Yentas and matchmakers

This post came about through an interconnected chain of thoughts — bear with me. *g* I started out pondering the way that female characters are typically characterized in m/m (and I’m not just talking original m/m, but fanfic slash as well). One of my sources of frustration with reading original m/m is that it’s tough to find any with female characters that aren’t cardboard stereotypes. Women in most m/m are typically relegated to the role of “bitch” (homophobic boss, jealous ex-girlfriend; a harridan with few to no redeeming qualities), or, the best you can usually hope for, the supportive friend whose main role in the story is to try to convince the two guys that they are perfect for each other.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter — I’d much prefer it to the former — but I noticed when I was writing Homespun (the m/m novella that I’m presently shopping around) that Laura, the grown daughter of one of the two main male protagonists and the only female character with more than one or two lines, was coming across very strongly as the yenta/matchmaker trope. This a) gave me some insight into why that trope bothers me, even though it’s a positive one, and b) some ideas on how to fix it.

It bothers me, I think, because the yenta/matchmaker character has no life of her own other than to counsel and support the protagonist and tell him what he wants (or needs) to hear. She can be sassy and snarky, or she can be kind and supportive, but either way she’s basically the female equivalent of the “sexless gay best friend” trope. Her life doesn’t matter, and in any case is only hinted at. She’s not a character, she’s a vehicle for pushing the story forward.

And what frustrated me with Laura is that I couldn’t figure out how not to do that. You never really get to see Laura’s life away from her dad, and that’s not what’s important to the story, anyway. It’s only 25K long; there really isn’t enough space to give Laura a whole subplot of her own, and in any case, it would be a distraction from the main plot. I could show a little of Laura doing her own thing, and I tried to do that — you see Laura working on the farm, or interacting with the other male main character, her dad’s boyfriend Kerry. But there was still something flat about the way her scenes were coming across.

And that’s when I got to thinking that the yenta/matchmaking/best friend is basically a stand-in for the author’s shipper tendencies. They’re the author’s shipper-voice, and that’s exactly how they come across. Their whole purpose in the plot is to smooth over the rough places in the romance — to get the couple pointed back in the right direction. And that’s exactly how they read. They’re not a character but a plot device.

Think about this: your best friend, sister, brother, aunt, etc. comes to you for commiseration and advice after running into romantic problems. In romance-novel world, this is usually because Boyfriend X did something rude or mean, or turned out to be something other than how they represented themselves, or appears to have a whole other spouse stashed somewhere, etc etc. Here’s what you don’t do: spend the whole evening talking up the charms of Boyfriend X and attempting to talk your friend into going back to him. Because that makes you a very bad friend. Instead you offer a shoulder to cry on, agree that X is indeed a rat bastard of the first order, and then start trying to look at the situation more rationally and figure out solutions.

You never see the yenta/matchmaker/best-friend character reacting defensively on behalf of the character they’re close to, and closing ranks against the love interest. In real life, that’s typically how things go down. Your friend is hurt in a relationship; you rally together with them, support them, and (depending on how bad it was) may even try to talk them out of going back to Rat Bastard X.

I think the reason why I have a knee-jerk “… annoy!” reaction to the yenta trope is because the character is not behaving like a real person would under those circumstances. They are acting as a plot device and authorial stand-in. The author loves the love interest, and wants the couple to end up together, so the yenta character does too.

Obviously you can go too far in the opposite direction and accidentally end up with the “bitch” trope instead, if they do nothing but complain about Boyfriend X and try to talk the other character out of the relationship.

But what ultimately ended up making me feel a lot better about Laura is just getting inside her head and trying to think about how Laura feels about her dad’s relationship with his boyfriend, and then having her act accordingly. She likes Kerry, and gets along well with him, but she’s also a little bit jealous of her dad, because she’s had him all to herself for most of her life, and now she has to share. And most of all, she doesn’t want to see her dad get hurt. So when her dad and Kerry fight, she’s going to come down on her dad’s side, not because she dislikes Kerry and wants him to go away, but because she’s worried about her dad getting his heart broken. And she’s going to be a little stiff and weird around Kerry while they’re fighting, because he hurt her dad and she’s having a hard time getting past that.

I’m still not sure if Laura entirely escapes the yenta/matchmaking-best-friend trope; she still doesn’t get as much development and dimensionality as the guys do. But it’s not her story, after all. And getting inside her head, having Laura act like Laura would act under those circumstances, rather than how I want her to act for plot purposes, makes her feel a lot more fleshed-out and real to me.

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I'm a writer and artist living in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Posted in Books - Mine, Homespun, Romance, Tropes, Writing

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