I’ve accepted that part of what I’m writing is a romance. I mean, I always knew characters would have romantic relations and whatnot, but that doesn’t always make the plot a romance, any more than a death makes it a murder mystery.
Anyhow, as I worked on these romance aspects of my MS, it occurred to me that because of the type of characters I like to write about, I was veering uncomfortably close to a plotline I’ve always disliked both intellectually and emotionally: the protagonist who has no self worth until somebody else loves them romantically.
I don’t want to write that story.
First, I don’t like the idea of romantic love determining your self worth. I don’t like the erasure of other kinds of love. I don’t like that this theme makes romance the key to worth as a person. I don’t like how it says that you need someone else to solve your problems — that seems like the slippery slope of thought that leads to Nice Guys and learned helplessness. I don’t like how it suggests that relying on other people for your self-esteem is healthy.
Plus, let me tell you, this theme also felt pretty terrible when I was already in a place where I didn’t feel like I had much worth. Nobody wants to date me? I guess I must suck really bad. Where is the person who can make me feel better? Oh, right, there isn’t one, because I suck so bad.
It also turns the romantic partner into a knight in shining armor who deigns to love the unlovable. If you get off on that dynamic, cool cool, have at it, but that’s still not the character I personally want to write about. There’s already a power imbalance between my protagonists in most scenes; I don’t want to make it more pronounced by having one of them rely on the other for her emotional wellbeing.
In fact, I’ve thought about exactly how I want to frame this fictional romance for quite a while, because one protagonist’s core arc is her journey of learning to value herself. And it is tied to this sexual relationship, which is her first. But I want it to be about her, not her partner.
I don’t want her “growth” to be a lateral move: from “I am only worthwhile if I can accomplish things other people admire” to “I am only worthwhile so long as somebody else desires me.” Both of those beliefs entail dependence on other people’s feelings — they just shift the foundation from one external contingency to another.
That journey doesn’t interest me, the journey between two kinds of dependence. The story I want to tell is the journey from emotional dependence to emotional independence — from having one’s sense of self-worth totally outside one’s control to cultivating a resilient centre that can be affected by external events and seek external help but whose base state is internal. Like the difference between using a terminal on a corporate central server and your own computer — just because you have your own computer doesn’t mean you’re never going to need help from the tech company, but it does mean that you can keep working if the central servers crash. It means you can choose how to address your own needs instead of only ever relying on IT to swoop in and fix things.
Part of the reason I want that is because I do want this arc to be the protagonist’s active arc, not a series of reactions to the feelings other people throw at her. I want her to have to learn and teach herself the emotional skills she needs, with romantic love as a catalyst, not a reactant.
I want the romantic relationship to change her not because her partner’s love is an emotional cure-all, but because having emotional and physical intimacy available, for real, from someone she both respects and desires, forces her to abandon the fantasy that she can never have it and doesn’t want it. Which in turn forces her to develop the skills of accepting someone else’s love, expressing her own feelings, and trusting others with her vulnerability.
To cultivate this active-protagonist emphasis in my MS, I find myself teetering through a balancing act. It’s awfully easy to fall back on broad romantic clichés, especially because part of the appeal of romance is, after all, the dewy-eyed feelings and sexy shenanigans. To help me keep focused, I distilled my goal into a single idea: I don’t want the theme of my characters’ relationship to be “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.” I want it to be “I am the best thing that ever happened to me — but you are running a close second.”
Sometimes, it’s difficult to follow that guideline — a lot of the fictional romances I know and love embrace the first wholeheartedly (again, cool if that’s your thing, occasionally or sometimes or always). And other times, it feels frustratingly like trying to steer away from the Cliffs of Instinctive Clichés just pushes me closer to the Whirlpool of Stilted Moralizing.
But such is writing process in general, I guess, no matter what genre you’re writing. And, hey, it’s fun to figure it out — that’s why I’m into this whole writing thing in the first place.