One of the most important parts of a romance novel is the optimistic conclusion. The reader must believe that the main characters have what it takes to stay in a loving and committed relationship no matter what the future holds.
But what if one of the characters deals with a mental health condition? How does that impact the happily-ever-after?
The Lost Soul archetype or “damaged” character can be found in all popular fiction. The superhero’s origin usually tells of unimaginable loss. The last survivor in a horror story is traumatized from the violent events. The alienated sleuth self-medicates as he witnesses the worst of humanity.
The main character in a romance novel, however, must overcome enough of their backstory to develop a healthy relationship that will lead to the happily-ever-after. They can’t be loners because the story is all about intimacy and connection.
In Hero by Night by Sara Jane Stone, Lena is a former soldier who struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. No matter how much she has worked on her mental health, there are no easy fixes, and her support system has given up on her. Her marriage has failed and she has a strained relationship with her family because of her condition.
While Lena is attracted to Chad, she struggles with physical intimacy (a symptom of PTSD) throughout the hot romance. Chad, who is used to casual and temporary hookups, wants more than an affair with Lena. He’s also determined to help her, but he’s not equipped to handle her PTSD. He doesn’t think he’s the hero she needs.
A romance novel character coping with a mental health condition often doesn’t pursue a relationship. They worry that the other person will decide they aren’t worth the effort and eventually walk away. They believe it’s better to be alone.
It’s why Courtney, the heroine in Mr. Hotshot CEO by Jackie Lau, doesn’t do romantic relationships. She has learned that she can’t count on a man as she struggles with her mental health. When Julian, a workaholic CEO, asks Courtney to teach him how to have fun during his enforced vacation, she knows she’s not a qualified candidate.
After all, Courtney has suffered from clinical depression a few times in her life. She can tell she’s about to suffer the worst of it again. When their vacation project turns intimate, the most she can offer is a lighthearted fling and end it before her symptoms become unmanageable.
It’s important to note that in both these stories, the heroines’ mental health conditions don’t disappear. There are no miracles. They struggle throughout the stories and they will continue to do so even through their happily-ever-afters.
As Lucy Martin points out in her article “The Genre of “Damaged Girls” is the Only Thing That’s Broken”, sex, love and romance aren’t cures. The idea of the female protagonist being “completed” or “fixed” by the male romantic interest is problematic and misogynistic. It misrepresents mental health and promotes the wrong idea that women with these conditions are broken.
Current romance novels try to avoid this and show the couple taking a team approach in treating and managing the conditions. In Hero by Night, Lena discovers Chad is the one person who accepts her boundaries without trying to change or fix her. The story is ultimately about acceptance and strength when dealing with invisible wounds.
Julian, the hero in Mr. Hotshot CEO, goes through a journey to understand that Courtney is the expert of her condition, not him. Instead of taking over and trying to fix it, the two need to agree on a plan of action. In the end, they find the support, joy and love they need in each other.
And that is the happily-ever-after everyone needs.
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