Gettin' Fighty

Sometimes it's hard to draw a line between writing healthy relationships, realistic relationships, and the sort of conflict-based relationships that are crucial for page-turning fiction.

Let me give you an example with some mild spoilers. In Bad Judgment, my two heroes get into an argument. They're both tired and pissed off and neither one is getting what he wants from the other and they're too emotionally involved at this point to walk away. Neither one has any good options. There's no obviously right answer. It's just a shitty situation and they don't know how to handle it.

So what happens? They yell at each other. One of them slams a door open without really meaning to. They get to a point where they both feel that a line is about to be crossed, and they back off and do something different.

This is one of those moments that, as a writer, I thought about a lot. Not only because it was an important turning point in the plot but because I suspected that someone might get upset about it. And a few folks did. Not unreasonably.

Yelling is a big thing. Most people who've been yelled at in relationships realize that it can be a big red flag for later abusive behavior, and while the stats on men abusing women are a lot scarier, anyone can abuse anyone, regardless of gender and orientation. The fact that both my heroes are men doesn't mean abuse can't happen, and yelling is still a red flag.

Does everyone who yells hit? Of course not. Does everyone who slams a door manipulate and name call? Obviously not. But many readers--particularly readers who've been through this sort of thing--see yelling and door slamming as a bad sign, and I totally get that. It's a fact.

I want to model healthy relationships in my books. I'm not one of those readers who thinks back on the romance novels (and TV shows and movies) of the 80's and 90's with warm fuzzies. In way too many of them, emotional manipulation and abuse and rape are portrayed as romantic. As someone who read that shit through my formative years, let me just say that it took a long time for me to get some of that crap out of my head and out of my relationships. So yeah, I think it's important that romance novels say here, this is what's really ideal, this is what's actually romantic, you can have higher expectations for your partners.

But the opposite extreme can be just as tricky. Fiction where people always do the right thing and never have bad, stupid, or mean thoughts is, in my opinion, preachy, unrealistic and fucking boring. The reality is that we weren't all raised with parents who modeled healthy disagreement skills for us. Some of us have better emotional control than others. And personally, I like messy people who are imperfect. I like people who don't always know how to express themselves. I don't mind yelling every once in a rare while, because I'm less concerned with volume than I am with tone and content and word choice. That's why Brogan yelling about being frustrated and scared that Embry was hurt didn't cross a line for me, although your mileage may vary. I like people who don't all fight like they've had conflict resolution training, both because the vast majority of people haven't, and because it can be good to see couples model getting better at fighting. 

Which is something Embry and Brogan do over the course of the book. In fact, by the end, they're both so fucking grown-up it's almost sickening. 

But I'm working on Ghost's book now, and Ghost makes Brogan at his worst look like an after-school special. Hell, Ghost makes Embry look like an after-school special, and Embry's no cupcake. Ghost isn't someone who yells, but what he does is far worse. Let's call a spade a spade; Ghost is capable of real meanness. He's manipulative. He lies. He doesn't mind hurting people, and at times in the past, he has actively enjoyed doing so. It is entirely in character for him to do things which, to some readers, will be unforgivable. And while he needs to learn how to be better and he will--it's kind of a theme in this series--at the same time, people are who they are. He's never going to be selfless or kind or gentle. He's capable of doing selfless, kind, or gentle things, but doing isn't necessarily being. 

He has very good reasons to be the way he is, although I'm not sure how far mitigating factors go to excuse bad behavior. He recognizes that he's not a good person. He's capable of being better and is even willing to try, which in my mind is the line between an antihero and a villain. None of us is raised to be perfect. We're all works in progress. We learn and improve, and that means that characters who do stupid or mean things but are trying can still be worthy of love. That's a comfort to me--as someone who isn't perfect at all--but some folks find it really upsetting. They see it as rewarding or excusing bad behavior, and that's a valid perspective too.

It's a tricky line to walk without tipping over. How much wobbling can Ghost do before readers won't forgive him?


I guess we're gonna find out.