Whenever anyone finds out I’m a romance writer, there are two questions that invariably pop up. One: “Where do you get your ideas?” and two: “Do you ever base your characters on real people?” I can as easily answer the first question as explain where aluminum comes from. But the second can be confirmed with a resounding, “Yes!”
Heroes and heroines don’t just exist in our heads or on the pages of our favorite romance novels. If you look around at the people you know, you might discover real heroes and heroines share your life everyday. I’ll give you two examples.
Until a year ago, my mother-in-law, Gloria, was a woman who looked and acted decades younger than her real age. (Don’t ask; I’ll never tell.) She walked five miles every day and still found the stamina to race along the sidelines when her grand kids played soccer or lacrosse. Last December, however, she started slowing down. Not a normal, “I’m too tired” kind of slow down. No, this lady suddenly needed a cane to move around her kitchen because she couldn’t feel her feet. By mid-February of this year, Gloria was trapped in a wheelchair, too numb from the waist down to attend to her own basic needs.
From the moment she first faltered, my father-in-law, Al, became her primary support and caregiver. He bathed her, fed her, helped her dress, and styled her hair. He drove her to doctors, radiologists, and lab technicians. Together, they sought help from an endless variety of specialists, hoping to learn the reason for Gloria’s sudden downward spiral.
At long last, a renowned neurosurgeon in Manhattan diagnosed her condition: a spinal hemangioblastoma. In layman’s terms, a large bloody tumor had developed inside her spinal canal, constricting her spine to the diameter of a fingernail and crushing the nerves that control lower body functions. Without immediate surgery, she faced permanent paralysis or possible death.
As soon as the diagnosis was made, Gloria endured an excruciating ten-hour surgery on her spine. She now faces an eighteen-month-long recuperation. With luck, she may regain 80-90% of the functions she had before the tumor affected her.
Sometimes, although she’s made some great strides in her recovery, her spirits lag. I can’t blame her; she’s been through so much already and still has big challenges to face. But the lady is determined to regain her independence-one step at a time. I have no doubt she will.
The day Gloria finally does walk on her own again, her special hero will be right there, cheering her on. Al, of course, spent every waking moment at her bedside through the hospitalizations and rehabilitation sessions.
Since her return home, he has assumed the title, “Keeper of the Household.” He now does the laundry and the food shopping and myriad other banal activities associated with housewifery. He’s also her head coach: urging her to take one more step, to push herself a little harder when she feels like giving up.
Everyday he walks with her, allowing her to lean on him, to know he’ll catch her if she starts to fall. And when she complains about the eight-inch surgical scar running down her back (it looks like a zipper-honest!), Al reminds her she’s still the beautiful woman he fell in love with fifty-plus years ago.
Isn’t that romantic? Because we all know, that’s exactly what we look for in a hero. Not just that he’ll stick around when the going gets tough, but that he’ll still love our heroine when she’s no longer the nubile young beauty he married.
Sure, there’ve been some tense moments in the senior Ardito household: like when Al shrank all Gloria’s brassieres because he thought the reading of “Hot/Cold” on the washer meant “Warm,” rather than “Hot Wash/Cold Rinse.” And in the car where Gloria, irked by the fact she still can’t drive herself, harps that Al’s aggressive motor vehicle habits will send her back to the hospital via traffic accident. But there is never any doubt that what they’ve survived has made them stronger, both as individuals and as a couple.
In a nutshell, that’s the true meaning behind such tag phrases as, “Goal, Motivation, and Conflict” and “the hero and heroine must work to earn their Happily Ever After.” Challenging our characters to rise up against their hardships is vital to the plot of a romance. No one wants to read about two people who fall in love at first sight, experience a charming, uneventful courtship, and live happily ever after. With a story like that, readers are reduced to the role of Clara Peller in the old Wendy’s commercials, wondering, “Where’s the beef?”
When I told Gloria I was writing an article about her role as the ideal heroine and Al’s as the ideal hero for romance writers, I thought she’d fly into the clouds with pride. “I love him,” she gushed. “I don’t know how I could have survived the last year without him. He really is my hero.”
Al’s reply was more indicative of the male mindset of don’t-make-a-fuss-it’s-no-big-deal. It went something like this:
Me: Um, Dad, I’m writing an article about you and Mom, comparing you to a romance novel’s ideal hero and heroine. I’m explaining all you’ve been through together in the last year, and how the hardships have only made you love each other more.
Al: Oh, that’s nice, sweetheart. Thank you.
End of conversation.
“Yup,” thinks I as I hang up the phone, “typical hero and heroine material.”
While I’ve always loved and admired my in-laws, I can honestly say I watch them these days with newfound respect. Oddly, their experience in the past year has taught me a great deal about my writing.
Gloria’s courage and determination inspire those traits in my heroines. When one of my heroines falls, I insist that she rise and try again, even when it would be so much easier for her to stay down and give up.
And like all heroes, Al’s not big on accolades for his feats. He doesn’t find his actions laudable, doesn’t see how his devotion to his wife helped speed her recovery. In his mind, he simply did what he wanted to do-the right thing to do-for the woman he loves.
From now on, when an agent or editor rejects my manuscript because “the heroine is too wishy-washy” or the hero “doesn’t seem real,” I’ll look into their characterizations with a new perspective. Perhaps my heroine just needs a little more of Gloria’s indomitable spirit to shine through the pages. Maybe my hero, like Al, should show his feelings for the heroine, but not expect praise for them. When their conflict isn’t great enough, I’ll up the stakes, believing that if my in-laws can triumph over their odyssey of the last year, my characters can survive almost anything. I’ll try to remember that true strength comes from within. And I’ll find new ways to communicate that the term, “happily ever after” stresses the “ever after” part, not the “happily.”
Thanks to Gloria and Al, I’ve seen firsthand how powerful love can be. Devastating illness changed their roles, but not their devotion to one another. With characters like these in my family, who needs to invent heroes and heroines from scratch?