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Writing about Writing: Forced Marriage

Compromise, Shotgun Weddings, Arranged Marriages, Politics, Rumours, and more

By Natasja RosePublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 9 min read
Top Story - November 2023
Writing about Writing: Forced Marriage
Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash

There is a trope I see a lot, particularly in fiction: Character A and Character B are forced into a relationship, discover that the other isn't so bad after all, and fall in love.

This is particularly popular in Medieval and Regency Romance, but also appears in Fake Dating AUs, Political settings, and others.

As a trope, I don't wholly object to it, though I admit to preferring my characters entering into a relationship willingly. I've written it myself, in "The Queen's Blade", where one of the main characters enters a political marriage in order to have an heir, and "Heightened Stakes", where a deep-plant double-agent allows herself to be forced into marriage to take the enemy down from inside. It's a great way to get your enemies into a position where they can become friends or lovers, or to force Character A to wake up and notice their latent feelings for Character B.

What I often see left out, however, is Character Agency.

The problem with taking narrative shortcuts is the ripple effect it has on the characters. Whether they go along with the relationship or oppose it, their actions have to be consistent with their established character and motivations.

Having a character do something wildly out of character for the sake of plot convenience is jarring, and you can bet the readers will notice.

Mr Darcy will write Elizabeth Bennet a scanalous letter to clear his name in her eyes, but he also takes great pains to keep that letter secret, so it's existence can't damage either of their reputations or lead to speculation that might force them to marry (In the Regency, a man and woman had to be engaged before they could openly exchange letters, something that also comes up in Sense and Sensibility). He might not be unhappy if the letter comes to light and provides a convenient excuse for a second offer, but deliberately setting out to compromise a respectable young woman is far more of a Mr Wickham thing to do.

A relationship where one party is forcing the other is abusive, not romantic. A strong-willed character who doesn't protest being forced into a relationship doesn't strike me as very strong-willed. An honorable or moral character who raises no objections to someone else being forced into a relationship with them promptly loses the moral high ground and a lot of his honor.

Another thing to take into account is the all-important question: who is holding the metaphorical shotgun?

Also, is it actually a shotgun, or just a cardboard roll that everyone is pretending is a gun for plot convenience?

By Stephen Baker on Unsplash

It's worth noting the sexist double-standard in play in Compromise Plotlines: she's ruined for not being a virgin until marriage, he's probably an object of admiration for having so much experience for his eventual future Duchess.

Equally, a young woman whose family could afford to send her away to relatives and arrange for someone else to marry her instead might very well decide that ruin was the better option. Modern-day writers often underestimate just how much power a husband had over his wife, short of killing her. There are multiple instances of an unwanted wife being sent to Bedlam or another Sanitarium on a flimsy pretext, or banished to a remote estate to live in isolation, while the husband got to live in town as, essentially, a single gentleman.

For women, marriage was not always the fix-it some writers seem to think...

If a Duke (to use the most common Regency Romance Main Character outside of Jane Austen) promises to marry a peasant to get her to sleep with him, there is literally nothing holding him to that promise after the fact. Their comparative social statuses are worlds apart, and he's wealthy and connected enough to intimidate or buy off any witnesses, so it's her word against his. Even if the King himself demanded that they marry, the Duke could easily leave the country until it all blew over.

This is particularly clear in Season/Book 1 of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton. The Duke of Hastings is determined not to marry, and is even willing to let Viscount Bridgerton kill him in a duel rather than propose to said Viscount's sister. It's not until he faces the prospect of watching Daphne marry someone else that he begins to relent. Of course, it's a romance, so Daphne and the Duke get their happy ending, but it really highlights just how powerless a lower-ranked young lady was, if the man who ruined her didn't feel like being honourable.

There is nothing holding a powerful Duke to his promise other than his own honor, and possibly not even that, since no-one is actually expecting him to marry someone so far below him in status.

Anyone who tried to force said Duke to be accountable would find themselves in a lot of trouble. About the only thing anyone could do on the ruined girl's behalf would be to glare disapprovingly. There is no force to exert on the Handsome Rake other than that he chooses to exert on himself.

The Metaphorical Shotgun, in this case, is the equivilent of a pre-teen pointing two fingers and shouting "pew-pew!"

By Siora Photography on Unsplash

In a Medieval Romance, with two people closer in rank, the dynamics change.

Prior to the 18th and 19th Century, power was far more consilidated with the Crown, held in balance by complicated political and dynastic alliances.

Someone lower in rank, but with the ear of the King or Queen, could make a great deal of trouble for the Heroic Rake if they hinted that he was untrustworthy, particularly if the King had a young Princess to be concerned about...

Loss of Royal Favour wasn't just the dealth of your social life; it also carried the risk of loss of business and political contacts, and lack of social advancement for the rest of your family for as long as the disgrace lasted.

The risk of a feud between families, or a former friend throwing in with your enemies to take you down, also shouldn't be under-estimated. Even kings could be brought down if enough of their nobles allied against them, and all that potential trouble could be averted, if only the Handsome Flirt can be persuaded to the alter. *hint, hint*

The Metaphorical Shotgun, in such a case, isn't present, but everyone knows that it exists, and could be brought to bear in a very short time, if needed, and the owner is a very good shot...

It's a more subtle threat than a locked and loaded gun, but no less real for it.

By Eniko Polgar on Unsplash

A Frontier Romance in the Wild West, on the other hand, is a far more plausible setting for a shotgun wedding or forced marriage.

Sheriffs were few and far between, and you needed to know that you could trust your neighbors, if cattle thieves or a raiding party showed up. Having the support of the people around you was vital, and trying to go it alone was doomed to failure.

Withdrawal of mutual support was a tangible threat, and a wronged young lady probably did have an angry father and brothers who could and would turn the dashing rogue into a sieve if he didn't do right by the heroine and marry her properly. Or run, and never return, and possibly still be hunted down by angry relatives.

In this case, there is, in fact, a Metaphorical Shotgun. It's locked, loaded, and aimed squarely at the male main character, and the one holding it has an itchy trigger finger.

By Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

In World War setting, there's something of a twist to the threat.

The spectre of death - whether on the Front or via the bombing of cities - already existed, hanging in a pall over everything, and in an era of social change and the burgeoning Woman's Liberation Movement, being caught alone was no longer as bad as it had been.

Many couples in World War I and II married hastily, before the man could be called up or had to return to war. Of what concern were consequences, when one or both of you might never see each other again?

The between-wars generation, and the generation who had already been through hell and come out far less concerned with their parent's obsession with "keeping up appearences", embodied the 'Live Fast and Hard' attitude of the Roaring 20s.

In the Depression Era, everything could be taken away from you in an instant, unless you were one of the rare few benefitting from stable sources of wealth, so why not grasp what you could while you had it?

For romances set in the first half of the 20th Century, sure, there's a Metaphorical Shotgun, but the Characters are calling your bluff and practically daring you to pull the trigger, so it loses a lot of it's power.

By Atharva Dharmadhikari on Unsplash

Contemporary Romance is an interesting prospect.

Legally, in the Modern Day, forced or coerced marriages are a thing of the past. Also, a crime and a Human Rights violation. Having sex before marriage is far from the end of the world, or even the end of a woman's reputation, outside of some very strict religious communities.

Practically, there are still ways around that.

Some cultures still practice arranged marriages, and can bring significalnt social and family pressure to bear to that end, even if the unenthusiastic couple still technically need to agree to the union before the wedding can go ahead. Conditions can be placed on inheritances and trusts, where the gorgeous protagonist will only recieve it after they marry. Rumours can be vicious things, and some people will go to great lengths to deflect them.

It can even be as simple as a drunken bet or a wager that the Characters aren't willing to lose. "Romantic Chicken", as it were, with the first one to pull out losing, and neither willing to back down, so they keep escalating the public displays of affection, trying to make the othr crack.

The potential for drama and comedy is enormous, just waiting for the right storyline to take advantage.

The Metaphorical Shotgun is still there, but it's a relic of bygone eras that needs a good cleaning and some repairs before anyone actually uses if for anything but bludgeoning. That's not to say it can't be used, or that everyone doesn't play along when Great-Uncle Harry threatens a brash young man with it, though...

If you enjoyed this story, leave a heart, a comment or a tip, and share it around on social media! You can also follow me here, and on Medium and Amazon.

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About the Creator

Natasja Rose

I've been writing since I learned how, but those have been lost and will never see daylight (I hope).

I'm an Indie Author, with 30+ books published.

I live in Sydney, Australia

Follow me on Facebook or Medium if you like my work!

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Xine Segalas2 months ago

    Interesting topic and discussion.

  • randy Davidson 2 months ago

    Hello friendly, lovely, story, writer, I would like to be friends with you I love them all, and I'll share your story Do you mind us be friends??

  • Kalina Bethany3 months ago

    Super insightful, thank you! Definitely keeping this in mind as I create more romance pieces.

  • Phil Flannery3 months ago

    That was a deep dive and very informative. Great read.

  • Conor Darrall3 months ago

    It’s such a destructive trope I find, and it’s so creepy. I get a whiff of that in a story and I think ‘absence of consent’ and it shuts down. I think it’s partly because these things still DO exist for women still (in other names perhaps, but they’re all premised on economic imbalance, an undercurrent of presumed violence, coercion etc) I also find it a tonal thing to, does that make sense? I feel like a frothy light comedy can happen with good characters but then you find out some fact (like, she’s in debt and has to work it off) and I think - well, that’s appalling. I’m so glad you wrote this piece! I really love that you invite the reader to be mindful. Also, I think your suggestion is wonderful! The idea of being ‘stuck’ together in proximity - ooh yes lovely tension and comedy. The same thing can be achieved without resorting to a mysoginist act (maybe I’m being too fussy?). Your suggestion of a bet is actually really intriguing me! I found myself writing sketches of my version of a Katharine Hepburn comedy based on a bet - The Stubborn Lovers, maybe? Anyway, thank you for sharing this and your thoughts. I think a LOT of writers should take a look at this. Your writing is great as ever: I won’t say too much on that - you’re absolutely one of the writers here whose work I can relax into and therefore read and take-in better. I know how much skill goes into being able to do that! A brilliant piece

  • Melissa Ingoldsby3 months ago

    A very in depth history of forced marriage in real life and in fiction. Great work!

  • Novel Allen3 months ago

    Women have come a long way from being used at men's indiscretion, though it still happens in some places. An interesting look back.

  • Babs Iverson3 months ago

    Marvelous topic and beautifully written!!! Love it💕❤️❤️ Congratulations on Top Story too!!!

  • Naveed 3 months ago

    Marvelous work! Keep it going—congrats!

  • This is a great overview of changing mores & how they affect plot development within stories. Well done, Natasja.

  • JBaz3 months ago

    This is a little bit of an eye opener, and a topic I can honestly say I never really thought about.

  • Judey Kalchik 3 months ago

    This is a very interesting exploration of the trope and its use in each age. I’ve never seen anything like it! Wonderful!

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