Thursday, July 14, 2011

Quest and Romance: Oil and Water?

Reading thuRsday

Last week we looked at the structural analogy between romance, as the journey of two people coming together, and the hero's journey. Having compared the two kinds of stories, it's only fitting that we take a moment to contrast them as well.

At a conference presentation on romance, the speaker asked which male character in the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV - VI for you young-uns) was most romantic. By overwhelming consensus the audience voted for Han Solo.

Why not Luke? It is, after all, the story of how he becomes a hero.

The answer is in the verb near the end of the last sentence: becomes.

What is Han? Easy: he's a rogue and space pirate (and some of you might insist on adding the qualifier, "devilishly handsome").

What is Luke? It depends on when you ask. At different times he is a farm boy, an orphan, an apprentice, a pilot, a soldier, a student, a son, a Jedi, a brother, and a savior. All of these are aspects of Luke becoming a hero--which is as it should be because the hero's journey is fundamentally about a character's transformation.

Now think about the classic romance pattern: the romantic lead is often well-established in some fashion. For example, we meet Mr. Darcy when he's the master of Pemberly, not as the callow youth being sent off to school for the first time. Han Solo has the Millennium Falcon and has made a place (albeit a tenuous one) for himself in the galaxy. As clich├ęd as it is, there was a time when the guy in high school with the car got more attention from the girls because it was proof he had the wherewithal to acquire and operate an expensive piece of machinery.

Here's the key point: you can't have a classic romance while the hero (and/or the heroine) are transforming themselves from debatable youths to wiser, tested, and fundamentally more admirable people.

For example, in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, it's clear Taran and Eilonwy are fond of each other from the first volume, but their romance doesn't blossom until the final volume. In the intervening volumes, they both go through one or more hero's journeys largely on their own.

This, of course, isn't an argument that you can't have a classic romance in high school. And heaven knows real life is usually a perplexing muddle of being and becoming. But in terms of structure, where a hero's journey is as much about becoming an individual who can stand on their own, a classic romance is about distinct individuals becoming a couple. They're fundamentally different kinds of stories.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. And I actually enjoy the tease of the romance as the characters are going through their individual journeys, like Hans & Leah & Taran & Eilonwy.


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