Monday 8 March 2010


Kris did an excellent post on this subject a few weeks ago. And I've seen a couple of other bloggers tackle it as well. It can be an emotive subject (and there are subjects I avoid reading about so I completely understand that) but I'm going to look at it more from an objective point of view - can it/does it/should it work in romantic fiction. This is where I immediately contradict myself. I don't seek out romantic fiction, by that I mean category/standalone contemporary and historical m/f. I prefer stories where relationships evolve organically over the course of two or more books rather than being constrained by HAVING to provide a happily ever after at page 350. My main reading (if you didn't already know) is fantasy, urban fantasy and dark fantasy, my contemporary romantic fiction is mainly m/m. But I think regardless of genre my opinion on infidelity between partners in fiction is:-
  1. It depends strongly on the skill of the writer.
  2. The infidelity MUST serve the story in some way. It must push the story forward either through character or plot development. Something must either change or be revealed.
I think there are three broad scenarios of infidelity where I understand the reason for the infidelity - i) to protect, ii) when one partner already knows the other will be unfaithful, iii) make or break. (I'm not even going to attempt to justify someone who fucks around just because they can, that's not something I'm interested in reading about). TO PROTECT Where one partner sleeps with someone outside the relationship, to protect either their partner or their children. This is essentially a form of rape. Although as an observer (the reader) you could argue that the character had other choices open to them, it's usually clear that the character themselves feels trapped in the situation. I've read this with both a female character and a male character as the trapped protagonist. In both cases there was a major effect on both character and plot development. Nobody walked away from the situation unscathed, there were profound consequences for all involved. WHEN ONE PARTNER KNOWS THE OTHER WILL BE UNFAITHFUL This is trickier to pull off. Again two examples. Phaedre the heroine of Kushiel's Dart is a courtesan and a masochist. Her consort, Joscelin, knows this - knows that she will have sex with other people. But the reader doesn't doubt that they have a strong relationship. Their circumstances are part of the society they live in and the social status they have. Importantly, she doesn't make false promises to him. 

Warrick and Toreth of The Administration Series are probably one of the most complex couples I've read. The more emotionally intimate they become (or seem to become), the more Toreth reacts against it by 'fucking his way round the city'. Everything they do is completely wrapped up in who they are as characters, everything serves to pull back another layer and reveal more. MAKE OR BREAK Perhaps the most common use of infidelity - one that definitely seems to crop up often and I think one that is therefore most likely to be mishandled by the author and/or misunderstood by the reader. There is a breakdown of some kind in the relationship and the affair/one night stand is either a last ditch effort to get the other partner to wake up or it's a cry for help. 

There are probably numerous examples if I thought hard enough and it doesn't always have to involve sexual intercourse, sometimes the infidelity is more about emotional intimacy. One example of this Sterling leaving Owen in Bound and Determined by Alexa Snow and Jane Davitt. I think in the end it will always come down to the individual writer and reader. But infidelity between characters shouldn't be used as shorthand for 'they've got a problem', quickly followed by ' it's okay now, all's forgiven'. If there's a breakdown in trust that should have consequences. If it's an accepted part of the relationship that will still have ramifications for how the protagonists deal with each other, and how readers respond to the characters. I don't think it's a plot direction that should be taken lightly but when handled well it can produce powerful writing that makes you think about the nature of relationships. 


Nicole said...

I have a huge, HUGE issue with infidelity in fiction. (Well, infidelity period.) If it happens between characters, I expect them to involve the villain and force. When there's willing infidelity and I'm supposed to still LIKE the character... well, sometimes it happens but I'm rarely happy.

One book that comes to mind is THE THIRTEENTH HOSUE by Sharon Shinn. The main character in that story has an affair with a married man, and while it's under believable circumstances and the ending is satisfactory, I stayed away from the rest of the series for a long time as a result of not liking that aspect of the book. (I did go back and I'm glad I did, as the very next book in the series is my favorite, but that's beside the point.)

Anyway, it is possible to do well, but it's usually done with an "I'm so miserable, poor me" attitude instead of any depth. And that's not something I will choose to continue to read.

LesleyW said...

Nicole - I think you've made a significant point. It's when it's tackled in a trivial way that it's unsatisfying. And I think often it's dealt with in this way - seen as an easy way to bring conflict into the story. I think it needs more thought than that.

D. B. Reynolds said...

I stopped reading the Kushiel series precisely because of the way Phaedre treated Joscelin. It was her way or no way. She got all the perks, he got second place, IMO. He deserved better and it bothered me enough that I didn't enjoy the story anymore.

Also, as a writer, I can tell you that many editors won't even touch a story in which the heroine has sex with someone other than the hero, much less one that features infidelity. It's a very hard sell.


LesleyW said...

DBR - I admit I read the Kushiel series despite Phaedre, I find her very annoying but the worldbuilding is fascinating.

I have seen more infidelity in contemporary m/m than m/f. But I think like the instant bonding I mention in today's review it's often used as a convenient plot complication rather than examined seriously.

Having said that I can't imagine The Administration Series with Toreth any other way than what he is. But every action he takes serves to illustrate something about his character. Manna Francis's characterisation just blows me away.

Kris said...

Thank you for linking to me, Lesley. :)

This is such a tough and, as you say, emotive topic. I hate the theme with a passion, but do acknowledge that there are instances where a good author can make it appear 'less' wrong to the reader.

I think your point about 'when one partner already knows the other will be unfaithful' is especially one of these instances. It takes skill at story telling and, IMHO more importantly, characterisation, for an author ti be able to pull this one off.

LesleyW said...

Kris - you're welcome. And I think the main thing that comes through all the discussions I've read is that the more skilled the author and the more committed they are to the storyline the better.