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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Treatment Tuesday - May-December Romance

This week's assessment is for Jamie. She's writing a YA largely focused on the relationship between a 16-year-old high school senior Greta* and her teacher Mr. Corell*, and the aftermath of it being discovered. Greta is rumored to be the school slut after a mere kiss with her former best friend's boyfriend is gossiped to be much more. The few relationships she's had have been short-term with guys who invariably wanted sex, but Greta is still a virgin. She's eager to get out of high school because of the taunting and teasing her former bf has put her through. Greta's mother died when Greta was 8, and her father turned into an emotionally-abusive alcoholic as his was of coping with his loss.

Mr. Corell is an attractive older man in his early 50s (think Alan Rickman). He's a war vet who has been through several failed marriages and is currently in his fourth with a gambling addict who is also cheating on him. She spends large amounts of time away on her gambling trips, but Corell still won't leave her. He's either going to be Greta's English or Chorus teacher.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Jamie wants to know: From a psychological standpoint, what factors would contribute to both of the characters entering this relationship? What would be the realistic motivations behind both Greta's and Mr. Corell's actions? What kinds of emotions would be natural for them both to be feeling during the various stages of their relationship?

Fascinating idea here, Jamie. A May-December romance between a teacher and student isn't new (nothing is, right?), but what you do with this one could really set this apart. How exciting for me to get in on the beginning of your story!

I think you've boiled down the essential psychological factors at play for at least Greta. Her emotional trauma (from both friends and father) paired with her low self-esteem make her ripe for the picking with a more experienced older man. She's not getting any support from her father, so she'd likely absorb any support from a father figure like a sponge. Greta isn't going to be your issue.

Corell will be. The trick will be to write him in a way that's not creepy, to actually make the reader cheer a bit for him, even though he's completely out of line professionally and could be charged with statutory if things go badly for him. So how to accomplish that?

Corell's backstory will have to get fleshed out considerably. How can you make the reader have empathy toward him? Granted, he's had 3 previous wives, and his current wife isn't treating him great, but maybe he's trapped into marriage with her somehow? A reader would wonder why he doesn't just leave her, so I'd make that connection to cheating gambling wife really airtight, and I'd make it airtight for a positive, empathy-building reason, such as Corell helping someone else somehow by staying with her.

But that's his outward situation. What would internally draw him to the abused innocence of Greta? Maybe he initially sees a way to help foster confidence in a girl who reminds him of a lost daughter or even of himself at her age? Maybe he wants better for her than he had himself. His involvement at the beginning would be purely with altruistic motives to help another hurting soul. This would fit in with your inclination to have the teacher initiate the relationship. I'd advise not to have the relationship start with romance in his mind, as that might be one way to help the reader over the hurdle of his professional misconduct later.

I'm not sure if you plan on this relationship working out in the end, but I was picturing a relationship sort of like what Mr. Holland had with Rowena Morgan in Mr. Holland's Opus, at least to start with. They shared an initial common interest of musical talent, and in her girlish mind, she had them running off together, even though Holland was married. So Corell wouldn't have a steady marriage like Holland had most of the time, but it would make him less creepy if he didn't initiate the romantic part. A reader would have more empathy for a caring professor who gets caught in the crosshairs of the adulation of a young student and the forbidden stirrings of a desire for her.
As for emotions they would be feeling during various stages of their relationship, my guess would be that Corell should experience a lot more anxiety about things, as he has the most to lose. He might find himself intrigued with the idea of being with a girl who worships him, as he's never had that type of relationship with his previous wives. It'll boost his ego, for sure, and he'll probably eventually seek out opportunities to have her around him for that very reason, almost like an addiction. He might become reckless with their rendezvous locations or times.

Anyone who's ever been in love can fill in exactly what Greta will be feeling. She'll be on top of the world, finally having found someone who doesn't just want her for sex, who understand her and supports her and believes in her. She might grow frustrated at not being able to share this with anyone, yet it doesn't look like she has any friends to share things with anyway. I doubt someone with her low self-esteem would ever demand for Corell to divorce his wife or run away with her. I picture her more as a puppy dog gratefully licking up what crumbs Corell throws her in this regard.

As Mr. Holland walked away from Rowena's offer to run away with her, maybe Corell will eventually see things the same way. We'll have to read this when it gets published to know for sure! But there's nothing wrong with a fantastic story that ends in Greta gaining confidence and walking away from Corell, having gotten from him all she could for the next chapter in her life. Even if you don't have a HEA ending for these two, they both need to end the book in better places than they were before, mentally, emotionally, physically.

Thanks for writing in. Good luck with this story! Any related questions, leave them below.

Q4U: Any May-December romances out there in your WIPs? Any reverse age/gender scenarios? I did a review here on Lisa Lickel's Meander Scar, which is the first book I've read with an older female lead and younger male romantic interest. Leave any other examples you know of below.

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Miss Sharp said...

Very interesting treatment today!

Jeannie, whether subconsciously or not, you really seem to be pulling for these two not to end up together. You mentioned that outcome several times and seemed to emphasize it more than any other possibility.

Which is fine but I'm wondering why? Do you feel this type of romance is inherently or in the long run unhealthy psychologically and/or socially?

I just read a book called "The Moral Animal" and it expounded on how our gene pool works to facilitate survival - genetically speaking, this type of arrangement would be optimal for survival of the species.

Just curious on your opinion, and would like to know more about your thoughts on the ongoing struggle between what's good for us emotionally or spiritually and what's good in the world according to Darwin.

With many thanks, as always,

Bess said...

Let me first say...HELLO ALAN RICKMAN. Love him!

Secondly, I found this to be an interesting post and felt you had some great ideas regarding the workings of such a book. It could easily be a great book, but the writer will have to precise in her character's motivations. It will, I think, take some skill to keep the teacher from appearing to be a skirt-chasing creep (four wives...young student romance...etc.)You offer some good advice.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

Miss Sharp -

I went back and read my post to see why that outcome might have seemed the one I was championing....and I guess I can see how you would think that. I'm really wishing I had emailed Jamie to ask her what her intent was.

For me, it boils down to the professional impropriety of a teacher pursuing a student in any degree. The power differential is incredibly great, and it's been drummed into me for 10 years of school how damaging connections like that can be (such a therapist and patient). So yes, I would probably lean toward them both realizing later that it was a mistake, but having grown through making it.

I'm not sure I understand how this arrangement would be optimal for survival of the species if it could end up traumatizing the girl even more (and it could, or their wouldn't be books written about not engaging in such). A relationship like this might engender confidence in the girl, but at what cost if it ends badly?

Just some initial thoughts. I'm so glad you brought this up! I'm always up for dialogue....

Miss Sharp said...

Yup, I totally agree this scenario in particular might not be a very healthy situation for the heroine.

But I don't think our biological selves really act with regard to any potentially unhealthy psychological outcomes. The way men and women are made as far as reproductive aging is concerned sets our species up for this kind of pairing.

So I guess my philosophical musings lead me to wonder why we're made this way if so often it's really not spiritually healthy. I blame that darned book, it's one of those you kind of wish you never read because of all the questions it churned up. :(

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

you know, that does beg the discussion of marriages in the biblical times. it was completely normal for older men to marry young teen girls (considered women then). wonder when (and why) society moved away from this?

Miss Sharp said...

Well, according to the Darwinian model portrayed in "The Moral Animal" it all depends on the availability of women.

Apparently there are too many older women available nowadays where they tended to die off in past civilizations, so our society has to compensate for that somehow.

Also were you aware of how unnatural monogamy really is??? Well I wasn't...until I read that *#&%^ book!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

so what does the book say about monogamy? i'm not surprised it's not unnatural....i think maybe that's why it's advocated so much in the Bible. many of the kings who had so many wives had their downfalls as a result. i might need to get this book....

Miss Sharp said...

Jeannie, yes. It's fascinating if not (more than) a little disturbing. I think this Amazon reviewer explained it pretty well:

"What's exciting about evolutionary psychology is that for the first time psychology has a firm scientific foundation upon which to build. But it's a tough subject for some people, I think, mainly because they confuse "is" with "ought." The discoveries of evolutionary psychology about the differing reproductive strategies of the sexes offend some people in the same way that Darwin's insight about our kinship with (other) animals offended the Victorians. Evolutionary psychology shows us that men lie, cheat and hustle relentlessly for sex, while women manipulate available males into caring for their offspring, and if possible for children fathered by other males. Insights like these are seen by some as immoral imperatives, when in fact they are amoral statements of factual observation. What "is" isn't necessarily the same thing as what ought to be. And really, we shouldn't blame the messenger."

I read it as a writer looking for character development assistance...we'll see how that works out for me. O_o

Jamie said...

Hi Jeanne,

I wanted to thank you again for taking the time to work with "Mr. Corell" and "Greta" on Treatment Tuesday. I know it's been nearly a year since I wrote in to you about them and I had actually shelved that particular project, but rereading your thoughts have inspired me to pick it back up and try to do this story some justice!

In regards to whether or not the couple will work out... I don't think that it will. I have someone else in mind for Greta, who is closer to her age and can help her realize that a student-teacher relationship is not healthy for either one of them, and that although Greta might not believe it because of her low self-esteem, she deserves better than Mr. Correl.

Thank you again Jeanne and hopefully your advice on the psychology aspect of things will really give the characters believable motivations and actions!

-- Jamie

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