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!
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.
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.
Jo’s website: http://josephinemyles.com/