One of the things I love most about M/M romance is the wide range of characters found among our romantic heroes. Of course, we have the stereotypical six-foot-two, washboard abs, chiselled-jaw-and-green-eyes guys. (And we do love our gorgeous alpha men.)
But we also have short guys and nerdy guys. We have cerebral heroes with a passion for facts (like Fielding in “Blame It on the Mistletoe”.) We have older guys, finding love despite slackness around the middle and losing their reading glasses (like the 50-year-old couple of “Family Unit”.) We have wonderful flamboyant guys who flame across the page (like Cole in “Strawberries for Dessert”.) We have men who are genderqueer (“Caught”) and trans (“The Burnt Toast B&B”), men with a disability (“Afflicted”), men who work grotty dirty jobs (“Jack: Grime and Punishment”), men who have been in prison, and not always undeservedly (“Protection”), assassins, beggars, and rent boys.
And we also have the guys whose differences are not immediately visible — the men living with Asperger’s, autism, OCD, anxiety, PTSD, who face added difficulties dealing with the world, but who so completely deserve to find love. In M/M romance, there is no man who holds a speck of warmth in his heart who cannot be found a soulmate.
When we write these challenged guys, though, we have two responsibilities as authors. First, to represent the man and his issues realistically, with fairness and sensitivity. That means doing research, and cultivating awareness. It means not giving a hero a problem for the sake of angst, and then melting it away or ignoring it, when it gets in the way of a romantic scene or plot point. We owe those who live with these differences in the real world to be fair to them, and to create heroes who will help with understanding and empathy. It can be hard not to ramp the angst, not to trivialize, and to catch the nuances. And of course, since those are different for every real individual, there is no one right way to write them. But we owe readers our best efforts.
The second concern, when you’re writing romance about a main character who is neuro-atypical or has mental health challenges, is to create a relationship in which he is a full partner. As an author, I need to make sure that my guy is strong enough on the page, within his plausible capabilities, to be an active, competent match to his significant other.
It’s fine for one partner to be more of a caretaker. Sometimes that’s just how life is. But the over-all partnership has to feel balanced, and mutually positive, and consensual. Regardless of whether the guys have a lot of sex or none, are versatile, or live a 24/7 Dom-sub relationship, it’s only romantic if the reader can believe that both men are full parties to the initial decision-making.
There are several great M/M books featuring main characters with Asperger’s or autism or similar challenges. Some of these guys start out dealing with their love interest from a very skewed perspective. A sexual or romantic statement from a typical guy may be totally misread by a character on the autism spectrum. These men can have a very difficult time correctly reading the emotions of those around them.
So, can consent be full and real, when two people are coming into love and sex with a very different emotional understanding? Books like “Mnevermind”, “Two Steps Back”, “Carry the Ocean”, and “In the Absence of Light” give us characters who are challenged in these areas, yet who feel like full and equal partners. They do it in different ways, including the dreamworld of mnemography in the Jordan Castillo Price series, or Lyn Gala’s hero’s BDSM contract that gives him relationship control. The talent of many authors shows it can be done, and done well.
Sometimes it’s a close call. In “Ethan, Who Loved Carter” one main character is permanently brain injured. Some of his responses to life are very child-like. And yet he has a warm heart and an adult body, and in meeting the other main character – a guy living with Tourette’s – he finds a kindred heart. Is he really equal enough for this to be an adult, permanent relationship? You read it and decide. But the author walks an admirable and difficult line, making the disability believable, and consistent (and NOT cured by true love.) And yet giving the MCs enough competence and autonomy to live a full life.
This question is on my mind because I just released the second Tracefinder book. In the first book, readers meet Brian, who is also Bry. Or who acts as Bry, a simple-minded, easily distracted soul, whose childlike innocence has been a shield against recognizing the bad things going on around him.
When Nick meets Brian/Bry in his undercover work, he’s not sure what to make of him. Is Brian a smart guy just acting dumb? Is he dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder – a real split personality? Is he so stressed with something like PTSD that he has mental breaks? When Brian is alert and aware, is he competent to make life-changing decisions?
Brian himself is still battling those issues, wondering just how crazy he really is. Some of the possible answers don’t let Nick feel right about beginning a sexual relationship with Brian. And yet as they get to know each other, they do eventually have sex. Is that okay? Was there real consent? Does Brian’s being the instigator, the more aggressive one in bed, or in the hallway, make it better? (We tend to do this with our challenged characters, since it removes a portion of the consent concern. And yet, a fourteen-year-old might push an adult for sex, which still doesn’t make it right to give in. It may be a helpful factor, but it’s not sufficient.) Consent is an issue we each deal with in writing our atypical heroes.
I left the question still slightly up in the air at the end of Tracefinder: Contact, Book 1. For some readers, it was up in the air enough to bother them. In Tracefinder: Changes, Book 2, I moved forward with Brian/Bry’s self-awareness, Nick’s understanding, and the footing of the relationship. I wanted to make the guys more equal, without abruptly changing or “curing” Brian. He has a long road to walk, from his damaged beginnings to full partnership, and I tried to share that with readers, as he shares it with Nick. Did I succeed? That’s going to be for readers to decide. I hope most of you enjoy my atypical heroes, as Brian and Nick journey from confusion and dark places, into a brighter life together.
Here’s an excerpt from Tracefinder: Changes, Book 2. (This is from Chapter 1, very minor spoilers) After Brian tries to Find a woman with his psychic talent, and fails to reach her before she dies, he has an emotional crash. Nick is scared enough by Brian’s shocky reaction that he decides to call for help. Dr. Murphy, the police psychiatrist who once evaluated Brian, is in his contacts list…
Dr. Murphy arrived before the pizza did. Nick opened the door, feeling both stupid and relieved. “He’s in the living room. Go a bit slow till the dog gets to know you.”
She came inside, her eyes on Luger. The dog lifted his head, intent on the stranger in his territory. He didn’t growl, but his fixed stare was far from friendly.
“Maybe the dog could go outside? There’s a good chance Brian will act upset. I don’t want problems if the dog’s protective.”
“Sure. It’s his dinnertime anyway.” Luger couldn’t be lured away from Brian by filling his bowl with kibble, but when Nick ordered him outside, in his no-nonsense cop voice, he reluctantly jumped off the couch and stalked to the back door. Nick put the food out with him and came back in.
Dr. Murphy still stood in the doorway, looking at Brian. Nick said, “I ordered pizza. Should be here soon.”
“I hope you got plenty of toppings. You’ll owe me.” Her voice was neither loud, nor hushed. She took a step into the living room and said clearly, “Hey, Brian. Good to see you again.”
Brian jolted hard and looked up, blinking fast. Nick cheered internally for her getting any freaking reaction, even if it was Brian’s eyes widening with anxiety.
Dr. Murphy said, “I didn’t realize you two knew each other. How are you?”
Brian’s lips moved, like he was speaking, but no words came out. His breathing sped up, his chest heaving.
“You look upset.” Murphy’s comment was a simple statement, no judgment in her tone, but Brian shoved himself back deeper into the couch.
He glanced between her and Nick wildly, flapped a hand at her, then squeaked out, “Go away!”
“I just want to make sure—”
“No! I won’t go back!”
“To the hospital. I won’t!”
Nick said, “Of course not. What the hell?”
Brian turned on him. “Why’d you bring her here? Whywhywhy?”
“I was worried, all right?” Was Brian so far out of it he really hadn’t noticed the last hour? At least he was jolted out of that silence now. “She’s a shrink. I thought if you were ignoring me, maybe you’d talk to her.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.” Brian went paler, if there was such a thing as paler than paper white. “You had no right.”
“Well, if you’d fucking answered my questions I wouldn’t have had to. You don’t get to go all catatonic on me, and then act mad when I get—” scared “—worried.”
Dr. Murphy put in, “This has nothing to do with the hospital. Nick promised to feed me pizza. How could I say no? I hate cooking at the end of a long day.”
Brian frowned, and scrubbed at his face with a shaking hand.
“Yeah.” Nick tried to sound more ordinary. “You gonna eat some? I got your favorite stuff on it.”
“Pizza?” Brian glanced around like he might see it. He rubbed his eyes more gently, and his breath hiccuped, then steadied.
“It’s not here yet.”
“Can I sit down, at least?” Dr. Murphy moved a step farther into the living room, still casual. “Till the food arrives?”
Nick shifted foot to foot. Maybe Brian would feel better without him hovering. “I’ll go, um, pick up dog poop in the yard. Hasn’t been done in a few days.” It probably said something about his state of mind that he’d rather volunteer for turd duty than watch Brian act crazy.
“Don’t!” Brian sat up straighter and fixed his gaze on him. “Stay here.”
“You could talk to her. She’s a good listener. You won’t want an audience.”
“Although I don’t care, either way.” Dr. Murphy settled herself in the armchair. “I’m mostly here for the pizza. This isn’t a formal counseling session.”
“Stay, Nick,” Brian commanded, sounding more himself than he had all afternoon. Nick grudgingly sat on the arm of the couch at the other end from Brian, where he wouldn’t do something dumb like touch him.
“I hear you had a tough day,” Dr. Murphy said to the space between them.
Brian muttered, “I’m okay.”
“You’re not fucking okay.” Nick winced, but plowed on. “I mean, this was rough. I can tell. You should talk to the Doc. She might help.”
“No one can help.” Brian blinked, and his eyes went shiny. “The mom died.”
She flicked a glance at Nick. “Someone you know, Brian?”
“No. I just… I should’ve saved her. I should’ve been faster.”
“Brian!” It occurred to Nick he’d been reacting, not thinking— scared for Brian and calling in help, without considering what secrets might come out. I’m such a fucking screw-up lately! “It was a police case, Doc. He had a good idea about a solution, but, you know, getting experts to listen to an outsider is hard. We didn’t get his idea to the right person in time.”
She glanced at him. “And someone died?”
“This is confidential, right? I mean, you won’t go telling anyone?”
“Brian’s not my patient, but yes, I promise. Within the usual limits.”
“Not that it’s a big secret. Fuck.” He bit his lip. “So yeah, we think someone died because we were too slow.” The look Brian turned on him held such betrayal in it that he added, “I mean, yes. She did.” It might not be official, but if he started doubting Brian’s talent now, he’d go crazy himself.
Dr. Murphy said, “That’s hard. Feeling like you failed someone.”
After a long silence, Brian said, “Yes.”
She nodded slowly. “As a therapist, I’ve failed to save people. Over the years, I’ve had more than one patient who killed themselves, despite everything I could do.”
“You have?” Brian looked shocked. “But… if you were looking after them?”
“I try. My goal is to help people learn to help themselves. But I can’t be there every minute of every day for everyone. Sometimes people fall into the darkness and forget there’s light on the other side.” She tilted her head. “You ever feel like that? Like you can’t go on? Like it’s not worth trying?”
“Like… killing myself?” Brian’s expression was sharper every minute. Nick would’ve cheered if he wasn’t waiting for that answer.
Nick only realized he was holding his breath by how tight his chest got before Brian said, “Yeah, sure, I bet everyone does. But not seriously. If I was gonna, I’d have done it a long time ago.”
“You’re pretty strong,” Dr. Murphy said. “But no one can be strong all the time. Not even Nick. Not even you. That’s when you ask for some help.”
“I don’t need help.” He rubbed his palms absently up and down his thighs.
Nick said, “I went to Dr. Murphy a while back. For counseling, you know? Something bad went down, a really brutal murder scene. We all went, every single cop on that case.”
Brian’s expression was shrewd. “Because someone made you go?”
Nick coughed to cover a laugh. There was his real Brian. “Yeah, maybe. Still, sometimes that’s what it takes to realize you need it.”
“I need to not screw up so much.” Brian rubbed his thighs faster, bowing his head. “I need to be better, like a real grown-up.”
Dr. Murphy said, “You’ve been out of the hospital how long? Cut yourself a break.”
“You don’t know.”
“So find someone you can tell about it. All the details. Someone to talk to properly. I’ll find you a qualified referral.” Dr. Murphy glanced at Nick and back to Brian, asking him directly, “Do you have an email? Health insurance?”
“I have insurance. Damon made sure I had it. It lasts till the end of the year. No email. I can’t read it anyway.”
She nodded. “If you’re willing to sign a release of information form for Nick, I can email to him as your contact.”
“See? I’m not a whole person yet.” Brian clenched his teeth. “I can’t do simple stuff.”
“You have a disability. That’s what your dyslexia is. If you were in a wheelchair, would you get mad if I said Nick could reach down things from the top shelf for you?”
They all hesitated, then laughed together. For the first time since he’d walked in the front door with Brian, Nick felt some of the tension ease out of his spine. “I have a laptop and printer. Is there a way I can print out a form for that now?”
“Good idea. They’re available online.”
It took the next ten minutes for him to fetch the computer, get on his Wi-Fi, find the relevant forms with the doc’s help, and print them. Dr. Murphy had Brian sign a couple of different forms, reading each one out loud before Brian scrawled his name. Every minute, more color came back into Brian’s face. When they were done, she put the papers in her purse. “Hopefully my top choice for you will have an opening. If not, I’ll recommend someone else. But Brian?”
She was silent until he looked up to meet her gaze. “Yeah?”
“If the first therapist doesn’t work out, don’t give up. All right? Think of a therapist as a pair of boots to help you walk a thousand-mile journey. You want support and comfort, not too hard, not too sloppy. You can look at the pictures and read the reviews, but you can’t tell how those boots will fit your feet. Say you picked out the first pair, and they started to pinch your toes after five miles, you wouldn’t go another nine hundred in them. And you wouldn’t give up and try to do it barefoot. You’d go looking for new boots with a better fit.”
Tracefinder; Changes is available at All Romance ebooks, Amazon, Smashwords and other ebook vendors.
list of mentioned books:
Blame It on the Mistletoe by Eli Easton
Family Unit by Z.A. Maxfield
Strawberries for Dessert by Marie Sexton
Caught by A.B. Gayle
The Burnt Toast B&B by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz
Afflicted by Brandon Shire
Jack: Grime and Punishment by Z.A. Maxfield
Protection by S.A. Reid
Mnevermind series by Jordan Castillo Price (book 1 = The Persistence of Memory)
Two Steps Back by Lyn Gala
Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan
In the Absence of Light by Adrienne Wilder
Ethan, Who Loved Carter by Ryan Loveless