A writer friend sent me a message the other day, asking my advice on how to dispense with her heroine’s absent husband. Should she kill him or just send him off to another country? It set me thinking of the tricky business of dispensing with the ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse in romantic fiction.
Jane Austen and Barbara Cartland had it much easier as their heroines were always unmarried maidens who usually fell in love with the first truly handsome man they met so didn’t have to be written out of a bad relationship. There might be a false love interest, such as Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, but there was no romantic relationship to speak of.
It’s an unwritten rule that where there is an ex involved, either for the hero or heroine, it must be the ex’s fault that the relationship ended. In the past it was also required that the dead spouse of a heroine/hero had to be less perfect than the new lover, though thankfully that’s not the case anymore. One thing I love about Kate Walker’s novels is that if there is a dead spouse, Kate doesn’t immediately demonise the deceased. She accepts that we can have more than one love in a lifetime. But it’s still important that where there’s been a broken relationship, it’s got to be the other party’s fault, so that our hero and heroine are not seen to be heartlessly breaking someone else’s heart. So the heroine has to have been abandoned or cheated on.
In films we see that happen time and time again. The hero or heroine will dump someone just to be with the love of their lives, and sometimes it’s not always certain that the other lover is at fault. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan dumps Bill Pullman for Tom Hanks. Now personally I’d have gone the other way, but it was fair to say that there was nothing wrong with Bill Pullman’s character. He was a nice, decent man and he even gets a touching speech where he tells Meg that he doesn’t want to be someone she settles for (or words to that effect). They had a good relationship, which had admittedly fallen into a bit of a rut, yet she throws it all up to go and meet a man that she has only heard on the radio talking about his devotion to his dead wife. Yes, it was lovely and romantic. But was it the kind way to treat poor old Bill? And what will she do when her and Tom’s relationship goes through a boring patch? Go and meet someone else at the top of the Empire State Building and hope that he’s the love of her life?
Usually in fiction (films, books or otherwise), the main character is just escaping a relationship in the doldrums for something new and exciting, yet no relationship can exist in the height of passion the whole time. Real life sets in and it’s working through those problems that makes a relationship strong. Yet in fiction, we’re told that if you’re not getting what you want from a relationship in terms of passion and excitement, it’s perfectly alright to just go for someone who seems even more exciting.
None of this answers the question of what to do with an ex when it’s important that they’re out of the way, but their existence is necessary (for example where there’s a child involved). So here are some tips to help you on your way and, hopefully avoid cliché.
Kill them off
This is by far the simplest way to get rid of a previous lover/spouse. Someone who is dead is unlikely to be too much of a competition to the new lover. But beware of how long they’ve been dead before your heroine falls in love again. I know it’s not the rule to wait a year till someone’s dead before falling in love and marrying again nowadays, but if someone rushes into a new relationship it begs the question of why. There’s also no need to demonise a dead spouse in order to make the new love seem more important (unless it’s a plot point that the dead spouse was a wrong ‘un). We have enough love in our hearts to share with lots of people, our family, our friends, our lovers, and loving someone deeply does not mean you’re unable to have those same feelings for someone else.
Have them move away
An ex who is out of the picture is much less likely to be in competition. Another country is always good. Maybe the heroine and her ex wanted different things. At least that explains why they’re in different countries. Also, an ex who is still very much in the picture, or at least the same country, can end up dominating proceedings. I recently read a novel where the heroine spends all her time wondering what her ex is up to, even though she claims not to like him (and he’s written in such a way that one wonders why she ever did like him) and yet our hero is supposed to be her main focus.
Avoid the cliché of making the ex the bad guy/girl
We all have exes, that when we look back, we wonder what the hell we ever saw in them. But it’s important your reader doesn’t do that. I’ve read about exes who were so heinous, that one wonders why the hero or heroine ever fell in love with them. Yes, a lot of people have abusive relationships, but even abusive partners have their moments of charm. Give the reader a reason why the hero or heroine was once in love with that person, but without making it seem that the ex is still in the running.
In my novel, Take My Breath Away, my heroine, Patty, still had a good relationship with her ex-husband who was the father of her son, but I killed him off in the first chapter after establishing their friendly terms. I made him charming, and rather pathetic in a sweet sort of way (he was inspired by Richard Burton after all), so that the reader could see why she’d been drawn to him when she was a young actress. But he was just not right for her.
It is so easy to get it wrong and in trying to demonise the ex, you end up showing the hero or heroine in a bad light. In another novel I read recently, the hero kept sleeping with a woman he did not even like, because the heroine was giving him the run-around, which made me hate the hero with a passion. At no time was it addressed that he was actually leading this poor girl on, whilst openly despising her (and we were obviously supposed to hate the girl too), and he just forgot she existed as soon as the heroine decided she did love him after all.
To be fair, Norah Ephron probably got it right in Sleepless in Seattle. She didn’t demonise Bill Pullman’s character. She just made him not right for our heroine. In another movie, Bill would absolutely deserve to get the girl (or save the world from aliens – one or t’other).
|Just look at him. How could anyone ever love that face?|
Meanwhile you still have to try not to let it be the hero/heroine’s fault
In real life, sometimes it is our fault that relationships don’t work. We fail to put enough effort into them. We take our partners for granted. We’re not always as kind to them as we should be. We snap. We nag. We bicker and argue. We leave the top off the toothpaste. And, one of the hardest truths is that we simply stop loving someone as we did in that first great wave of passion.
Sometimes people will cheat, for a variety of reasons, some of them perhaps understandable. In romantic fiction, however, which is about devotion and true love, this is a hard thing to pull off whilst still retaining sympathy for your main character. Adultery in fiction, for many readers, is a deal breaker, even if it’s the hero and heroine sleeping with each other whilst married to other partners (If he can do it to his wife, he can do it to our heroine, right?).
Readers can be quite puritanical when it comes to heroes and heroines, and expect quite high standards of behaviour from the main characters in a romance. I once witnessed a conversation online where readers insisted they went right off a hero because he smoked! (I immediately wrote a smoking hero into my next novel!) Therefore, characters tend to be conveniently widowed, divorced or broken up before they will sleep with the new lover, and it’s unlikely they’ll have cheated on their previous partner.
Similarly, the relationship will always have ended because of something the ex did (or failed to do). I’m not sure I’ve ever read a romantic novel or watched a film where this wasn’t the case, so I have no examples of how it could work out whilst still retaining sympathy for the hero or heroine. Does anyone else?
In the end, I just advised my friend the best I could, as I have no easy answers to this conundrum, other than to make sure your heroine is always a virgin who has lived in a desert island all her life just across from the hero, who lives in a monastery on another island. Or you could make her Anastasia Steel…
My latest novel, Eye of the Storm, is now in the shops. You can buy it from Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys, WH Smiths and larger newsagents.