Authors have a choice between Fate and Suspense
Into his or her arms she or he runs. Their love has overcome every obstacle—every racist or homophobe or job offer in Houston—to bring them back to each other, where we all know they should be. Fate is victorious again.
And that’s exactly the problem.
There are so many familiar tropes in romance fiction: the race to the airport, or the interrupted wedding. The last-minute defiance of a controlling parent to be with a lover who means so much more. All of these are fun, but even variations of them are predictable, because the characters acting them out are running their race over a generic green-screen called Fate.
And relying on Fate is a sure way to remove a key element of a story’s conflict: suspense. As romance readers, we know that if two characters love each other, their love will conquer any complication an author throws in their path. We’re like gods who can see the predestined future that Fate has in store for them. It’s impossible for us to take the journey with our lovesick protags, because we’re always waiting at the end of it, impatiently tapping our omniscient feet.
Of course, there are those spotty favorites that invert the genre to bring back some suspense. D.L. Carey’s Distant Drums and Rise Defiant set up multiple romances during the American Civil War that all seem impossible. Several of these involve a legal slave, one a Madam’s daughter posing as a schoolteacher, and at least one is a bromance that borders on passion. Because Carey foregrounds uncertainty over Fate, we’re left to hope for our favorite romance and cheer when it blossoms. On the screen, The Sixth Sense (though hardly a romcom) literally made me gasp when I realized that Bruce Willis could never return to his fated love. Of course, the biggest romantic inversion might still be The Taming of the Shrew, because it seems so impossible that he could love her ‘then,’ or that she could love him ‘now.’ Somehow, Ol’ Bill always pulls off a surprise.
Is that enough, though? When two people we don’t expect fall in love, Fate’s success is still comforting, and I’m not sure that comfort is what we find romantic. It’s failed love that really pounds our hearts. It’s denying Fate that makes us recognize love.
So let’s see more of those stories: stories about colonials turning their backs on natives, or same-sex lovers walking away to protect each other from intolerant times. Let’s see the story about the girl whose family is actually more important than her favorite barista—about the race to the airport that ends with a career move to Houston.
Let’s get our fiction to say Happy Valentine’s Day to the loves near us now, and to the forgotten friends we still love.