But What About The Womenz
A few weeks back, I asked what sort of topics you’d be interesting in seeing us cover here at Tea Time, and Judith from I Love Ya and Kat the Glitter Pirate (thank you Judith and Kat!) suggested we should look at the role of women in m/m – as characters, that is, not writers or readers.
So I’m really excited to be joined today by Jordan L Hawk and KJ Charles, both of whom are pretty well-established as writing not only awesome queer romances, but queer romances stuff full of equally awesome secondary characters. Many of those being of the female persuasion.
AJH: Thank you both joining me 🙂
JLH: Thanks for inviting me!
KJC: I’m very excited, I love this feature on Prism.
AJH: So, I guess the broad topic is the role of female characters in m/m specifically, since het and f/f obviously centralise women by default but m/m … um … by default tends to exclude them.
KJC: You’re trying not to say ‘sausage party’ but it won’t work.
AJH I made it! After about eighty attempts.
KJC: I feel in general a bit odd about any sort of romance that is very exclusive of a group without a reason. I mean, f/f in a nunnery, you’re not going to see men, and vice versa if it’s a group of firefighters on retreat. But otherwise…most of us live in worlds with friends and families. And there’s something weird when fictional worlds are entirely one-sexed or one race or one anything.
JLH: What KJC said. We’ve all read books where the main character felt like he was special-ordered from the prop department, with no hint he had a life before the book, or has any interests outside of what the romance plot requires. But that isn’t real life. We all have friends, co-workers, family members, whatever. Some of those are bound to be female, and excluding them makes the main character feel less real to me.
KJC: Absolutely. Less real, but also…there was at one point, less now, quite a virulent strand of misogyny in m/m. If you got a woman she was a bitch ex or a vicious hag of a mother, etc. And that was weird and hateful, and I think part of the increased representation of women as characters is a reaction to that.
AJH: I’m not defending the Hateful Woman trope because, no, but if we exclude internalised misogyny as a driving factor I do wonder if it’s an issue of agency. The problem, to me, is not the quantity or the presence of women–obviously queer men have women in their lives who are important to them–but what the women do. In the fictional sense. Because the problem with ‘supportive friend’ or ‘wonderful mother’ is that they’re inherently passive roles (in ways they’re obviously not in real life because your supportive friend is a real person with their own stuff going on). Whereas at least vicious ex or life-ruining parent can have direct narrative impact.
KJC: Well, it depends on the support! In Jordan’s Whyborne & Griffin series, Christine is an equal partner in the team. She’s not the focus but you could totally rewrite the books from a different POV as The Adventures of Christine with the cute supporting character gay couple. (And I kind of wish you would.) That’s the point: does the character have their own life and story that just isn’t centre stage?
JLH: Now you sound like my mother. “Why can’t you write a book about Christine?” ;P
I was actually going to mention Heliabel, because Christine has…I don’t want to say “obvious” agency because it’s not, she could have just been “sassy best friend,” but given the times and circumstances Heliabel has lived a very restricted life, and it was important to me to make sure she used the agency she had, if that makes sense.
And to use an example from KJC’s work, Fen and Pat in Think of England could have just been “background lesbians” but they save the heroes’ bacon at the end big time.
KJC: Background lesbian is my new career goal.
JLH: The name of my next band.
KJC: It’s the agency you have. And a character doesn’t have to be good to be a good representation of women. I am bang alongside female villains, as long as they have valid reasons and aren’t just being bitches because ovaries. Women can be evil world-dominators too, you know.
AJH: Again, I think it comes down to context – as you say, there can be something very equalising and potentially empowering about interesting female antagonists. But since there are fewer women in general in m/m you still get into this awkward loop whereby it would theoretically cool to have an Evil Woman but, in practice, that means one of your perhaps two female characters is eating the scenery and destroying things.
KJC: Well, the only significant woman in Magpie Lord is a really evil villain. But a) she’s not the only villain, and b) as the series progresses you get two very strong women on the side of right. I never felt that I was letting the side down with Lady Bruton, but did it come across that way to you?
AJH: Not to me. I actually didn’t notice she was the only woman which is clearly a very special level of obliviousness on my part.
KJC: She’s not the only one but she has far the most page time.
JLH: Not at all; I thought she was wonderfully villainous. And she definitely had agency and used it for her own goals!
AJH: Hmm, maybe it’s about … broader social roles, then? Since Villain is essentially gender-neutral. Whereas Evil Ex Wife or Bad Mother are social stereotypes linked specifically to relationship with (and affect on) male characters.
KJC: Yes. I think as soon as you’re saying ‘this character is, first and foremost, female,” rather than ‘the best friend’ or ‘a traitor’ or whatever, you risk putting them into a limited box.
JLH: My favorite villain that I’ve personally written so far, to be honest, is Daphne in Necropolis. Because it would have been really easy to make her a victim. This poor woman who has gone through hell, and is possessed by outside forces and re-victimized, blah blah blah. So I worked really hard to not take away her agency. She made horrible choices, but they were her choices.
KJC: I defend women’s rights to make terrible choices and take over the world TO THE DEATH.
JLH: I mean, the heroes even show up thinking they’re going to “save her” at one point, and she freaking puts them in her place. She doesn’t want saving, and she doesn’t need it. She made her decisions and is actively enraged that anyone would try to take that away from her.
KJC: I think it’s possible that authors in m/m can sometimes concentrate so strongly on presenting a gay or queer main couple that women get, kind of, left at the bus stop. It’s hard to be intersectional. It’s not the focus. Perhaps we should be able to consider all our characters and representation, but it just doesn’t always happen.
JLH: Right. As writers it’s easy to get caught up in the main plot and characters and sort start treating the secondary characters as those props I mentioned before. Things that exist only to forward the plot. And I think it’s important, not just when writing women characters, but any character, to try to make them feel like these are people with their own inner lives and stories, even if that isn’t the main focus of the novel.
KJC: YES YES YES. I have a thing I do, which is to basically tell myself the story from their point of view. Like ‘The Adventures of Christine’. It might be ‘the story of the windwalking girl who falls for an older man who works for this really tall scary guy’ or ‘the adventures of the policeman who comes in at the edge of this weird-ass case and wishes he hadn’t’. It might have very little to do with the book on page. But if you know how the events are happening from their perspective, their appearance will be rounded and their reactions real.
KJC: she alliterated.
AJH: Yes, exactly. I wonder, weirdly, if the issues or, at least, the challenges are more evident in contemporaries compared to other subgenres. I mean, in historicals, queer characters are exceptionally socially vulnerable. And when Cthulhu is waking, it’s all hands on deck. But when there’s just a love story there… even if you put all the thought and effort in the world into ‘Sister Who Has A Gay Brother Complicatedly Getting Off With A Guy With a Tragic Past’ or whatever, it’s harder to convey that sense of agency and … fully roundedness…being … (yes, those are words)
KJC: I get that. If it’s literally a romance between two people, without external adventures, there’s not so much space for anyone else to shine.
AJH: I confess a private bugbear and it’s no one book or group of books in particular is … the m/m contemp where the two guys are literally unable to get it together without direct third party intervention. I”m sure it’s about giving secondary characters something to do, but ye gods, if you need ASSISTANCE maybe you shouldn’t be dating.
JLH: LOL, seriously! Thinking about it…this example may not really count because it’s thriller not romance, but a great example of a character who feels very well-rounded even though she’s not part of the main action is the sister-in-law in Rhys Ford’s Cole McGuinness series. She’s never involved in the thriller parts, but the little glimpses you get of her–that she’s had both legs partially amputated, that she’s a runner, other things–give you a great sense of “here is an interesting person who obviously has her own story.” She never feels like a prop.
AJH: I think we should probably be wrapping up so you two can get on with your lives again but, before we do and since you’ve already started, do we have any recs for m/m with strong secondary female characters?
JLH: Anything by Rhys Ford–all of her secondary characters tend to be memorable, and the women doubly so. Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series has several fantastic female characters.
KJC: AMy Jo Cousins’ brilliant Off Campus has a wonderful secondary character who gets her own book, The Girl Next Door, after two m/m books. Which is exactly our point about characters who could be the centre of the story, and hopefully the more m/m m/f f/f crossover series we see, the more we’ll get.
AJH: That would be completely awesome. I’d love to see more of that. Anyway, thank you both for joining me. This was really great.
JLH: Thank you so much for having us! 😀
About Alexis Hall
About KJ Charles
KJ writes mostly romance, gay and straight, frequently historical, and usually with some fantasy or horror in there.
Find her on Twitter @kj_charles or on Facebook, join her Facebook group, or email kjcharleswriter[at] . She is represented by Deidre Knight at The Knight Agency, and published by Samhain and, in 2015, Loveswept (Penguin Random House).
About Jordan L Hawk
Jordan L. Hawk grew up in North Carolina and forgot to ever leave. Childhood tales of mountain ghosts and mysterious creatures gave her a life-long love of things that go bump in the night. When she isn’t writing, she brews her own beer and tries to keep her cats from destroying the house. Her best-selling Whyborne & Griffin series (beginning with Widdershins) can be found in print, ebook, and audiobook at Amazon and other online retailers.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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