Love is selfish

Here’s where I admit that I look down on the kind of hero who stays away from a heroine “for her own good”. As far as I’m concerned, the species of human love that romance novels deal with is a selfish beast. I find it much more romantic if a hero knows he should stay away, and comes closer anyway.

This is a personal preference – and in no way “how romantic love is”. But it’s a rather strongly held preference.

It comes partly from the experience of dating a budding Buddhist (ha!) in my early 20s. He was attempting to let strong emotions wash by without attaching to them, and I was attempting to grab onto passion with both hands. His goal was to love everyone  on earth equally, and I wanted to be loved the most, reason be damned.

Needless to say, we did not last. My vague annoyance with Eastern religions lasted, though, as did my less vague sense that it is not a good or selfless thing to say, “You. Above everyone else, you”, but it was the only kind of love I was going to settle for.

And I don’t think it was only a histrionic, vain kind of a wish. Because there are days when knowing that I matter the most to this one person gives me something to hold on to. It makes me necessary. It enforces meaning onto what can sometimes seem painfully arbitrary.

So. That’s my take on romantic love, and I have no time for heroes who stay away.

Now to qualify that statement, though, because I’m not a maniac. Heroes who stay away because of some condescending belief that they know what’s best: No. But of course there are good reasons to stay away.

If the heroine is in actual physical danger because of her association with the hero, staying away seems reasonable. And I like the more nuanced approach of a hero who hasn’t yet made up his mind what he’s prepared to give up for the heroine, or what he’s prepared to take on. This is a variation of selfish love. It’s more like, “I stay away for my own good. For now.”

At the end of my novel my heroine stays away from my hero, but only because she’s building certain assets for herself so that when they meet again she’ll be able to fully claim him. She knows she’ll do more harm than good if she claims him too early, so in a sense it’s for his own good – but she’s busy making up the difference. She’s not off somewhere wallowing in how bad for him she is.

The eternally moving last paragraph of The Thorn Birds says all this better than I can. I’m literally going to quote the last paragraph of the book, and it’s the best ending I’ve ever read, so if you haven’t yet read the book DO NOT READ ON! (And if you haven’t yet read the book, get cracking.)

The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.

Comments 4 Responses

  1. Judy, Judy, Judy (Clever Betty)

    The Thornbirds quote is beautiful.
    I get what you’re saying. I’m pretty accepting of romance novel premises. It does bug me when one or the other thinks they’re not good enough. The other thing that bugs me is when two novel characters barely spend any actual time together and I’m supposed to believe they fall in love.
    It sounds like you have finished a wip. If that’s true, congratulations.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      thanks for the congratulations, Clever Betty! Because I’m buried in red pen at the moment, I do forget to stop and be happy that I’ve got a WHOLE WORKING DRAFT!! Funnily enough, my heroine started out as a hugely insecure, self-doubting character, but has evolved through the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve chucked into the strongest character in my book. She’s completely kick-ass – and I find that better to write. There is a truth to self-doubt, but it’s hard to pull off, I reckon. And yes to characters not spending enough time together. I recently re-watched The Matrix and I felt pretty dubious about Trinity’s grand declaration of love. They’d only said about 3 words to each other!

  2. Mike

    Good last Paragraph! I essentially agree, though I wouldn’t like to be in a relationship where that person was so selfish they expected me to ignore friends in need. I’ve known folk in relationships like that and its dishearteningly selfish. Sure, “you above all others,” but I would add “*except* when there is another in more immediate need…”
    After all, you have your lover, if the love is true and fate is not cruel, for life.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      You’re probably entirely right, Mike – and I love the idea of being generous with yourself because you have something precious for life! :-) Romance is all about the fantasy, though, so in my fantastical romantic love, others do not impinge. Maybe in characters from previous books, when you’re watching them negotiate post-Happily-Ever-After life.

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