Here in Springfield, we have a writing group called ORA (Ozarks Romance Authors) that is noticeably in decline. Members aren’t attending meetings, people don’t want to serve on the board, and the professional development aspects of the group are sorely lacking. In recent years, the group tried to develop a more open genre stance, accepting writers who write in genres other than romance. That effort ended up alienating many older members who dropped out, while not really attracting any new members. So, the group declined.
The ORA membership recently decided to redirect its focus back toward romance writing to revitalize itself. I’m one of those writers who don’t write romance, but I figure good writing is good writing regardless of genre, and I haven’t really considered the possibilities of incorporating romance elements into my own storytelling. Many of my stories do include a central gay couple, so why should I ignore that aspect of their stories? With this question in mind, I thought, I needed to know more about the romance genre in general and gay romance (often called M/M or male/male romance) in particular.
The Romance Genre
The focus of the romance genre is on falling in love and establishing an emotional and committed relationship between partners. The romance genre focuses on the following elements:
- A central romantic couple, a hero and heroine. The story is usually told from the woman’s point of view.
- The development of the romantic love relationship between these two potential lovers is what drives the central conflict and climax of the story.
- The story culminates in an optimistic or happy ending, often where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. The central couple who fights for their relationship is often rewarded with unconditional love.
- Some romance stories tackle controversial subjects like date rape, domestic violence, addiction, and disability, and other themes that modern women could relate too such as single parenthood, career obstacles, adoption, sexism and abuse. However, the development of these themes isn’t required for the story to be part of the romance genre.
- Romance stories can range in their sensual content from chaste (sweet) with nothing more that kissing to erotic steamy romance with fully developed sexual episodes.
Romance narratives can also exist embedded in other genres. Because romance narratives have no restrains on location, setting or time period, a romance emphasis can be inter-woven with other literary genres, giving rise to numerous romantic sub-genres. For instance:
- Contemporary Romance (Romances set in the time period in which they were written, and reflecting the norms and values of the era. Usually this means written after WWII).
- Historical Romance (Romances set in the historical past, such as Regency Romances, which remain faithful to the culture and traditions of the time period, while focusing on the love relationship of its central characters).
- Paranormal Romance (Romances that incorporate Gothic or Horror elements, usually with supernatural settings, and relationships between humans with psychic abilities and paranormal characters such as vampires, werewolves, witches, demons or even angels and ghosts. Paranormal stories set in contemporary cities are often referred to as “Urban Fantasy”).
- Time-Travel Romance (Romances where one or both of the principle lovers have to move about in time in order to meet each other, to the past or future).
- Fantasy and Science Fiction Romances (Romances that take place in outer-space, or on another planet, or in some magical or fantasy realm, and can be between aliens, gods or mythical beings. These romance narratives must conform to the tropes and conventions of the genres they are embedded within. These stories are often considered to be another variation of the paranormal romance).
- Romantic Suspense, Crime or Thrillers (Romance that develops while the hero or heroine work to solve a crime, work together to avoid or catch a villain, or save the community or world from some catastrophe. Usually the heroine is endangered in some way and the hero has to come to her rescue and provide protection. Their developing relationship is tested and strengthened as the potential couple faces obstacles leading them to become a happy couple).
- Inspirational / Christian Romance (These Romances have a particular religious/Christian context and these stories reflect those values. The central romantic couple meets and has their faith tested. When they overcome these struggles, they move toward marriage and a happy family life. Themes of forgiveness, honesty, loyalty and fidelity are often developed).
- Erotic Romance (These Romances develop the sexual and sensual side of romantic relationships. They aren’t pornography in that the developing relationship of the central couple is the center of the story. These narratives use sex and desire as the main driver of the romance. The sex is always secondary to the relationship. These stories use direct language and avoid euphemisms, and prefer explicit sex scenes over traditional love scenes).
There are also romances stories in all of the above categories that are written specifically for young adult readers (YA Romance). The same is true for romances written for gay and lesbian readers. But, as we will see, not all gay romances are written for or by members of the LGBT+ community.
The romance genre is a trope-adhering fiction. That is, it follows set patterns and plot devices. The purpose of romance is to deliver fantasy and escape for its readers. Here is a list of common tropes that appear in the traditional romance genre and its sub-genres. A trope is a theme or plot device (that is often overused to the point of cliché).
- Accidental Marriage
- Accidental Pregnancy
- Alpha Hero
- Alternative Universe
- Arranged Marriage
- A Secret Baby
- Aristocrat Falls for Commoner / Rich for Poor
- Athlete/Bodyguard Crush
- Abduction Falls in Love with Kidnapper
- Bed Sharing
- Blackmail Turns to Love
- Body Sharing
- Boss Falls for Employee
- Celibate Heroes / Impotent Lovers
- Damaged Hero/Heroine Finds Happily Ever After
- Dark Romance
- Disabled Person who has Premonitions or Insights
- Deep Dark Secret
- Drunken Confessions
- Dubious Sexual Consent / Rape or Incest
- Fake Engagement
- Fake Relationship Leads to Real One
- Family Rejection
- First Love
- Fluff vs. Angst vs. Smut
- Forbidden Love
- Friends Become Lovers
- Enemies Become Lovers
- Girl Falls for Bad Boy
- Heroine Reforms Rake / Love Reforms Villain
- If I Can’t Have You, No One Will Either
- In Love with Ghost
- Jilted Bride/Groom
- Love at First Sight
- Love Potion
- Love Triangle
- “Magical” Token Person of Color
- Makeover of Hero or Heroine
- Male Pregnancy
- Marriage of Convenience
- Mistaken Identity
- Missing Persons
- Office Romance
- Opposites Attract
- On The Road Romance
- One Night Stand
- Orphans Rescued
- Paranormal/Undead Lover
- Partners in Crime
- Playboy Heroes
- Post-Apocalyptic / Zombies (ect.)
- Rescue Romance
- Return to Hometown
- Reunited Lovers
- Second Chance at Love
- Secret Admirer
- Secret Romance
- Self/Self Romance or Sex
- Student Falls for Teacher
- Sex with Mythical or Prehistoric Beasts
- Sexual Fantasies / BDSM
- Sexy Billionaire
- Sexy Men in Uniforms (Police, Military, etc)
- Slow Burn
- Soul Mates / Fate
- Star-Crossed Lovers
- Sudden Parent
- Time Travel
- Tortured Hero with a Secret Past
- Trapped / Isolated
- True Love Fixes All
- Twin Mix-Up
- Twins with Special Powers
- Unrequited Love
- Virginal/Innocent Heroine
- White Savior from Minority Villains
- Wrong Side of the Tracks
- YA Issues (eating disorders, bullying, etc)
- Years Later/All Grown Up
In recent years there has been an outpouring of gay romance between men (and lesbian romance between women). Romance is not just for male/female relationships anymore. Gay romances are developing an ever growing audience that extends well beyond gay men and lesbians and includes many heterosexual women.
Like other romance narratives, gay romances span the same wide variety of sub-genres. Gay romances can also be paranormal, historical, contemporary, fantasy, Sci-Fi and erotic. The only meaningful difference is that the central romantic couples are of the same sex. However, there is an important difference between Gay Fiction (including romances) as a genre and the M/M romance genre. They are separate genres that have different histories and audiences.
Gay Fiction is a catch-all category for the writings of the gay community (LGBT+) to their own peers. This fiction has its own set of themes ranging from coming out stories, narrative of the AIDS epidemic, and gay porn. Gay Fiction often attempts to document and explore the repercussion on gay men (and women) because of the opposition in society of gay people and the victimization they have experienced in their lives. Thus gay fiction tends to explore darker and more negative topics such as alienation from family and community, anti-gay prejudice, religious condemnation, self-loathing and denial, violence, bullying, and suicide. Gay fiction also has positive aspects in that it can serve as a validation for same-sex attractions and reassure readers that other people have had the same experiences, and that readers aren’t alone in their struggles. Gay fiction today mostly refers to the writings of gay men, with lesbian literature referring to the writings of gay women, and so forth.
Gay Fiction is not romance genre fiction, although gay fiction can contain romantic stories; it’s not governed by the same conventions and tropes of the romance genre. Gay Fiction explores the truth about gay men’s lives and other members of the LGBT+ community (Brad Vance). Gay fiction is a genre in its own right and is largely the means of self-expression for the LGBT+ community. In their writing, gay men have explored their lives and identities, and discovering the gay community and their place in it. In their narratives, being gay (lesbian, bi, trans, etc) is integral to both who they are and what they write. Their own gayness is fundamental to the stories they tell and the characters they created (Kergan Edwards-Stout). Gay fiction is thus directly informed by the personal experiences and identities of its authors and what it means to be gay, including how being gay affects family relationships, how disapproval from society disrupts self-esteem, how gay men search for love and sex and the impact of AIDS on individual lives and the community (Kergan Edwards-Stout). In other words, Gay fiction is meant to be a realistic depiction of gay men and their lives, including their love lives.
M/M romance is a totally different thing. M/M romance is primarily fantasy and often presents unrealistic and fantasized, even fetishized portraits of gay men and their love lives. Consequently, M/M romance tends to have more positive and sensual depictions of gay men finding each other, overcoming barriers to their relationships and falling in love. This kind of romance narrative isn’t meant to be realistic. Furthermore, the primary audience of this kind of romance isn’t gay men at all. Most M/M romance is targeted toward heterosexual women. Gay fiction generally takes place in a realistic contemporary world, M/M romance, like other romance genres, can take place anywhere, or anytime, in fantastic places that have their own social rules and cultural values. M/M romance is fantasy like any other romantic fantasy, and is meant to give readers an enjoyable reading experience.
What might be surprising to many readers (but it’s not when you understand its history) is that M/M romance is written mainly by heterosexual women for other women. M/M romance has firmly established itself as another sub-genre of the romance tradition and adheres too many of the same formulaic tropes of the romance genre, including the Happily-Ever-After ending, melodramatic complications, and the charismatic Alpha male.
M/M romance doesn’t have its roots in the gay community, but in slash fiction. Slash started out as a form of fan fiction in which writers (usually teenagers and often women) paired up their favorite characters from movie and TV franchises, and wrote romantic pairings, including sex scenes for them (for instance Kirk/Spock) even if they weren’t originally paired in the cannon work. These kinds of writing became known as slash (/) for the slash mark separating the two names, and which is still maintained in the (/) within M/M. There is also F/F, M/F and other kinds of slash combinations.
Early fan fiction writers of slash where primarily teenage girls and young women. This dominance of women in the M/M romance market is still prevalent to this day, and places it in a very different literary tradition from gay fiction, in that it’s largely written by women for women. There are some gay writers of M/M romance and gay readers of it, but they are the minority.
There are debates over whether women should write M/M romance at all, since they are neither gay nor men, but once you realize they created this genre for themselves to fulfill their own fantasies about the fellas getting together and doing it (a lot—M/M romance novels have lots of gay sex in them) it’s rather pointless to tell them to knock it off. Jamie Fessenden in his blog points out that:
The fact of the matter is, MM Romance may be about gay men, but it isn’t really ours. The genre is full of tropes that often baffle and frustrate us—all couples must be monogamous, despite a very large percentage of gay couples having open relationships; the only real sex is penetrative anal sex, despite the fact that many gay men don’t like it—and many gay men have difficulty writing them. Not only that, but many gay men have difficulty reading them. Hence the reason this argument of women writing MM Romance keeps surfacing (Fessenden).
It may seem a bit ironic, that with the legalization of gay marriage, gay relationship are becoming more like straight ones, and the distinction between Gay Fiction and M/M Romance may become even more blurred over time.
Like traditional romance, M/M romance is also a trope-adhering fiction. What M/M romance delivers to its readers is escape and fantasy. Here is a list of some common tropes that appear in M/M romance, and many of them are the same as traditional romance, and many have become M/M clichés.
- Alpha Male Hero
- BDSM / Kinky
- Best Sex Ever
- Big Guy with Little Smartass Twink
- Bodyguard / Guardian Angel as Lover
- Clash of Backgrounds
- Enemies Become Lovers
- Falls in Love with Childhood Bully
- Fated Soul Mates
- Find True Love and Comes Out
- Forbidden Love
- Friends Become Lovers
- Forgiveness for Past Sins
- Fuck Buddies Become Lovers
- Gay for You / Out for You
- Geek and Jock in Love
- Healing Power of Sperm at the Moment of Sexual Consummation
- Help Me Heal
- Hero and the Great Quest for Justice
- I Love You but I’m Leaving Forever
- Instant Dad Needs Husband
- Love at First Sight
- Pretend Boyfriend
- Prostate Stimulation Turns Straight Man Gay
- Redeemed by Love (from drugs, alcohol, addiction, and so forth)
- Rent Boy with Heart of Gold
- Rescue Me
- Revenge Becomes Justice
- Romance That Ends in Death
- Second Chance
- Sexy Millionaire
- Sexy Uniforms (cops, firemen, paramedics and soldiers)
- Slut Teaches Naive Virgin Sex and Falls in Love
- Step Relations
- Suddenly Magically Gay
- Trapped Together
- Trickster Hero
- Virgins Give the Best Sex
So Just What Am I Writing?
After all of that, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t write Gay or M/M Romance. Often, my stories have gay couples in them (not all my stories are gay, especially my religious satires) but I hardly ever write about characters falling in love (unless it’s relevant to my plot), and I avoid sex scenes unless they’re necessary. Writing stories about gay fellows falling for each other and having sex, particularly for the fascination and entertainment of heterosexual women, isn’t something I feel compelled to write about. I have a feeling that my take on being gay isn’t something that the ladies would be interested in.
Here is a review of some of my most recent plots. Are they Romance or Not?
After the passing of his longtime partner, a gay man discovers he has healing powers and his sought out by parents of sick children. I love the idea of a gay man as a faith healer. Here is the opening prologue. Romance or Not? I think not.
An elder monk experiences the paranormal phenomena of having names projected into his thoughts, which he feels compelled to write down, and tries to solve why he receives them and not the other monks. He also has a particular affection for one the junior monks. Here is a draft of the opening chapter. There is a subplot involving two novice boys falling in love, but their story doesn’t end happily. Romance or Not? Not really.
A group of stories about a Sheep and a Bunny who are special friends (yes, they’re kind of gay) and their adventures with their friends on the farm, including the time when Uni the Unicorn came to visit on Christmas morning. Here is one of the stories. There is no sex in these stories because that would be really weird. Romance or Not? I’m going with no here.
Reviewing these plots, there is one thing they all have in common. They all have supernatural elements and religious motifs. For more stories, see the My Stories page. While I’m certainly not writing romance, If I had to put a genre label on my stories it would be somewhere in the realm of the paranormal (but no vampires or werewolves). Possibly it might be something gay and gothic. Maybe it’s something more mystical or spiritual I’m aiming for. Whatever categories I eventually come up with to label my writing, I’ll surely have more to say about that, but I know it’s not going to be M/M Romance.
- Top Five Tropes in the M/M Romance Genre, Kasia Bacon.
- M/M Romance: UNSUITABLE, Emily Brooks, Alex Buben & Fender Lauture.
- Gender Of Novelists In Gay Fiction: Does It Matter?, Kergan Edwards-Stout.
- My take on women writing MM Romance, Jamie Fessenden.
- Reader, He Married Him: LGBTQ Romance’s Search for Happily-Ever-After, Christine Grimaldi.
- Romance Writers of America.
- M/M Romance and Gay Fiction Duke It Out, Marshall Thornton.
- In the matter of: Gay Fiction v. Gay Romance, Brad Vance.
- Gay Literature, Wikipedia.
- Paranormal Romance, Wikipedia.
- Romance Novel, Wikipedia.
- W4M4M?, Cintra Wilson.
Web links for Gay and M/M Romance Books: (Gay Romance and M/M Romance are often used interchangeably). These lists are primarily M/M Romances
- Amazon Best Sellers in Gay Romance, Amazon.
- A Gayish List of My Favorite Gay (Male) Romance Novels: J Nelson Aviance.
- The Best of Gay Romance, Goodreads.
- Gay Romance Book Lists, Goodreads.
- M M Romance, Goodreads.
- Popular Gay Romance Books, Goodreads.
- Popular M M Romance Books, Goodreads.
- Most Highly Recommended M/M Romance Reads, Maryse.
Online Lists of Romance Tropes
- The Periodic Table of Story Telling, James Harris Designs.
- Romance Tropes, Mindy Klasky.
- Stories We’ve Seen Too Often, Strange Horizons—Submission Guidelines.
- Romance Novel Tropes, TV tropes.
- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Book Publishers, PublishersArchive.co