More Than the Crazy Ex or Empathetic Best Friend
Writing Female Secondary Characters in M/M Romance
M/M romance as a genre is often accused of having too few female characters. Often, when there are secondary female characters, these characters fall into certain roles: the Evil Ex, the BFF, or the vulnerable yet spunky young women in need of an older gay man to protect her. I think this is, in large part, because we all struggle with the fact that our society portrayed women as essentially vulnerable (prone to victimization) and values women primarily for their sexual availability and nurturing empathy. When writing a situation in which a man (because he is gay) isn’t interested in a woman sexually, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of portraying her as primarily an empathetic caregiver. Such characters are often either a mother or a supportive friend, always ready with a shoulder to cry on. Of course, in real life, women are all these things—mothers, caregivers, good friends and sexual beings—but also many more things as well.
Men do not live in male-only vacuums, not even gay men; we all know this. They also have lots of complex relationships with women. Women in relation to a male character can be co-workers, bosses, allies, co-conspirators, alpha, business partners, masters, students, apprentices, and teachers. They can be monarchs, pastors, doctors, partners-in-crime, battle-mates, and yes, best friends, mothers, sisters, and daughters.
One of the other things that bothers me about the way female secondary characters are sometimes portrayed in m/m romance is how socially normative they are. They are often empathetic, often straight, often married, outgoing, nurturing, and willing. They often talk about clothes, go shopping, or cook a good meal for their male best friend. Very rarely are they single and happy or queer or someone the male character values for intellectually stimulating conversations. Very rarely do these sorts of female secondary characters have high powered careers that don’t leave them time to talk about their gay BFF’s love life. Very rarely is she his boss or business partner. There aren’t a lot of athletic women in m/m romance, but there aren’t a lot of hard core female gamers either. The same goes for archeologists, corporate lawyers, or women who build battle bots in their basements and brew their own beer. Also, when or if female characters are any of these things, too often they’re portrayed as having both the time and the inclination to drop whatever they are doing (sometimes literally in the middle of the night) to baby their gay best friend who is having an emotional meltdown.?
Yeah, there are definitely women who are nurturing and like shopping and enjoy sitting around and gossiping. Yes, there are m/m romance authors who do write about female gamers, lawyers, or brewers. I think what I worry about is how often we see female secondary characters being portrayed as only the crazy ex or only the gossipy BFF. The sheer frequency with which I see these character tropes reflects less my own life experience of what women are like and more what society wants women to be like.
Now, I will be the first one to admit that it’s scary and difficult to write atypical characters. Once a trope gets intrenched in the genre, going against it is a hard row to hoe. Readers not liking or being unable to empathize with my characters are what my nightmares are made of. When writing female secondary characters with socially unacceptable gender traits, I often fear what readers will think. Will they hate these characters? Will female readers not be able to empathize with them and then feel alienated from the plot? The social pressure to make my female characters conform is just as great as the social pressure to conform myself. More than that, I’ve gotten myself into a headspace where I often fall into the trap of thinking that Mrs. Every-Reader will only be able to see herself as a straight, often married with kids, BFF character. The kind of woman always ready with a cup of tea (shot of tequila) and a wise word of advice for her hot gay friend and his struggling love life. There is nothing wrong with this character, of course, but she doesn’t represent the full spectrum of female-bodied people. She will not be the only character I write (especially when I myself don’t empathize with her).
Not long ago, I wrote to my beta reader about one of the secondary characters in my upcoming novel Like Fire Through Bone:
“I would particularly love feed back on Aritê, because she has such a strong personality, and I know that can very easily translate to bitchiness in female characters, and that’s not what I want here.”
Sadly, this would not have been a concern at all if Aritê had been a male. I am all too aware, though, that what is seen as strength in men, our society sees as “bitchiness” in women. (I’ve been called a “bitch” and variations thereof often enough to now this first hand.) Sometimes I wonder how many other authors have been tempted to write all their female characters as only sweet and empathetic because of the fear that if they make them more aggressive, colder, or introverted, they will be accused of turning them into “bitches” or turning readers off.
But you know what? I really, truly think m/m romance readers, no matter where on the gender spectrum they fall, are smart people who live amazing, creative lives and don’t mind reading about characters who live equally amazing lives. Do you know women who have traveled around the world, make their own jewelry, started their own company, raised five kids single-handedly, worked as a police officer, got a Ph.D., dressed in menswear, dyed their hair pink at 60, ran a farm, worked as a sex toy reviewer, piloted helicopters, didn’t give a fuck about what society said about them? I bet you do, and chances are so does everyone who has ever read your books. Yeah, sometimes, in some cases, these women would sit down over a cup of tea and let you cry your heart out about your latest life problem. Sometimes, though, they are the kind of people with whom you are more likely to have a long talk over wine about Foucault and Marxism or go surfing with.
Here are some secondary female characters for m/m romance stories I have written and what I try to get across about who they are in the story:
Del Martin from “Regarding the Detective’s Companion” is a brilliant mathematician and inventor in her own right, and the first and only women to do research at the College of Computative Science at Cambridge University.
Úlfeiðr in The Kraken Lord and the Eater of the Sun is Clan Lord to her people and a legendary warrior, ex-Battle Mate to Valbjörn, the main character’s deceased lover.
The aforementioned Aritê has been through the fire of unimaginable cruelty and managed to come out the other side sure of herself and her relationship with God. She speaks Truth even when it might not be the kindest thing to say. She’s a respected religious figure, a hermit, mystic, spiritual healer, and exorcist.
Nereida, also from Like Fire Through Bone, is sweet, gentle, and a little naïve by nature. She turns to the main character Vasilios for companionships and support. In the end, though, it is she who saves his life, as well as managing to save herself from a life of abuse, through her own wits and strength.
Itet, in the story I’m currently writing, is twin sister to one of the main characters, the head of the Pharaoh’s network of spies and assassins, and often comes across as serious and calculating to the point of being cold.
As an author, I am certainly not perfect. Heart of Water and Stone has no memorable female characters, neither does Changeling Moon. Last fall, I became particularly conscious of the fact that I was falling into the trap of not writing female secondary characters and not writing strong ones. I then began making a conscious effort to make sure I was doing so. I don’t like that I need to make any extra effort at all; I feel characters should flow smoothly from my mind like water rolls off a polished stone. (Ha! Ha! Like that ever happens.) I am conscious of the world I live in, though, and the way women are represented all around me, so I think the extra effort is appropriate. What I try to do now when writing a female character is ask myself who is she outside of her relationship with the main characters. What role is she playing in the story? What is her relationship with the male characters based on?
Sometimes, in order to write a tight, well-structured story, we need to show only one side of our secondary characters. Sometimes, they’ll only appear in one scene. No one type of character should play the same role again and again, though. Female characters shouldn’t always be there simply to offer emotional support to the male characters just as the younger, smaller partner in a relationship shouldn’t always be the weaker, more submissive one. It’s a stereotype, and when you pry beneath the surface, it’s not a particularly flattering one. Yes, like all stereotypes, it can be fun, and there can be some truth there, but it doesn’t make for well-rounded characters.
Let’s face it; the world could always use more well-rounded female characters.
E.E. Ottoman has been writing every day since she was in middle school and telling stories for even longer than that. In 2005, she started publishing non-fiction under her legal name, and in 2011, signed her first contract to publish a work of fiction. Since then, she has had two stories published with Less Than Three Press, an ebook Heart of Water and Stone, and the short story “Regarding the Detective’s Companion” which was included in Private Dicks: Undercovers anthology.
She also has three upcoming releases with Less Than Three Press. Changeling Moon, which will be published as part of the Halloween Rentboy collection. The Kraken Lord and the Eater of the Sun will be published in November 2012 as part of the Bestiary collection. Zi Yong and the Collector of Secrets will be published as part of the Kiss Me at Midnight collection also by Less Than Three Press.
As a queer writer, E.E. is particularly interested in writing QUILTBAG romance and erotica which represent more than just the G. As a self-identified butch and a lover of other butch identified people, E.E. is looking for opportunities to rectify the grossly under-represented statutes of butch/butch couples in romance and erotica. Overall, in her work, she loves writing in speculative fiction genres such as fantasy, steampunk, paranormal, and gothic horror. When not writing, E.E. is a full time graduate student working towards a Ph.D. in American cultural and intellectual history. She can be found at her blog or on Twitter @acosmistmachine.