I’m probably revealing some of my kinks here, but I really love well-done menage stories. Storylines and character arcs can get cumbersome in a single title when there are more than three people (although I would love to see a long-running series with a polycule), so most of what I read (and are readily available) are ménage à trois novels. I just read a really excellent one by Emma Holly in her Billionaires series that I highly recommend (Beck and Call). It’s a fantastic example of ménage done right: everyone has an arc, and all three people are interested in and fall in love with each other. Yes, that means the guys fall in love with each other, too.
A brief caveat here. I don’t have anything against straight (read: heterosexual) MFM stories. I have, however, noticed that some MFM authors feel like they need to go out of their way to reassure their readers “they’re totally not gay!” I have zero tolerance for homophobia, and if that happens, I’ll put down the book. I don’t need the guys to be bisexual, but I do need them to not be terrified/disgusted by the possibility, and I also need their friendship to be just as strong as the romance with their female partner. They both need to arc, change, and grow, both in the romance and in their non-sexual relationship.
But getting back to the pet peeve, I have recently read a few stories that totally whiffed on the third member of the ménage à trois. In one notable example, the second man was very obviously there only for the sex scenes, and was excluded from the relationship-building and romance. It was an MFM story, so there was no romance between the men, and their friendship was informed rather than shown. At the end of the book, the heroine says, “I think I’m falling in love with X, too!” and I was like, “Based on what interactions, exactly? You’ve spent zero time with him that didn’t involve his dick, and usually the main guy’s, too.”
And even that could have been enough if the author had done things differently. Good erotic romance gives us most of the relationship-building and character development within the sex scenes, after all. But that didn’t happen in this example, so the story totally fell flat for me. It felt like a regular twosome, with a third tossed in so the heroine could get some DP action. While that can be totally hot under the right circumstances, that’s not a ménage à trois romance.
In another example, the author didn’t even pretend that the third character was there for the romance. He was very much just there for the sex. At the end of the story he wasn’t interested in commitment, and it ended up with only two of the characters getting together. In my first example, the story fell flat, but the ending of this book was just a slap in the face of reader expectations. If I pick up a ménage à trois book, I expect three people to fall in love!
Don’t get me wrong–I understand how hard it is to properly arc and develop two characters, much less three. In a non-sexy way, I just tried my first threesome in a short story I wrote for an upcoming YA romance anthology. It was much harder than writing a twosome! But it’s very important that all of the characters in the relationship receive the same weight in the story.
Do you have any great ménage novels to recommend? Let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for authors and books to add to my TBR pile. And yes, I will be writing at least one MMF story in the future, and possibly other groupings, too.
This romance pet peeve falls under the bigger heading of False Conflict. Some of my other pet peeves belong here, too, like forced separation, and the worst sorts of love triangles.
But this is a particularly egregious sin in any story: creating conflict that would be easily resolved if your characters would just talk to each other.
Note here that I don’t mean situations where there are good, character-driven reasons why there’s a lack of communication. Because if there’s a reason not to tell the truth or to deliberately mislead the other character then that’s the conflict. The misconception arises from the conflict and then creates more conflict. That’s a perfect way to escalate the stakes in a story.
The problem I have is when lies/miscommunication/etc. are not properly motivated. For example, the cliche scene when one of the protagonists sees the other with a possible love interest and gets jealous/angry/withdrawn and refuses to talk to the other one. But, of course, it turns out to be just a friend, or a sibling, or something else innocuous, and if they’d just asked, there would be no conflict. If the failure to communicate becomes the only source of conflict, that’s false conflict.
I tried to set up something like this in my book A Theft of Magic, where it would look (on the surface) like that cliche form of false conflict, but would actually be motivated by deeper issues with both characters. Those deeper problems would then come out when they talked about the misconception. Heroine Sorcha sees hero Ronan interacting with another woman named Evie, and Sorcha recognizes that there is deep feeling and caring between them. She isn’t sure if they’re old lovers or best friends, but she is certain that they love each other. Up until that point, Sorcha had believed Ronan to be a total loner, with no close relationships. She’d justified his lack of emotional involvement with her (Sorcha) by telling herself he just didn’t understand how to express those emotions. But then she sees him with Evie and knows that’s a lie. He is capable of loving. He just might not love Sorcha.
A few scenes later, they talk about his relationship with Evie, and he explains that they’re as close as brother and sister. Sorcha tells him what she’s feeling and what she wants, and he can’t give her what she wants. In a false conflict situation, the revelation that Evie and Ronan weren’t lovers would have resolved the conflict. In this situation, it just makes things worse.
I don’t know how well I succeeded–I’ve had readers respond by saying they didn’t like it–but that was my intention, anyway.
Contrast that with a book I recently DNF (Did Not Finish). The hero and heroine slept together as teenagers and their fathers found out and had the boy sent away. Girl believes she’s been abandoned, boy believes girl sent him away. Girl, at least, has no idea where boy is and no way of contacting him. Boy could have contacted her at any time to resolve the problem. When boy comes back, they both refuse to talk about what happened for almost half of the book, and of course as soon as they talk about it, they immediately fall back into bed/love/etc.
But wait–there’s more!
Girl is betrothed to someone else. Rather than tell the other person immediately that she’s getting back together with her previous lover, she puts it off, despite having many, many opportunities. The author realized what she was doing, because within the text she keeps making up excuses for why the girl doesn’t say anything. But they are so obviously just excuses that it was at that point that I put the book down and stopped reading. I could see what was going to happen–lots of misunderstandings, anger, etc., based on the girl not breaking off the engagement, and I just didn’t care that much. The conflict wasn’t real.
If you’re a writer, make sure your conflict is properly motivated. If you’re a reader, you may now understand why you just couldn’t get into a particular story. False conflict is never fun, but especially not when a story would have lasted about five pages without it.
Do you have a favorite (or least favorite!) example of a failure to communicate creating false conflict in a story? Let me know in the comments. (And no, I won’t tell you which one I’m talking about in my example. It’s a very common trope).
Before I begin this blog, let me direct you to a few pieces of information:
- Sarah MacLean’s article about how she re-wrote Day of the Duchess after the 2016 election. She discusses the alpha male trope in romance, from a mostly positive perspective, and then how she had to do something different in light of the very toxic “alpha” male culture that is very real, and present, and damaging in our world right now.
- Adam Ruins Everything: Alpha Males
I’ve said this here and elsewhere on the internet–one of my “to be written” story ideas is about a wolf shifter pack that is based on actual science and studies of wolves. Pack structure would be familial, and the “alpha” (aka Dad) would be the one who plays with the young, makes sure the smallest members of the pack are fed, models good wolfly behaviors, accepts his mate and older children’s input on pack decisions, and exerts order through respect and assertion of boundaries, not threats of violence and subjugation of anyone not as strong as him. In situations where packs would need to combine for some purpose, duties would be shared according to ability and proximity, and while decisions are ultimately up to the alphas, they do what is best for the pack, and the alpha in larger packs isn’t always the biggest and strongest. Mating is generally monogamous (although situations can lead to changes in pairings, so they don’t always mate for life), but there are also polygamous groups.
Also they would be aligned with raven shifters who are their allies.
But I digress.
The point of this blog is to talk about the alpha male in romance.
In Sarah MacLean’s article for the Washington Post linked above, she writes about the kind of alpha I actually like–the one who was always good, caring, and compassionate, but was socialized not to show it. The one who was taught incorrectly and needs to find his mate to learn that he is wrong.
The pitfall there is that some authors treat his love interest as some sort of singular oddity among women, and so when he comes to respect her and treat her as an equal, he doesn’t have to extend that respect to other “less worthy” women. Not everyone falls into the trap, but I’ve seen it happen, and if you’re writing a story like this, make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
In general, though, I can live with that sort of alpha. I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with him (MacLean’s assertion that he contributes to the culture of toxic masculinity is spot-on), and I don’t think he exists (or if he does, he’s very rare), but I can stand to read about him without throwing my tablet at the wall or wondering what in the hell his love interest sees in him.
Instead of an alpha male, however, some authors write an alphahole.
Alphahole is a mash-up of “alpha male” and “asshole” and it’s exactly what you’re thinking. Characters like Christian Grey live solidly in this category. Manipulative, gaslighting, controlling, abusive (physically, emotionally, etc.), jealous, obsessive…I could go on.
These are the characters who are supposed to make us swoon and want to be taken care of, but who are, in truth, terrible caretakers. They see their women as possessions, not people, and you can’t truly care for a person you consider an object to own.
I want to look at that last sentence a little more closely. I will admit that one thing that I like about romance is when characters claim a little bit of ownership over each other. I always want that to be equal–they belong to each other, not one owned by the other–but I do like it. And I recognize that as potentially problematic. But I think it’s a matter of degree. When people agree to be in a closed relationship, they are essentially giving ownership of some things over to the other person–usually including sexual activity (masturbation not included). But agreeing to only have sex with one person and allowing them to “own” that aspect of us, for whatever length of time, isn’t the same thing as being owned by that person. Sex isn’t the entirety of our lives, and in other areas, our mates shouldn’t rule us.
But that’s exactly what the alphahole wants. He wants to rule his lover and decide everything they do. Ostensibly, this is to keep them “safe,” but really it’s about control. Their lovers aren’t free, and if they aren’t free, that isn’t love.
Don’t blame the wolves for your alphahole. Wolves aren’t like that. They may (usually) mate for life, but they don’t control each other. Mated pairs work together for their packs. They survive because they are stronger as a team.
If you want to take something from the wolves and apply it to romance narratives, that’s what I would recommend: love is stronger when everyone is equal, contributing toward a mutual goal.
Please, no more alphaholes!
If there’s one thing I can’t stand in romances, it’s when only the heroine gets to have a happy, fulfilling sex life and all other women are trashy sluts. That just feeds into a patriarchal view where a woman’s sex life belongs to her husband–where she’s allowed to feel desire, but only as long as it’s carefully defined and limited to a set of arbitrary circumstances that change depending on who you talk to. Women who feel desire outside of those imaginary boundaries are lesser, and deserve scorn and repudiation.
Of course not every romance writer goes to this extreme, but frequently the “other woman”–usually the hero’s ex–is portrayed as a villain. She’s manipulative, uses sex and seduction to get things from men, is catty and rude, can’t let go of the hero, and is a total slut-bitch-whore-etc.
And that’s bullshit.
You can probably tell that this subject riles me up, so let me tone it down a bit before I go full-fledged rant.
Here’s the thing about being sex-positive. I don’t degrade anyone for choosing to have sex. Or not to have sex. That includes anyone who prefers uncomplicated physical relationships that may only last as long as a single encounter–as long as they’re always honest and upfront with their partners and practice safe sex. I don’t judge you if you’ve had a thousand lovers, or none. That’s your choice, and I respect your right to do whatever you want with your body as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.
But in traditional M/F romance, there’s this tendency to want to have our cake and eat it, too. We “need” a strong, virile hero who has bedded hundreds of women and become an exquisite lover (and don’t even get me started on sexual double-standards for men). We also “need” a reason for him to stop living his wild and carefree lifestyle and settle down. And here’s the thing. Writing that resolution takes hard work. You have to carefully craft your characters and their conflict so that the lovers end up discovering truths about themselves and love by being together. You have to make them work as a couple.
This is a very, very hard thing to do. What’s easier is to make the heroine look good by making the hero’s exes look bad.
This depiction of the wanton former (sometimes current) lover/mistress is particularly pernicious and prevalent in historical romance, where, for better or worse, I have at least one foot (the other is firmly in fantasy romance). Authors in this genre sometimes take the easy route and establish said woman as a coarse, fleshy (they’re always well-endowed–as if to say that all fat women are sluts), whiny, and demanding bitch who refuses to accept that her lover has moved on and plots to get him back–usually by harming the heroine.
And of course, the blushing virgin heroines espouse what the writer believes was the prevailing belief of the day, deriding the easy/loose/whorish women that their rakish lovers bedded before finding true love between their untouched thighs. But as Lani Diane Rich says, “reality is no defense for fiction.” Even if a sheltered, well-brought-up young woman would have had a negative reaction to meeting her husband’s former lover, that doesn’t mean the author has to agree with her.
Sometimes, the writers are good enough to then slap the heroine in the face with the reality of those women. Yes, there are a few nasties, but there are just as many, if not more, mean and awful women in the “pure” upper classes. In the best books, the former mistress is played not as an object of revulsion (or pity) nor as a prospective villainess, but just as a woman, doing what she needs to do to survive in a world built to keep her at heel.
In contemporary romance, there isn’t even the excuse of history (which is a flimsy excuse anyway). Just don’t go there, writers. We call people who make themselves look good by putting other people down bullies. Don’t bully your characters for the sake of your hero and heroine. Do a better job writing the romance so your lovers don’t need a negative comparison to prop up their characterization.
It’s the last day of February, so this is my last romance pet peeve for a while. It’s also the last time I’ll be actively blogging for a while. I’m taking an internet hiatus for the month of March. I’ve been spending too much of my time searching for content for social media and not enough time writing.
I’ve got a few guest posts coming up, and I’ve pre-written some blog posts that are scheduled to go up automatically later in the month, so you’ll still see things appear on this page. I’ll also continue to promote the 99¢ sale of Essential Magic until this time next week, since that’s an easy “log on, post, log off” situation. But otherwise, I will be offline and finishing Memories of Magic.
Today’s post could also be titled:
- No romantic chemistry
- Telling about the romance rather than showing
- Insta-lust that never develops into love (or abruptly becomes love for no obvious reason)
- Fated Mates who are otherwise exactly wrong for each other
I’ve been trying out a lot of first-time and self-published romance writers lately, and this is a pitfall I’ve found fairly frequently in that demographic. That’s not to say it doesn’t plague authors later in their careers or who are traditionally published, though, because it does. It’s just more likely that well-edited and more-experienced writers will have help fixing the problem before the book is published.
The problem itself is fairly straight-forward, and like all of my pet peeves so far, stems from the author not understanding the characters, or perhaps not giving them as much weight as the story/tropes/stereotypes/whatever.
In examples like Fated Mates, the author might believe that the trope will carry the romance. And let me say here that I don’t mind that trope–in fact, I’m a big fan of it–but it isn’t enough on its own. As a reader, I want to see the ways that fate was right about these people. Bonus points if it drives them absolutely crazy how much they’re right for each other. There’s a fine balance between sniping and arguments that arise from characters who are afraid to love and sniping and arguments that arise from characters who shouldn’t be together.
What do I mean by “shouldn’t be together?”
To be honest, most of the time in this particular trope, it’s because the hero is an Alpha Asshole and shouldn’t be with anybody. I don’t mind strong men, but in my opinion, a strong man is one who is comfortable in his own skin, cares deeply for others, doesn’t feel the need to use violence to assert his masculinity, and is respected rather than feared. In fact, I’m probably going to write an entire post at some point on how much I hate Alpha Assholes, because they’re mostly manipulative abusers who have no place in a romance.
Sometimes “shouldn’t be together” is because, when the couple is together, they make each other worse. They are inspired to make bad choices, and do bad things. I’m not necessarily talking about making mistakes, although that is sometimes true. But when a couple is right together, they inspire each other to be better people. To have more compassion, to think critically, to come out of their shells.
But that represents two opposite extremes: the couples that work and feel right (the ideal) and the couples that are actively wrong for each other.
What is even worse are couples that I just don’t care about one way or the other.
Most of the time, this problem comes down to the relationship being informed rather than displayed. We’re told about feelings and interactions via exposition rather than shown them organically. The narrative might assert that the heroine is experiencing connection and passion–but we never quite feel that with her. And I’m not talking about sex scenes. I recently read a book with SO MANY SEX SCENES that nonetheless left me cold because there was zero emotional engagement between the characters. It is entirely possible for your leads to have sexual chemistry and no romantic chemistry. In fact, that happens all of the time in real life.
So if this has happened to you as a writer, consider what you need to tweak and change about the characters to give them that romantic chemistry. It might just be a matter of digging deeper into the emotions and showing them on the page. It might mean changing something in the character’s history or personality. It might just mean having more action and dialogue, and less exposition, even if it’s internal monologue. If your characters start off lusting after each other, make sure that the lust forces them to acknowledge emotional realities that they would rather ignore.
Just because there are two beautiful people in a room does not mean they’ll be attracted to each other. Or, even if they are, that attraction alone will make for a satisfying romance.
The great thing about all of these pet peeves is that they can be avoided by having a good understanding of character and digging past the surface level of storytelling.
What are some of your romance pet peeves? Let me know, and maybe I’ll feature some on the blog.
I recently read a book that really bugged me, and after mulling it over I’ve figured out why. I decided to make a blog post about it, and that spawned an idea for a semi-regular blog series about my romance pet peeves. It is February, after all!
Today’s culprit: separating the romantic couple in order to create conflict.
First, let me define terms and explain what I mean.
Conflict is (obviously) important. Conflict is the fuel in the engine of story. What I should perhaps say is “Separation As False Conflict.” Because if conflict can be resolved easily (by having a conversation, or just getting the characters back in the same room), it’s false. Real conflict arises from character choices, and is always messy and forces the characters to make more difficult choices to resolve it (and should spawn more conflict).
Separation is also a key stage of the romantic arc. It isn’t always physical, but it is important that there be at least an emotional separation between the characters as they go into their black moments. This kind of separation, like true conflict, arises from within the characters and is motivated by their actions and choices. That’s not the kind of separation I’m talking about in my pet peeve.
The kind of separation I’m talking about is when the plot interferes with the characters. Something external happens that rips a happy couple apart, usually repeatedly. I find this most often happens in non-romance books with a romantic subplot, because the author doesn’t understand how to write romantic conflict. They think that whenever their couple is together, things must/will be blissful and “boring.” So in order to shake things up, they craft circumstances that take the couple apart. Depending on the genre, this often means that the woman is kidnapped or harmed, or in other stories, has to stay behind to be protected while the man goes off to save the world.
In other types of stories, one or both characters do stupid things or make stupid choices that cause the separation. This is, at least, character-driven, but still feels like a cop-out to me because they are usually out of character choices. When you break a character to create conflict (or humor–that happens all of the time), you lose a little bit of your reader’s trust. And since this is the sort of well that writers seem to return to often, eventually all trust is gone.
Character-breaking conflict is also common in romantic triangles and will-they-or-won’t-they situations. It’s annoying in a single title, but series writers love these not-quite-romance premises, and that means they have to find reasons to keep the romance from coming to completion over a long period of time. The reasons get more and more elaborate, far-fetched, and out of character, until I just want to scream. I have stopped reading (and watching) several series for this reason. I have to assume that the authors just don’t understand how to (or deliberately choose not to) write conflict when their romantic couple is actually together. Which is odd, because these stories also often revolve around a team or group, and there is never any trouble writing about friendship/colleague conflicts.
Romance shouldn’t be any different. What I like to see are couples working through their problems in unison. Facing danger as a team, because being united makes them stronger. There can still be tons of conflict, both external and internal, while you keep your romantic pair together. Sure, separation every once in a while is good, too, just to mix things up. But the bulk of the time, I want to see them side by side. Don’t just tell me they’re in love. Show me why they make sense as a couple. Make me believe in their relationship and their importance to each other.
A series that doesn’t fall into the separation trap is the In Death series, by JD Robb/Nora Roberts. Not surprisingly, Nora Roberts understands how to write romantic conflict. Eve and Roarke are a team, and aside from a few issues in the beginning when they were first learning to trust each other, they have been a rock-solid pair for the entire series (unless something really crazy happened in the last 4 or 5 books–I’m a little behind). The times when they are separated evolve from absolutely true character flaws, and as much as things hurt, they are always able to work through the problems by coming together, trusting, and loving each other. It can be done!
I’ll once again recommend Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beat for anyone looking to add romantic subplots to their non-romance fiction. Keep your characters together, and use her beats for their conflict. You’ll be surprised how much external story conflict this gives rise to!
To sum up: if you’re forced to pull your characters apart because you can’t create conflict when they’re together, then you’re missing out on an opportunity for great individual and group/romantic character growth. Dig deeper into the characters, and figure out how to up the tension while they’re together. Don’t take the easy way out!