Women characters – to use or not?
Women characters are a bit of a tricky area in m/m romance. By definition they aren’t part of the romance. Since a good romance focuses on the people actually having the romance then all other characters are relegated to support roles.
Okay, so it’s to be expected that women characters won’t have the limelight in these stories, that isn’t a problem. And it can be useful to have a character who’s close to the heroes but can’t be seen as a rival. But there are some problems. The support roles they play can often be clichéd, or even worse misogynistic, especially the evil stalker bitch who wants one of the guys and will stop at nothing to get him. Don’t get me started on that one, I could rant all day. A woman character can be used as the villain of course, but some more interesting motivations would be good to see. Other than Evil Stalker Bitch Who Will Stop at Nothing, there’s homophobic mother, bitter ex-wife and of course “girlfriend” in the non-sexual sense, but rather in the Eating Ice Cream and Bemoaning Our Love Lives sense. She at least is a sympathetic character.
Of course women characters have been badly written for many years and in every genre available and not only by bad writers. And they’re also judged more harshly by readers. It’s amazing how much hatred I can see for a female character who’s maybe no worse than the male characters in the same story. (I’m looking at you, Twilight haters.) Is that a reflection of society as a whole? People are harsher on women who transgress or are deemed too pushy than men who act the same.
I see many readers say one of the reasons they like m/m romance is because of the lack of women characters. They say they’ve never read a woman character they liked or could relate to. But is invisibility the answer? Aside from in certain specific settings and situations society is made up of men and women. People encounter and have to deal with that on a daily basis. Even if a man chooses to mix only with men he’ll still encounter women. If he apparently can’t deal with them he can come across as either a misogynist or emotionally stunted – generally neither of those are very attractive.
They can work if they fit the character and his background – say Orlando Coppersmith in Charlie Cochrane’s Cambridge Mysteries. He is kind of emotionally stunted, at least at first and women are a mystery to him because of his sheltered life and the time period. In that case it works, but try it in a contemporary and it could come over as rather creepy.
One book that sets up a situation where there are virtually no women around at all is J.L. Langley’s My Fair Captain. Now don’t get me wrong, I like this book – a m/m Regency Romance in Space, how could I not? But the way their society works means that while there were women on the planet they were only in the lower classes, not the nobility, the people in charge. Women were entirely excluded from having any power. They don’t even have the unofficial means women have had for centuries of influencing or even manipulating their husbands and sons. It’s an enjoyable story, but that aspect niggles at me, even though it’s of little relevance to the story – I mean, it’s a m/m Regency Romance in space, I may be reading too much into its socio-political ramifications when I should be watching the guys taking their clothes off.
I like to use women characters. To me they give a more natural feel to the story. In Liar’s Waltz I have Karl’s friend Deb, a police officer. I deliberately avoided any Eating Ice Cream and Bemoaning Our Love Lives scenes, since a) they wouldn’t fit Karl, b) a cop with a bad love life is a cliché all by itself and c) Deb probably has a perfectly good love life on a space station where the ratio of men to women is around 3:1! In Stowaway – querying soon! – there are women characters around. One of them becomes a close friend to one of the heroes. But one of the heroes does fall into the category of men who are bit unsure around women. I try to convey this as being from his background in the military rather than him thinking girls have cooties.
But am I shooting myself in the foot by including women characters in important supporting roles in my books, since lots of m/m readers claim to hate all women characters? I’m certainly not going to start writing them only as Evil Stalker Bitches Who Will Stop at Nothing (though I will write them as villains sometimes) I’d hate myself for that. But should I have fewer of them around, or have women been invisible long enough?
Misogyny in a character is okay – I mean I won’t like them for it, but characters will sometimes have attitudes and ideas I don’t like. That’s fine. But when the book itself seems to support those ideas it’s got a good chance of becoming a wall banger for me.