It’s mid-February, and you know what that means: 1) everything is pink and cute, and 2) it’s time for another pre-book-launch post about something tangentially related to my novel, Weave a Circle Round. And since it’s also Valentine’s Day, that “something” will inevitably be love-themed. Stay tuned.
First, however, here is my second character portrait, this time of Josiah, one of the mysterious neighbours who moves in next door to Freddy’s family and immediately starts to disrupt everything. If this were like about 90% of YA urban fantasies, Freddy and Josiah would start out hating each other but eventually discover they were in love. I’ll tell you straight up that this doesn’t happen. It’s not even a spoiler. Two paragraphs with Josiah will demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is not love-interest material. Telling you why would be a spoiler, but trust me: there will be no longing sighs and stolen glances here.
Funnily enough, just writing that makes me feel as if I need to go on the defensive. What…am I saying Josiah isn’t good enough to be a love interest? What’s wrong with him? Am I insinuating that people who have things wrong with them can’t attract crushes from angry fourteen-year-old girls? Am I implying Freddy’s obviously better than him? Am I discriminating against Josiah? Doesn’t he deserve to be part of a love story?
Okay. It’s Valentine’s Day, and all the couples are off gooping at each other, so let’s unpack this.
Why in the name of all that is holy is the love story seen as the pinnacle of everything good and right in the world? Is it not possible to create a work that doesn’t contain a love story but in which it’s not implied that the characters simply don’t deserve one? I like Josiah. I think he’s awesome in his own dysfunctional way, but I’m not going to reward him with a love story because I don’t see love stories as rewards. Why should they be? If you’re a kid who’s suddenly swept away on a terrifying and fascinating journey through time and space, is the thought foremost in your mind really going to be, “I wonder when I’ll find my soulmate”? Or is it going to be, “I guess I have to learn to climb mountains really, really quickly”? Sure, teenagers think about sex a lot. They also think about a great many things that are not sex. What’s with the assumption that the culmination of the story always has to be a Big Damn Kiss that will lead inevitably to lifelong marital bliss and personal fulfilment?
Admittedly, fairy tales are probably at least partially to blame, but even there, the connection is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of fairy tales via our old friend Disney. Disney has fetishised “true love’s kiss” and made it the central focus of its stories. The company is beginning to pull back from that, but only to the extent that the kissing is now cleverly self-aware and occasionally involves sisters instead of lovers. Yet if you trace “true love’s kiss” back to the fairy tales on which Disney is drawing, you’ll notice something interesting: it isn’t there.
Yes, it’s true: “true love’s kiss” is an invention of the Mouse. Disenchanting kisses are not actually hugely common in fairy tales. When they do turn up, they are often bowdlerisations of scenes in which Person A disenchants Person B by other means (ranging from “just being there” through “sleeping with B” to “cutting off B’s head”). The only folk-tale-derived version of “Sleeping Beauty” that includes a kiss is the Brothers Grimm’s, and even there, the kiss itself doesn’t wake the girl up; it just coincidentally happens right when the hundred years are over. Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” the Grimms’ “Snow White,” and the various versions of “The Frog Prince” that have not been bowdlerised don’t contain kisses at all. The disenchanting kiss is, for better or worse, now a firm part of our idea of how stories work, but it hasn’t actually been so for very long.
This is important because while we now think of fairy tales as being about true love, what they’re generally really about is marriage, which isn’t the same thing at all. Even just sticking to the European tales, we see a bunch of stories developed by peasants to whom marriage was one of the only ways of experiencing even a limited form of social mobility. Of course the boy has to marry the princess at the end of the story; he’s the youngest son of a poor miller. How else could he possibly get ahead? Of course the girl wants to go to the ball. Her society tells her that’s her only way of escaping her grim family situation. Marriage in these stories is all about social climbing. In the Grimms’ “The Brave Little Tailor,” the princess doesn’t even like the tailor she’s forced to marry. In fact, she tries to have him killed. The tailor doesn’t care; he bullies her into standing down, and the story ends there, with the tailor sitting pretty and his wife both fearing and resenting him. “The Brave Little Tailor” is not really much of an exception where fairy tales are concerned.
So we have this influential body of stories in which getting married is the ultimate prize. As Disney has demonstrated, it’s not so difficult to turn “success = marriage” into “success = true love.” Is it all that surprising, then, that we have come to expect love plots in all our stories, and that we see characters as somehow lesser if they can’t get the girl/boy/sentient mushroom?* I can’t speak for every culture in existence, but I can tell you the entirety of Western civilisation spends a lot of time screaming at me about how I’ll be wasting my life if I don’t find Mr. Right and pop out at least two babies. We’ve internalised European peasant wish fulfilment and turned it into something that may be a tiny bit more harmful, as we don’t always acknowledge that it is wish fulfilment. The women sitting around in spinning circles telling stories about girls rescuing enchanted princes with magic golden spindles didn’t spend twenty-four hours a day convinced that someday, their princes would come. Many of us kind of do. Today is emblematic of that; Valentine’s Day has become an expectation, a love-focused day on which couples can celebrate achieving “the dream” while the rest of us losers sit around waiting for the chocolate to go on sale.
We’ll eventually fall out of love with love, and our fictional worlds will begin to shift. Our current belief that the power of “true love” is universal and undeniable can be contradicted via a quick look back at stories written down not all that long ago. There’s no reason to believe that romantic love will survive forever as a central ideal. For now, however, we might consider not dismissing stories that don’t culminate in a love plot or thinking less of characters who don’t get love stories. Sometimes, Peter Parker, it’s not “all about a girl.”
I do want to emphasise that I’m not knocking works that do love stories well. There are plenty of those. Sometimes, love plots are called for, and love interests can be amazing characters when they’re allowed to function outside the simple “love interest” category. My favourite love stories are organically part of the plot, not forced onto it as a reward for the protagonist. It’s also nice to see characters who are already in relationships and who aren’t continually in danger of destroying everything because they have no self-control. Not every story has to be a will-they-or-won’t-they plot or a story of adulterous betrayal or a tragic tale of lost love in which a character is haunted by the memory of his or her brutally murdered lover. Sometimes, Person A and Person B are together and fine, and it can be just as interesting as — if not more so than — love as a reward.
Happy Valentine’s Day. I would like, stubbornly, to raise a glass to all the fictional characters who aren’t involved in love stories and don’t want to be. More power to them. At least when their adventures are happening, they’re paying proper attention.
*Depending on your genre.