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22 February 2012

History & Happily Ever After


I was thinking through a scene recently, toward the end of my current WIP, between the four major female characters. The scene will touch on their various plotlines and character arcs and where they the end of the book finds each woman. All four are ongoing characters in the series, but two are real, two fictional. Because it's a series, no one's plotline is neatly resolved in one book, and I don't think of my characters having nice, neat happily-every-after endings in any case. Yet in thinking about this scene, it occurred to me that already the two fictional characters have decidedly happier trajectories than the two real historical characters.

Which reminded me of why, much as I love to write about real historical characters and events, I prefer to have fictional central characters. I can create my own characters with their own personalities and story arcs. And part of that is that many fascinating real life historical figures not only did not have happily-ever-after lives, their stories could be called unhappy.

I admire Juliet's brilliant trilogy about Marie Antoinette for many reasons, one of which is that to write the books Juliet had to live for months with the French Queen's tragic life. Lauren and I have both written about Hortense Bonaparte, a favorite real life historical character of both of ours. Hortense was accomplished, clever, loyal, and seems to have been a genuinely nice, warm-hearted person. A devoted daughter, mother, and lover. Her story cries out for a happy ending. Instead she had a miserably unhappy marriage, lost one of her children to death and gave up another born out of wedlock, and ultimately lost the love of her life.

I'm looking forward to sharing fairy tales with my daughter (that's us above on Valentine's Day; I shamelessly still can't resist posting pictures of her). But I know that eventually we'll have to have a talk about how real life is more complicated than happily ever after. As I said, I like to think that my books show some of the complicated messiness of real life. Yet comparing my fictional and real characters, I wondered if the arcs I was creating for my fictional characters had more happily ever after in them than I realized. But I can't help but want the best for my characters, just as I do for my daughter (even if I put my characters through trials and adventures I certainly hope my daughter never encounters). And perhaps I like to think that real life can be, if not happily ever after, at least happier than not.

How much happily ever after do you like in novels, as a reader or a writer? When reading or writing about real historical characters does it bother you that their lives may have gone on to be less than idyllic? Do you sometimes wonder if fictional characters would go on to face some of the same challenges as their real life counterparts?

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9 Comments:

Blogger Helena said...

I would prefer the fictional characters to end happily, even if it might be considered unrealistic given what actually happens in many cases in real life. (On the other hand, the world is full of people living happy, uneventful lives, which go unrecorded simply because they are uneventful.)

Isn't it regarded as being part of the contract between an author and a reader that the author won't do anything too terrible to the characters? Or is that only in romances?

If I want gritty real life, I'll read a newspaper or a biography - or the type of fiction which is known to full of angst and misery. Or a historical novel based completely on the life of someone who actually lived, and for whom things did not turn out well. (In fact, I avoid all of the above, these days.) If I read fiction, I want things to turn out well for most of the characters, and very well for the ones I'm supposed to like. I'll take a little unhappiness along the way (although not too much), but I do need a happy ending.

I suppose it's because the reader knows that the author is playing God and can choose what happens, so the author can resolve matters in ways which may not happen in real life. If the author doesn't do so, to a reader it feels like an attack or a betrayal. No matter how much an author says that the charcter simply wouldn't behave like that, or it wouldn't have been realistic, the reader feels that it was a choice made by the author, and one which she should not have made. Just change the character so that he *would* have behaved that way, then! I suspect that to an author this demonstrates a failure to understand the way writing works, but I think that most readers do feel like this, even if they don't always admit it.

2:19 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Helena! I think the author/reader contract that the author won't do anything terrible to the characters is limited to romance. I can think of any number of authors who don't abide by the contract - Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, George R.R. Martin, Dorothy Dunnett, Elizabeth George. I too tend to prefer happy endings, even if the author has to strain the bounds of what might seem believable in that time or place or with those characters. Although sometimes I find that if the author creates a world in which bad things do happen and the happy ending doesn't seem guaranteed, the happiness the characters find can be that much more powerful. I confess as a writer, with my fictional characters, I sometimes feel rather guilty when I have bad things happen to them.

3:28 AM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Tracy, thank you SO much for the compliments. I'm so touched and honored! It's always very tough to live with actual historical figures when you write about them, especially those who have not always had happy lives, and I'm sure Amanda Elyot could chime in about her experiences in writing about Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson, too; though she stopped short of their fairly pathetic deaths in her novels, leaving the reader with at least a sense of hope in the heroines' hearts, the real-life endings were not far off.

Living with Marie Antoinette has been very emotional for me, and I am still writing the 3rd novel in the trilogy. As a writer, I look for moments when I can bring her some happiness because at many times in her life she was a blithe spirit. And as an author who frets about selling books, I admit to worrying when I see readers replying to posted reviews, even when those reviews are excellent, because there are readers who state that they fear reading the rest of the books in the trilogy because Marie Antoinette had such a tragic ending. And of course they don't want a downer. And I cannot give them a HEA ending. What I am doing my best to do is to write an exciting journey in which MA never loses hope and faith, and that's how things really transpired.

As a reader, I enjoy when things happen organically for the characters, and I like the emotional rollercoaster. If the happy ending is genuinely earned, then I'm cheering for it all the way. But I certainly wouldn't NOT buy a book about actual historical figures because we already know they met a bad end. Does the fear of reading about Marie Antoinette's death extend to reading yet another novel about Anne Boleyn as well? I'm curious about that. In any case, everyone who was born more than 115 years ago is dead by now, so of course we already know how their story will ultimately end!

I think, though, that there may be slightly different reader expectations between historical fiction and historical romance. With the former,readers should expect that not every novel will end happily. With the latter, there is more of a tacit agreement between author and reader that there will be an HEA for at least 2 of the major characters.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Tracy - Thank you for bringing up this topic! And thank you, Juliet, for discussing your approach to Marie Antoinette's life.

I've been wrestling with a historical figure who's been denigrated for centuries. Then I realized that most accounts come from her last decade, when she was extremely ill and the love of her life died. Then I realized that everything before then was written by her greatest enemy, a brilliant but self-serving b**ch.

Now I'm trying to show her moments of hope and joy, that came before those dark hours. Not really a HEA - but hopefully enough to show what gave her strength to carry on.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

The compliments are well-deserved, Juliet! I'm really looking forward to your third Marie Antoinette book. I can't imagine not finishing the story. I've read plenty of novels about characters, real or fictional, with less than happy endings (or out and out tragic ones). Sometimes, as you say, it can seem organic to the story (I think "Atonement" plays with the idea of historical record, fiction, happy endings, and what's real brilliantly). But I do think I'd have a hard time as a writer living with a tragic central character for the length of time it takes to write a novel.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Diane, I'm very intrigued by the character you're writing about! What you describe sounds much like what Juliet talks about Amanda Elyot doing - ending the story with the character having strength and hope. Which I think can work well, except in cases of characters like Marie Antoinette and Anne Boleyn, where the end of their life is such an important part of the historical record it needs to be dramatized.

11:13 AM  
Blogger happybkwrm said...

Third time the charm trying to put in a comment?

Ms. Grey, which MA books did you read? Fraser's bio? I've read several bios and Mossiker's "The Queen's Necklace". (I highly recommend this one.)

12:09 PM  
Blogger happybkwrm said...

Oh, and I am also intrigued about Ms. Whiteside's character? Any hints?

12:10 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Jan Marie - sorry you had trouble. I have a hard time posting with blogger sometimes as well.

12:50 PM  

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