Lately, I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking about romantic love within story-telling. It’s been said that love makes the world go ’round. Nowhere is this truer than in the microcosm of fiction. Holding what may be a unique position in writing, romantic love is equally popular as a plot point and a story theme.
Of course, the way love manifests in these roles is incredibly varied. Love as a theme might be true love or love unrequited, love’s futility or love’s endurance. Love as a plot point might be the reunion of childhood sweethearts or the fracture of a mature marriage; jealous love turning a character to rage, or sustaining love uplifting a character from despair.
But at the center of these variations is the core concept of romantic love, at once divinely simple and inexpressibly complex.
My philosophical waxing on this subject is inspired by my current novel project. The story I’m now penning has love as its heart (pun!), but under circumstances where love’s cultivation is difficult–perhaps impossible? Though I’ve chosen a deceptively simple plot, writing this tale has forced me to ask some critical questions as I navigate sensitive territory.
Namely, what are the divisions between love, lust, obsession, and the pursuit of self-fulfillment?
Really, “divisions” is an imperfect term. “Gradations” is a better one, since love is too opaque and intricate to firmly codify. Nevertheless, writers have a responsibility to ask ourselves questions on the subject–to interrogate how we portray love (in terms of technique), and what we are portraying love to be.
For an example of the first: My senior year of college, I was writing a YA novel. Two of my characters were meant to fall in love. Their doing so would not only supply the bulk of my plot points, but would also form the thematic skeleton upon which the whole story was built.
But I had an unwelcome epiphany. I’d been writing my romance in a way that broke one of writing’s cardinal rules: Show, don’t tell.
I was very diligently telling my readers that my couple was in love. But short of physical attraction, I’d done a poor job of showing why they should be. What was it, on a deeper level, that made her catch his eye? What could she offer him that would crack his cynicism, making him emotionally receptive, allowing him to fall in love? And what about him would so engender her love that, by the time of the novel’s dénouement, she would believably choose him, despite the risks to herself?
My characters didn’t need to know the mechanics of why and how they loved. But I needed to, and to make the story compelling for readers, I had to be able to share it.
This temptation to tell-not-show with love is not uncommon among writers. Probably this is because love is elusive, mysterious. I can cultivate a lengthy list of traits I love about and in my husband. But does that really get at what makes us fitted for one another, at the why behind the one true, inexplicable form of magic woven between two people?
Certainly, those love stories that are less intricately constructed can still be enjoyable. But those that stick with me, that resonate each time I return to the page, are those with deeper foundations.
To explain, I’ll fangirl a bit. Last weekend, I re-watched for the
100th 3rd time the 1995 movie adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Every time I see this movie, I’m charmed anew by how well it captures the spirit of the novel, by how delicately it’s constructed. Deftly you are guided through the story until, upon reaching the end, you realize, “Ah ha! Each sister found her perfect match, despite circumstances and misunderstandings, despite herself.”
The scene below (apologies for the terrible subtitles!) particularly struck at the heart of my musings on love. For those unfamiliar with the story, I hereby declare SPOILER ALERT as I set the stage for this clip:
Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) and Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) are in love. But five years earlier, Edward became secretly engaged to Lucy Steele. Familial pressures prevented their marrying and his feelings for her have since cooled. But when their engagement is suddenly exposed, Edward is cast off by his family. Simultaneously, he is compelled by honor to marry Lucy, and becomes financially unable to do so. Yet the generosity of a wealthy sympathizer (Colonel Brandon) offers to undo this difficulty, allowing Edward and Lucy to wed. Colonel Brandon asks Elinor to deliver this news, unknowingly asking her to pave the way for another to marry the man she loves.
This is not a romantic scene in any usual sense. The passionate declaration of love is missing. No true love’s kiss passes between our lovers–indeed, they do not touch at all.
But the scene is deeply loving. Elinor facilitates and honors the qualities in Edward that she loves–his nobility, his goodness–despite the fact that it is those traits which result in her losing him to another woman. At her own expense she supports him, so he may be the man conscience compels him to be. He, having lost her, still loves Elinor well enough to recognize her worth, her value; in her generosity and understanding, he perceives her own goodness, a perfect companion to his.
It’s a work in progress–love is too varied for a strict definition–but my romance-related contemplations hint at at least this conclusion: Love has something to do with seeing the value in your partner, and in putting your desires second to his/her welfare.
For many people, 1 Corinthians 13 has become stale, the predictable Bible verse dusted off for weddings:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails….”
But there is nothing stale or passé about that passage. Regardless of religious conviction, something profound is being spoken here. It’s the idea of love as endurance, as victory, as self-submission, as healing and restoration and patience. It’s something more powerful and soul-speaking than bodice-ripping, steamy embraces (see any paperback romance), or self-endangering fixation (Stephanie Meyer’s New Moon comes to mind).
I don’t mean to strip passion out of love, to make it Puritanical, purged of all attraction and yearning–that fire is part of what makes romantic love unique. The traditional emblems of romance have their place, too. I’m a sucker for chocolate and romantic dinners. You would’ve thought my husband had shelled out for a second honeymoon, given the glowy feeling I got when he brought me $15-worth of red roses for Valentine’s Day.
But one component that might make the difference between love and lust, love and obsession, is that element of self-sacrifice. That’s at least part of what makes love stories like Jane Austen’s so enduring. And it’s an excellent jumping off point for exploring love in my own fiction.