think Red Wedding) and not so beloved ones (SPOILER ALERT: King Joffrey took too long to die). My appreciation lies in the fact that it’s not about the element of surprise and shock in allowing a character to die but the exercise of one’s freedom as an author to work without a character and to recognize when it’s best for the story—even if your character is a hot surfer named Shane. In the end, the author has a greater responsibility to the story than to the character. At least in my case I had a larger story to tell and manipulating the story in order to preserve the hot surfer would’ve stunted the rest of Trilogy.
Unfortunately, many readers like a character so much that they will judge a story based solely on that particular character’s fate. This presents the author’s dilemma (at least for one trying to build a fan base) of being true to your reader or to your story. I remain steadfast that the latter is more important. Ultimately, those readers who like and are committed to your stories will understand why you choose to do what you do, even if it’s unpleasant and horrible (again think Red Wedding).
I still believe that Romance novels have the potential to give readers happy endings while mirroring realistic experiences. George R.R. Martin does a brilliant job of reminding us that no matter how important a character may seem, he or she can still be thrown out of a tower or die brutally at the hands of an enemy. No matter how hot or sexy or rich or beautiful you are the same fate awaits us all. Death is change, which means death is possibility. When something as final as death occurs, then we are forced to consider options we wouldn’t have otherwise. No it isn’t pretty, nor is it ideal, but it’s life.