Religion in M/M Romance – Dealbreaker for Readers?
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!