Will They or Won’t They?

‘Will they or won’t they?’ is a popular question for avid followers of long-running book or television series. It arose in reviews of Elly Griffith’s most recent and ‘final’ Ruth Galloway novel – will our hero get together with Nelson in the end? It was a source of continual debate as to whether the sexual chemistry between Mulder and Scully in The X-Files would ever ignite. Avid fans of the TV series Lost were divided between ‘Jaters’, who wanted Kate to end up with the straight up hero Jack, and ‘Skaters’ who wanted her to run off with the rogue Sawyer.

In a classic romance the question can remain hanging until the end. (Spoiler Alert!) Jane Eyre ends up marrying Mr Rochester, but Rhett Butler finally abandons Scarlett O’Hara. Whereas ‘will they/won’t they?’ can drive the plot of a stand-alone story such as Pride and Prejudice, the author of a series which is not primarily a romance has a dilemma. John Yorke explores this in chapters of his book on screenwriting, Into the Woods. If characters follow arcs in a real world of desires and ambitions, in Yorke’s words this sows the seeds of destruction for the series, as those yearnings must be resolved in a real-world manner.

The writer of a series can suspend our disbelief that attractive, intelligent characters do not have sex lives or are prepared to let a relationship simmer over several novels or several seasons of drama. It gets harder to believe when these characters are played by actors in whose presence normal mortals would melt, such as Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. Writers of soaps such as Gray’s Anatomy have no such qualms, as the turnover of cast means than characters can fall in love, marry, divorce, re-marry, swap partners and be killed in dramatic fashion with only a passing nod to plausibility.

When an author of a stand-alone is asked to develop it into a series they must deal with the unintended consequences of relationships already created. Sometimes writers must resort to ‘retcon’ in order to subvert the apparently happy resolution of the first instalment; the classic example (spoiler!) is when Luke Skywalker later discovers that his proto-love interest of the first Star Wars film is in fact his sister.

A detective, investigator or spy is often depicted as a loner for very good reasons. The absence of a current spouse, children and in-laws frees our character from the mundane shackles of day-to day-life. A cat, or sometimes a dog, seems to be a common substitute for a relationship to show our hero is still human. An older character may be conveniently estranged from a former partner and offspring, adding pathos and solid backstory whilst keeping the investigator free to roam. It can give our hero a bitter, world-weary edge and explain the inevitable problem with booze.

Most of us know people – yes, even men ­– who are not that interested in sex, or who are not interested in marriage or long-term relationships. We also have friends who are not very successful in the art of love. More mature characters may have lost interest in affairs – been there, done that­ – therefore clearing the decks for us to get on with the plot.

Efforts to keep characters who the reader or viewer loves apart from each other can feel false, but the gods do find cruel ways to frustrate the happy resolution we crave. Over four seasons of Battlestar Galactica several pairs of lovers find their stars endlessly crossed and…well, no spoilers about that controversial ending. Our own lives are imperfect, so why not pass that imperfection on to our characters in spades?

Single characters can also have a romance-of-the-week, be a serial monogamist with a Bond girl in every plot, although this departs from the real world. Jack Reacher can drift from town to town rather like Odysseus sailing from island to island, although without a wife impatiently weaving back home. However, the girl-in-every-port does not stretch reality too far, as most of us have acquaintances whose tally of partners runs into double digits without making them fundamentally wicked or broken. In the post- #metoo world this idea may sit less comfortably, but it is no less real.

So how do I approach the question? Glint of Light on Broken Glass is a historical romance, and it was genuinely heartbreaking to decide whether George or Artie would win the girl, and if the girl in fact wanted to be won. The will they/won’t they question in the Jeffrey Flint books is an emphatic yes! (if he has any say in the matter). Flint is loner who doesn’t want to be a loner, yet can’t shake that Odyssean wanderlust, while the independent women he falls for are following trajectories of their own.

Blackshirt Masquerade may include strands of alternative history but is set in the hard realities of Britain of the 1930s, with all its snobbery and prudishness. The question the reader asks when Hugh Clifton falls for an attractive young fascist is not so much ‘will they or won’t they’, but ‘is it wise?’ Wisdom and affairs of the heart are not comfortable bedfellows, and from this fact springs a huge body of western literature and peppers the history of the world itself.

They will – or we hope they will. X

Lead image: detail from the Severn House cover for Blood and Sandals

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