Something I fell asleep thinking about Monday night a few weeks ago as I was still processing the news about the bombing in Boston was that the best thing to do in the face of such national tragedies is find comfort in the ones we love. It keeps us stronger, diminishes the feelings of isolation and banishes the demons that try to creep in and fill us with despair. In such poignant moments of love and solidarity, there is something sincere that touches us deeply and sees us through that dark tunnel to the light at the end. When I gave my grandma a call and we talked about it, we may have shared our theories about why it happened and how the world’s such a dark, scary place, but what I took most away from it was that she and I were sharing these feelings with each other.
In fiction, such use of the theme of Love and it’s power to transform us and give us courage and strength to see through difficulties–whether on a personal or global level, and everything in between–can be used very well, and the picture that the words of those stories paint is illuminating and inspiring. Something lifts within us. Not just like stories of how “Love conquers all” like in Romeo and Juliet, but on a spiritual level, all the way back to one of the oldest stories, the story of how Jesus suffered and died on the cross, for love of humanity (which is why the image gets used a lot). Or even in a story like the epic of Gilgamesh, the son of a god who’s such an awful character until he becomes friends with Enkidu, and the depth of love in this friendship is dramatized with the grief that grips him in the wake of Enkidu’s eventual death. And of course every Harry Potter fan (whether of just the books, just the movies, or both) can discourse on the theme of how powerful a magic Love can be, in many forms, and J. K. Rowling does as excellent job of weaving that theme into the story without making it sound preachy. Instead, she makes it epic.
As something that powerful should be.
But there are other cases in fiction where the use of the theme of Love’s power falls flat and gasping to the floor. I’m sure you can think of a few examples (Twilight and The Host probably come to mind). Here’s where I personally think those and other such failed attempts at making Love look strong–and instead make it look sappy and weak–fall so horrendously flat.
The difference between the stories that illustrate the power of Love well and the ones that do it poorly is that in the ones that do it well, the theme of Love is given some kind of concreteness, made strong, not just in the actions of the characters, but also consequences that will weigh heavily and inevitably on others because of those actions, not just on the main characters involved in these loving relationships, whether it be between romantic lovers, parent and child, or friend and friend, sibling and sibling, etc.. In the ones that do it poorly, this doesn’t come across as well because of such factors as plot holes, lackluster attempts at suspense buildup, etc., that result in the noble actions that the loving parties undertake coming across as flimsy at best.
Because love can be perceived as a weakness in some instances, and I think romantic love gets this stigma the most often, because some see it as a declaration of an inability to stand on one’s own two feet and require the mutual love and affection of another being, it’s important to demonstrate Love (capital L) as a pillar of strength against the backdrop of a horrible situation. In Twilight, Bella and Edward are willing to die for each other, but the reason this “die for love” scenario comes off as tired and flimsy than say, Romeo and Juliet is because A) it’s a pretty much constantly repeated plot point, like if it were a TV show it’d happen pretty much EVERY episode, and B) because Stephanie Meyer decided to make these characters (Bella in particular) such “blank slates” so that people would “relate to them”, and what they “go through” (I use those two words VERY lightly) relatively “safe”, resulting in the characters’ lack of likability and lack of excitement in the story, so the threat of death to either or any of these characters isn’t enough to make us, the audience, invest all that much in caring about what happens to them, aside from maybe the kind of lukewarm hope for their survival that we’d probably also have for a character searching for her car keys so she can drive to the bookstore before it closes for the day (“Gosh I hope she finds her keys.”).
In the case of Romeo and Juliet’s story however, not only do they both end up actually dying, payoff for the idea that they’d both be willing to die to be with each other, but the fact that they’d be willing to die for each other isn’t thrown in our faces in some shape or form before the fact–save for the Chorus’ speech at the beginning: it’s up to the actors portraying their story to show for us the audience through their character portrayals what kind of people they are, and how invested they are in each other, how they have reached a point in their romantic relationship where the love is something precious and beautiful, and should be defended, especially against pigheaded relatives who probably don’t even remember why they hate each other so much. And that defense is carried out ’til death. And the buildup comes through beforehand with other people dying as a consequence of their love being forced into secrecy because of the nature of things as they are, namely Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt are killed in a duel, because Romeo refused to duel Tybalt on the principle that (unbeknownst to Tybalt) they were now kin by Romeo’s secret marriage to Juliet.
Also, one could argue that Juliet killing herself after seeing Romeo’s dead might be weak in the sense that she can’t live unless he’s alive too, so she’d rather be dead. But on the other hand, choosing death is often painted as a noble sacrifice, and in this case, if Juliet hadn’t killed herself as well, the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets would never have been resolved (not that that was the ultimate goal, but nevertheless, it did achieve it). Hey, if anything back then it was still widely accepted that suicide was a hell-worthy sin (STILL believed by many today) so choosing the fires of hell for love is a pretty big leap to take too.
Okay, now I know that like in Twilight, Romeo and Juliet fall for each other on the spot and pretty much immediately come to the understanding that they are “meant to be”. But for one thing, romantic love worked like that quite commonly in stories that predate the modern era. For another thing, even if in both scenarios we got that “lightning bolt love” effect, Shakespeare gives Romeo and Juliet the famous balcony scene, wherein they’re given the opportunity to discover that they were made for each other by just acting like flirting teenagers: sure it’s still pretty unreal that by the end of that scene they’ve got plans to get married in secret, but again the nature of the time period plays a factor, and AGAIN some time was taken to develop. In Twilight, there’s no point in the beginning where it’s simply the essence of young teenage love: sure there’s the bit where Bella believes she’s already found The One even though she’s still in high school (and that happens when you’re a teenager who already knows everything), but there’s no fun flirting! It’s just Bella being attracted to and fascinated by Edward, Edward getting a scent off her that for a reason that’s conveniently never explained is like crack to him, little bit of emo “pushing and shoving”, and then suddenly it’s all “sparkly skin in the meadow and I guess we’re a couple now because Batman”.
And you could make a drinking game involving how many times Edward and Bella tell each other how much they love each other more than anything and make googly eyes at each other. I’m sorry, but the bit where they’re lying there in the meadow doesn’t count: I barely remember that part, what they even talked about–certainly nothing of substance, except how apparently we’ve all been wrong about vampires. (“Vampires burn up in the sunlight? Nah, that’s a myth! We just sparkle.”)
But what about beloved Harry Potter, which doesn’t go trough any of the books without making the point that what saved Harry, protected his friends, and defeated the dark forces of Voldemort was the Power of Love? So how is it J. K. Rowling makes Love strong while Stephanie Meyer makes it weak? Well, going off what I said earlier, J. K. Rowling takes what I’d like to sort of call the “J. R. R. Tolkien/ C. S. Lewis Approach”. Obviously other authors like Ursula K. LeGuin and Neil Gaiman fall into that mix, and what they all have in common is that their use of the theme of Love is integral to the magic of the storytelling–it earns its right to be a force of nature. Love indeed plays a HUGE factor in the telling of Harry Potter’s story just as much as it does in Twilight, but for Harry Potter, Rowling makes it BIG in a couple of ways that we can see in Tolkien’s stories of Middle-Earth, Lewis’ stories of Narnia, LeGuin’s tales of Earthsea, and in just about any world Neil Gaiman’s ever created for readers to gambol in (though gambol with caution).
First of all, Rowling makes Love an actual form of magic, declares it a physical form of power within the ramifications of her world, and because she’s written it that way, it works. And she gives that power a physical weight to it, as well as an excellent payoff to the buildup she constructs for the reader. There are also consequences, like Death, intertwined with Love, to demonstrate Love’s power against Death not in the idea that it will always literally conquer it (Harry might have lived, but Lily had to die first, and she stayed dead), but much like in Romeo and Juliet, to die for Love’s sake serves as an inspiration for those who are still alive. Despite seeing all of our favorite characters bite the dust to fight the good fight to protect the ones they love–James and Lily Potter, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Remus Lupin and Tonks, Fred Weasley, Colin Creevey, Dobby, just to name a few–and in spite of Harry taking the ultimate fall for everyone, all of his friends and the others still alive don’t know he’s still alive when they rally in spite of his being “dead” and keep on fighting, rather than fall prey to Voldemort and their own despair. They defy the despair Voldemort hoped to overtake them with upon killing Harry–and then of course Harry turns out to not be dead anyway, all because of one little thing Voldemort overlooked.
Again, with Twilight, it’s just a lot of talking about it, but one of the BIGGEST problems I have with Stephanie Meyer is that she’s never willing to take any risks. At the end of Breaking Dawn for example, everything’s resolved before an actual fight can break out (which is terribly anticlimactic), and the only character who suffers any kind of consequence of the cruelty of the Volturi is Irina Denali, executed for mistaking Renesmee to be an immortal child (and well she was single so I guess that justifies expendablity).
Now I’m in the middle of reading Beautiful Creatures, and in the last post where I mentioned this work I had not yet read it at all. I finally decided I should read it because it involves some elements that I’m using in my own writing that I should brush up on just to see what the trend seems to be in YA fiction (i.e. the concept of witchcraft somewhat reinvented). So far, the writing’s far more solid than anything Stephanie Meyer ever came up with: compared to Edward and Bella, Ethan and Lena have some real personality to work with and enjoy, as do the other characters around them, and as far as the love story goes, it’s still a bit “I-know-I-just-met-you-but-I’m-instantly-attracted-to-you-and-therefore-am-in-love-with-and-can’t-live-without-you”-ish, but at the very least there’s some buildup–it even works out in the world Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia are creating because it’s a supernatural build-up: Lena and Ethan have been having dreams about each other before they’ve even met physically and they have some kind of telepathic thing going to.
Compared to Twilight, this at least gives some legitimate reason for these two being drawn together, not just “Edward likes the smell of Bella’s blood, etc.” That and I think they’re also reincarnations of a Caster and a Mortal–both family ancestors of theirs respectively–who were desperately in love during the Civil War and then things ended tragically (I’m not entirely positive, I haven’t read that far yet, I’m going off of hints I’ve read in rather spoilerific reviews and articles about the movie). Regardless, this is all far better build-up than what Twilight ever did, and I’m hoping to get the same in the payoff. In fact, so far, I’ve learned that these past selves of Lena and Ethan (I’m just going to refer to them as “past selves” at this point) past-Ethan died, and past-Lena ended up going Dark in her attempts to bring him back to the dead, which fails anyway.
WHAT? You mean the power of Love didn’t save him? That’s right: two people fell in love, and it ended badly in spite of how strong that love was. Hurray for actual consequences! Because now there’s a little more weight added to that “forbidden love” aspect: “If you guys try to get together again like you did in your past life, things could turn out just like before: badly.”
Not that I want either Lena or Ethan to die, but I want to see some REAL consequences from this forbidden love. Edward and Bella’s love was (apparently) forbidden, but NO consequences really came of it–there were times where it was a close call, but Meyer always pulled things back before it got too excitingly over-the-edge, and that’s part of what makes it so awfully bland (I understand she did the exact same thing with The Host, which I didn’t even read or see).
So the general rule here seems to be that if we as writers wish to create worlds where Love is a legit force of nature that has an effect on our readers, it has to have its own magic and power. It has to be demonstrated. It has to get bent up a little, take a few knocks, and remain pure in spite of them. The threat to it has to be real, and realized at times too. It can’t just be mused on, the storm has to be weathered first and then the readers get to see how the characters who feel this Love deal with it on the other side–will they fall prey to Despair and Wickedness in the face of Death and Loss, or will they triumph in spite of what Love has suffered?
Bringing it back to the tragic events of the bombing in Boston, I think Elizabeth Warren, senator of Massachusetts, succinctly puts it well in a real-world context, and taking it to heart too is an inspiration in and of itself: