We had some thought provoking comments on yesterday's blog ;-) as well as a great discussion on Facebook. The three questions we threw out to readers were:
1 – Do you believe a relationship can survive infidelity?
2 – Do you have personal experience with infidelity?
3 – Barring murder, can you think of a worse “relationship crime” than infidelity?
Share your thoughts in the comment section below and you'll automatically be entered in the giveaway for one of five audio book download codes from Audible.com (good for any of my titles--including the brand spankin' new The Magician Murders narrated by the wonderful Kale Williams).
So here we go!
JL – I’m entirely in agreement about most readers probably preferring their protagonists’ flaws to be of the romantic variety. Like those old Mills & Boons where the hero was temporarily blinded or paralyzed and was a complete asshole because of it (but then luckily ended up with a miracle cure anyway, so no worries!) Addiction and alcoholism is a harder sell—and I’m in agreement on that; I will almost never read a book where the protag is struggling with addiction or alcoholism (although I’ve got no problem writing such a book). I suspect readers would prefer to read about a recovering sex addict than a guy who deliberately and in full control of his senses (if not body parts) chooses to be unfaithful. Thoughts?
DM - I think you’re right. Many readers would prefer to read about recovering sex addicts and recovering drug and alcohol addicts than, as you say, someone who cheats ‘in full control of his senses.’ But again, as I said in the piece, maybe that’s because the flaws we accept in our romance heroes almost require the hero not to be responsible as it were? An addiction is something the hero cant help – it’s an illness (like those Mills and Boon heroes), though done well and with an attention to the psychology, it can be great (I just read a really great one). I’d say though, addiction isn’t a flaw in a hero, so much as a hurdle the couple have to overcome to be together? Cheating is an active flaw. I’d liken it more in Romance hero-active flaw-dom to being an assassin or a ruthless slave owner. Just, as I said, less acceptable.
The cheating I was talking about though wouldn’t be ‘I fancy a fling with that very attractive person’ but, for example ‘I’m terrified of where this relationship is going and how much I’m feeling, so I’m going to sabotage it’ or ‘I’m miserable and unhappy and so I’m succumbing to temptation’ – both scenarios which would create intense, genuine regret in the culprit and punishment would be losing something they realize too late they cant bear to lose. They made a Big Mistake but they made it as adults. Hence they’d have to face up to consequences. That’s what I meant about a redemption arc.
Of course, in reality, that’s a romantic best-case take on cheating, but Id suggest so is every other scenario we talk about in Romance books, like addiction. Again that my big question -- if we can romanticize The Mafia, assassination, slavery, rape, torture and personality breakdown, why cant we romanticize infidelity?
JL – It occurs to me that infidelity is probably more forgivable depending on subgenre. For example, it’s rarely a deal-breaker in mystery. Meaning mystery readers might not like it, but they won’t refuse to read the book. And in historical or, better yet, spec fiction, it’s probably not nearly as problematical as it is in contemporary romance.
Anyway, harkening back to your essay, ludicrous misunderstandings aside, I will say that inability to communicate is one of the most realistic problems any couple can face, but that comes more from styles of communication, including the inability to listen properly—which is tied up in personal history and sometimes education and experience. When I read a story where two men are struggling to make the other understand, I really do sympathize. It can be hard to be honest and vulnerable, even with the people you love most.
DM -Yeah I do agree. That’s actually not that common a trope in Romance is it? I mean that ‘trying to make the other understand’ but failing. It’s not really ‘romantic’ as issues go – and in real life, as you say, it often doesn’t go away for the HEA.
JL – I kind of divide readers into two camps. (Well, three camps if we include readers just skimming for sex scenes. ;-D) One camp has trouble believing in happy endings if the problems between the main characters are sufficiently painful and realistic. It doesn’t matter how much relationship work the couple does, these readers always have trouble believing anyone could surmount big issues like…infidelity. Heck, these readers have trouble with even the suggestion of infidelity, say a kiss that shouldn’t have happened. The second camp are the readers who, like you and me, enjoy the struggle to achieve that happy ending. In fact, I prefer those stories because to me the couple has been tested through fire and their love is triumphant.
DM - Yes again totally agree! Lisa Horan at The Novel Approach said in her review of Object of Desire I write ‘Genre Non Conforming Romance’ which was a revelation because-- who knew? She wasn’t talking about cheating there--there isn’t actually any cheating in OOD or BL. But--she’s right I think. That’s what I’ve been writing without realizing it, and perhaps what you wrote, more bravely with Jake Riordan in the brilliant Adrien English series?
The second part of the audience you mentioned which includes you and I, may be more open to that kind of story? We value the struggle and a real fight for a happy ending.
But I also think people are right to say that Romance is a unique genre in that there is a kind of contract with the reader. Many people read it to relax--for the joy and security of knowing what’s coming. That’s what the contract is. And I totally get that and understand the sucker punch of being dragged out of that comfort when you didn’t want or expect it, and get given something different that you didn’t want. I didn’t mean to bend the rules of the contract guys! It just keeps happening…
JL – One hundred percent in agreement that, when a book is labeled genre fiction—and regardless of what that genre is—there is an implicit understanding that writers will abide by the terms of the “contract” formed with the reader. If the book is labeled Western, there is an expectation of cowboys. If the book is labeled Mystery, there is an expectation of detecting—and a solution. If the book is labeled romance, there is an expectation of true love and a Happy Ever After.
What’s less clear, in fact, what I find fascinating is how “infidelity” can be defined, depending on the reader. As mentioned above, there are readers who get angry if the hero exchanges a kiss or even considers fooling around. Now in real life, these things happen. They just do. And that should be the point. Moral fortitude is tested by resisting temptation, not by never being tempted. It’s like courage. Courage is how you behave under fire, not being blind to a real and present danger. Also I notice timing is very important to some readers. I had a character break off his relationship over the phone and then go have sex with his romantic interest. One reader was troubled by this “infidelity.” To me, infidelity would have been not breaking the relationship off. As far as I know there is no official wait period once you’ve ended things.
DM - That’s a great point. The comfort zone in defining ‘cheating’ differs. For some it’s lying and betraying. That’s pretty clear. But as you say, for others it’s more… zero tolerance than that? I’m thinking of Jason in The Monet Murders – he didn’t half get it in the neck for a one night stand, even though Sam had broken up with him. He was hurt, he was trying to distract himself, he was being human. But there’s an element of ‘he has no business being human--he’s in a romance book’. Same with Ben in Bitter Legacy and Tom in Object of Desire. It’s how far Romance readers are prepared to tolerate that kind of ‘humanity’ in their heroes. I come from a fanfic tradition as you know and it’s definitely redder in emotional tooth and claw there. Maybe MM Romance comes more from MF romance? Maybe it’s evolving into a hybrid of both? Or maybe not?
Actually, on this point, I read recently that there’s a sneak Third Romance Rule (after 1-Happ ending 2- No Cheating) that readers expect to be followed. Maybe that’s what’s in play here. The love interests must not have sex with anyone else after they meet in the book, even if they’re in sexual relationships with other people when they do meet. This applies even if they don’t commit to each other for some time in the book. For some readers, a character breaking that rule is tacit cheating (even if its awkward to call it that)- as Jason, Ben and Tom discovered. I crashed through that one in both books without knowing it existed.
JL – Yeah, I would have to say that third rule is more of a guideline. 😉 If not outright wishful thinking. That said, I’m in complete agreement with your observations on inveterate cheaters. It’s one thing for extreme circumstances to result in a Big Mistake. The inability to resist any temptation…that’s just...ugh. Whether it’s gluttony or sloth or promiscuity or an addiction to QVC, the inability to control one’s self is something as a society we really, really look down on. We don’t like weak willed people, so fair enough that horn-doggery should be condemned in romance.
DM - Yeah I’m with you on that. I talk big about realistic flaws but in the end, we are talking… carefully chosen flaws. An inveterate cheat is pretty unattractive imo and one of the most unromantic concepts out there. Personally, as a reader, I can’t deal with consensual non-monogamy as an endgame in Romance, so I’m marshmallow to the my core.
One thing I’d possibly quibble on is promiscuity as a plot choice (if it’s not some sort of compulsion I mean). Ben in BL used promiscuity deliberately as a defensive barrier against any romantic commitment and an emotional distraction for himself–it was a choice, not a compulsion or a helpless need for rampant sex with lots of men. A lot of readers though were very sure that he could never change his spots because promiscuity is looked at compulsive like inveterate cheating–an inability to resist any temptation.
JL – Oh, definitely! Plus, Ben was NOT in a committed relationship. When you’re young and single, is fooling around a lot genuinely promiscuous or is it just…normal male-in-his-sexual-prime behavior?
DM - So I think maybe there can be nuance. Ben for example, now he’s found someone who fits so perfectly what he wants and needs, will be compulsively faithful. Tom uses sex as part of an avoidance of commitment, sometimes as an avoidance of confrontation or loss.
On the whole though, yeah – pffft to horndoggery!
JL – You wrote: ‘Redemption and Forgiveness. Genuine mistakes, genuine regret. All are powerful drivers of romance for me’.
Ding Ding Ding!!! This. Like you, physical torture, abuse…that’s a no can do for me. A bad man on his knees? (Er… ) That’s romance.
DM - It really is. That’s putting it…perfectly!
Faithful reader, what do YOU think? Comment below!
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