If you’ve ever read a romance novel, or any other genre with romantic elements, you’ve probably noticed a growing trend in our leading men. We first caught on with a certain overprotective vampire that sparkles in the sunlight. Edward then morphed into the dangerously naughty Christian Grey, and from there, we’ve been subjected to the same kind of possessive love stories.
Here’s the thing: I know that women love these stories. They justify the overbearing protectiveness and controlling nature of these men time and again. But with shows on Netflix like You and 365 continuing the trend, let me ask: Are we simply enjoying a sexy fantasy or are we ingesting these unhealthy romances as conditions for romance in our own love lives?
I never realized this conundrum until I started my new WIP, we’ll call it Project Nervous. In this story, two coworkers engage in a seduction game to outwit each other towards winning the coveted Corner Office. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of dominant male romances in the past, don’t get me wrong. But when it came to writing one, I realized the responsibility I held in my hands.
I am a huge advocate for human rights and equality, the Me Too movement among them. As I wrote out this seduction game, I realized how triggering it could be for some women who have been outright sexually harassed at the workplace. I’ve experienced such harassment, and I realized that while I understood everything in the game was consensual between my characters, I needed to make sure the reader understood that as well.
It changed my entire perspective on how to write romance, and how to convey a healthy relationship between my love interests. It made me go back and pinpoint all the parts in our most popular romances where books have failed to represent this.
How many times have we read the stories of the strong male lead and the weaker woman, finding herself with his guidance? Or our leading lady denies him, and he talks her into whatever he wants anyway? Let’s hit the topic of sex scenes, while the woman is being seduced against her will, but her body “gives her desire for him away”, and he proceeds despite her initial reluctance. What does this teach women about the power of our words?
I believe we can still write strong male and female leads without jumping on a soapbox. I believe we can navigate a healthy romance on the page and still entice readers. I know that saving the broken man or getting seduced by a powerful CEO can be thrilling to read.
But what if we had a man who loved a woman despite her flaws? Who allowed her to grow, who backed her in her decisions and helped rectify her mistakes. Who trusted her judgement and respected her words.
I understand how romantic it is when we have couples declaring that they complete one another, and they are nothing without each other. I challenge you to consider a man and woman who are complete within themselves falling in love. They aren’t filling in the gaping holes, but instead melding together to become something greater. I feel that in relationships, we do complete each other in complimentary ways, but it should never be where we rely on one another to the point of losing our identities in the other.
I’ll give you a real life example of this: Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas. Sophie has come out publicly about her struggles with depression. When she first met Joe Jonas (her now husband), she was at an ultimate low point in her mentality. Something that struck me as a very powerful statement of true love was the following told by Sophie to an interviewer:
"He [Joe] was, like, 'I can't be with you until you love yourself, I can't see you love me more than you love yourself,'" Turner said. "That was something, him doing that. I think he kind of saved my life, in a way."
That is the type of romance I would love to dive into. One of mutual respect and self love while deeply loving one another. Just… wow.
So now you may ask how to tackle this beast and turn our romance tropes into healthier ones. I’ll give you an example from Project Nervous. There’s a moment in the story where my MC sarcastically accuses her love interest of sexual harassment. To this, he replies that he would never do anything against her will, telling her the second she demands for him to stop or tells him no, he always backs away. He goes on further to explain that he’ll only take the game as far as she allows him. To me, it was important that this was put out there, stated in plain text, before anyone could suggest otherwise.
While this truth is written out and suggested throughout the story, and I as the writer put faith in my readers to assume that everything is consensual, I still wanted to make sure there was no question about it. My main characters bicker and play dirty tricks, but at the end of the day, they respect each other. This is key for me in my take of an enemies to lovers story.
I’ll end this with saying that at the end of the day, you should write the romance you want to write. People will love your romance, whatever it may be. Different strokes for different folks and all that. I am in no way knocking other romance books or romance writers. I personally love all the tropes and the complications they bring. But I can also separate fantasy from my current reality.
I think it’s our responsibility as writers to be mindful of what we’re putting out there and to be willing to stand behind it one hundred percent if it happens to ruffle feathers. Romance writers already get enough grief over our quality of work. But as the times progress and change, I feel our romances should as well.
It’s time we set an example of the type of romance we would want in our own lives instead of the ones we know will sell. Let’s start a new trend, a new conversation, a new expectation.
And always write with your heart.
P.S. If you want to read a book that represents a healthier take on relationships, check out When We Met, a semi-steamy collection by A.L. Jackson, Molly McAdams, Tiffany King, and Christina Lee who remind you that consent is sexy!
Follow Stella on Instagram: @stellabjamesauthor