If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll have noticed that most of my main characters are married—many of them to spouses chosen by others or in some way imposed on them. In a world where companionate marriage based on romantic attraction has become the norm, that may seem like an odd choice on my part. Do I have some kind of hang-up?
At the simplest level, I write about these relationships because my characters would have experienced them. The idea of marrying for love appeared only in the early nineteenth century, and only in select parts of the world. Passion, romance, attraction—these have existed since time immemorial, but traditionally they had nothing to do with marriage. Marriage was an economic and political and social contract that bound families, allocated land and other resources, determined inheritance, and in general supported existing social hierarchies—especially among the elite, who had the most to lose. As such, it bore far too much weight to entrust to the passing fancies of the young. Fathers selected spouses, mothers approved them, and children complied. In some parts of the world, those rules still apply.
But historical realism does not explain all of my preference for writing about married couples. Although in college I devoured romance novels, even then marriage struck me as a more interesting relationship. Romance grows out of hormones and propinquity and need. It gets a relationship going, but it’s essentially an hors d’oeuvre for the main event. The real work begins when it’s no longer easy to leave, when two people who—however compatible—have to reconcile their different assumptions and opinions and experiences, figuring out when to compromise and where to draw the line. Fiction depends on struggle; characters who have neither conflicts nor problems will bore readers to tears. So why wade in the shallows when you can throw your imaginary people into the deep end and watch them thrash about?
Image: Clipart no. 20483075.