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Religion in M/M Romance – Dealbreaker for Readers?

August 30, 2010
The Keeper Cover Art

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Recent comments about my newly released novella, The Keeper, have gotten me thinking quite a bit about the role of religious affiliation in characters of romance novels.

How much religion is too much? Is there a limit to what is acceptable to the general audience that will pick up a M/M erotic romance book and read it?

What I’ve found is that most characters in the M/M romance genre exist in a sort of religious vacuum. Religion usually isn’t mentioned at all unless we’re talking about one character coming out and having to go through the reconciliation process with a given religion that is or is not supportive of them (yeah, that usually means Christianity, but there could also be ramifications in other religions worldwide, so I’m talking about those, too). Beyond that, religion seems to rarely play a role in character development.

To an extent, I understand from a writer’s perspective.

Religion is a hot-button topic, so bringing it up in your fiction at all will alienate some people right off the bat, no matter which direction you take the topic. It’s like a first date scenario between authors and their readers sometimes. You just don’t bring up politics, religion, or sex. Though, obviously the last one is usually a given with erotic romances, no matter the pairing (M/M, F/F, M/F, ménage à trois, etc… any of them that have direct or indirect sexual content).

But should that broad statement of not bringing up religion at all be par for the course? For me, the scope of the story’s focus on religious themes depends entirely on the specific characters involved, and usually just the ones who are the main people involved in the romance. When developing a character, I always create a backstory in my head (if not on paper/word processor ^^). Religion is usually one of many elements that I include in that backstory.

A couple examples:

Aric, one of the main characters from my upcoming novel, Rachmaninoff, was raised by a conservative family that sent him to Catholic boarding school when young. He has been alienated from the religion because of the treatment he’s received throughout his life in response to his sexuality. He remains unapologetic, however, because of his rather fiery personality. While all that is in my head, only a few comments make it down into the actual manuscript, hints of the depth and development that has gone into the character. Religion doesn’t become an issue between Aric and Nikola, so it’s barely mentioned throughout the course of their relationship.

Dorian is another of my main characters, though his story is not completely plotted out yet. He is decidedly not Christian. If asked, he’d probably identify broadly as Pagan, while his two long-standing lovers are both varying shades of Christian. However, this religious difference between them is not specifically explored, as S.L. and I have agreed the characters don’t see it as an issue in one another. They might have different views, but they care about one another in such a way that religion isn’t something they’re going to argue over or try to convert one another. Since it’s a non-issue in their character development and interaction, it becomes a non-issue in the narrative/plot as well.

On the other hand, we have characters whose very nature is dictated by their religious affiliation. When you create a character that is strongly tied to their religious or spiritual beliefs and practices, it’s bound to come up in their story.

In The Keeper, Hadi was raised Catholic and has struggled with reconciling his homosexuality with the religion that has always been important in his family. At the beginning of the plot, he has only been to mass a handful of times in the last few years. He had pretty much put it on the back burner of his life when he’s thrown into the role of Judas’ keeper. Suddenly, he’s forced into a position of meeting one of the apostles from the very religion he’s struggled to deal with. In this case, with religion being woven into the very fabric of Judas’ past and being, it would be impossible for there not to be religious tones to the story.

In my mind, the religion and spirituality explored in The Keeper isn’t at all the main focus of the story. It is, first and foremost, a romance story between Judas and Hadi. I do, however, believe that S.L. and I couldn’t have done justice to Judas’ character (and, therefore, the relationship) if we had made it a point to steer clear of the religious aspect of his past.

I’m not suggesting that readers who have a dislike for explicit religion in their books should go shove it or anything. I totally understand that they have their own comfort zones and religion can be a tricky aspect to a romance piece. If that’s beyond what you want to read, then you certainly aren’t being forced to pick up my novella or any other work that delves into themes you don’t enjoy!

All I’m saying is that there is a reason behind the religious themes in my work, and it wasn’t some platform or soapbox. It was always just about the characters and their journey. That’s as it should be, in my mind.

If any of you readers out there have thoughts, I’d love to hear them! What do you think about religion in romance fiction (especially M/M erotic romances)? Do you enjoy works that challenge you on that front, or would you not want to touch them with the proverbial ten-foot pole? Please share!

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 5:59 pm

    most characters in the M/M romance genre exist in a sort of religious vacuum

    So do most characters in all of romance, save the inspirationals. It’s a pet peeve. And a lot of characters exist in isolation, period. Little (if any) family, few (if any) friends, few (if any) opinions and/or guiding philosophies. It’s a pet peeve.

    • August 30, 2010 6:12 pm

      It seems so silly to not include any details of their lives!

      In some cases, it’s just lazy writing, a glossing over in order to get to the relationship drama and/or sexual content.

      I agree that it’s a pet peeve. I want to read about fully developed, three-dimensional characters, not just men or women who exist in the story just for the relationship element. If art is supposed to imitate life, then where are all the details and complexities of character in romance fiction?

      Thanks for the comment!
      ~K. Piet

    • August 30, 2010 6:15 pm

      And it adds to the sense of characters as lifeless dolls that authors just play about with. In M/M, specifically, authors are accused of using gay men as poseable Ken dolls to act out our own fetish fantasies with.

      I dislike that there seems to be so little in romance. If I don’t introduce friends and family in a book, it’s because I want to show a sense of isolation, but that’s my intent, not a side-effect of not caring. I don’t believe that’s true for most authors. (Catalyst is like that. The couple starts out social with friends and such, but as their lives devolve, those people drop out of the picture.)

      It’s a pet peeve of mine, this sense of… all that matters are these two people and their romance. Yes, it should be the driving force of the story, but they should also be people with religious/spiritual beliefs (or specific lack thereof), family, friends, likes, dislikes, and depth, and I don’t agree that authors should be penalized for doing just that. Turning these lifeless dolls into living, breathing characters that feel, think, and engage.

      Just because it’s ‘romance’ doesn’t mean authors shouldn’t have to breathe life into their characters and think about all aspects of those lives.

  2. August 30, 2010 6:29 pm

    I suspect that a lot, if not most, of this comes from one of two places that may or may not converge: A) gothic romance holdovers and/or B) word count limitations.

    I wrote a 736-page novel because I couldn’t contain the fact that my characters don’t live in a bubble. They have a support system. That support system needs to be explored. I got tired of the self-made billionaire without a support system. I can’t buy that. What I CAN buy is a self-made billionaire who was taught by his mother how to save, invest, live frugally, and stay out of debt. I can’t buy a virgin heroine with no overriding reason for remaining one, but I CAN buy a virgin heroine who’s got a religious motive and a solid history of attending a church that acts as a spiritual support system. I CAN’T buy a nice, somewhat naive 25-year-old going out and executing a serial killer on his own and left no evidence, but I CAN buy that he had loyal family who helped him cover it up. My people cannot exist in a vacuum because MOST PEOPLE DON’T. And, frankly, I get tired of the idea that they do.

    That’s not to say there aren’t people who do (and I did that, too), but I gave them reasons and/or hinted that their support systems were minor.

    As for fetishizing gay characters, I’m going to stay out of that conversation after the OUT magazine article and the resulting LAMBDA backlash. Much of that brouhaha hit on a raw nerve I have regarding female sexual fantasies that are not PC.

    Really, I think this whole discussion about m/m can just as easily apply to m/f. After all, I’m a fan of forced seduction. That pretty much makes me evil. 😉

    • August 30, 2010 6:37 pm

      I’d actually, maybe privately, like to hear your thoughts about the whole female sexual fantasies thing. 🙂 I have some of my own I don’t share publicly because, quite simply, they are not usually well-received. Sometimes I think to write up a post about it, and then I remember the authors who were hung out to dry during those said debacles.

      I’ve not read or written forced seduction is a long time. I think it might be time to do it, just to challenge myself. *laughs*

      And I fully agree with you on the fact that I’d take a 700-page novel if it meant the world was rich, the characters real, and the situations interesting. But some of the 400-page M/M novels I’ve read recently were little more than sex scene after sex scene, and, I’m sorry, that does not a compelling story make. 😉

      • August 30, 2010 6:48 pm

        “But some of the 400-page M/M novels I’ve read recently were little more than sex scene after sex scene, and, I’m sorry, that does not a compelling story make. 😉

        *raises her glass to you* I’d take that detailed, compelling 700-page novel over the poorly developed 400-page one any day!

    • August 30, 2010 6:45 pm

      Yeah. I was careful not to let it all go downhill into yet another discussion of fetishization of gay characters. You’re right that this concept could easily be translated over to M/F fiction. It’s more about depth, and I find it amusing and mildly annoying that some readers of romance demand depth to characters, and then turn around and go on about how one element of a realistic character’s personality didn’t jive well with them.

      I suppose being outside the vacuum is highly uncomfortable when you’re used to flat characters?

      I also agree on the degree of believability. It helps a story exponentially to have every character’s background support the aspects of their personality that you plan to put on display in the plot. Like S.L. Armstrong said above, if you write a character isolated and without a support system of some sort, it should be intentional, not due to laziness.

      Word count issues shouldn’t be an excuse, more times than not. I understand feeling constrained by word count in a short story, especially after writing my first short story for Cast the Cards, but when you obviously have the space in a full novel, the argument that you just didn’t have space seems nullified. Cut out a few needless sentences in that ten-page-long sex scene and insert a little substance when you’re developing the character for the reader! How are they supposed to care about the trials the characters undergo if they aren’t given a scrap of backstory to make those trials significant?

  3. August 30, 2010 8:18 pm

    It’s more about depth

    It’s ALL about depth. Family, friends, philosophies, beliefs, religions, money, (and yes, even politics).

    • August 30, 2010 8:23 pm

      And when you mix those elements into a character and give them that depth they deserve, usually the conflict you need for a good romance plot arises naturally, negating the need to force a plot that makes no sense.

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