We’ve been on a rolicking adventure with various posts about Writerly Gaslighting and show-don’t-tell lo these last few months, from situational bobbles to those ostensibly “strong, smart heroines” the Romance genre promotes but doesn’t always deliver.
Which brings us at last to the MMC.
More than any element in a romance, it’s the MMC who gets all kinds of behavior excused, from bad to dangerous to illegal, simply because he’s the MMC. It’s not enough, it’s never enough, to just say “But he loves her!” And yet, both IRL as well as in fiction, this is often all that’s required, despite what’s demonstrated by a guy’s actions. The MMC can literally threaten every element of a woman’s life and well-being, but if he loves her (and if he’s hot and the sex is good), well, okay, then!
Let’s explore some specifics to see if we’re reading or creating MMCs that have compelling character arcs, or who function in the story as a legitimate love interest.
What does the text show versus what does it tell re: the oh-so-desirable MMC?
What do our MMCs do? How does an MMC act? How does he act towards and with the FMC? Is he derisive in response to her? How does he answer when she asks questions? He says he loves her, but what does that mean to him? How does he treat her? He says he’s never felt like this before, but what do we see? Does he genuinely respect her? Encourage her? Or has he created her in a specific image, does he only see what he wants to see in her? What do they fight about? What are their conflicts, and how are they resolved? He claims he’s “overwhelmed” by his feelings for her, but why, and what does that mean? Do they have anything in common other than fucking? (Note: her wanting to save him is not “something in common.”)
Is he sensitive, scared, brooding, protective, a “flawed hero,” “edgy,” all the buzzwords… or is he just an asshole? Or worse, a sociopath?
Warning: this post will be heavy on the Christian Grey, because Christian Grey is ultimate case study for this shit. Christian Grey is everything wrong with MMCs portrayed as “romantic” or “nontraditional” or a “flawed hero” when everything they fucking do is selfish at best, abuse at worst, AND IT NEVER REALLY CHANGES. And it makes for melodramatic bad writing along with it. This is also why, in my IRL writing groups, one of my go-to editorial comments when beta-ing is to flag an MMC’s actions or qualities as “UCG,” or “Unintentional Christian Grey.” A writer has likely intended to show ___, but unfortunately veered into creepy-abuse territory by engaging one of these overused, sloppy-shorthand tropes about love = obsession.
They meant the MMC to look and sound sexy, but in actuality, he comes across as threatening, scary, manipulative, even abusive.
Fans protest, of course. We just don’t get it! He’s so sensitive and caring! It’s not threatening or criminal, it’s sexy! He’s a strong, dominant man! He’s jealous because he cares! It’s the only way he knows how to act in these situations! He has such a good heart underneath it all! He’s just hurt and needs her love to heal him-
However, interrogate this even just a little, and it is unsupportable. This behavior is not love. This is not him caring or being passionate or falling in love. Dude’s just a completely abusive, spoiled, dickhead brat.
Jedi-hand-wave it all you want, but no. No.
Sometimes the MMC will just tell us outright he’s an asshole and isn’t going to change. Especially if a novel includes his POV or interior insights, the reader has the opportunity to hear what he has to say firsthand… and we can also see if he’s being forthright or manipulative with the FMC. We can take him at his word:
- “I decide to try a gentle, wheedling approach with her, and give her my most charming smile.”
- “Are you… sore?’ he asked her. That’s right, baby, he thought. You’ll learn. You’ll have to get used to it.
- “He dropped his hunt gear in an untidy heap on the stable floor. The boy could take care of it.”
- “Sir Andrew was surprised to feel a sting of guilt as Eloisa looked up at him with fear in her eyes. It wasn’t a familiar feeling.”
- “I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed fucking her. Women usually bore me. They’re just a means to an end.”
- “He tensed. He wasn’t used to a woman talking with him like this, like she was equal to him. He was used to women doing what he said, when he said it.”
- “She irritated me. She was too sweet, too pure. You can’t go through life that way, sweetheart, I think, and have an urge to disillusion her, wake to the way the world really works.”
- “I thrust into her all the harder, despite her pleas for me to go slow and be gentle. I’m not here to be slow and gentle.”
But it’s more than just “does he show us he’s an asshole in the text with his actions?”
Does his asshole attitude really change, after all? Does he explore it? Does he confront it? Does the FMC challenge or call him on it?
Do his actions show it? Does he follow through? Is he genuinely and thoroughly different by the end of the story? Or even by the time the FMC falls in love with or commits to him?
Or is it all token lip service because what’s really important is he’s sooo hot and rich and they’re gonna fuck again?
It is also important to see and interrogate how the FMC reacts to his assholishness. Does she notice it? Start to rationalize it? Accept it? What does he do if she challenges him on it?
More often than not (especially with the Alpha Male trends in the genre), if she loves him and/or the sex is good, then everything is good. He’s not an asshole, you guys! He just has quirks, or is tough, or doesn’t gladly suffer fools, that’s all!
His abusive behavior is treated not like a problem, but like this is charming proof that he’s willing to work for her attention.
And no. Hard no. Stop. Red. Mercy. Safeword.
The FMC’s obsession with and desire for the MMC doesn’t automatically make him a good person, a good partner, a good man, or even a good MMC. Even if the FMC is the sweetest, kindest woman on the planet, it doesn’t make him good if she’s fallen in love with him. Even if she’s tough-talking, or comes when he goes down on her, or owns her own business, unless his asshole behavior really changes, it doesn’t make him good, or non-abusive, or not a complete shitstain.
Sometimes the FMC is the one who hangs a big ol’ red flag for us on the awfulness, on the problems with the relationship, or with the MMC’s behavior. What does the FMC tell us? What do her actions show? For example, if she is terrified of him, intimidated, shrinks away, always looks scared or upset, “goes weak,” feels that he is “bad for” her or “dangerous,” even after they are supposedly sexually involved and/or in love? THOSE WORDS AND EMOTIONS MEAN THINGS.
Does the FMC say or think things like:
- “I want to die if he doesn’t love me. Without him, my world is utterly empty, bereft of joy and meaning.”
- “No man has ever made me feel these things, and I know no other man ever could.”
- For the first time, Lisa felt like a normal, special, desireable woman worthy of love.
- She couldn’t believe he had let her leave the house dressed that way/drink that much/stay out that late/go to ___ place
- “I don’t think he’ll hurt me. Not this time, not this way.”
- “I don’t really know him that well. He has so many secrets.”
- She ignored the voice in her head telling her to run, to get away. That she was only going to end up on the losing end of this arrangement.
- “I want him to love me. I want to be his.”
- “She hesitated to mention it. They had been getting along so well lately, and this would ruin all of that.”
- “I can’t say no to him.”
If your FMC has a big, bold realization about the MMC that “I want to please him. I want to make him happy”…? It’s not healthy (and not empowering), not if it’s too soon, or that’s all there is, or it’s not mutual, or if making him happy makes her unhappy. Not only is this not love, intimacy, or romantic, it’s a sign your FMC should be talking to a trained professional therapist about her self-esteem issues before considering a romantic relationship. If this is the way the MMC makes the FMC feel, it’s not okay or sexy or romantic or hot just because he has a tight ass, a lot of money, or a castle in the Highlands.
What if we can’t trust the FMC to understand the real threats? What if, due to a variety of reasons, from bad writing to inadvertent misattribution to sexism, we can’t trust the FMC’s viewpoint, can’t trust what she tells us? What if what we see is in direct conflict with what she’s telling us? Like when a certain “heroine” of a certain best-selling series is all swoony and touched and impressed that the MMC, who she isn’t even dating yet, has stalked her and shown up where she is because he “cares enough to come and rescue me from some mistakenly perceived danger.”
Wouldn’t it be better if he AND she actually understood what was really endangering the heroine? Namely, HIM. He stalks her, kidnaps her, ignores her stated boundaries, assumes he has rights to her, assumes he is the only one to determine if she needed “rescuing”… and that he was the only one who could perform such a great and noble act.
The “perceived danger” is a red herring. The MMC’s behavior is entirely inappropriate and often illegal, no matter what the context.
He does not have a right to decide for her if she is in danger or what is/isn’t for her own good. He does not have the right to monitor her food intake or her weight. He does not have the right to remove her from one location where her friends are to his own place. He does not have the right to dictate what she drives, what she wears, how she fucks, and if/what kind of birth control she uses. No, not even if he “really cares” or “this is all he knows.” Not if she’s in love with him and committed to him and, in a state of vaginal wetness and pure love and trust, she decides he probably does have these rights over her because that’s soooo romantic. No, because SHE IS STILL A SEPARATE ADULT HUMAN BEING AND THE ONUS IS ON HIM TO GROW THE FUCK UP AND RECOGNIZE THAT, NOT HER TO MANAGE HIS NEUROSES. Either that, or for them to join a far-right conservative religious organization.
Sure, there are things that can be plot points, things that can show character development. There are real ways to do the whole “flawed hero” thing. One or two might be work-able, if it is something that legitimately changes. (“You’re right, this is going too fast. Let’s slow down.” “I guess I didn’t realize how possessive and jealous I was acting. I’m sorry, I won’t ever do it again.”) But more than a couple of these, and you aren’t writing a romance with a flawed protagonist, you’re writing a potential murder or citation for domestic violence or something better suited to a religious situation where the female is always unquestioningly in submission to the male head of the household.
Too many of these things, and the MMC isn’t a romantic hero. He’s an abuser.
Some time ago, in a romance writing group, a couple of fellow writers and I did a thorough investigation of repeated MMC behaviors/qualities/characteristics in the genre that keep popping up and being portrayed as sexy, cute, endearing, or the pinnacles of romantic behavior. And most of these qualities also pop up on lists of warning signs that you might be in an abusive relationship.
I turned it into a working outline for my own purposes, so here’s the quick list. Does the MMC have any of the following traits?
- Explosive temper
- Deadly calm and control
- Especially the above things in combination
- Under-the-breath comments, or outright ones, “I’m a bad guy,” “He’d kill me if he knew what I wanted to do to you.” If someone tells you what they are, BELIEVE THEM
- Expensive gifts: creates sense of obligation. Manipulation tactic
- Not respecting boundaries
- pushing when she says “no”
- Deception/lies/something hidden, “secretive past”
- Fast-tracking relationships. If you go from “Hi, I’m Jane/Joe” to “We must marry and can never be apart!” in less than a month, hell, in less than a few months, that’s a problem, not romance!
- Always describes most women in negative terms, condescending
- “Psycho-bitch” exes
- Coerced consent
- Double standards re: others “taking from her,” etc.
- Using alcohol, drugs, sex, or other means to alter or control another’s consciousness (see “coerced consent”)
- Rampant insecurity
- Him telling her what she does/doesn’t enjoy, wants/doesn’t want, needs/doesn’t need
- He treats her (or they treat each other) like an object
- Trying to change him/her
- Close friends/family don’t like or trust him and/or they have a bad relationship with their family
- He hates all her friends/family, or makes nasty comments about them
- He tells her that her family/friends don’t have her real concerns at heart, like he does. The don’t know her as well as he does
- He doesn’t have any real friends
- Interfering with her work (regardless of his reason/intention)
- Treats others, especially service workers or people who are considered “inferior” or “minorities,” with contempt
- No genuine apologies; “I don’t say I’m sorry.”
- Constantly butting heads/arguing with her
IRL, if your partner regularly displays several of these behaviors or characteristics, it is a sign that you are in a harmful relationship. What is up with it suddenly, magically being a sign of All Things Romantic when it’s in fiction, and he’s hot/rich/a cowboy/a Navy special ops combat medic/a vampire? Why isn’t the FMC responding like a healthy woman should to his behaviors?
Too often, these traits are used as shorthand for character development, and end up demonstrating something else entirely.
A writer intends the MMC to be a powerful and/or aristocratic man who does not tolerate foolishness and won’t waste his time on meaningless things… so MMC is curt and dismissive, and snaps at his manservant or restaurant servers or business colleagues or guests at a party. He feels alone in the world… so his interior monologues are full of contemptuous thoughts about his family or the people around him, and has no true friends, he is a lone wolf in the sheepyard. He’s hurt and sensitive and in pain… so he talks about his slutty whore bitch of an ex. He throws things and slams his fist into the wall and drives/rides a horse like a demon because he’s “mercurial” and “feels things deeply.” He rages at the FMC for questioning his business tactics or how he treats the farmers in his village because he is used to doing things his way, dammit!
And no. These things just comes across as him looking like a complete asshole.
Hell, even if he’s the most abused, lonely, sensitive, tragical MMC in the whole wide world, that does not give him license to act like this and treat others this way. He does not get to abuse and harm others because he was abused, FFS! And it does not magically become non-abuse when he does it because he was once abused, either! What kind of logic is that?!
If you want the “flawed hero” shit to work, then the hero has to actually recognize and change those flaws. The plot should not be that the FMC learns to accept his twisted way of loving her. If it is a romance-centric story with a HEA ending, the plot should be that he learns how and why this is wrong, and learns how to express love in new, healthy, mutually-positive ways. It is not romantic or healthy or powerful that the FMC instead learns to tolerate the same flaws that actually endanger her physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.
Let’s see what else we’ve got that falls under the “telling, not showing” headline. Let’s see what else might be a character, an author, and/or a fanbase trying to convince us that what we’ve read in the text doesn’t actually mean what it says in the text, because, um… well….
First, the MMC wanting to fuck the FMC doesn’t show us anything except that he wants to fuck her. That’s it. This is one of the main reasons why the “but he really loves her!” excuse just doesn’t fly in regards to assholey and abusive behavior. If we are to believe this is true and passionate love, or sex unlike it’s been with anyone else, we have to see it and see why. The fact that the cruel, selfish, takes-no-prisoners MMC has an erection over the FMC is part of the problem, not a sign of the solution. And if we as readers have seen no reason whatsoever why the MMC is interested in the FMC, aside from the author telling us that he is, it does not work.
So if you’re going to write an asshole MMC whose whole life is turned around by his relationship with the FMC, you are going to have to 1) do real work to demonstrate why and how it happens, 2) show it happening all the way to completion, and 3) make why and how it’s a positive thing for both parties of the MC part of the plot. Because these days with the market being what it is, it’s really, really not a positive thing.
The gaslighting thing goes even further when the MMC engages in these too-common, sloppy shorthand, red-flag, and/or outright abusive MMC tactics.
Slut-shaming/judging the FMC for her sexual experience or lack of experience
Sure, the author “didn’t mean it that way!” (Where have we heard that before?) But the effects are the same: if the MMC makes judgements or comparisons about thr FMC’s experiences, especially if there are not similar standards for his sexual behaviors, that has connotations. It often sounds like no matter what the FMC does, her sexuality is not entirely hers. She has value for the MMC because of her hymen, or her ability to give him a blow job, or her willingness to perform certain sex acts with him. She should be proud/ashamed based on what he thinks of her experiences.
The MMC can shame the FMC, either deliberately or unwittingly, when he articulates any of the following ideas. What are the effects?
- “Her innocence is arousing.” “She’s a virgin? Why? What am I doing with her? What is she doing with me?” “The good news is, at least I don’t have to worry about sexually transmitted diseases.” “She didn’t seem like the kind of young lady who had been kissed often, he mused.”
Okay then, what’s going to happen when she’s no longer innocent? Does the MMC only get off on innocents? What problems does he have with a sexually experienced woman? And doesn’t she have to worry about his STIs?
- “Has she done this before? Does she make a habit of this?” “She’s surrounded by guys, and I’m jealous.”“The thought of her with someone else filled him with rage.” “You must have guys all over you.” “Other men are looking at her, and I feel fury bubble. She belongs to me.”
It’s a double standard that he can look at her but others can’t, he can do these things but she can’t. And before you say “It’s different, he respects her!” no. No. Not if he’s thinking things like this, he doesn’t.
- “You have this effect on me. I can’t concentrate” “She’s doing this to me on purpose!”
Especially if he has no way of knowing that she’s doing this to him on purpose, it’s creepy. These kinds of things, blaming her for his responses, or his lack of control, places this firmly in rape culture territory.
- Why hasn’t she left me yet?” “She’s here. Even though I’ve __ and __, she hasn’t run from me.”
So… have others run from the MMC? Is that the implication? Because my thought isn’t “Oh, this poor, tortured guy, I’m so glad she’s giving him a chance!” but rather, “Maybe she should be running, too.”
Unless these elements go somewhere and the MMC deals with his possessiveness or his insecurities about her sexuality, her autonomy, it just makes him look like an asshole.
These are things that can be confronted in a historical novel, framed within the society at the time. But the fact that in 2017, we’re dealing with real fallout of adult men thinking they have the right to police and judge women’s sexuality and what we do with our bodies makes a lot of this shit read less “sexy!” and more “We are living in the Republic of Gilead for reals.”
This is one of my biggest peeves with MMCs, kind of the counterpoint to the “smart FMC” who never actually does anything smart: the MMC who is so funny and witty and has such a great sense of humor… but we have seen zero evidence of this in the text. The FMC sighs and marvels that “He’s so gentle and funny,” or “I love his quick wit, his sense of humor.”
Yet what do we see the MMC doing that is “funny” in the text?
Like, the few times he laughs, it’s him laughing at someone else, and it’s usually the FMC, for one of her infractions or her naivete or somesuch. You know, that isn’t “humor.” And that isn’t love. That’s being an asshole.
Does the “humorous” MMC regularly make the FMC feel self-conscious? Does he mock her about sexual things or her “innocence”? Does he embarrass her, or make her feel stupid? Does he pull practical jokes at her expense? Does he make asides to other people in the room about her that make her feel this way, and then grin? Is he only “lighthearted” or “laughing and joking” when he’s gotten his own way or is in control?
Does he get mad when she teases him or jokes? Does he bristle, “Is she laughing at me?” or get angry that she is acting disrespectful, or childish? Does he claim to love her sense of humor or that she teases him, and then gets mad at her for “not taking him seriously”?
Does he make jokes that aren’t funny, that aren’t actually jokes at all? Does he have “joking” ways of referring to her as “princess” or “wench” or “slave” or “kitten,” things that aren’t really affectionate in context, things that feel mean-spirited, or are meant to remind her that he’s the one in charge in their relationship, or is indicative of the way he treats her? Does he “joke” about hurting her, kidnapping her, raping her, selling her, prostituting her, watching other men do things to her, etc.? Does he sneak up on her? Try to keep her guessing? Play “witty” word games meant to disarm her, or keep her on the defense? Does he say or do things that are threatening, or testing her boundaries, but we’re told are “a joke” or “teasing,” even if she’s not sure herself? Even if she’s intimidated, hurt, or frightened by it?
No. Not “humor.” Not cute. Not witty.
Displaying basic human decency should not be the most amazing thing ever for the MMC to do
The text includes the FMC gushing over the wonderful things that the MMC does (even if sometimes the text doesn’t show him doing those things in the first place). But okay, sure, the FMC thinks that it’s above and beyond magnificence that, say, he is so sweet to his sister, or that he let the stable groom go visit his sick father, or that she and he went grocery shopping or fixed breakfast together. How it is just amazing that he tells her she looks lovely in that green gown, or remembered that her favorite book of all time is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is the pinnacle of love that he picks her up for a date, or pours the glass of wine for her, or is wearing a tie. It’s so romantic that he treats her with, um, fundamental consideration and acts like a mature and responsible adult.
- “He was so sweet last night, so patient with me and my fears.”
- He held the chair for me, and inside, I melted. How charming! How positively courtly!
- “Here, baby,” he said, passing the plate to her with a smile.
- “Tell me what you want, Lady Jane,” the duke whispered against her ear.
- Even though I can see that he is aroused, he takes a seat across the table from me instead of pressing the issue.
I mean, come on! What does he deserve, a gold fucking star?
Because this is the way a normal human being should act.
The fact that there are thousands of readers willing to ignore Christian Grey’s (or other Alpha heroes’) right-there-on-the-page abuse time and again because he “always holds the door open for her, like a gentleman!” and he “put all those songs on an iPad playlist for her!” and he “clearly cares about his housekeeper and his bodyguard, soooo sweet!1!” is insane. Is the bar really set that low-
I guess I’ve known enough man-children and baby girl-women to understand that, yeah, maybe a partner who is considerate, mature, and grown up IS a high standard. *sigh*
But this doesn’t give it a free pass from scrutiny in our fiction.
Additionally, if the FMC (or reader) is marveling at how wondrous and unexpected it is that the MMC did something considerate, kind, or mindful, that indicates a problem. It sounds like the FMC is all, “He’s normally a complete dick, but at least this one time, he’s not raping or hitting or harassing me or taking over my business/estate! He’s not being his usually horrible self, like he is with others, but he’s doing something for meeeeee like a rational, considerate human being would do, so I TOTALLY WIN!”
What about his responses to her? How does the MMC tell-versus-show things to the FMC in the text? Get that shovel, and let’s dig in.
How does he respond to her? Does he listen? Does he dismiss her feelings? Does he get mad about them? Debate them? Negotiate with her about them?
If she says “no,” what happens? How does he act? What does he do?
What have we seen over and over in genre romance texts?
- FMC:“That feels wrong.” “I’m not comfortable with this.”
- MMC: “Let me do this for you.” “I can afford it, so don’t worry.” “Trust me.”
- FMC: “I don’t really want to-”
- MMC: “Be brave and just try it. You never know until you try.” “For me, darling. Try it for me.” “Do you think I’d hurt you?”
- FMC: “No.”
- MMC: “Why not? You haven’t given me a good reason.” “I know better. Your body, your eyes, are all saying yes.”
- FMC: “This isn’t a good idea-”
MMC: “How can I persuade you to ___?” “What can I say to convince you?”
- FMC: “I don’t think I want to do this.”
- MMC: “Then don’t think.”
- FMC: “I’m not ready for that kind of step.”
- MMC: “Ahhh, do I smell a challenge?”
How does the MMC react when he hears the word “no,” in general? What about when the FMC says it to him? Does he listen to her and obey, or is her refusal seen as silly feminine capriciousness, an obstacle for him to overcome? Her testing him? “He leaned even closer and growled in her ear, ‘I know you don’t really mean that, milady.” “‘No!’ she cried again, but he pinned her hands down. ‘I’m not used to taking no for an answer, sweetheart.’” “I blink in astonishment. What the hell does she mean, ‘no’?”
IT MEANS NO AND SHE MEANS IT AND IT IS NOT UP FOR DEBATE, GOD FUCKING DAMN IT. NO MEANS NO MEANS NO MEANS NO, AND WHEN YOU HEAR IT, YOU BACK THE FUCK OFF.
I MEAN, HOW FUCKING HARD IS THIS SHIT FOR PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND?!
I suspect I should keep the basket of Ragecaps (™) within reach as we continue….