Gay romance fiction

Dark Matters: cultivating creative cruelty in romance fiction

by Damon Suede


Romance writers are sadists at heart. They have to be, because romance needs genuine suffering to produce the transformations and emotion that make for memorable reading. Sure…romance authors need to love their characters, but even more essential is the capacity for extended imaginary sadism that’s pushes beyond the box. If we can admit that bad stuff happens to good people, then really hideous misfortunes happen to great people...and romance characters need to (by all accounts) seem doomed from the get-go. 

Depression, disaster, and disillusionment are the secret throbbing heart of romantic fantasy. As Hitchcock once pointed out, “The stronger the evil, the stronger the film.” While it may seem obvious to apply that rule to the crime genre or action-adventure, darkness is the mainspring of all stories: fear, anger, brutality, and deceit. Think I’m bonkers? Look to the personal suffering that drives your people and the bigger shadows cloaking their world. In a real sense, the thing that makes romance compelling is not the happiness of its ending but the gloom that make that ending possible and satisfying.

Every love story has a painful core that makes its pleasure possible.

Haven’t we made the McRomance mistake at some point? One of the most common traps for young romance writers is to invent two dazzling protagonists, concoct a saucy meet-cute and then let them have exactly what they want as they march in lockstep to their predetermined life as cheerful automatons…which is about as entertaining as watching oatmeal simmer. Without highs and lows, grist and grit, nothing can one can changes… Hell, without friction even SEX doesn’t feel good.

The thing is, for a romance to feel satisfying, protagonists need to change and develop, and in fiction (as in life) real growth is never a cakewalk. Who’s gonna take your hero’s epiphany seriously if it doesn’t come with a cost and a real impetus? Certainly no reader who has ever faced adversity, that is to say, anyone who has ever drawn breath. To get your characters out of their status quo you have to hit them where they live and hit hard. Destroy their old selves so that their new selves can emerge, together. The satisfaction in romance fiction is not that the ending is happy, but that it overcomes overwhelming odds by unlikely people.

To put it another way: love stories are unleashed not by license, but limitations.

Take a look at your work-in-progress. All catastrophes are not created equal and every story deserves its own distinct shading. It’s up to you to determine the lower limit you’re willing to broach: whether it’s cutting glances from trusted friends or madwomen in attics. The dark patches don’t have to be violent or event depressing, but they need to provide chiaroscuro for your fictional folks. Evil produces context and sets up the limits of the world you’re building. The personal voids within each character draws on the powerful forces shadowing the book and vice versa. What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to your characters and how soon can you make it happen? I’m only half-joking.

In the weakest romance fiction, perfect couples amble through a few mild complications before snicking into place like a greased lock. In essence these books telegraph their endings from page one, not because they end happily but because they start happily and stay that way for long stretches. A jog through the daisies, as some folks would have it…contentment but not joy. Most books that fail for me blow it by wrapping all their characters in cotton wool and completely skipping the kind of “Dark night of the Soul” that might transform the protagonists and their world.

Love hurts.

Think back over romance novels you’ve loved or the genre-defining books that drive our industry. The most unforgettable stories and characters spring from crushing opposition. What we remember about romance novels is the darkness that drives them. Three hundred pages of folks being happy together makes for a hefty sleeping pill, but three hundred pages of a couple finding a way to be happy in the face of impossible odds makes our hearts soar. In darkness, we are all alone.

So don’t just make love, make anguish for your characters. As you structure a story, don’t satisfy your hero’s desires, thwart them. Make sure your solutions create new problems. Nurture your characters doubts and despair. Make them earn the happy ending they want, even better…make them deserve it. Delay and disappointment charge situations and validate character growth.  Misery accompanies love. It’s no accident that many of the stories we think of as timeless romances in Western Literature are fiercely tragic: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Cupid and Psyche… the pain in them drags us back again and again, hoping that this time we’ll find a way out of the dark.

Only if you let your characters get lost will we get lost in them. And that, more than anything else, is what romance can and should do for its protagonists and its readers: lead us through the labyrinth, skirt the monstrous despair roaming its halls, and find our way into daylight.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2012. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as a "lecture" for Romance University.

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