Saturday, November 13, 2010
Guilty Heroes - Kathleen O'Brien
Great words. Words to live by, to love by. But pretty tough to follow.
I was thinking about them today, as I worked on my new novel. My hero and heroine are facing some difficult issues. In the past, he was a rat. She’s burned and bitter. Now what? Can I get them beyond this barrier?
Ironically, a romance novel is only about a third "romance." (I made that number up, of course.) Most of the book is about conflict. It's not a sweet, sexy list of little blue diary entries covered in hearts and exclamation points. It's an exploration of a couple’s struggle to overcome the obstacles that stand between them and a happy ending.
Think about Daphne du Maurier’s timeless classic, Rebecca, for instance. Max de Winter…. No, wait. Should I issue a spoiler alert, even though it came out in 1938? Well, here it is: If you haven’t read it, stop here. I’m going to reveal the ending.
Max KILLED his first wife. As in murdered. Really. Not falsely accused, not an accident, not an over-active guilty imagination. Gun. Shoot. Dead.
I’ve loved Rebecca for half my life. It has always had (and always will have) a place on my bookshelf-right next to the picture of my brilliant, sharp-minded mother, who introduced me to it.
When I first read the novel, as a teenager, I completely accepted that the black-hearted Rebecca had manipulated Max into shooting her, and he wasn’t really to blame. When I re-read it decades later, though, I wasn’t so sure. Something hard inside me just wouldn’t melt.
Then I realized that my only reason for not forgiving him as easily was completely illogical. I wasn’t feeling merciful because he was such a thoughtless beast to his naïve and vulnerable new wife.
Yes, he’s haunted. Yes, he hates himself. But why couldn’t he be nice to the poor girl? If only he’d said, just once, “Look, honey, I know I’m moody as hell and hard to live with. But it’s not your fault.” That might have helped. But he didn’t. He just kept brooding and barking and making her feel like dirt, which her “companion,” Mrs. Van Hopper, had already been doing for years.
And that’s when I realized I could maybe, just maybe, forgive him for snapping once, fatally, under the pressure of Rebecca’s manipulation. But I could not forgive his self-indulgent, bad-tempered, day-in-and-day-out cruddy behavior toward the second Mrs. de Winter.
Illogical, but there you are. Being unkind to the innocent new wife was the deal-breaker for the grown-up me—not the murder of the first one.
What is it for you? Infidelity? Violence, gambling, drinking, lying? Not being there when the heroine needs him? Not caring as much about her as he does about work or money or keeping up with the Joneses? Not respecting her family? Being distant or unkind to her children?
All of the above? Where is that line in the sand...the one even the best writer can't coax you to step over?