“Romantic love is only an illusion. A story one makes up in one’s mind about another person.”
– Virginia Woolf
Fiction has led us astray.
To what do we truly aspire when we identify ourselves with protagonists who find incredible happiness and fulfillment through chance encounters and impossibly good luck? We hope to reap the rewards of such fortune in our own lives, of course, but these promises of mystical romance give us nothing to strive for. Perhaps that is the appeal.
When a story is driven by the powerful motivations of one or more characters, we see great amounts of effort on their part, followed often by turmoil, corruption and tragedy. But in the serendipitous intertwining of the lives of two soul mates, we see something far more desirable; an easy victory. Of all common delusions, the idea that we are each somehow destined to find pure love is among the most indulgent, unrealistic and downright ludicrous. However, the power of delusion should never be underestimated.
Through recognising and replicating our own tendencies to romanticise events past, present and future, we, as writers, can apply such abandonment of reason to our characters’ quests for love. Thus, we can play on our readers’ expectations, particularly when writing from a first-person perspective. If delivered in a suitably emotive fashion, a narrator’s insistence that he/she has found pure love can draw the hopeful, empathetic reader into the very same trap.
This idea is not a million miles away from the classic ‘honey trap’ – a mainstay of detective and spy novels. It is capable, however, of producing an emotional response far greater than merely the activation of a wily detective’s libido. Rather than allowing the reader to watch from across the room as a character is cruelly manipulated by a love interest, we can ensure that they take the same distorted view as the ‘mark’. Subtlety, therefore, is a must, and the romantic chemistry contrived must be potent enough to convince even the most distrusting reader that a true mutual attraction exists.
Of course, fooling the reader in such a way is a tricky business, and it takes a great amount of care and skill to pull it off. From a third person perspective, the difficulty increases yet further, as key elements of the manipulator’s character must be withheld in order to cloak their ulterior motives. This may be achieved by simply focussing readers’ attention on other matters – those more pressing in terms of the plot.
A perfect example would be Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. The beautiful double agent Vesper Lyn, with whom Bond falls in love, flies below the radar for more or less the entire story. The reader’s suspicion is never alerted, due almost exclusively to the fact that the high stakes drama of the Baccarat game at the centre of the story is so engrossing. It’s only when Bond discovers Lyn’s duplicity that the reader does, and he/she therefore identifies with the hero’s hurt and feels the full brunt of that crude and famous line, “the bitch is dead now.”
In examples of more complex romantic drama, such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the manipulator is often not so knowing of their own actions. In the book, Daisy has no intention of hurting Gatsby, and indeed she appears to fall for him just as deeply as he does for her. Unfortunately, it is in her character to be flaky and shallow, and to drift through life giving little thought to the hearts she breaks. The story’s tragic ending, however, is not of her doing. She was as fooled by the romance of Gatsby’s return as anyone.
In both examples, it is the powerful delusion that true love is some transcendent, mystical force which leads to dismay, disappointment and ultimately tragedy. Fleming and Fitzgerald, like all great writers, understood that every character, weak or strong, is susceptible to the blinding effect of love – or rather, the hope of love; the hope of an easy victory.
Bond and Gatsby’s respective soul mates proved to be nothing of the sort, just as is so often the case in reality, where seemingly perfect romantic connections invariably turn out to be no more than dazzling illusions constructed by our hopeful unconscious minds as we continue to indulge one of our most ridiculous shared fantasies; true love.
Happy Valentine’s Day.