Knowing what my characters can’t know yet

I have an incomplete manuscript, not yet contracted, with a French hero and a Scottish heroine (we’ll call them Jacques and Isabel, since those are their names) who meet under perilous circumstances during the Napoleonic Wars and are reunited when he seeks her out after the war ends.

Of course, the war in question didn’t have a tidy, straightforward end. And because of that I haven’t made up my mind whether to set the reunion part of the story in 1814, after Napoleon’s original abdication, or in 1815 after Waterloo. Since Jacques in 1814 is deeply in love with Isabel and has no way of knowing Napoleon will be back next spring, the most natural thing for him to do would be to take ship for Scotland while the ink is still drying on the peace treaty. But then I’d have to deal with the Waterloo elephant in the room, since every one of my readers will know what’s coming.

Photo by Brandon Daniel, used under Creative Commons license

But as elephants in the room go, at least this one is relatively small and cute. Once Waterloo is over, Britain and France will remain at peace (or, eventually, allied with each other in war) for 198 years and counting. Jacques and Isabel can live out a happy lifetime with no insurmountable conflicts between their private and public loyalties, make the occasional trip back to Scotland to see her family, and so on. (Yes, they choose to live in France. I love Scotland as much as the next woman of partial Highland descent, but his family has a vineyard and winery along the Dordogne River. To me that’s a no-brainer.)

Other future elephants in the room present greater challenges. I can never read Rilla of Ingleside, when they’re all happy at the end that the Great War is over at last, without the melancholy thought that Rilla will get to go through this all over again with her own children once WWII comes around. If she and Ken marry in 1919 or 1920 and have a son shortly thereafter, he’ll be just old enough to enlist in 1939 or ’40! And while I’ve long forgotten the title, I once read a medieval romance that ended in something like 1345. I had trouble totally buying into the Happily Ever After because I knew the Black Death was right around the corner.

Is this just me, or do other readers and writers weigh characters’ happy endings against what history holds for them?

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9 Responses to Knowing what my characters can’t know yet

  1. Elena Greene says:

    I think about this sort of thing, too. While I don’t envision my characters’ happy endings to be completely free of problems (most are going to have kids after all), I don’t want them in a time and place where it was difficult for anyone to be happy. I have trouble writing something I don’t believe, so I do take these historical issues into account.

    Just based on things I’ve heard from readers, some of them know enough history to care, but many are just looking for a great romance. No reason you can’t make it work in history, though.

  2. Elena Greene says:

    Also, I hope your characters do summer holidays in Scotland. Southern France sounds better for winter.

  3. peggy Quidor says:

    I like reading a book that has a little chaos in it that the chactors has to battle throw befor a happy ending.

  4. If the romance has developed a strong enough love story the reader will know, whatever life throws at them, this couple will endure it together. The “happily” is important. The “ever after” is the whole point.

  5. Susanna, great topic! These things matter to me, too. If the characters seem real enough, it’s natural to worry about them, isn’t it? But of course we hope their love will see them through anything. One thing you might want to consider for your wip –at least during the war years France would not recognize as legal a marriage between a French citizen and a British subject (this came up in my research when I wrote The Captain’s Dilemma with a French POW hero). If you could find out when that policy changed, that might help with your own dilemma!! But you could also just ignore it. The story is more important!!

  6. Heidi Kneale says:

    It is not so much the future Our Heroine and Our Hero are fighting against, but the past. Sure, Waterloo will come along. But that’s later. (And that could be another tale).

    It’s what they had to struggle through to get love that matters most in a story. Your readers will focus on that, and only 0.01% will worry themselves to death that the future might threaten their happiness.

    Interesting thing about true happiness: it makes the hard times much easier to bear. That is one of the elements in our HEA, that no matter what the world throws at Our Heroes, now that they’ve found True Love, they’ll survive.

    Trust your readers. Readers of Romance are naturally optimists.

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