This week’s assessment comes from Carolyn.* She’s writing a medieval fantasy with a romantic subplot involving Frank and Sarah*. Frank is an intense, emotionally repressed Ranger (think: mounted police) about 10 years older than Sarah, whose father was Frank’s mentor in the Rangers. After a bit too much holiday wine, Frank kisses Sarah passionately, but regrets his impulsivity and avoids her for months. When they are thrown together in a series of adventures against the Bad Guys, their relationship changes, but Frank has resolved never to marry because if he died in the line of duty, he didn’t want to leave a wife and children to go through what Sarah and her mother went through when her father died.
So in push-pull fashion, Frank draws closer to Sarah in their perilous crises only to pull away deeply conflicted when he allows his internal judgment to rule. During the big battle of Good v. Evil, Sarah is almost killed by Big Bad Guy, but Frank takes the blow for himself. He has a near-death experience, but pulls back due to his love for Sarah.
This experience finally pushes Frank off the fence. Since the thing he most feared—death—has already occurred, he realizes how foolish he has been to throw away their chance at happiness, no matter how temporary it might be. He goes to Sarah, tells her how stupid he has been, and begs her to forgive him. Sarah, who has loved Frank from the get-go, isn’t sure she can trust him. After all, he’s changed his mind before.
What Carolyn wants to know is this: what should happen to Sarah to convince her that Frank is sincere? How can she trust him? And how can Sarah trust herself after all the changes she has gone through?
* Names have been changed to protect the fictional and the not-so-fictional.
This is such a great question. I didn’t include Carolyn’s entire synopsis, just enough to give readers the idea of Frank’s wishy-washiness and strong internal motivations not to marry. As a romantic, I love books where just friends go to something more than friends. Always makes for a good read.
For Carolyn’s novel, she’s got this extremely powerful external motivation for Frank to realize the error if his thinking. Near-death experiences are life altering for those who report them. But Sarah doesn’t have anything near so compelling, does she? So this is a great realization that you’ve had. Sarah needs some sort of assurance that Frank’s finally made up his mind once and for all…and in this circumstance, his verbal pledge isn’t enough (since he’s declared his love for her prior).
The first thing that comes to mind isn’t necessarily purely psychologically related, although that does factor in…but more so on Frank’s side. Let me explain. Recently, I got back from the ACFW conference and I took Camy Tang’s workshop on the hero and heroine’s journey. It was fascinating, of course, but one thing stuck out to me, and that was the idea of a leitmotif.
Here’s a definition of leitmotif in literature from Wikipedia: a recurring event, object or even a character that the story always makes reference to. For example, in Gladiator, Maximus has the two little figurines of his wife and son that eventually get buried in the arena. In Dragnet, it's Friday's badge, which is taken away and then given back when he's reinstated.
How could this be used for Sarah’s sake? I think Frank needs a leitmotif that is a constant reminder of his vow to stay unmarried. Perhaps something from Sarah’s father—a handed-down heirloom or trinket—would make it even more powerful of an image. Maybe Sarah notices whatever it is (say, a pocket watch), but Frank won’t talk about it or brushes her questions off. Perhaps he opens up to her about his resolve not to marry while he’s fingering the watch. Maybe then he tells her it reminds him daily not to get too close, so as not to needlessly cause pain to others.
Whatever object you choose, it’s got to have significance for Frank. And then you need to have it destroyed or damaged in some irreparable way. Or have Frank himself stomp on it or throw it in a river or somehow imbibe it with a different meaning altogether. You could even have it ultimately stop his death somehow, but that might be a bit cliché, as it happens in movies and films all the time. (Like a policeman's badge protects him from a bullet. See here.)
The psychological power comes in how you portray this object in front of Sarah. Her opinion of its importance is paramount. She’s got to see Frank caress this thing, valuing whatever the leitmotif is. He can’t imagine life without it. That way, when she sees Frank without it, she’ll know he’s really serious. Maybe even more powerful would be for her to see him destroy it or for Frank to tell her why he did with it what he did….for her. Because he’s drop-dead serious about being with her. Then she can know she can trust him. Frank’s internal thoughts have changed, and the proof is in the pudding, so to say, by the evidence of the leitmotif no longer being prominent for Frank.
So it’s an outward way for Sarah to have the same kind of epiphany Frank had with the near death experience. Of course, this is just a suggestion.
As to how she can trust herself after so many changes, you indicated that she might take up to six months to “decompress.” I actually like this idea. It will give her time to contemplate the change in Frank, as well as give Frank time to really prove himself (by calling on her, respecting her wishes, etc). The trick will be in how to make that time period fun for the reader or pass quickly to get to the meat of her decision to either accept him or not. So I think you’ve got a built in way for her to reacquaint herself with, well, her self.
The other thing to remember is that the heart knows what it wants. It’s the head that imposes concerns or doubts. Sarah knows her heart is in favor of believing Frank and his declaration. But her head says, “Stop! He’s done this before. You can’t believe him this time.” So the time will give Frank the opportunity to address the doubts of her head while reinforcing the desire of her heart. So I’d keep just the decompression time.
Hopefully this has given you some ideas of what to incorporate into your story to give it the punch you’re looking for.
Feel free to use the anonymous commenter option to tell me what you think or ask any additional questions for clarification. Best of luck!