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Any Lawful Impediment: Conflict in Romance (especially m/m)

The following is a guest essay from author Kate Sherwood. Her latest release is Mark of Cain, released May 20, 2014.

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?

Handsome shirtless young male lover hiding inside wardrobe

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.

Guest Reviewer

23 Comments

  1. Sirius
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 07:16:51

    Interesting essay. I do agree in a sense that I as a reader want more stories where the heroes are just happen to be gay and main conflict stems from something else. Although really – i think that no matter how much progress society made homophobia is still there alive and well unfortunately. I mean I know you said that you don’t deny it’s existence. I am just saying that I don’t mind if it still remains one of the source of conflict because to me it still rings true to life and I am not even speaking from personal experience because I am straight. What I do want to see is for the writers to actually write about everyday homophobia too and not just it’s extreme varieties, because that could be seen in real life just as often.

    But absolutely I want to see the heroes saving the world and the conflict arise because they have different ways to do so for example – those kinds of conflicts are often harder to write IMO.

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  2. Dee
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 08:17:14

    Not out yet, but soon, a m/m with a motorcycle club element (and what seems like will be part of a series) http://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/running-wild

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  3. hapax
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 08:29:05

    One of the things that I loved about Marie Sexton’s STRAWBERRIES FOR DESSERT is that the conflict (well, *one* of the conflicts–it’s a conflict-y book) between the couple wasn’t so much that they were gay, but how they were gay. That is, one of the men was flamboyant, even camp, which made the other, more strait-laced, partner uncomfortable and resentful.

    An interesting conflict which I had never considered before, and one that it would be tricky to pull off with a m/f couple.

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  4. Kate Sherwood
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 09:12:34

    @Sirius:

    I agree, it would be a bit TOO forward thinking to pretend there’s no homophobia whatever in the world or that it wouldn’t be a challenge for the characters. But I like the distinction you’re making between ‘everyday’ homophobia and the more extreme forms. The everyday aggravations and frustrations will still be a problem. But at least the more extreme forms are no longer everyday!

    @Dee:

    Whoo Hoo! Thanks for the tip! Another addition to my TBR!

    @hapax:

    I think I’m one of the few people who HAVEN’T read that book yet, but it sounds interesting. I’ve read arguments that ‘straight-acting’ gay men have their own form of homophobia… I don’t really accept that, at least not as a generalization, but there are interesting nuances to consider!

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  5. JPeK
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 10:51:44

    @Sirius:
    “What I do want to see is for the writers to actually write about everyday homophobia too and not just it’s extreme varieties, because that could be seen in real life just as often.”

    I also share this desire (as well as agreeing with other points made in the piece and comments). I remember DNFing a book a few months ago, with great frustration, because the homophobic actions of the MC’s father seemed so over the top: it was especially, excessively stupid in terms of legal (and social) liability (e.g., blackmail, extreme beating, death threats … all with witnesses). The scene happened early on in the story and it threw me from the book; my “willing suspension of disbelief” was shattered and I just couldn’t continue.

    I’ve read m/m books with scenes like that before, but not so recently. I think what I was willing to accept as plausible and likely has shifted in the past few years; now, in general, I’m looking for books with more nuance if there’s a conflict stemming from homophobia, I suppose. (Disclaimer: I too acknowledge that extreme acts of homophobia can still occur in real life and I don’t mean to overlook or shrug them off by looking for something different in my m/m fiction.)

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  6. Sirius
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 10:56:26

    @JPeK: if anything, I feel that m/m genre tends to ignore less extreme forms of homophobia which is very frustrating to me because surely those are not any less painful, hurtful, harmful, etc – like family not necessarily throwing you out, but subtly putting you down on a regular basis, making you feel less than your siblings, stuff like that.

    Of course extreme homophobia also happens sadly, I just feel that the extremes are mostly being acknowledged.

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  7. Sirius
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 10:57:17

    @hapax: Oh me too, definitely one of the reasons I love this book so much and I really love Cole.

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  8. Sirius
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 11:01:35

    @Kate Sherwood: I guess so. There is also a possibility of setting a story in the country other than US, where extremes is part of every day life. There is also a possibility of at least making one of the characters being from one of those countries. I mean surely if one of the guys say comes for example from Uganda where he has to hide that he is gay on everyday basis or be killed and the other guy is from US or other country where at least some progress has been achieved, the conflict of coming out is still strong. I mean, I am not a writer and the possibilities are endless, as I said I do agree with what I see as main argument of your essay – all kinds of conflicts will only make stories better IMO.

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  9. JPeK
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 11:06:44

    @Sirius: Yes, well said! The less extreme or obvious forms can be very insidious, I imagine (I’m straight, so I wouldn’t know personally). I think it’s safe to say that it’s a form of subtle emotional abuse, or even gaslighting in some situations, and it builds up over time and makes it difficult for the victim to call out the abuser for the mistreatment. Perhaps the abuser isn’t doing consciously or intentionally, but the effects could still be very painful and damaging. It could be frustrating, too, because the people around the victim might think/say, “Hey! Why are you upset! You’re safe! Your family has you over for holidays! What’s the big deal?” without realizing all the subtle put-downs and insults and “little” mistreatments that might be happening.

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  10. Sirius
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 11:10:09

    @JPeK: Thanks. I want to be clear, I said it above but want to repeat that I am not speaking from personal experience either – I am straight as well.

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  11. P. J. Dean
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 11:29:04

    I find this interesting as it just happens to coincide with the release by the US Post Office of a stamp featuring the murdered, gay activist, Harvey Milk. And the ridiculous reaction to it by a group called the American Family Association. Well, of course the group has its right to its beliefs but it showed quite pointedly how very much alive, prejudice and idiocy is. And how the individual who agrees with a group like that may not act out physically against anyone but will probably find nothing wrong in engaging in a little game of microaggression – that ongoing, non-stop bit of affrontery uttered by the seemingly clueless, who are anything but. That’s enough meat there to write about if conflict is needed in a story. Showing here and there, the daily, subtle insults and how they shape or do not shape a gay person’s life. Very much in the same way microaggressions shape or do not shape other minority persons’ lives.

    Yes, the overt has moved into the covert. So, if one wants to write truthful depictions of minorities of all kinds, but still entertain, show conflict, and not preach to, or scare readers, then this writing of any contemporary romance with non-traditional characters should consider reflecting this new atmosphere. In life, we don’t only have the frothing-at-the-mouth, pitch-fork wavers but we don’t only have a land of well-wishers bearing candy canes and gumdrops either.

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  12. Sunita
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 11:33:45

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Kate. I agree that changing laws in parts of North American and Western Europe have somewhat changed the most common conflicts used in m/m romance. I agree with Sirius that institutional discrimination and strong individual homophobia have always been well covered in m/m, to the point where I sought out books that didn’t focus so much on the characters’ gayness. These kinds of books have been available for a long time; Lanyon always acknowledges the influence of those who preceded him, e.g., Michael Nava and Joseph Hansen. And none of Sean Kennedy’s books revolve around being gay as the main conflict between the MCs.

    I wouldn’t agree at all that homophobia is basically vanquished and therefore those conflicts aren’t as available for fictional purposes. There are still more states in the US that don’t have egalitarian laws than states that do, and then there are all the ways that gays can be discriminated against that aren’t covered by legislation. So there’s still plenty of conflict to mine.

    Especially in arenas that are stereotypically coded as masculine, you’re going to find a lot of pushback at the individual or everyday level even when the institution is formally committed to acceptance. I haven’t read the Witt and Grant book, but there’s plenty of day-to-day homophobia in the military and they could have mined that had they wanted to; I assume they chose the hierarchy conflict because they wanted to explore that.

    In some ways I think the tension between the structural changes and the individual resistance is one of the most interesting areas to explore. I don’t know a single LGBT person or activist who isn’t surprised at the speed at which same-sex marriage laws have changed, and I think that’s because even people who have had relatively pleasant histories have still had plenty of experience with homophobia.

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  13. cs
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 13:10:02

    A nice piece and something I do agree with. If conflict is needed then authors need to branch out. As you said even in this day and age homophobia is still rampant but it doesn’t mean people don’t go through other things. For me lately authors can take it to an extreme where it’s only homophobia to some alternate reality where homophobia doesn’t exist. I read so very few m/m books about men from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds. That’s an issue rarely touched because a lot of the m/m writers are (and not to be accused of generalisation) straight white females and may feel like they can’t do that subject justice.

    If you look at gay-themed movies it’s 95% always about homophobia, cheating and death. There is no variety and people don’t go through the same thing. I find the contemporary world suffers so much.

    I don’t read many coming-out stories because they’re all carbon copies of each there. If you’re going to split your characters up, make us care about them as individuals and as a couple then you need to make the reader believe in them and their problems.

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  14. hapax
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 13:15:26

    @P. J. Dean: Yes — like how a gay co-worker’s family “life events” (marriages, promotion, even going out to dinner or party invitations) are not celebrated at work (not through malice, necessarily, but just not thinking of them) or someone wondering whether the reason co-worker called in sick was “because of AIDS” (yes, this *really* *happened* where I work; I had to scrape my jaw up off the floor, but other co-workers didn’t seem to notice)

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  15. Krista
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 16:32:37

    Also, “Solo (Grave Diggers MC)” is an M/M motorcycle romance. I haven’t read it yet but I’m excited to.

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  16. Kate Sherwood
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 19:01:31

    @Krista: Yay, another one!!! I don’t know how MANY I want to read, but I definitely want to give one a try.

    In general:

    I like the idea of using homophobia or even just social weirdness as a way to add depth and realism to stories… and I definitely agree, just because something is more subtle than it used to be doesn’t mean it’s less damaging.

    And I also agree that I’m writing from a Western perspective on all this – Canadian, even, so the ‘marriage not even legal in some states’ thing isn’t part of my daily life. I’m spoiled, for sure. And, still, I hear little Canadian kids calling each other gay as an insult. I don’t mean to suggest that everything is sunshine and butterflies.

    But I also see a lot of gay adults whose sexuality is NOT a major source of conflict for themselves or for those around them, and I want to read more about characters like that. For myself, maybe… maybe one book in ten could be a big coming-out or homophobic angst-fest? Maybe one book in twenty? The rest of the time, I’d love to read about all the OTHER ways two people who are meant to be together can somehow be kept apart, at least for 80 000 words.

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  17. Kate Sherwood
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 19:02:08

    Comment lost to spam filter. Is it because I messed up the Captcha? That’s a HARD Captcha!

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  18. Sirius
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 19:42:31

    Kate sorry I went looking and I don’t see your comment in the spam folder.

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  19. Kate Sherwood
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 20:03:33

    @Sirius: I think maybe somebody already pulled it out? It’s up there now, just above my comment complaining about being diverted.

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  20. Sirius
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 20:58:57

    @Kate Sherwood: Oh now I see it :). Good.

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  21. Kim W
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 21:12:18

    I saw an m/m motorcycle club book in an ARE email not too long ago but can’t remember the name of the book. I remember it because the the MC and leader of the motorcycle gang was named Diego Champagne. I really should have bought the book because every time I think of the character’s name I laugh.

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  22. Kaetrin
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 23:07:54

    I’m kind of uncomfortable about how this post is framed to be honest. It seems at least vaguely appropriative to me. I know that Ms. Sherwood has stated clearly that the real, lived-lives of LGBTQ people are not merely fodder for fiction (of course they are not) but statements such as this:

    An excellent direction for society to be moving in, absolutely, but it does have implications for our novels!

    or

    The progress is obviously wonderful… but what does it mean for our stories?

    make me uncomfortable. It just doesn’t sit well with me, the idea of some horrible thing that real people have to experience, being grist for the mill. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive. Maybe it’s just a truth of writing that I dislike seeing expressed so bluntly. I’m mostly loath to step into such discussions because I am a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white woman in a western country so my privilege quotient is pretty high. As such, it is not my place to speak for the LGBTQ community or to say what is or what isn’t appropriative. I don’t impute any negative intention to Ms. Sherwood. But I’m uncomfortable with the framing of the post.

    Aside from that, I don’t think that homophobia has gone the way of the dodo by any stretch. There is marriage equality in Canada, New Zealand and the UK and some states of the US but not in Australia (sadly). Many western countries don’t have marriage equality and there are many *other* countries, still, where being gay is illegal. Russia? India? I think the article suggests a fairly narrow view. It was only last year that a high school in the US wanted a “gay prom” so that gay students could go there and stay away from the “proper prom”. It is still legal in many places in the US to be fired for being gay. The intersection of homosexuality and religion is pretty fraught in many places. Frankly, I don’t think there is any cause to lament the lack of available conflict in m/m romance.

    That said, I do like reading about a variety of conflicts in romance and, for me, a great read will probably have both an internal and external conflict. Homophobia and bigotry *may* be part of the external conflict but I’m interest in other types of conflict too. I agree with Sirius that the microaggression that LGBTQ people are often faced with is something which feels a little under-represented. (But maybe I haven’t read widely enough in the genre to really say that). I do like to read about places – real or imagined – where being gay is no big deal and isn’t a source of conflict as well. Just like I don’t want to read solely Marriage of Convenience plots in historical romance, I like a variety of tropes and stories in queer romance too.

    Although I don’t really like the way the post is framed, I do agree with the thrust of the piece. That the genre ought not be limited (if it feels it is) to homophobia/bigotry as its only source of conflict.

    And I’d like to reiterate that I don’t think there was any negative intent even if I had a somewhat negative reaction to the way the post was framed.

    Also, @Sunita: I’d have to say that Sean Kennedy’s Tigers & Devils has being gay as a major source of the conflict – Declan was reluctant to come out and be the first openly gay AFL player. But I do agree with you that there are plenty of books around the place now which don’t focus on gayness as the source of the conflict.

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  23. Bona
    Jun 08, 2014 @ 03:34:06

    I think your first paragraph sums up what a good romance novel must achieve. To convince readers that 1) The central couple is meant to be together. 2) There are good reasons for them to be apart for most of the book. 3) Those good reasons have been resolved enough to allow a satisfying HEA. While the first and the third challenges are usually achieved, the second one is where many romance novels fail -specially contemporary novels. The Big Mis is something that I really hate, and I hope that newer genres as m/m romance, learn from the past and don’t use it.

    I think that it’s still easier to find ‘good reasons to be apart’ in a m/m relationship, even in tolerant societies. At least in these first years or decades of m/m romance. But I think that in the future the same-sex-ness of the couple will not be an issue anymore. So yes, writers should be exploring other sources of conflict apart from the homosexuality of the couple.

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