The infamous lines in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet read as follows: “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life, /Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents' strife” (Lines 6-8). I was barely out of elementary school when I first tackled the reading of this play, and immediately I was hooked on this “star-crossed lovers” trope, which, according to the dictionary, “refers to any lovers whose affection for each other is doomed to end in tragedy.”
At 10 or 11 years of age, the idea that two people would love each other so much that they would make the “ultimate sacrifice” was extremely romantic in my eyes. As a young writer, I tried many attempts to write my own version of Shakespeare’s most famous work, but as I matured, I began to realize the problems with “dying for love” and the complete immaturity of both Romeo and Juliet (that’s another discussion for another day), but I never stopped thinking about the love that never got the chance to grow and develop because of outside forces.
When I first had the idea to write about the fictional, interracial couple, Eva Cardon and Courtland Hardiman Kingsley IV, who are the main characters in my upcoming novel, The Light Always Breaks, I was in my early 20s. I came up with these two “star-crossed lovers” after I finished reading the novel Passing by Nella Larsen and seeing a movie called Mr. and Mrs. Loving that was based on the relationship between Mildred and Richard Loving. Both the characters in Passing and the Lovings themselves were far more tragic in my mind because their love was stymied because of something out of their control—their ethnicity.
Soon after, I started writing scenes for Eva and Courtland, but the more I wrote, the more I realized I wasn’t prepared to write this story just yet, so I put it in a file and forgot about it. Fast forward to 2022. I am now in my mid-50s, and Eva and Courtland called to me again. I was finally ready to research and write their story, but more importantly, I was ready to really engage with the star-crossed lovers trope. I didn’t want them to be clichéd, and I didn’t want to rely on old versions of this same story. I didn’t want Eva to be this helpless woman who couldn’t survive without the love of the object of her affection, and I didn’t want Courtland to be the stereotypical hot guy with nothing going for him beyond his good looks. I wanted them to fall in love with each other, but I wanted them to also maintain their identity that was separate and apart from each other.
I realized as I developed these two characters that what intrigued me the most about the whole idea of love like Romeo and Juliet wasn’t how their relationship ended but the fact that Shakespeare placed so many roadblocks in their path to keep them apart. I realized that the star-crossed lovers trope was more about narrative tension than it was about dying for love. This trope helped me to recognize, in my own writing, that if I want to keep my readers interested, I needed to first identify what my characters wanted and then use the characteristics of this trope to make it difficult for them to achieve it.
In chapter one of The Light Always Breaks, the reader immediately picks up on the romantic tension between Eva and Courtland. It is evident how they speak to each other and ultimately how they end up sharing a kiss at the end of the chapter. But it is also evident that their relationship will be difficult if not impossible to carry on. The Light Always Breaks is set in 1948, and Eva is Black, and Courtland is white. Eva is also a successful businesswoman who wants to focus her energy on growing her businesses and not necessarily follow the traditional path of falling in love and being someone’s wife and mother. Courtland is a charismatic senator from rural Georgia who has his sights set on becoming the president of the United States. Both of them are over-achievers and neither one of them wants to give up on their dreams for the future. All of these factors make it virtually impossible for their relationship to work and thus, I was able to redefine what being “star-crossed” meant to me as a writer.
As a writer of historical fiction, I am constantly looking for ways to repurpose and remix old tropes. Writers can always find ways to make the old new again, and Shakespeare gave us a great blueprint for creating tension in a story through the star-crossed lovers trope, and for that, I will always be grateful to The Bard.