February is the month of love, apparently, and here at Backroom Whispering Productions we are having a lot of fun thinking about love and literature and all the many facets of that rather broad category. My husband and I did an interview about being writing partners as well as life partners; Akhi wrote an engaging post about what he learned about love from reading fantasy; The Book Table did a Valentine’s Day special about sex in fantasy literature and how it’s handled across the genre; and Dorothy wrote a fantastic blog post to follow it.
All of this thinking about love and literature got me musing about the concept of “happily ever after” in fantasy literature and the way the happily ever after trope has played into my real life and into my writing life. I am not ashamed to admit my love of romantic fantasy; indeed, I am far more likely to pick up a book if it has one of those cliche “until she meets ____” or “the boy who may be her undoing, or her salvation” lines in the synopsis. Sometimes, if those lines are missing, I’ll read the end of the book before I decide to read it to see if it seems like there is a resolution to a love story.
It takes a lot to convince me to read a book if I don’t think someone is going to fall in love.
Whether I’m reading a YA fantasy or an adult fantasy, if there’s romance there is almost always resolution. If there’s resolution, whether it’s explicitly stated or not, the idea of happily ever after is there; the story is over and I can assume everything will be fine from there on out. Even in series where the main love interests face a variety of relationship issues over the space of the narrative, at the end I’m supposed to believe those struggles are over. That when the lovers take each others’ hands at the closing of the story, they will never again let go.
Particularly since I am drawn to stories that are fantasy retellings of fairy tales, the happily ever after is incredibly present, as it needs to be. Stories need conclusions in order to achieve catharsis. When romance is present, part of that conclusion is a resolution of the romance. You cannot resolve a romance unless the resolution feels permanent. As a reader I completely understand this.
“Real life is not quite as it is in stories. In the old tales, bad things happen, and when the tale has unfolded and come to its triumphant conclusion, it is as if the bad things had never been. Life is not as simple as that, not quite.”
This is a lesson I learned many times as my teenage years unfolded: no matter how many times I fell in love, no matter how many long and fulfilling relationships I had, there was no happily ever after. There was no triumphant conclusion that erased the difficult and complicated things that had passed between myself and the people in my life.
As a married woman, I find myself even more critical of this trope.
I had no expectations of happily ever after when I married my husband; I even included a line in my vows that said, “Life is not a fairy tale. There will be hard times.” My wish, instead, was for a “happily ever most of the time.” So far, so good — and while I do believe my own marriage will be an ultimately happy one and that I have lived through a pretty satisfying love story, I also know that marriage was not the conclusion, but rather a different kind of beginning.
Yet I find myself, occasionally annoyed with it as I might be, still drawn to the happily ever after stories. I still want to believe that once a love is resolved it will remain so; that the lovers, united, will stay in love, stay happy, live life in the simplicity of that triumphant conclusion.
Part of this, I know, is that need for catharsis. We read for many reasons, but the biggest is likely the escape, the comfort and emotional satisfaction of living outside our lives for a time and experiencing the release of an ending. When you introduce a love story into that world, you want it to be simple. You want the ending to be final.
But I also know, as a writer of chick lit and romantic fantasy, that part of the reason for the trope is simply the nature of literature. Every moment in a story exists, finalized, in time. Once the story is published, every sentence is static, every moment frozen forever, unchanging, unchanged. Try as I might to write a story where the real-life complexities of relationships appear, the fact is that, unless your entire story is about life after marriage or something, there is no way to express what “ever after” might actually look like, happily or not. And even if you were to write that story, it would still need to end somewhere.
Where does it end? If you write a satisfying conclusion, either for your own edification or for your readers’, your characters will probably be happy when the story is over. And they are frozen that way, forever, due to the nature of literature; caught in that happy place where resolution exists, where love prevails.
Perhaps that is happily ever after.
Maybe that’s why the idea exists at all. And maybe that’s why I’ll keep reading it, keep writing it, even if I know that life is not quite that way, that our moments don’t freeze, that our stories continue on past that final page.
Readers, what do you think? Do you enjoy Happily Ever After or do you see it as unrealistic?
*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.