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?


Tali Spencer said...

Great topic! My thoughts... although cheaters abound in popular films and on TV, they aren't really romantic heroes. They may be entertaining, sympathetic, compelling and many other things, even sexy, but they're not romance heroes. Romance heroes are ideals, and while a reader may fall in love with a hero despite his sordid past, his addiction, his failures, cheating is the hard limit. Once he's fallen in love with the heroine (or m/m equivalent), he must not cheat. Not because men don't cheat, but because heroes don't. :D

I write romance also, and have gone a round or two with editors on this topic, but I'm an easy sell. I prefer my heroes to be so head over heels they would never cheat because 1) how can they even think of it when in love, and 2) cheating might imperil their relationship with the one they love. Yes, real men (and women) cheat. But it's painful and destructive and most readers don't want their hero and heroine to go there. Real life is rough enough.

Addicts defeat their demons and losers win through love. Cheaters only triumph by not cheating. I think a story about cheaters can still be a great story, even a story for the ages. It's just not a conventional romance.

Jesse Fox said...

I'm with you on this. It makes no sense and yet if you ask most average folks on the street you'll get something similar to this "Once a cheater always a cheater". Now this adage can apply to some situations, but not all.

Both I and my BFF have been the victim of cheaters. In my case luckily I wasn't married. The first cheater was confused about his sexuality; we were young what can I say? Could he be redeemed? Of course, I see no reason why he couldn't. My second cheater was simply a pig who refused to be in a monogamist relationship. My theory was he tried and his marriage failed so he feared trying again and decided being a man-whore was safer.

Now my BFF was married to her cheater. Spent 13 years of her life trying to make it work, but he was a selfish self-centered man who openly admitted in the end he couldn't understand why he couldn't have his cake and eat it too. He wanted an open arrangement which is something you might mention before you declare undying love and slip a ring on someone's finger. Could he change? Nope. Even now he's remarried and up to his old tricks.

I hate to say it, but a great number of "romance readers" are not looking for realism when they pick up a romance novel. They are looking for fantasy, possibly even an escape from what they consider an imperfect relationship. Whether their relationship is imperfect or not might be in the eye of the beholder. It's often easier to ignore RL issues than deal with them so they find escapism in romance. Having a cheater as the hero is not escapism thus the fuss about the entire subject.

Not to mention (and I'll probably get smacked for this one) a great deal of people think they can change a partner. It never works, but it happens every day. They get caught up in the Honeymoon Phase and refuse to see past the tip of their nose.

We as a society in general have a warped and twisted idea of what a true relationship entails. So many of us prefer the fantasy to the reality, because frankly in fantasy there are no problems and if there are--well ignore them and they eventually are resolved by our love.

Yeah, right...

*gets off pulpit*

Lloyd Meeker said...

I'm firmly in the "cheating is okay in romance" camp, understanding that the event has to be significant to the story, and to the characters' growth.

A character who can't forgive infidelity is him- or herself unworthy of love. Maybe chronic infidelity dooms a relationship. It probably doesn't fit in romance.

But forgiveness is profoundly powerful, and healing to both giver and recipient. Inflexible jealousy is just petty and venal.

I have some concerns about the emotional maturity of readers who can't tolerate any infidelity on the rocky path to love, but I'll keep them to myself.

C. Zampa said...

Maybe most do want heroes who cannot disappoint, who can have every other flaw imaginanable but who just don't...cheat. And, as you say, maybe it is a matter of not wanting to see the real life issues. But, so sadly, they are real, and these painfully realistic heroes/heroines do not have a home in genre romance. And they are not ideals. They are human.

Thank you for your thoughts! I'm not arguing, as I said, just stating my frustration at one of the barriers that cannot be neared and dared not crossed in conventional romance.

C. Zampa said...

Maybe most do want heroes who cannot disappoint, who can have every other flaw imaginanable but who just don't...cheat. And, as you say, maybe it is a matter of not wanting to see the real life issues. But, so sadly, they are real, and these painfully realistic heroes/heroines do not have a home in genre romance. And they are not ideals. They are human.

Thank you for your thoughts! I'm not arguing, as I said, just stating my frustration at one of the barriers that cannot be neared and dared not crossed in conventional romance.

C. Zampa said...

Jesse, I'm in the same boat as you. Experience, in real life, a variety of cheaters.

Maybe it depends on how we individually dealw ith the fallout. Me? It's just what it is, and it is a part of life. A very real one. Sure, I suppose it must be avoided in order to protect the integrity of ideal romance.

But, oh, the challenge of a REAL flawed man or woman. To look the issue in the face and accept the raw reality.

Thank you for visiting!

C. Zampa said...

So good to see you, Lloyd!
I agree.

I think that part of the issue is that some feel if it is incorporated into a romance that it is somehow condoning it.

I don't condone it anymore than I do the other permissable flaws in romacne fiction: drug abuse, prositition, dispicable treatment (of course, to be redeemed by the end) of other characters.

I'd like to pretend NONE of those things happen in real life. But they do. They just do.

K. Z. Snow said...

Yet Bareback, one of the most raved-about books in the genre, hinges on cheating (well, and sex :)). And half of Josh Lanyon's most beloved couple was a cheater.

Go figure.

There's basically no rhyme or reason to readers' pet peeves. Such is human nature. With that in mind, I write what I want to write. If some doodoo hits the fan blades . . . eh, big deal. Anybody who creates anything -- a chef, composer, sculptor, filmmaker, whoever -- goes through life ducking and weaving. ;-)

C. Zampa said...

Well said, KZ, well said.

Etienne said...

While I understand that many (perhaps even most of the females) readers like flawed characters, I do not. I don't much like flawed characters, nor do I like angst-ridden characters—there's plenty of that in real life, and like many people, I read to escape from reality.

Which is why I don't write flawed characters, nor do I fill their lives with angst. For that matter, I don't write, nor do I like to read "romance" novels.

Just my usual contrarian view.

C. Zampa said...

Etienne, good to see you!

I'm not against angst, but I hate seeing it created just for the sake up keeping up with the angst trend, and for the simple shock factor.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

It's always amazed me at how judgemental the human being is. Yet, some writers do go out on a limb and give their heroes huge flaws. Like the hero of Hell of Wheels. The last episode of the first season ends with him killing the wrong man. I was sad to see it happened, but totally surprised that the writer got away with presenting the scene that way.

As for forgiveness, I'm astounished at how badly the public wants the hide of those two radio personalities that called the British hospital and asked about Kate. It was a silly stupid prank, yet there are those who want them sent to prison.

I'm shaking my head at the strangeness of the human race. Jesus was forever saying if you're innocent, cast the first stone, otherwise....

Marguerite Labbe said...

One of my favorite movies off all time is "Casablanca" and there's cheating in that. I'm also quite fond of "The Thorn Birds." Cheating with a priest no less.

I understand that readers have things they don't like to read about and I respect that. I have things I don't like to read about too. But if a story comes to me and it has a hot button issue like cheating I'm going to write it. I think if you start trying to clean up stories to appease people then you end up hurting the story. I also know that if I write that story, I'll catch some hell for it. And for me that's okay as long as I stayed true to what I thought I had to write. Sometimes bucking the system isn't such a bad thing. Just be prepared when you do.

H.B. Pattskyn said...

First, guess what I'm listening to right now? ;-) I actually love K.D. Lang's version of Hallelujah the best (I was specifically looking for a female vocalist when I went looking for it...long story).

Anyway... I remember reading Z. A. Maxfield's Drawn Together and really loving it. When I went to leave a review, I glanced at some others and was amazed by the number of nasty comments about the "cheating"--which didn't exactly happen *and* the mc's were separated after a fight, so how can it be cheating if there's no relationship?

The truth is that people do dumb things--and characters are people too, albeit fictional ones. As long as cheating happens in a context and framework in which makes sense to the story--and as long as there are consequences (if it's really cheating, that is), I think it's fine.

I also feel really strongly that the only person who can tell your story (or your characters' story) is you. Formulas don't work for me. I have to love what I'm writing to enjoy it--and I think it shows when an author doesn't enjoy what they're writing and then nobody enjoys the story.


Kristoffer Gair said...

You know...it's funny. I just had a point of annoyance while watching Downton Abbey in which the husband and matriarch did a little fooling around with a maid. It irked the hell out of me. Yet, when I looked at it, there were extenuating circumstances around it and was needed for a plot point later on.

In that respect and when it comes to novels, as long as there is a reason for it happening, then why shouldn't it be used? I honestly can't think of a book I've ready (minus autobiographies) where I can remember cheating being part of the plot. Can't say I'd object to it.

C. Zampa said...

Hello, Marguerite!
Casablanca and The Thornbirds happen to be two of my loves, too. And you're right. Cheating is a main character of them both.

And you are also right...write as you are led and DO be prepared. LOL...

C. Zampa said...

Amen, Joylene. Amen!

C. Zampa said...

Helen, that's it exactly. Characters are humans. They just are. And why allow them all the ohter mess-ups of life but but a barrier on the most common mistake of all? Cheating.

C. Zampa said...

Kage, you brought up a good point.
And it reminded me of a film I love, The Prizefighter and the Lady. The MC is a sports cheater, and his wife just smiles. And I want to smack them both.

And, yet, at the same time? The behavior fits both of their characters. As much as I hated it, it just was who they were.

Unknown said...

My guess as to why is that a large portion of romance readers are women. A large portion of women have had the experience of finding out their man (or woman, as the case may be) has strayed. (And yes, generalizing there, but I would say 99% of the romance reading population has experienced some form of this betrayal in their lifetime) It fucking hurts! It pisses you off. You feel useless and worthless, and when you're reading a romance novel, you don't want to feel any of those ugly things. You want the man in your book to be better, stronger, more daring, and yes, more devoted, than the men in your life. You don't want perfection, because perfection is boring and unbelievable. But you don't want them to be that bastard who slept with your bestie, or your sister, or the neighbor or the secretary. You want him to be better than that. and you want the woman in the story to be as you wish you were, beautiful and strong and brilliant enough to keep her man from straying. It's far, far easier to accept a man like James Bond, who can and does kill out of expedience and without remorse to reach his goals-because how many of us actually experience that kind of extreme in life?-than it is to accept a man who can cause such deep, lasting, damaging pain as the man who stepped out on you. A reader (very likely) knows that dreaded gut-wrenching pain personally and intimately, and knowing it, cannot condone of the the man who perpetrates it on anyone, even a fictional heroine.

That said, *shrug* If, in your story, your guy cheats, he cheats. That's who he is. Redeeming him is your job. Shying away from exposing his character weakness because it it hits too close to home is a cop out, IMO, and your story will suffer for hiding this flaw within him from the light of day. That just makes him a cheater and a devious one who can hide it, even from the author, and hence the readers, and he will never really sit right as a true hero, because there things about him that are never exposed, dealt with, and healed. That's what I think, anyway.

Unknown said...

Ooh, I have to say something to this: "Not to mention (and I'll probably get smacked for this one) a great deal of people think they can change a partner. It never works, but it happens every day. They get caught up in the Honeymoon Phase and refuse to see past the tip of their nose."
that Jesse Fox mentioned.

I wonder if it isn't from the unrealistic expectations written into the very romances we crave that we learn the idea that we can "change our man" and turn him into a non-cheater? It *is* unrealistic, of course, to think that, but how did we come by the idea? By reading books about men who were cheaters and rascals, then met the "right woman" and put their philandering pasts behind them for her? Makes you think a bit...

C. Zampa said...

But, Jaime, many of us have scores of emotional triggers and if every book was afraid to deal with every emotional hot point...there would be no books. Or not books of any substance except just frolicking picnics in fields of daisies.

NPT said...

The problme with my characters is that they're too "good". And so I agree that you need to make a hero flawed. And I'm not sure, to be honest, that readers will forgive cheating. But .... you could have him go right to the edge, almost succumb to temptation, and then not. And that would be very powerful. "cos your readers would be desperately hoping he wouldn't do wrong, and you could make it look as if he will, and then ... You could add a secondary plot wrinkle where his better half (he or she) catches them at it, and stalks out in high dudgeon.

What fun it is suggesting plots to others, who hav to do all the hard work!

C. Zampa said...

Nikolaos, you made my morning when I read your "What fun it is suggesting plots to others..." LOL...

When you, my friend, are a wonderful writer as well! So WRITE this plot!

And there's nothing wrong with good characters! LOL!