Recently I came across a book review that warned readers about the main characters, who are the love interests of the story, having sex with people other than each other. This story takes place over a period of many years, where the relationship (such as it isn’t, for a great majority of the story) fluxes and wanes. Then I see authors ask in M/M romance writers support groups if it is “okay” for their characters to sleep with married people, and/or have sex with women.
These questions always surprise me, because I wonder when it became a crime for characters to make mistakes? Or have broad sexual histories? Or simply be, you know, human?
I understand that many people read for the element of pure escapism — I’m one of those people — and that issues such as infidelity can be a sore topic with individuals. But, to be perfectly honest, there is a point where carrying the formula too far results in two-dimensional characters and stories.
Maybe some people like that kind of predictability, which is okay, because to each their own; but it should not be the standard by which romance books are expected to fall into line. It should not mean that stories which have a more realistic tone and more character depth are somehow breaking an implied agreement with the readers, which need to be warned for.
Every genre, to some extent, is formulaic. Science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, horror etc. all have their tropes and expected by plays, which are used and abused by authors to varying degrees. It would be bizarre to read a horror story review that disclaims at the top, “in this story, the heroine is, in fact, not saved by the hero but kills the monster by herself. You’ve been warned!” Science fiction writers in particular enjoy turning formulas on their heads, and steampunk (which is surely the most regimented of the fantasy genres) has broad swaths of stories that break conventions. No one would call out those stories for not being steampunk just because the author dares not to give her hero a pair of goggles.
I’m not slamming the choices of those people who want mutually exclusive couplings and HEAs in all their stories, because if that is what they want, that is what they should get. But I’m disturbed by the idea that any writer whose work does not fit into that standard is some kind of outlier, and should worry or fret about including a controversial scene or topic.
This is, of course, a marginally selfish concern: my writing is about real people who have lived complex lives. I rarely (read: never) write about virgins, for instance; and if they can’t be with the one they love, they often love the one they’re with. Those are the kinds of people I find interesting. It’s what I like to read in stories as well.
What I’m getting at here is that the genre of romance is too big to reduce down to formulaic, accepted practices. It often is, of course, but to my mind that is a detriment not a smart marketing ploy. Does this mean I don’t think writers should cater to readers? Honestly, yes; because readers will find what they like, and stick to that. It’s not our job to herd them, but to put well-crafted material out there for them to find.
So, I believe writers should write what they want to write. If they are good, it won’t matter if their stories meet ‘expected criteria’ or not because every story has its audience.