Any Lawful Impediment: Conflict in Romance (especially m/m)
Kate Sherwood came to the romance genre late, but she’s trying to make up for lost time. Most of her work is m/m, but she reads voraciously in pretty much every subgenre, and is always looking for a new twist. Her latest novel is Mark of Cain, in which an Anglican priest falls in love with his brother’s killer. How’s that for an obstacle to happiness?
This may be really obvious to others, but after writing more than a dozen romance novels it still came as a lightbulb moment to me: The challenge of writing romance is convincing readers that the central couple is meant to be together, while also convincing readers that there are good reasons for them to be apart for most of the book. And then convincing readers that those good reasons have been resolved enough to allow a satisfying Happily Ever After.
We know what happens when the author doesn’t pull off the first part of that challenge. If we don’t think the characters are meant to be together, we don’t get emotionally involved with the relationship, we don’t care if the characters end up together, and we don’t feel a real sense of satisfaction when they hit their HEA because we aren’t convinced they really will be happy ever after, at least not with each other.
And when the author doesn’t do a good job with the second part of the challenge, finding good reasons to keep the lovers apart? We resent the reliance on The Big Misunderstanding, or the way the author has to make the characters almost pathologically stubborn or poor at communicating or suspicious or TSTL. We want the characters to have to struggle in order to be together (or else there wouldn’t be much of a story!) but we want the cause of the conflict to be logical and organic and believable.
And, of course, when the author doesn’t convince us that the reasons for being apart have been eliminated? We can’t believe in the HEA, because we see the same problems popping up again in the future.
In m/m romance, authors have traditionally had a bit of an edge in the area of creating obstacles for their couples. Why shouldn’t this couple be together? Well, they’re both men. Authors can use this fact to create internal conflict and angst with characters who are just discovering their sexuality, struggling with it, or trying to hide it. We can also use it to create external conflict with a homophobic society, family, or friends. The heroes of m/m romance may have to give up everything to be with their lovers, simply because their lovers are the same sex. Conflict? Hell, yeah!
This conflict can be very effective, especially when combined with other challenges. For me, I think it works best with books that are set in slightly different worlds. I loved Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series, set in the 1820s, where the heroes have to deal with external and internalized homophobia, and also class issues and political and social upheaval. And I like military romances like Janey Chapel’s Maritime Men, where the men are living in a macho culture that has historically been pretty hostile to homosexuality. Has anyone written a Motorcycle Club m/m yet? I’d like to read it, if it’s out there!
At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly possible to write m/m romance in which being the same sex is not a significant challenge for the to-be-happy couple. And, I would say, it’s increasingly difficult to write a realistic m/m contemporary in which being the same sex is the main thing keeping the couple apart. Of course it can still be done, and done well, but I don’t think it’s nearly as compelling as it used to be.
(I don’t mean to deny the continued existence of prejudice and homophobia, but increasingly, in the western world at least, it’s the homophobes who have to be in the closet, hiding their behaviour from disapproving eyes. An excellent direction for society to be moving in, absolutely, but it does have implications for our novels!)
In The Only One Who Knows by L.A. Witt and Cat Grant, we have a similar set-up to Chapel’s Maritime Men, but The Only One Who Knows was written more recently, after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. In order to have a similar ‘forbidden relationship’ vibe, the characters in the later book were made an officer and an enlisted man. Their love wasn’t forbidden because they were gay, it was forbidden because they were fraternizing across ranks. A step forward for humanity, but I felt that the story didn’t have quite the same kick because of the difference. In Maritime Men, I could be outraged by the discrimination and cheer for the characters to be together. In The Only One Who Knows, I found a really well-written story, but I think I approve of the rule the characters were breaking, so it was harder for me to sympathize with their actions. There are good reasons for not dating across ranks, especially along the chain of command, and the rules in this case would have been applied to a straight couple just like a gay one. With these guys, given the lack of judgment they showed in terms of where to fool around while stateside, I really didn’t think it WAS a good idea for them to be on the same team in a war zone. It was still a good read, but the setup wasn’t as powerful, for me, as the earlier book.
In fanfic, writers talk about being Jossed when the original material (canon) makes what they’ve written in their fics unrealistic. In the m/m world, writers who use homophobia as the main source of conflict may end up being Jossed by social progress. The progress is obviously wonderful… but what does it mean for our stories?
I think m/m writers can look to m/f romance for examples of what to do and what not to do. Just as a writer who wants her m/f characters to be kept apart solely by race or social standing might be best to write historicals or dystopians, m/m authors who want homophobia to be the main source of conflict may need to write in non-contemporary settings, or at least specific sub-cultures. I’m full of sympathy for real-world gay men who don’t feel they can come out for one reason or another, but in fiction? I want my heroes to be larger than life; if the only thing keeping them from declaring their love is a bit of social pressure, I don’t think their love is all that powerful or interesting.
I’m not saying that no one should write coming out stories anymore, or never use homophobia as the main obstacle for the couple. But I think m/m writers need to really work to explore all aspects of our characters’ lives and mine them for genuine, compelling conflict. We’re writing about men who are gay, sure, but they’re not just gay. What else are they, and how can we use those other characteristics to make their lives difficult?
I haven’t read as much Josh Lanyon as I should have (so many books, so little time!) but I just finished listening to Fair Game and I thought it struck a really great balance in this regard. The main characters are gay. Big deal. They have bigger worries. But the case they’re trying to solve involves a young gay man who was dealing with his father’s homophobia and his mother’s more passive shame. The story recognizes the challenges of being gay in today’s world, but it gives the main characters other reasons for not being together.
There’s a new generation of m/m fans just powering up their e-readers out there. They’re going to want to read stories that reflect their reality, and luckily, reality for many of them will be a lot less bigoted than it used to be. There’s still a place for stories that let these kids know that things can be tough, but there’s also a place for stories that let them know that being gay doesn’t have to be the central limiting factor in their lives. I know we’re still a work in progress, but I’m looking forward to a world where the only place homophobia will be a realistic source of m/m conflict is in historical novels. And I’m looking forward to seeing what other sources of conflict m/m authors can come up with.