I often tell people who ask me about my writing that I write adult fairytales. Sometimes VERY adult (snickering!).
There’s something inherently satisfying about the shape of a fairytale story. We generally have a heroine and/or a hero who face adversity with courage and intelligence and then after numerous trials and tribulations, they get their happy ending.
This is the story arc of so many world myths and legends that I can’t help thinking this pattern appeals to our basic human selves. The happy ending is sometimes derided as a particular failing of romance fiction, but I think most readers love the idea that once the characters have proved themselves worthy, they get their reward, which in a romance novel happens to be everlasting love.
Personally, I can’t see anything wrong with that and millions of romance readers around the world seem to agree with me.
What’s interesting if you read a lot of romance is that sometimes you can pick the particular fairytale theme that relates to each writer. I can list numerous writers who use the Cinderella story as the basic theme of their stories, whether consciously or unconsciously. In my experience, your core story chooses you not the other way around. In shorter romance, I immediately came up with Lynne Graham and Annie West who use this theme. Or Julia Quinn’s magical An Offer From a Gentleman. What’s interesting is that while Cinderella might be the basis for all these stories and hundreds more, the feel of each writer’s work is completely different. These fairytales are amazingly versatile.
My core story is Beauty and the Beast. Every single book I’ve had published is a take on this fairytale.
And why not? It’s amazingly powerful. Beauty is a dynamic heroine (I must say I get a little tired of girls who just go to sleep to achieve their happy ending! Perhaps it’s jealousy. The idea of sleeping my way to a handsome prince rather appeals!) who reveals character and bravery and resourcefulness, not to mention a loving heart. The Beast is the archetypal tortured hero. Not only that, the story is one of redemption and I find myself powerfully drawn to narratives about people who fight through huge odds to salvation.
Some of my favourite romances are Beauty and the Beast stories. Think of Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase with the marvelously sexy and dark Lord Dain playing the Beast to Jessica Trent’s determined and courageous Beauty. Judith Ivory wrote a wonderful book which blatantly paid tribute to its inspiration in its title – Beast. In this story, scarred but wildly charming Charles d’Harcourt romances young but strong-minded American heiress Louise Vandermeer in early 20th-century France. If you haven’t read this book, it’s a real treat!
To take an example from my own books, Captive of Sin is another Beauty and the Beast story although the funny thing is as I was writing it, I was convinced that I’d broken from my core story and I was writing something different! Core stories can be remarkably sneaky!
Sir Gideon Trevithick is the classic wounded hero, preparing to wall himself away from the world just like the Beast in the fairytale. After torture and incarceration in India, he returns to England in 1821 as a national hero. But he’s haunted by his experiences on the Subcontinent and convinced he’ll never live a normal life. On his way back to his isolated family estate in Cornwall, he stumbles across a woman who is on the run from the men who have beaten and threatened her. Having so recently been the victim of violence himself, Gideon can’t abandon her, even though he knows she’s lying to him about her identity and her history. He appoints himself her champion, unaware that this act will lead him into danger, a marriage of convenience and a love that will change his life.
Charis Weston is England’s richest heiress, desperate to save herself from the foul marriage her stepbrothers have arranged so that they can steal her fortune. In three weeks, she reaches her majority and gains control of her property but in the meantime, her stepbrothers have complete legal control over her. She’s learned better than to trust any man but something about Sir Gideon makes her wonder if he is that rarest of creatures, a genuine man of honour.
Gradually these two wary, wounded people come to understand one another and Charis realizes that the man she hero-worshipped from the start is damaged to his soul and bears scars that may never heal. When he offers her a marriage in name to save her from her greedy stepbrothers, she accepts. But she’s determined to bring Gideon back to a real life, a life where they love each other and build a future together. Beauty decides to bring happiness to the Beast, no matter how much it costs her and what anguish she will suffer on the way to achieving her goals.
So we have the classic immovable object, irresistible force scenario. Gideon has loved Charis almost from the first but is convinced he’s too much of a ruin to offer her the life she deserves. Charis loves Gideon and won’t let him make the noble sacrifice of setting her free. As in the fairytale, both Beauty and the Beast will need every ounce of their courage and resolution to achieve their happy ever after.
One thing I had enormous fun with in writing this book was creating the Beast’s lair. The magical castle where the Beast hides away from the world is always an essential part of the story. In this case, the enchanted domain is Gideon’s house Penrhyn. This Elizabethan manor house with pirates and smugglers in its past is perched on the edge of the Cornish cliffs and the windows open out over the sea. There are elements of the houses in the Victoria Holts I read as a teenager, and perhaps even more strongly, Manderley from Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier in Penrhyn. It was wonderful writing such a romantic setting for this intensely romantic story. Only Charis’ courage and love will bring this house back to life and with the house, she rescues its master from a bleak and isolated future and offers him hope and happiness.
The strange thing about starting to notice the fairytale elements in romance novels is that you’ll keep doing it. It can become a bit of a game! So far I think Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella are the most popular themes, but I’ve also recognized touches of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty in a number of stories. Snow White not so much. I wonder if the problem is that adding seven extra men to the plot distracts from the romance! One thing I can say is that as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, when you come across a great romance, it’s always JUST RIGHT!
This article first appeared (in German) in LoveLetter- Bⁿcher zum Verlieben Magazin in August 2010 and then was republished in English in HeartsTalk, the newsletter of Romance Writers of Australia, in September 2010