4.4.1 Writing Better Life Stories

Interwoven with models of personalities and depictions of behaviours to emulate or avoid are the back-stories concerning characters’ pasts and also the hopes, ambitions or fears which motivate them and which can be thought of as “future stories” (Lester 1). Andrew D. Lester argues that “Human beings do not simply tell stories, or illustrate their lives with storytelling. We construct our sense of identity out of stories” (29):

a person’s sense of self develops out of the stories through which he or she interprets experience. These stories collect both the remembered past and the imagined future, which are then integrated into the person’s present identity. (5)

Romances frequently depict characters whose “future stories are dysfunctional” (7). Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels (1994) is one such romance, and since it lays out the hero’s dysfunctional backstory in the prologue, it is also a good illustration of how “stories of our past [...] structure the core narratives from which we live, as well as enabling us to create future stories that establish the core narratives toward which we live” (Lester 40). Sebastian’s past story tells him that he is “a monster, impossible to love” (339) and so he adopts a future story based on a “motto from Horace: ‘Make money, money by fair means if you can, if not, by any means money” (13): his “future story” is one in which he will disregard morality and accumulate wealth to pay for the companionship he believes he cannot acquire in any other way. However, although there is no way to change the facts included in his backstory (such as his father’s callousness towards him, and his abandonment by his mother), it is possible to interpret them in a different way. Instead of assuming that the fault lay in Sebastian, a new story about his past would label the father “a miserable, bitter old man” (320) and open up the possibility that Sebastian’s mother “had loved him in her own temperamental way” (360) and, rather than “drag a little boy off on a dangerous sea voyage, with no assurance she could provide for him” (321), decided to leave him in a place of safety. Accepting the revised past story enables Sebastian to create a new future story, one in which he will have someone “to accept him. Someone to look upon him and touch him with affection” (340).

Ruth Wind’s Jezebel’s Blues (1992) suggests that the act of recognising a “future story” as a story increases an individual’s ability to review it and assess its narrative elements. In this novel the hero never even knew who his father was (117), was orphaned by a flood when he was six and then had a childhood which was "bad [...]: motherless and full of too much work" (71). His past story, then, is full of sorrow and his future story seems headed for more unhappiness. However, he comes to recognise that his dysfunctional future story closely resembles his favourite novel,

a story about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who fought like hell to be somebody, only to die a tragic, early death believing the worst everyone had ever said about him. [...] But tonight, as he read, Eric felt an embarrassed little shock over his identification with the main character. It seemed uncomfortably melodramatic. [...] In a way, the book was the story of his life, and [...] it rang true. But as he read, he grew uncomfortable.

For every time the young man had a chance, he sabotaged himself. (231-232)

The result of this critical re-reading is that Eric stops sabotaging himself and instead lets himself imagine a happy future story for himself, filled with love as well as success in his professional life.

Alec, the hero of Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again (1994), an actor in a daytime soap opera, may seem very different from Eric: Eric had low self-esteem and was convinced that he brought with him “chaos [...] dark passion and heavy burdens” (Wind 221) whereas Alec has always attempted to take on other people’s burdens. Nonetheless, Alec too has a problem with creating a functional, hopeful future story. He has been shaped by a tragic story in his past, that of being "the wonderful big brother to the sick little sister" (359) who died. His future story is that of an “ideal white knight” (Seidel 346), “the knight who picks up his arms in service of the weak and defenseless” (353), very similar to that of one of the characters in the soap and

The new director was right. The white knight paid for his gleaming goodness; he moved too far from the muck and ashes, the passion and shadows that made up real life. Jenny could see that happening to Alec. He would become the elder statesman of day-time, respected by all, the one who got things done, the one everyone else leaned on. But there would be something empty and distant about him. (347-48)

By “playing the rescuer” (342), and engaging in a series of quests which required him to practice “noble self-denial” (345), he has learned to have “no hope or expectation” for himself, which “was a form of death.”

Luckily his heroine, Jenny, is a scriptwriter and thus when she puts her mind to “thinking about narratives—something she knew a lot about” (351) she can identify the “problem with the way he was telling the story.” In fact, she can see that he needs an entirely new story, based on another character in the soap opera, one who has “fought for his country, [...] borne arms, [...] done battle” (354) and thus has some of the white knight’s sense of duty. This character is not yet set in his ways, although it seems likely that if “he never got a story, if he just stayed the dashing, not-so-young bachelor” (361) he would very possibly “end up all noble and stiff.” As scriptwriter, Jenny plans to give this character a positive future story by pairing him with the character she herself resembles: their “best chance of being really wonderful people is if they are married to each other” (362). Alec, who as an actor also has some skill in examining stories, recognises the possibilities inherent in the new storyline and promptly proposes to Jenny.

These protagonists who have endured "unwanted or harmful or dangerous experiences" (Clebsch and Jaekle 9) grow through revising or replacing the dysfunctional future stories which arose from their hurtful past stories. By virtue of being romances in which the protagonists’ dysfunctional future stories are explicitly shown to be stories, Seidel’s and Wind’s novels suggest how romances, in the hands of attentive and receptive readers, can perform a pastoral function with regards to readers’ future stories. Romance novels which explicitly or implicitly demonstrate that dysfunctional future stories can be revised or replaced, may guide readers towards examining and, where necessary, changing their own stories to ones which enable them to transcend hurtful circumstances.