As I hinted during my previous cliché-based articles, I’ve come to look into the ‘star-crossed lovers’ cliché and, eventually, what I call ‘the princess cliché’ subgroup.
Wikipedia describes this situation as a “love thwarted by outside forces”, the term coming from times when people believed the future was written in the stars. First stories using this cliché date far back to the second century BC – and these stories are believed to be the inspiration for romantic tragedies, including the most famous example, Romeo and Juliet.
What, exactly, is the outside force is subject od the individual story. The famliy feud cliché was often used to force the lovers away – or face the wrath of their family. Social stratification is another example – and the very base of the ‘princess variation’. Distance is the third way to put some divide between lovers. Other barriers, forged by the society (real or fictional) can come in the way – loyalties and/or political opinions.
I’ve covered the ‘family feuds’ cliché in my earlier posts and so I’ll not delve deeper into this subgroup. Instead, let’s focus on some other ways.
In the very first post I’ve made on the topic of clichés, I’ve called the “Marry the princess and live happily ever after” the king of children’s book clichés.
The base is very simple: slaying mosters to cave the kingdom (or the princess herself) deserves a grand reward. If someone can slay monsters, then ruling the kingdom should be the best reward: the hero had shown care for the fate of others, which is something a king should have. Then, the will to face any dangers. Plus, the infinite wealth and respect of a king (in the simplified world of childrens’ tales, at least).
Still, before it comes to that, there’s the great divide: a commoner can’t just come into a contact with the princess. If it somehow happens and the pair develops any kind of feelings, this divide is what keeps them apart (or down to secret meetings) with the only way out for the hero: earn respect by putting all wrong-doers to the sword.
Of course, there are tales when the gender is reversed and the prince is the reward (such as Cinderella).
As I’ve said in past, this can be given a present-time coat. With the mantle of heritage being (mostly) inexistent in preset times, it usually takes the “poor woman and a wealthy businessman” spin but the base remains very similar.
Loyalties and politics
This spin could be used in situations where the society is divided by a conflict and each of the pair comes from a family that is a staunch supporter of a different side. It becomes more troublesome if they have a position of power and the young pair knows something important about their plans, skills, or assets. Thus, leaving with their lover carries the risk of treason and having a bounty on his/her head from one side while the other side can consider him likely to be an infiltrator. There, the divide is the conflict itself and provides two main ways out: ending the conflict (which can, in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way, lead to a betrayal of his/her family) or running from it, possibly forever.
In past times (or in fantasy), distance was a significant factor. Travel was painstakingly slow. Thus, a soldier sent on campaign will be separated from those he cares about. When politics get involved, it can be a way to revenge: sending the son of an opponent across the continent to fight in war even though he’d normally not be drafted among the first is a possibility. It is also a way to the opposite: a soldier in far away land can fall in love with someone local, thus leading to potential conflict of loyalties or the fact the soldier will be expected to return back home when the war is over (and possibly sent on another campaign somewhere else)
Present-day stories offer different spins: holiday romances where one or both of the pair start desiring one another – or students going to study abroad for a semester or two (more so in Europe where the European Union is donating these exchanges with millions of € each year). Yet it’s one thing to be somewhere for a short time (holiday) or on a generously donated trip (exchange students) and another to consider long-term relocation on such a distance and the challenges it brings – finding a job and new living, being far from family, facing the risk of being alone in an unknown land if the reality tears the dream apart…
While reality is not likely to bring a long-distance travel to reality anytime soon (let alone to the general public), Sci-Fi can do so and thus the matter of distance can gain even larger proportions. This, combined with the ‘conflicting loyalties’ factor, is the base between the romance (sub)plot of James Cameron’s Avatar.
Authors can come with their own twists. Turning the roles typically associated with one gender around is a possibility, though not as original. Turning the result around is another – as seen in Shrek where Fiona gives up her human for and the crown. Death of one (or both) of the characters is an option though some ways of that happening can be greatly unsatisfactory for the readers – who then can voice their displeasure in reviews. Using a love triangle as a twist carries similar risks.
As with any cliché, the trick is to use it well, to not make it too obvious where the story is heading but also to prevent it from being inconsistent or far too jarring (especially if it feels like complete nonsense to the reader).
This is all I’ll share on this topic. I’ll welcome your opinions, experiences and/or examples of stories you believe handled this cliché well. See you next time.