On HEAs (Happily Ever Afters)

Ah yes… the beloved trope. Trope, by the way, is one of those words you shall not speak of except in hushed whispers in serious creative writing programs. It is shoved in a box with other words like “cliches” and “allegory” and “fable”. If your work is ever tagged with one of these labels you have done something shameful and should pay penance to the muses immediately.

So, as you might imagine, after four years of being trained to write serious fiction, I was well out of the genre fiction loop by the time The Wheel Mages entered my head and was shocked to learn that a trope was considered by many authors as not only okay but necessary. Can you imagine? A TROPE.

I remember the exact moment I was listening to one of Joanna Penn’s interviews with romance writer J.A. Huss and Julie said, “In romance, you have to have an HEA, which is ‘happily ever after,’ and there is really no way around it.” I about fell out of my chair. I sputtered obscenities at the computer screen. “Real life does not work that way!” I screamed. Then I thought about it, and I realized the trope does make sense for romance. People read romance for… well… romance. And it’s not very romantic if the characters don’t end up together at the end. “Okay, fine.” I settled back in my chair and listened on. “Romance, you can have your HEAs.”

But I write fantasy. Fantasy is different. Good fantasy is a way to examine real world problems through a less intimidating lens. It’s a way to express frustrations with big picture ideas without screaming on YouTube. Also, there’s magic. I mean… who doesn’t love magic, right? Fantasy may be set in another world or some other plane of this world but it’s grounded in reality. Reality isn’t neat. Real issues can’t be tied up with a bow. Fantasy therefore doesn’t require an HEA.

Or does it?

As I pondered, I realized that a vast majority of the most popular fantasy I’ve read does in fact contain an HEA. Harry defeats the bad guy and marries his best friend’s sister. Alanna achieves her dream and settles down (as much as you can use that phrase with her character) with the man who’s been in love with her since book one. Katiniss survives the games and reunites the people. Clary saves the world and ends up with the love of her life. Bella… well you all know about Bella.

Even epic fantasy has its HEA. Bilbo defeats the dragon. Frodo destroys the ring. Rand… doesn’t die. Daenerys… oh wait. Well, if anyone is going to break the mold, George R.R. Martin will be the one to do it.

My point is, an HEA is not the exception in fantasy—it’s the rule. That got me to thinking… why? The best guess I have is that readers want HEAs. They’ve dedicated a lot of time and emotion to their favorite characters. They want them to beat the bad guy, and find themselves, and fall in love, and change the world. They want them to succeed. Because they want to succeed. They want all those things. want all those things. I think it’s a human response.

It’s not how real life works, though. It’s not precisely truth. And I know it might sound kind of odd to discuss truth when discussing fiction, even more so when discussing fantasy, but I believe it’s fundamental to creation. “Write what you know,” is the mantra of so many writers. But what we know often contains so much suffering. What we know also doesn’t hold an ending. Maybe that’s why the HEA has such a prevalent role in fiction, especially genre fiction which is written as a means of escape. We don’t know our own endings, so we can only hope, and we all hope for a happily ever after, too.

Does that take a work containing an HEA further from the truth writers strive to create? Does that make it somehow less? For that matter, does any kind of ending devalue the work in some way?

To be honest, I’m not sure. My ideas are still evolving, as they hopefully always will. What I do know, however, is that it’s something worth thinking about.

Sound off in the comments, I’m excited to hear what you think!

And as always, happy writing!

❤ Aimee

A Room of My Own

Author’s note: This post was written on October 21, 2016 before the website was launched. I hesitated to post it because it’s deeply personal, but I decided when I launched this book that I would be transparent with my readers and hopefully give some encouragement for those who are currently struggling.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. ~ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Today, I sit down to put the final touches on my debut novel The Wheel Mages before I send it to the copy editor. It’s a time of great joy for me. I spent the first hour of my day dancing to Sia in my living room with my German shepherd, Gabi, chasing me, loving this grand game. But as the adrenaline that comes with ending the task you’ve been focused on for so many months wore off, I became reflective.

I’ve been thinking about Virginia Woolf a lot this morning. I remember reading A Room of One’s Own for the first time in a high school English class. Virginia Woolf spoke to me in a way no classic author had before. Through the practicality of her message I felt a deep romanticism of writing—one I shared and it made it feel like she was truly speaking to me in the most personal way.

When I was in college studying creative writing, my dorm room was covered in quotes from my favorite authors—Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Christina Rossetti, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dante. But affixed above my head was a quote from Woolf:

“Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.”

I didn’t know it then but that quote would take on a new life for me many  years later.

You see, The Wheel Mages originated in a dark place.

In late January of this year, I self-committed to a behavioral health facility for suicidal ideation. I’d been having the thoughts for a long time but for whatever reason, that night, the dam broke and I knew I had to make a change or I wouldn’t survive.

Behavioral health facilities do not allow patients to have pens or pencils in their rooms, and the use of them is closely monitored in common areas. At first, this situation didn’t bother me. I hadn’t written anything of substance in years and it never occurred to me that might be something I’d want to do. Thoughts of what I wanted had fled not long after I graduated college.

But after a few days, my mind started to clear. Long hidden desires and dreams resurfaced. Through the fog of the medication, I saw the outline of what could be. It was like looking at a shadow at high noon—impossible and fuzzy but somehow still there.

During my years-long battle with mental illness and addiction (two dirty words, I know), I lost so much. Relationships with men and friends and family, my health, my spirit, my sanity. One after one, pieces of my life tumbled down around me like boulders falling down a mountainside. I watched them fall in silence because I felt I had no choice. No matter how hard I loved or fought or lied, the boulders fell. Eventually, I gave up trying to stop them.

For a long while, I lived like that—in stasis, in a cocoon of my own making. I existed, nothing more.

I think the thing people often don’t realize about mental illness and addiction is that while all the visible losses the person suffering sustains are indeed terrible, the greatest loss is unseen. It is often one of the first stones to fall but it isn’t a boulder—it’s a tiny, insignificant looking pebble that starts the slide. It is the voice of the sufferer.

By the time I found myself behind four layers of locked doors, lying on a plastic bed with a sheet that barely covered my body, my voice had long since fallen and it had taken my desire to write with it.

The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace.

There had been no peace in my life, no freedom. I bore my problems like heavy chains and sat in a pit of self-loathing while my mind made a meal of itself, strangling me from the inside out.

In that facility, with all its horrors and interruptions, a place Virginia Woolf certainly never meant to be the room of one’s own she envisioned for female novelists, I began to find some freedom.

For the first time in years, my time was my own. I had no responsibility to anyone except myself. It was a violent baptism of sorts. I had been stripped bare of all my defenses and distractions, forced to confront myself in the harshest of lights.

Alena took shape in the back of my mind. In many ways, she’s a reflection of who I wanted to be at that time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the first image the reader gets of her is of her standing tall, biting back her fears. That’s how I saw her and how I wanted to see myself.

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

As the days in that place trickled by, the story spun outward. There would be a man who loved her and another to challenge her. She would stumble, as we all do. She would fail, as I had, but she would push forward.

My fingers started to itch in a way they hadn’t in a long time. Energy I thought I’d lost resurfaced. My voice started to whisper to me, a wellspring of hope, and I no longer felt alone.

When I was released, the first place I went was a bookstore. Among the familiar scent of fresh pages, new life blossomed. I caressed the titles of works I knew, breathing them in. I remembered college and the quotes on my wall, now stored in a box in my parents’ attic. I remembered how much I’d loved Milton and how ardently I’d argued with my professors over morality in Chekhov.

I remembered, too, how I’d been taught to write fiction but had always been drawn to fantasy. I remembered the shame I’d felt and the judgment I’d borne because I had such promising talent but I wanted to waste it on genre fiction.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.

I thought about writing the story of my ten-day stay in a mental hospital or about the events leading up to it but I couldn’t. If I were to find my way back to myself it would be in fantasy. It would be my path—no one else’s.

I bought all of Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series and read them in two days. I ransacked my old room at my parents’ house, loading my car with books. My apartment, which had always been bare of books (looking back, I can’t help but shake my head, how deep was my despair that my world was bare of books?) was now full of them. Every flat surface held a title—Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, J.K. Rowling, Cassandra Clare—the novels of my genre touched spines with the classics of my training. I brought forth Durkheim’s work on the Elementary Forms of Religious Life and dove back into the dark writings of Nietzsche. I pulled out notebooks full of research on Eastern European history that has always fascinated me and read my old journals that even then were dripping with the deep darkness that would overwhelm me in time.

When my mind was full and saturated with art, I sat down with my legal pad and let the words bleed onto the page. The Wheel Mages was born.

Now, nearing the end of this journey and the beginning of a new one, I can’t help but look back and see how far I’ve come. For the first time in my life, I’m proud and unafraid to say so. As I sit here, settling into my desk chair with the cover page of a completed manuscript staring back at me and a light breeze drifting through my window, I feel the greatest sense of peace I have ever known.

I finally have a room of my own.