“To our wives and sweethearts—may they never meet!”
–Captain Jack Aubrey (Traditional toast in His Majesty’s Navy)
“The society of well-educated ladies is sure to add dignity and refinement to the character of a young man. Without such society his manners can never acquire the true polish of a gentleman, nor his mind and heart the noblest and truest sentiments of a man.”
–The Young Man’s Own Book, A Manual of Politeness, Intellectual Development, and Moral Deportment, Calculated to Form the Character on a Solid Basis and to Assure Respectability and Success in Life. Key, Mielke, and Biddle, 1832.
The book’s title is only ten words shorter than the advice, but this excellent resource for writers of fiction set in the 19th-century spends a chapter extolling the virtues of the fair sex and the importance of treating them with the proper respect, always bearing in mind the desirability of holy wedlock.
So where does that leave a writer whose protagonists are men – and gay men, at that – who see wedlock as a consummation devoutly to be avoided?
The Young Man’s Own Book says, “The influence of the female sex on a young man must be something, may be much….” and I think that goes for gentlemen of either persuasion. The stereotype of a homosexual male as a man who hates women does, like all stereotypes, probably hold true for a few individuals. On the other hand, men whose emotional character is defined by hatred are not the most sympathetic candidates for the starring role in a romance.
But love of one gender doesn’t require hatred of the other. As people operating in human society, gay characters would at least have to interact with mothers, sisters, and other female relatives. Given social expectations, they might also have wives… in many cases, women they may have married before they were even aware of their same-sex inclinations. Oscar Wilde is probably the most well-known example, but others can be found in abundance in the headlines even today, often claiming that they’re not gay at all.
Of course, in a gay love story, women may be peripheral characters, if they appear at all. But writing about men who love other men doesn’t mean that women can or should be ignored or treated badly. So many of us who write m/m romance are women ourselves, it would require an odd sort of self-loathing to bash female characters, and it would be weak craftsmanship in any case.
So what’s different about writing a female character? Or, at least, what do I find different?
Apart from the plumbing… not all that much. And the best way I can think of to illustrate how the process works for me is to use a couple of examples from my stories.
One caveat: I must admit I write from the perspective of a born tomboy. I think of myself as a human being first and a woman second, and I expect any character I write to behave in a humanly reasonable way (except, as Mark Twain might say, in the case of lunatics.) In many historical settings, a woman has fewer options than a man, but that’s no reason to assume she has less intelligence or less nerve. Anybody willing to say “I do” and risk the horrors of septic childbirth is not, in my opinion, lacking in courage.
I haven’t yet written a story where one of my characters finds himself with both a male lover and a wife, and the shipboard romance of the Ransom universe seldom allowed much room for the ladies. But their influence does appear – in David Archer’s first ill-chosen romance with a girl below his social station that precipitated his entry into the Navy, in his correspondence with his mother and sisters, even in the Christmas gift he gives his lover—warm woolens knitted by those ladies and sent in quantities that far exceed his own needs. What we see, reflected in his attitude, is a general liking and respect for women and concern for their welfare. The odd son out, bookish, intelligent, and considerably more sensitive than his father, Davy’s affectionate nature was shaped by his mother and elder sisters. We don’t actually meet the ladies in Ransom or Winds of Change, but a few of them will appear eventually.
David’s cousin Christopher is more conventionally appreciative of female charms; his love story is told in my novella “See Paris and Live,” in the trilogy Sail Away, which also features Will and David some time before they’ve become lovers. Writing the heroine, Zoe Colbert, was a bit of a challenge. She was a French girl, gently reared; to make her a strong character in her own right, able to take the huge step of making herself known to a strange gentleman, took some consideration and a little more deliberate construction of background and motivation.
Christopher—Kit—needed a wife who was respectable enough to marry a Baron and be able to execute the responsibilities required of that position. And she had to be resourceful, intelligent, and capable—as well as willing to take chances—because his life would depend on her intervention at a critical point. So I put her in the position of being mistress of her father’s house, her mother having died when Zoe was younger; this allowed her to be comfortable with making decisions, at least routine ones. Since her father was a doctor (again, to save Kit’s life) she was not unfamiliar with life-and-death crises. She was also a girl living through the convulsions of a society tearing itself apart and attempting to re-form, in the literal sense. I felt that the extraordinary times could provide enough of a push to make her take chances she never would have ordinarily. With death a possibility at any time, and the young men she’d known dead or vanished, she had motivation enough for her to reach out to Kit when he crossed her path. A girl—or boy!—who doesn’t expect to live long enough to grow up is more likely to take a risk for even brief happiness. And a hero(ine) has to have the courage to make a leap of faith.
Kit himself turned out to be the kind of young man who really needed a strong partner—he’s young, only 18, so he had time to grow up during the course of the story. He was not, at its beginning, his own master. His ill-fated trip to France was on his mother’s orders, and she’s a forceful character within her own domain.
Constructing the dowager Baroness was interesting. I didn’t want to make her just a caricature of the clueless upper-class lady, but for the sake of the plot she had to nag Kit into a trip to France that he really should not have attempted. Why did she do that, if not on a silly feminine whim? Well, she was concerned about maintaining her hospitality. War with France would cut off supplies of wine and spirits, and she did not want to patronize smugglers if she could avoid it. I thought this could be a legitimate concern for someone whose occupation in large part consisted of organizing social affairs. Sheltered from politics as many women were, she could very well be ignorant of the danger she was sending her son into. Her more irritating feature—her insistence that Kit marry and produce an heir as soon as possible—was also understandable given the social structure. Protecting the succession, through her son, was also part of her job—and the only thing preventing her eviction from the place that had been her home since she married Kit’s (deceased) father.
For a minor character, the Dowager required a lot of underpinning. And with all those annoying traits, she had to have a redeeming one, so I made her marriage to her late husband a real love match—something that Kit was influenced by, something he wanted for himself. That worked out well in the overall story arc, too—when Kit has found love with Zoe, it gives him the insight to recognize a similar connection between his cousin David and Will Marshall, and motivates him to give them a precious space of time together at his estate in the West Indies, in Winds. This may be an unusual attitude for the era… but no individual can be totally defined by his (or her) society. If a clergyman could bless gay couples—and there was one such known at the time—then why couldn’t Kit recognize that his favorite cousin had found love with an unconventional partner?
In my new novella “Gentleman’s Gentleman,” I’ve given my hero Lord Robert Scoville another managing mother—but though he loves her, he’s a younger son, he has no obligation to secure the succession, and he knows what a disaster it would be for him to marry. “I can’t bear the idea of marrying a woman I dislike just to satisfy my family. And tying myself to an unsuspecting woman that I did like—like, not love—would make two people miserable.” (His soon-to-be lover, Jack, is enormously relieved to hear this!) But Robert does recognize that his mother is acting out of concern for his well-being, so he and Jack come up with a creative way to discourage her matchmaking.
In today’s terms, I suppose Lord Robert would be at the far end of the Kinsey scale—absolutely uninterested in women—whereas David Archer would probably be near the middle (his first attraction was to a woman) but slightly more attracted to men. As for Will Marshall… he’s smack in the middle. Will, I think, fell in love with Davy because no one had ever loved him before and he’d been in the company of men all his life. He’d had a brief attachment to a girl, in his teens, but he never got up the nerve to do anything about it. I’m not sure whether Will would’ve wound up as happily married as Captain Smith if things had not gone pear-shaped when he and Davy were kidnapped. I think both the Ransom boys are functionally bisexual but basically monogamous—content with a single relationship. (Again, that’s my own perspective seeping into my characters—if my wife had been male, we’d have kids in college by now.) Of course, Will’s going to have his ideas of monogamy challenged in the next couple of books… with both sexes. Poor baby. He never met a woman as sweet and smart and interesting as Davy is – not yet. But that’s another story.
So to get back on topic and finish up, the most significant thing I’ve found about writing women in a m/m universe is that it just takes a little more time and attention. I think any woman can identify with that—any woman who’s ever tried to get a degree in a “man’s” field, land a job in an occupation that is generally considered a man’s domain—in fact, to accomplish anything and be taken seriously in a world, past or present, where men are expected to look for action and adventure and the ladies are expected to be the trophy for the alpha male. Writing complete, believable women in gay romance is more or less dancing like Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards – and in high heels. It may not be easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort.