Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Road to Flawdom...

David and Bathsheba

She broke your throne, and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah....     --- Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen

Something about Leonard Cohen's song, Hallelujah, breaks my heart. The lyrics are raw, pure, and nearly double me over with emotion. It's a lament of pain, disappointment, and things not so pretty in relationships.

Much of the lyrics, such as, I've heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord...and...You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you...and especially, the baffled king composing Hallelujah give me the impression of---because they seem to speak of King David---themes of seduction, temptation, betrayal, lust and...cheating. Infidelity.

Which strikes a chord in me, as an author, regarding my recent struggles to meld myself into the romanctic genres, the traditional guidelines of romance writing.

I'd been advised that, when it was hinted that the hero in my novel had cheated, readers don't like cheaters.

Readers don't like...

Last week I wrote about romance guidelines. Not only in m/m fiction (which my book happens to be), but in all romance genres...m/f as well.

So this is, I suppose you could call it, phase two of my grappling with writing in the real world. That world beyond writing for fun like I used to do in the old days. In the days of yore, when I first began to write, my characters could do anything they pleased because nobody could see them except me. They were protected by that wonderful privacy shield of writing-just-for-me.

Now, it's beyond the guideline phase and into issues with what readers do and don't like.

And it is confusing. It is intimidating.

Readers DO, overwhelmingly, like flawed characters. The demand is for flawed characters. These flaws often include bitter dispositions, substance abuse, issues of past abuse which turn them into angry individuals, selling themselves for sex, using other characters to get what they want, physical handicaps. Sometimes even just plain creeps for no good reason. And the list goes on.


The one flaw, one of the most common and emotional imperfections in the world of relationships---cheating---is, I am told, often taboo to write. The never-never-land of writing, the forbidden zone. It's not always avoided, of course, but it is a touchy subject matter.

Once, during a discussion on a forum, a heated debate erupted over the subject, with the majority rising up in arms over cheating main characters. The debate became vicious, names were called, cuss words flying like crazy. It was a hot, hot, hot button. The voice was clear, the people had spoken: NO CHEATING in romance fiction.

Which brings me back to Kind David. An icon in religion, a renowned man of valor and passion in history, a powerful king, a poet, a lover, a husband, a father, a...cheater.

Wait. It gets worse. Not only did David lust for a married woman, but his passion drove him to commit the hugest crime of all---he had Bathsheba's husband murdered. Talk about drama. But it was real. It was no make-believe fictional novel, it was real life.

Cheating. On a big scale.

And yet? David is beloved in history. His poetry, The Psalms, are revered. History adores the man. David was even called a man after God's own heart.

As powerful as he was, this king of Israel, he was flawed. In my mind, he's very likely one of the most perfect examples of flawed human nature I can think of.

And what about fictional characters who cheat?

What about ol' Scarlett O'Hara?

Gone with the Wind

Poor Scarlett. She never got her chance to cheat, but she sure wanted to. I say poor Scarlett because, when she and Ashley were spotted in an embrace, Ms. O'Hara was forced to wear that deliciously devilish red dress as a sign of the harlot the town felt she was. And, yet, Mr. Wilkes---who was just as guilty as she was---got For He's A Jolly Good Fellow sung to him. Double standard, but that's another story.

What about Fatal Attraction?

Fatal Attraction

Okay, so that was a case of cheating gone way wrong. But...but...the hero, who blatantly cheated on his lovely, always-smiling wife still managed to be the hero in the end. He fell from his heroic throne for a minute, but regained his noblity before all was said and done.

One of my very, very favorite films, How to Make An American Quilt, deals with another aspect of cheating. A young fiance having a last-minute fling, therefore cheating on her fiance, with a steamy Latino.

How to Make An American Quilt

And one of the most loved infidelity films/novels of all, The Bridges of Madison County.

The Bridges of Madison County

And don't forget lovable cheatster, Don Draper, from the television series, Mad Men. Oh, my. Mr. Draper has had more extra-marital affairs and rolls in the hay than the modern calculator can compute. And get this. He's not even remorseful. Oh, wait, he might have been apologetic for a minute when he got caught. And yet? The audience loves the man. Somehow, he wriggles out from under his girlfriends' beds the unscathed, beloved hero we just can't stay mad at.

And, oddly, Don Draper is one of my favorite characters. The writers have produced a realistic, extremely unapologetic image of a human complete with every flaw imagineable. Everybody knows a Don Draper. Every office has one. Why pretend the Drapers of the world do not exist, and why pretend they can't actually be just...people.

Don Draper and one of his many affairs, Mad Men

Is it the fact these films/novels are mainstream that lets them slide under the Cheating Hero/Heroine radar? Is it just romance fiction where infidelity is not accepted as a human error? Embraced as a flaw?

I'm not arguing. I'm just confused. I'm not condoning cheating. I'm just frustrated at tiptoeing through the land mines of do's and don'ts in the romantic fiction genre, at the codes used to make the decisions as to which human failures and flaws are forgivable by the reader.

As for David, the King? Even after committing adultery, he was forgiven by God. Oh, the powerful Israelite suffered hugely for his mistake. But he was forgiven.

Although he's no fictional character, he still remains one of the most potent examples of a human to commit such crimes against humanity---which included murder---and still somehow, because we were endeared to him, emerge from the rubble as the hero.

To me, flaws aren't limited to guidelines dictated by a genre.

So my question? Can a hero or heroine commit the act of adultery and still manage to redeem themselves?

I believe they can. It is a challenge, I'll admit, to bring them around full circle. And, if an author can convincingly meet that challenge---to deliver this situation with the delicacy necessary to handle the highly charged emotional explosive it is---then I see it as a human flaw that has its place in romantic fiction.

How do you feel? Have you read books that contain cheating characters? What did you think of them? Were you able to forgive them?