I begin with a disclaimer: I am not a writer of genre Romance.
This likely says more about me than it does about genre Romance, and really, for a while I thought that I would write Romance. It could’ve gone that way; my reading, ‘way back when mass market paperbacks cost 35, 45, 60 U.S. cents, was split between SF and Romance, with a hearty side of Mystery.
At that time, Romance was pretty much all relationship, all the time; and SF was pretty much action-adventure with some cool shiny things tossed in for squee, and relationships both few and shallow. Obviously, this over-simplifies, but grant that the past is a distant country and we did things differently there.
What I found as a reader, ‘way back then, was that each genre was wanting in something that I did want — more action in the love story, and more love in the action story. It could, as I said, have gone either way when I finally uttered that Fateful and Explosive Sentence “I can do better than that!” which graduates Readers to Writers. But, when I landed, I came down on the side of SF, and have ever since plotted to include relationships (not just romantic relationships) in my work.
It might have been that the action-adventure in SF that seduced me, but I think, now, that I knew subconsciously even as a proto-writer that I could not do my best work under the constraints of HEA.
For those who are not Romance readers, “HEA” means “Happily Ever After” and it was for many years the mandated Romance novel ending. I have been on Romance writer lists where the HEA is often a topic of intense conversation. I think that perhaps the field is expanded enough now — and enough of the newer writers who came down on the Romance side of the equation had a love of SF/F or action-adventure — that there is a little give, some room for ambiguous endings.
Notice that I say ambiguous. In genre literature it is of course one of the writer’s goals to leave the reader wanting more of this. Therefore, a story that ends “and then they all died” (while apparently appealing to a certain subset of readers) really isn’t the way to go if the writer envisions a long-term career.
Ideally, a genre story gives the reader hope for the future, and a nice kick of satisfaction — the hero and heroine pledge their love; the murderer is discovered; the world is saved — each according to its own peculiar and particular rules.
Ideally, the ending of any particular story is predicated by everything that has gone before. The ending ought not devalue the characters, nor their sacrifices and lessons. This is why (IMNSHO) not all stories can have happy endings.
I was on a panel discussing SF Romance and Romantic SF at Oasis. One of the very interesting questions posed by the moderator was how each of the panelists made their characters worthy of a happy ending.
This is a question that makes sense to a Romance writer, and to Romance readers. The characters will have a happy ending; it’s mandated by the form. Therefore an important part of the tension of the story is how the reward will be earned.
In SF — and in Fantasy — it is by no means certain that the characters will achieve a personal happy ending. They may do everything “right,” grow morally and spiritually; be brave, upstanding, true; see the resolution of their efforts fulfilled — and still be denied a Happy Ever After with the love(s) of their life.
I personally believe that this is. . .truer, and more resonant. Sadly, I have read SF Romances (Science Fiction written from the stance of the conventions of the Romance genre) where the mandated HEA warped the entire shape of the story and negated everything that the characters had achieved.
In Romantic Science Fiction (Science Fiction that includes a strong Romance sub-plot while adhering to the conventions of the SF genre), the lovers may part, if the plot so demands, perhaps to meet again — or not — when their respective work is done, thus allowing the character’s growth to continue beyond the end of the story.
One of the many interesting things said by my co-panelists at Oasis was the observation by Gennita Low, who writes espionage romances, that she tries to give her characters a happy ending, while realizing that — given the nature of her characters, in this example a professional assassin — the happy ending cannot be forever, or even, perhaps, for very long.
This felt true to me. “And they lived happily ever after, for as long as they could,” is something I can accept, as a reader, and as a writer.
Notice that the Liaden Universe® novels tend to deliver “And they lived happily ever after, for as long as they could,” endings. Given our characters, and the lives they lead, it does sometimes happen that a major character will die. We try to keep these deaths to a minimum, and to handle them as respectfully as possible — by which I mean, as the character would have wished. But! Our characters know they live dangerously, and they know that sometimes things Just Go Horribly Wrong. On more than one occasion one character or another has given voice to a variation of, “Life isn’t safe; people die here.” Which is something that we all know to be true.
As a writer, I would say that this knowledge increases the tension for the characters and for the reader, but it’s certainly not something that I could get away with in a HEA mandated Romance novel.
So, that’s why I write SF/F, and why I’m interested in the shift toward a middle ground, as Romance woos SF and SF tries to commit to relationships.