Writing romance, the Happily Ever After (HEA) ending is expected. There are conflicts, setbacks, tragic events, but in the end the hero – against all odds – triumphs, right? That is our modern convention, the “formula” of a good romance regardless of genre. The hero and heroine ride off into the sunset victorious. But that's not real.
The ideal of a happily ever after fills much of our literature, not only romance. In action/adventure our heroes are beaten and bruised but they survive to kick ass in the final battle. In our mysteries the killer is caught, evil is thwarted, good is vindicated, and everything works out in the end. But some of our greatest heroes are tragic heroes. They live in a flawed world where sometimes evil wins. That's real.
Historically, tragic romance was very popular. In our modern society we seem to prefer rose colored glasses to the gray tones of life. We want epic fantasy where “should” prevails over “does.” We cling to our childhood beliefs of fairness and justice. Yet even now tragic heroes are our most powerful heroic icons. Though the accepted paradigm demands HEA, when heroes die audiences morn. They connect emotionally to the reality that life isn't an HEA Romance.
In the Alien saga Ripley throws herself into a vat of lead because she's infected. In the Matrix trilogy, Trinity's death is powerful, and Neo – blind and beaten – staggers away to certain death. Characters who are willing to die in order to battle evil and save others are our truest heroes, even when resistance is futile, even when evil seems to enjoy the final HEA. It is by their struggles that our heroes are defined, not their victory. Living on in a happily ever after world – as if nothing bad actually happened – often cheapens the hero's struggle.
My son the philosopher often takes issue with one of my favorite quotes, “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.” He says that's a logical fallacy. What doesn't kill you can, and often does, leave you scarred and broken. For the hero to walk away victorious and live the good life with the heroine is often an unrealistic ending tacked on merely to satisfy the HEA requirement of modern literature.
In Tolkien's classic, Frodo and Sam don't retire to the Inn in Bree to tell tales, drink wine, and enjoy their victory. Frodo survives – though scarred and broken – and sails away with poor Bilbo. The Shire is no longer a peaceful and idyllic home, and Sam must say farewell to his beloved and tragic Mr. Frodo forever. The enemy is defeated, yet the scars remain – nothing is ever the same – there is no HEA for the heroes.
This is the Holy Week leading up to Easter. This week we remember what has often been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The hero triumphantly entering Jerusalem, the hero routing the temple of thieves and money changers, the hero standing before corrupt rulers and being nailed to a cross and left to suffer and die – his friends abandoning him. This is the week we remember the truth – “There is no greater love than one who will offer up his life for his friends.”
Easter morning we celebrate our hero's ultimate HEA, but this week we must take into our heart the struggle that brought that final victory. It is in the hero's life, his suffering and death, that we find wisdom. It is in taking up our cross daily that we give ourselves to others and live not for our own HEA but for theirs. Life is often tragic, and good seems to often fail, but it is not in the winning or losing that we are defined. It is in how we live. When that life is an all-in, willing to give up everything to hold our fellows up, type of life we become the heroes of our own story.
True heroes are not motivated by achieving a personal victory and enjoying their ultimate HEA. Their motivation comes from a servants heart. The true hero battles, and gives all, to the cause of others. These are the heroes who touch the deepest part of us. They stir our soul to join the battle, to lift up our fellow man, to give our life for our friends. In literature, and in life, heroes are defined by what they sacrifice not what they gain. Our tragedies and our reaction to them, not our HEA's, define humanity.
Those who follow my blog know that my son Joshua is being treated for leukemia. Life often throws you a curve ball and sometimes you get hit by a wild pitch. But one thing I will take away from this experience is that true heroes still exist. Good friends have lifted me up and kept me going these past few months. Please, visit Indies Unite For Joshua, read the list of people who have donated books and services to the campaign, then look at the list of contributors. These people are modern heroes. Support them, buy their books, visit their blogs, follow their twitter streams and "like" their pages..
We, and our characters, are ultimately defined by how we help others. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, agnostic, or atheist – caring for others is the noblest of human traits. I praise God for all of you this Easter because all of you have shown me true love. The outpouring of support for Indies Unite For Joshua has crossed all religious, cultural, and political boundaries showing that compassion is universal and has offered my personal story the chance for a real HEA.