Should writers write to a formula or be true to their characters?

This morning, after waking up with the man of my dreams and then having a snuggle with my young son, I received a letter from an unhappy reader.

stealing liberties, lisa pietsch, whyShe was disappointed in my last book, Stealing Liberties, because it didn’t follow the romance formula.  If you haven’t read my books, the hero & heroine of the first 3 books part ways when they realize they don’t want the same things from life.  Then they both go on to find the exact happiness they both want in their heart of hearts – with other people.  This didn’t sit well with a lot of readers.

My question is: How could I create Sarah Stevens to rise from so much adversity and make a life for herself, only to have her give it up to become an overweight drudge of a soccer mom of 5 somewhere in Idaho?  Yes, readers would have been happier if she and Vince had just driven off into the sunset, but Sarah would have haunted my thoughts forever because I would have condemned her to the life she worked so hard to escape (and a life in which I myself had found no joy).

My regrets about Stealing Liberties are not what my readers might expect.

  • I regret not showing readers how much Vince just wanted a wife who would be happy to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.  The job doesn’t make the man.  Just because he was a capable Marine doesn’t mean he was good husband material.
  • I regret not showing readers that Sarah Stevens was diagnosed with the same ovarian cancer at 23 that her mother died of at the age of 33.  Sarah had a complete hysterectomy and was incapable of ever becoming pregnant.
  • I regret not showing readers how completely compatible Svetlana and Vince were and how they had the same dreams and were both everything the other had ever wanted.  Vince was the provider that only wanted a family to support and defend.  Svetlana was the good wife and mother who would always live to serve her man.
  • I regret not showing readers how perfectly paired Sarah and Jay are.  Both lived for the mission, the action, lifestyle, smoke, mirrors, blood and guts.  Yes, they both enjoyed the occasional daydream of south seas beaches but what really turns them on is a mission to accomplish and a little bit of kicking ass.

Ultimately, I chose to be true to the characters I had originally created.  They appeared to me fully formed, faults and all, in dreams and wild imaginings.  Had I not been true to them, they would have continued to appear and haunt my conscience with the futures I had written like prisons, futures they had never wanted for themselves.

Life is complicated and messy. Sometimes we have to experience what we don’t want to know exactly what we do want.  When I started writing the Task Force 125 books, I set out to exorcise my own demons, not to write romance.  My demons have since flown on wisps of smoke from the burning pyre of what I once thought was my destiny.  I’m sorry readers were disappointed with the ending, but it was necessary to my own sanity and an absolute must if I were ever to live a happy life of my own.

Whether readers see it or not, Stealing Liberties is a “Happily Ever After”, just not the one they expected.