An HEA (Happily-Ever-After) is an intrinsic part of romance, one of the defining features of the genre. Stories like Romeo and Juliet or The Notebook might feature a love story but their tragic endings mean they are not romances. If a book is labeled as a romance, the reader can know from page one that no matter how dark and horrible things seem, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s one of the reasons why romance appeals to me (and to many other readers). We always get an HEA in romance, unlike in real life.
|Romance view: mood lighting ; real life view: fire hazard|
But not every HEA is created equal. Every reader will have a slightly different opinion on what constitutes a satisfying HEA. For some, they want evidence that the relationship survives its early turbulent days: i.e. an epilogue set a few years into the future. For others, they want a wedding as a sign that the characters are committed to each other. Some readers might want every aspect of the characters’ lives to be improved (great job, great relationship, all troubles resolved) while others are satisfied with knowing that the characters will be facing the difficulties ahead together.
It’s a tricky balance between what the author considers a satisfying HEA and what the readers demand. I’ve heard of readers getting turned off of books because the HEA included a reconciliation gesture with an abusive family. In their mind, the HEA would have been more satisfying if the characters had cut ties with people who had hurt them so deeply before, allowing them to be free of the ongoing pain. Personally, I find a last minute wedding to be off-putting as part of an HEA. If the characters have spent 90% of the book at odds with one another, then I’m not okay with them suddenly deciding that everything will be great once they’re legally bound. (I do make an exception where the wedding is part of an epilogue and it’s clear that some time has passed and they’ve resolved their differences and are treating one another with respect.)
Romances are fantasies, and as such, they can explore scenarios which would be deeply problematic in real life. For some readers, they want those fantasies untethered from the concerns of reality. It’s okay for them if one character kisses another despite the second’s objections, because they know it’s all going to work out. For other readers, that invalidates the HEA and destroys the illusion they were hoping to enjoy. They want their romantic fantasy to be an attainable one, something that could happen in their own lives (werewolves, vampires, and superheroes notwithstanding).
I tend to fall on the attainable fantasy side of the equation (and I will cling to my illusion that one day I might find out that superpowers are real). If a hero or heroine does something that would be unacceptable to me in real life (like kissing someone who has said no, using insulting slurs against someone’s gender, race, or background, or going to an isolated location with a threatening stranger) then it no longer matters to me if everything is going to work out in the end. Perhaps it’s overly judgmental of me, but in my mind, the character has no longer earned that HEA. (Again, I can make exceptions if it turns out that the infraction is part of a character’s growth arc and they will learn why their actions are not okay and make amends.)
But even though I have strong feelings on what makes an HEA, you won’t find me telling someone else that they should find an HEA unsatisfying. Because I don’t have the right to dictate what fantasy will or won’t work for someone else. There are so many stories out there that everyone should be able to find HEAs that they can enjoy.