Eight things Hamilton taught us about writing romance

hamiltonstarDespite still being in the U.K. and having a creepy run in with the fae (pro-tip, if you’re near Avebury and a sign says to please close the iron gate, close the iron gate), Erin has now listened to all of the Hamilton cast album, and we’re both a little bit obsessed.  Really, who isn’t?

But we’re obsessed not just because Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new show is astounding, important craft and ridiculously enjoyable; we’re obsessed because it’s also a romance. Now, sure, it may not technically look like a romance on its surface because a romance, according to the RWA, requires a central love story and an optimistic ending (spoiler alert: Hamilton dies in a duel).

But Hamilton really, really is a romance.  And it’s part of what makes the show work. Hamilton at core is a love story — amongst friends, with ambition, touched by destiny, full of self-sacrifice, and with several relationships that persevere despite human flaws, nearly Shakespearean tragedy, and a number of logistical agonies.

So while lots of people have written — quite rightly — think pieces on how Hamilton teaches us what musical theater can be (truly, the significance of this work cannot be overstated; I’ve been listening to it on repeat for days and I continue to find its technical achievement shocking).  Consider this listicle a bit of a think piece on what Hamilton teaches us about the romance form.

1. The shape of the story matters desperately.  One of the elements of Hamilton that I’ve found most emotionally satisfying and also the most emotionally difficult to confront is how thoroughly it wraps up every single plot line. This has left me emotionally satisfied but also filled with frustration at life that has not been adapted to a narrative form, where we don’t always get closure, redemption, or even a final song about fifty-years of good labors in the face of grief.

2. The tension between career and love doesn’t have to be something we view as gendered. A lot of us write stories that contain this element.  It’s a central struggle in our Love in Los Angeles series, and it’s a central struggle in the contemporary British monarchy project we’re working on.  I think it’s easy to feel nervous when we engage these narratives, especially for our heroines, when our culture is still obsessed with judging women no matter how they engage with this struggle.  Hamilton reminds us that this struggle is innately human, not gendered, and reminds us we’re allowed to write this type of dilemma for characters of any gender.

3. Conventional relationship structures are not required. There’s a song in Hamilton the Internet has begun referring to as “Alex you just turned down a threesome, what are you doing?” Rather amazingly, the show devotes a lot of time, all of it lovely, to the fact that Hamilton was both in love with his wife and engaged in a romantic friendship (largely long-distance and with a ton of unresolved sexual tension as the show presents it) with her sister. And the sisters were perfectly aware of it, and fiercely protective and supportive of each other.  Love can look like a lot of things.  And you can write the love story you want.

4. Women are more interesting as allies than as rivals. Hamilton is very much a musical about rivalry, but where it often has opportunity to showcase rivalry between women, it chooses not to.  The sisters support each other, and when Hamilton cheats on his wife with a third-party, that unite to be angry at him, not her.

5. Cheating may be one of the romance genre’s great controversies, but it can work for some stories.  Yes, some people don’t want to read that.  Yes, sometimes cheating plots can feel easy and overdone.  But when cheating is a symptom of other issues and addressed as such on the larger landscape of a plot (as it is in Hamilton), it can be truthful, compelling, and serve to grow  the characters and their relationships.

6. Don’t be afraid to be earnest.  Erin and I write fairly gritty romances most of the time.  But soulmates? Loves that aren’t like any other love? Those happen. And they make great stories.  And if you can write them with specificity and in a way that’s relatable, don’t be afraid to.  This is something we’ve just figured out how to do, and Hamilton has really reinforced that for us.

7. There are lots of types of love.  We say this in all our posts like this, but romances that also feature other forms of great passion help to elevate the central romance further. The love of friends, the passions of ambition matter too, and writing a central romance doesn’t mean leaving out this key structural elements of a life.

8. #WeNeedDiverseRomance. Hamilton utilizes hip hop and multi-ethnic casting to tell its story.  And it does this despite — and in direct response to — the founding fathers being a bunch of douchey white guys who tended to own slaves (seriously, this show takes Jefferson to task). So when you’re casting the romance you’re writing or looking for a new book to read, Hamilton should be a reminder to let yourself think more broadly about what heroes and heroines can and should look like. We all have internalized expectations, and for a lot of us (especially, but not exclusively, if we’re white and/or straight) those expectations can come from some pretty toxic parts of our culture. Those expectations can be where we start, but why on earth should they be where we end?

Ultimately, Hamilton is also a love letter to the act of writing and how we can save ourselves — and others — by recording our stories, our desires, and our fears.  Huge chunks of Hamilton‘s lyrics address this, and every writer should consider the show’s truly profound call to urgency.

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2 Responses to Eight things Hamilton taught us about writing romance

  1. Anton says:

    While I am delighted by this, and currently listening to the soundtrack, I am dying to know what happened with the fae.

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