Monday, 30 April 2012

Wicked Witches vs Mary Sues – Female Characters in M/M Romance by Josephine Myles

When writing my latest novel, Handle with Care, I knew I wanted to include a strong female character in the form of Ben’s younger sister, Zoe. The trouble was, I also needed her to be the source of some conflict in the new relationship between Ben and Ollie, but I didn’t want readers to lose sympathy for her.

As I tried to work out how to write Zoe, it struck me that female characters in M/M romance often get cast into one of two roles: either the villain who interferes in the heroes’ relationship, or an overly idealised perfect woman, also known as a Mary Sue in fanfiction circles. Mary Sues are widely maligned by fanfic readers as being an obvious case of the author trying to insert themselves into the story, and forgetting that we all have our faults. Mary Sues are intelligent, attractive, capable in a crisis, and they always stick up for the little guy—they sound lovely, but it’s really hard to like a perfect character!

Because a lot of M/M romance writers learned their craft by writing fanfiction, it’s perhaps no surprise they’re wary of writing female characters who might come across as Mary Sues. I suspect this is why some of them swing so far in the other direction. I’ve read a fair few books featuring vengeful ex-girlfriends, manipulative mothers, and bosses who are total bitches. I’m not saying I don’t approve of villainous female characters—women are just as capable of treating other people badly as men are—but it is a problem when she’s the only female in the book.

And perhaps that’s the real issue. In M/M romance you don’t get all that many female characters, as a rule. I found this particularly striking when I first started reading the genre, as up until that point I’d been reading a lot of so-called women’s fiction—writers like Anita Shreve, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg. I was used to reading female characters who were complex and fascinating—just like real people are. The cardboard cut-out women who inhabited some of the early M/M books I read just didn’t make the grade.

Over time I’ve become better at seeking out the M/M writers who can present complex and sympathetic female characters—there are plenty of them out there—but I’ve also become aware that many readers don’t seem to want female characters playing a large part in their M/M romances. They’re there for the hot manloving, and don’t want any women getting in the way.

While I don’t mind reading the occasional book with no female characters, for me, a contemporary romance should reflect the real world, and that world is made up of at least fifty percent women. I don’t demand an exact mix of half and half in my fictional worlds, but I do try to make sure I have at least two female characters in longer works. In Handle with Care there are three: Zoe, Ben’s next door neighbour, Mrs. F, and Ollie’s best friend’s wife, Meera Khan. While the last two don’t get much page time, I still tried to make them as rounded and realistic as possible.

Mrs. F is the archetypal nosy neighbour, complete with a garden full of gnomes, but I hope she isn’t too much of a caricature. At one point Ben does see her as the villain because of a perceived slight, but it turns out he’s read the situation wrong. Meera is a second generation Pakistani immigrant who’s heavily pregnant, and wants Ollie out of her spare room before the baby arrives. This could have made her the villain, but she’s still kind to both Ollie and Ben, and gives Ben a nudge in the right direction when he needs it.

And finally, there is Zoe. Ben has been acting as surrogate parent to Zoe ever since they were both orphaned—when he was eighteen and she was six. Ben gave up his chance of having a normal social life to raise her, and now he’s ill Zoe is returning the favour by helping to look after him. She’s fiercely protective of her brother, and she also makes him specially prepared food to fit with his dialysis diet, along with helping out with the cleaning. She’s not perfect, though. Zoe has a tendency to snoop—the very first line of the story is her commenting on Ben’s porn stash—and while she isn’t downright obstructive about Ben’s new relationship, she does make her doubts very clear.

I hope that readers will like Zoe, and that even those who prefer their M/M female-free won’t mind her being there. She doesn’t steal too much page time, but she’s definitely important in the story.
How do you feel about female characters in M/M Romances? Do you prefer not to have them at all, or would you like more? Please share your reasons—I’d love to hear from more readers about this topic!

Handle with Care by Josephine Myles – the blog tour
To celebrate the release of my second novel, Handle with Care, I’m on a two week blog tour. A grand prize will be awarded to a randomly chosen commenter during the tour: an exclusive Handle with Care mug (which I’m happy to post worldwide), and a $25 voucher to spend at All Romance eBooks (or alternative ebook retailer of your choice). I’ll make the prize draw on Wednesday 9th May at 9am (GMT), and will announce the winner on my blog. Visit the tour itinerary for a list of all the stops, and comment on each to increase your chances of winning!

The best things in life aren’t free…they’re freely given.
Ben Lethbridge doesn’t have many vices left. After raising his little sister to adulthood, he wasted no time making up for the youth he lost to responsible parenting. Two years of partying it up—and ignoring his diabetes—has left him tethered to a home dialysis regimen.

He can do his job from his flat, fortunately, but most of his favourite things are forbidden. Except for DVD porn…and fantasizing over Ollie, the gorgeous, purple-haired skateboarder who delivers it.

Their banter is the highlight of Ben’s lonely day, but his illness-ravaged body is the cruel reality that prevents him from believing they’ll do anything more than flirt. Not to mention the age gap. Still, Ben figures there’s no harm in sprucing himself up a bit.

Then one day, a package accidentally splits open, revealing Ben’s dirty little secret…and an unexpected connection that leaves him wondering if he’s been reading Ollie wrong all this time. There’s only one way to find out: risk showing Ollie every last scar. And hope “far from perfect” is good enough for a chance at love.

Warning: Contains superhero porn comics and a cute, accident-prone delivery guy with colour-changing hair. Readers may experience coffee cravings, an unexpected liking for bad mullets, and the urge to wrap Ollie up and take him home.

Author Bio:

English through and through, Josephine Myles is addicted to tea and busy cultivating a reputation for eccentricity. She writes gay erotica and romance, but finds the erotica keeps cuddling up to the romance, and the romance keeps corrupting the erotica. Jo blames her rebellious muse but he never listens to her anyway, no matter how much she threatens him with a big stick. She’s beginning to suspect he enjoys it.

Twitter: @JosephineMyles


Anonymous said...

Hi Jo
I definitely want a 'real world' feel to any novel i read and, as you say, the world is at least half female, so female characters should appear. I hadn't thought about how they come across before - just whether i'd liked or not, the character. I like siblings in a novel as they can get away with being rude, funny, snarky and supportive all at once, or just at the end of a phone. Female best friends to gay characters must be quite hard to do, as you say either to avoid the sugary version or the defender.
I'll be thinking about female characters more now.

Katherine Halle said...

Hi! I like female characters in the books. It does become obvious at times that the characters are at either of the spectrum - so it's nice when I come across an author that makes them complex.

I loved all the female characters in Handle With Care - they were all well-rounded and realistic. I had very clear pictures of each of them in my head.

Of course now I'll be paying particular attention to this in my own writing LOL.

Katherine Halle said...

ARGH those pop up windows.

It should have read "characters at either END of the spectrum"


Josephine Myles said...

@ Suze - siblings are great, aren't they? I have great relationships with my sisters despite all the teasing, and I wouldn't want them any other way!

@ Katherine - Thanks hon! And it's worth paying attention to all these sorts of things, I reckon. It never hurts to try to make sure all your characters have depth and complexity.

Josephine Myles said...

Oh yes, and I'm just leaving another comment so that I can subscribe to replies by email :)

JL Merrow said...

Heh - I remember when Camwolf first came out, and everyone said how brave I was for making my second POV character a girl - "brave", as ever, being a euphemism for "WTF were you thinking of?!"

I started writing women into my books as a backlash against one of the extremes you mentioned - the evil hell-bitch whose only aim in life is to sabotage our heroes' Twu Wuv. I don't want to read something so misogynistic and I certainly don't want to write it!

I've carried on writing female characters in my m/m because, frankly, I think it makes for a richer fictional world.

Josephine Myles said...

I think I might have been one of those calling you brave - but in my case I didn't mean "WTF?" ;P

It does seem terribly misogynistic sometimes, doesn't it? It's sad to see that coming from anyone, but it seems particularly bizarre from female writers.

Lou Harper said...

I love interesting, three-dimensional female characters in m/m. There should be more of them, and less of those evil witch mothers and ex-wives.

I wonder if m/m writers shy away from writing positive female characters in fear of Mary Sue accusations. I was concerned about it when writing Academic Pursuits, but then it never came up.

Josephine Myles said...

Hi Lou! I love those multi-faceted female characters too, and Jo in Academic Pursuits was a great example of one. Maybe our readers are more accepting of female characters having a share of the page time?

Bookwyrm369 said...

Like you, I prefer my stories to be realistic as possible which means there should definitely be female characters and I don't mind them at all. I almost didn't like Zoe even tho I understood she felt threatened but she didn't take the over-protectiveness too far and I ended up liking her :-)

smaccall AT

Josephine Myles said...

Thanks Bookwyrm - I was very conscious I didn't want Zoe to be the stereotypical interfering woman in this story, but she did have some valid concerns, exacerbated by the fact Ben has brought her up like a parent for so many years. I'm glad you liked her by the end of the story :D

Joanna said...

To be honest I don't concentrate too much on female characters in M/M romances. I'm annoyed if there are only perky fag hags or homophobic bitches, but I can live with the female characters being rather sketchy.

What I complain loudly - when we are talking about a depiction of real world - is making all the men in a book gays. There's a gay MC, who has a gay brother, gay co-worker, gay friend and gay neighbor. I can name few authors who write book series using this device. I find them pure lazy and opportunistic.

Josephine Myles said...

Hi Joanna. I'd agree - I've read a couple of books like that in the past and I found them ridiculous. I could perhaps have accepted it if the MC had lived in the middle of a gay district in a big city, but it doesn't wash anywhere else.

It does smack of just setting up characters for the next book in the series.