From early childhood, we’ve come to expect a romance plot to end the same way – “…and they lived happily ever after.” That actually counts for half the grade when it comes to romance fiction. According to Romance Writers of America, the love story has to be the central focus, and it must have an optimistic and emotionally satisfying ending. So exactly what does that mean, and why is it controversial? Let’s take a look.
One of the most often heard challenges to the HEA is that it’s not realistic, an objection many romance readers and writers do not share. As we see in real life, couples married for fifty years or more certainly do exist, not to mention happy couples at other points along their personal HEA journey. Finding a partner who loves a person as they are and wants to be with them and only them, for the rest of their lives not realistic? Nope, can’t buy that one.
Another argument is that the HEA is simplistic, intimating that, now that the two lovers have each other, nothing bad will happen to them ever again, as they ride twin unicorns off into the sunset, tossing glitter over the puppies and kittens that frolic around their feet. Have these people read romance novels? My guess is no, or at least not enough (but then again, have any of us read enough?)
With the wide umbrella of the romance genre, as in real life, falling in love, no matter in what time or place, or with whom, does not magically solve all of life’s problems. The contemporary firefighter still has to risk their lives every day on the job. The historical lord or lady still has to take responsibility for the livelihoods of others, and fulfill their hereditary obligations. The inspirational hero or heroine still is going to face challenges to their faith. The paranormal lovers still have to deal with the ramifications of what makes them special and how it affects those they love. Lovers who don’t fit the traditional mold, for a host of reasons, still have to live with extra challenges that may come more easily to others. Wars, illnesses, accidents, and any variation on the “for better, for worse,” variable are going to come to every couple, no matter the subgenre. What the HEA guarantees for us is that our lovers are going to face those things together.
With the proliferation of romance series, odds are we are going to see Couple A again, as supporting players in the romances of couples, B, C, D, and maybe even further on in the alphabet, and we’re going to see them at different stages of their lives together. There it is again, that together. Anyone who thinks romance couples don’t face the struggles of life, such as infertility, job loss, being on the wrong side of a political conflict, survive natural disasters, etc, needs to read more books. It’s because of the HEA that we know our lovers are going to be okay.
Granted, the term has had some expansion, as the romance genre changes and grows. When a single title romance was more likely to be a standalone, and for the standalones still published today, the HEA is where we stand on the shore, waving at the lovers as they sail off into the sunset. Often, these sorts of HEAs included an epilogue, showing the couple with children a few months or years down the road. Not to say that children are necessarily the secret to lifelong happiness, but these epilogues serve as sort of a shorthand in these cases. Now that we are more likely to see story worlds than standalones, we have the future shown over the course of several books, rather than a single chapter. Previous couples may have their disagreements and adjustments, even subplots that suggest the HEA may in fact be in danger…but, once again, this is romance, so we have that guarantee at the end of it all.
More recently, especially in paranormal series and the kissing cousin (pun intended) of mystery series with strong romantic elements, we get serialized romances, where the couple may have mini-HEAs, or Happy For Now (HFN) at the end of a particular installment. They’ll be fine for now, and when the next development comes around, we’ll be biting our nails over that one, though, once again, romance, so phew…but that doesn’t mean we still won’t have our concerns.
HFN also comes into play in the Young Adult and New Adult subgenra. The lovers in these stories are young, still finding out, in many cases, who they are, on several fronts. While it’s true some people do meet their soulmates in freshman year of high school, for example, and could very well make a lifetime commitment in their teens, that’s not the norm. A person can do a lot of learning, about the world and themselves, in their teens and early twenties, and maybe what they want in a partner will change during that time. For these young lovers, HFN may indeed be more realistic, but, unless the author follows these same characters into full adulthood and explicitly states one way or the other, readers are free to interpret as they will.
In fact, unless an author follows the lovers until death does them part (or, in some paranormals, even beyond that) we readers get to shape a good deal of the HEA, whether or not we see the lovers again in the love stories of their friends and families. What could be happier than that?
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What makes a satisfying HEA for you, specifically? Do you need to see a glimpse of the lovers further down the road, or do you prefer to fill in the blanks yourself? What does HEA mean for you? Does that mean the lovers have no more troubles, or that having each other means they can face anything life throws their way? What do you think of the new kid in town, the HFN? Best suited to serialized stories and the younger set, or does it have a place in other stories as well? Something else not mentioned here? We want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.