What Does Love Look Like? …… by Angela Benedetti

There have been learned discussions and opinions about love for centuries, but for a more contemporary look at this topic from the perspective of a romance writer, Angela Benedetti offers her views in this essay. Angie is looking forward to your comments on her post. 😀

One of the things a romance writer needs to get across to the reader is that the main characters are in love.  Not at the beginning, of course, or not usually, but before the end of the story the reader needs to get a strong impression that yes, these guys are kinda crazy about each other.  And by the end of the book the reader should feel pretty secure in assuming that the pair (trio, whatever) is in a stable relationship, and is going to be sticking together for the foreseeable future.  That’s what an HEA, or even an HFN, is all about, and the creation of a stable romantic relationship — emphasis on stable — is the heart of the definition of a genre romance.

Verbal declarations of “I love you!” only go so far; if the foundation isn’t there to support it, a lot of readers won’t buy it, no matter how often it’s repeated.  Readers want to see the characters getting along, fitting together, behaving like a couple in love.  So how do you go about showing that?

One of the most popular devices romance writers use is to show that the characters are incredibly hot for each other.  They want to drag each other off to bed whenever they’re together, and they fantasize about each other when they’re apart.  Often they can’t keep their hands off one another, and end up cutting meals short, ducking into the bathroom at work, or sneaking away from their friends to get in a quickie, or at least some enthusiastic groping.  They rarely get to see a whole movie because their other half is Just That Distracting in a way that’s lots more fun than watching a movie, even a really good one.

When they make it to bed (or the bathroom, or the kitchen counter, or wherever) the sex is hot and plentiful, with lots of vocal effects.  They’re having an awesome time, and it’s pretty clear that the reader is meant to be having a good time too.

This is great so far as it goes, and can be entertaining reading, but does intense sexual attraction in and of itself really equal love?  Does it even signal love?  Heck, does it even suggest love?

As a reader, when I’m in the middle of a book where the characters spend most of their time boinking, however well-written the boinking might be, I find myself wondering what they do when they’re not boinking.  Two people can have awesome sex, then walk away without any regrets; sex doesn’t equal love.  Instead, I want to see what else they do together, and how they get along the rest of the time.

What do they admire about one another?  Do they have complementary skills and abilities, so they can prop each other up?  Maybe Joe is great at figuring out a scheme to get what he wants, while Bob is a great diplomat and can always smooth down ruffled tempers.  Maybe Bob can always get a stubborn computer humming while Joe can get a beater car purring.  Maybe Joe admires Bob’s determination to stick to his principles, no matter what, even if there are times when those principles make things harder.

How about the externals?  Do they like the same movies or TV shows?  Do they read any of the same kinds of books?  Do they like the same sports (to do or to watch)?  Do their politics agree?  Religious views?  Senses of humor?  Do they have compatible habits and goals when it comes to managing money or planning for the future?  Do they agree on which way the toilet paper should hang on the roller?

This isn’t to say that they have to agree about everything, but if they disagree on a lot of things, or on important things, those are conflicts that are going to surface eventually and need to be worked out.  Showing the characters working through one or more of these conflicts can give the reader confidence that their relationship has a chance of lasting.  Same with showing the characters having fun doing things that don’t involve boinking.

Teenagers might think that being all hot for one another and boinking every day equals True Love, but adults know that a lasting relationship is more complex.  The good news is that this gives the romance writer a lot more things to write about.  Show the characters getting along outside the bedroom, living together, doing chores together, arguing and solving their problems together, and having little fun moments that don’t involve sex, and the story of their developing relationship will be that much more varied and interesting, and that “I love you,” when it comes, that much more believable.

On the other side of this coin, looking at all the different points of compatibility that need to fit in order to show the reader a good, stable relationship also suggests ways to show that a relationship isn’t true love.  Too often in romances, the old boyfriend or girlfriend, or the ex-spouse, is portrayed as a complete jerk.  Other folks have talked about the All Women Are Bitches trend in m/m, so I’ll take that as settled, but the Other Guy is too often either a smarmy, abusive asshole, or a whining, passive-aggressive jerk.  Throw in a case of egomania for variety, and how many exes in the genre does this describe?

Sure, plenty of people have awful exes, but plenty of people have perfectly cool exes, good people who just didn’t work in a relationship.  (Personally, I only have one ex-boyfriend I’d like to work over with a baseball bat, but there are several I still know and enjoy catching up with when we run into one another.)  If love is more than just great boinking, then it’s easier to show the ex as a perfectly cool person who just isn’t compatible with the protag.  Maybe one’s a jock and the other is into books, and they have nothing to talk about outside of bed.  Maybe one likes a clean house with everything kept in its place and the other doesn’t care, and doesn’t see why he should share the dusting and sorting and polishing for fingerprints when he isn’t the one who cares about that stuff.  Maybe one is a foodie and cooks at a professional level, and loves to try new foods and new recipes while the other would rather just eat pizza or burgers or steaks seven nights a week, and resents being expected to clean up a disaster-area kitchen every night, just because his partner decided to cook four-course haute cuisine that day.

Or maybe it’s just a lot of little things.  I remember my mother commenting, after her second marriage broke up, that it’s amazing just how aggravating your partner’s squeezing the toothpaste tube from the middle gets after ten years.  Stack up a bunch of toothpaste-level incompatibilities, and you have people who are eventually going to annoy the heck out of one another.  Neither one has to be an Evil Ex, or even much of a jerk.  Sometimes things just don’t work out, and our protag walks away to meet Protag2, the real love of his life.  Heck, maybe aggravated ex can introduce them — “Hey, Bob, this guy’s just as uptight about the toothpaste as you are!  You’re prefect for one another!”

And maybe they are, and maybe they find they get along in a lot of other ways too.  Compatible personalities and habits and preferences — plus great boinking — just might equal an awesome romance.  Showing the reader all the ways the characters get along, and how they work out the points that don’t quite match, lets the reader finish the book confident that the relationship is going to last a while.

Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and their computers.  She started writing as a teenager, and discovered soon after that romances with two hot guys are twice as good as romances with only one.  When she’s not at the computer, she enjoys cooking and baking, going to science fiction conventions, and cruising with her husband.  She’s one of the few people in the universe who loses weight on cruises.  (Must be all those walking-around shore tours and the lack of free internet access.)  Her favorite mainstream fiction genres are science fiction and fantasy, both of which tend to seep into her own writing.   

Angie’s latest release is Emerging Magic from Torquere.

Angie’s Contact information

email: angiebenedetti at gmail dot com
Website:  http://www.angiebenedetti.com/blog/


  • :bravo: :bravo: :bravo: :bravo: I agree so absolutely!There are certain publishers I don’t read much from just because I know it’s going to be 40% story and 60% boinks, and that’s not a ratio I really like, and if it’s more skewed than that, no thanks. Sex sells, but not to me. I like plot and I like character development, and relationship development, and I don’t mind a fade to black scene here and there.

    Emerging Magic is in my TBR list, cause I loved Hidden Magic and want more.

    • Cryselle — I just wish there were more of us who felt this way, so there’d be some incentive for publishers to recognize us as a market segment and maybe accommodate us somehow. Or that there was some way of consistently indicating how much of a book was taken up with pointless sex, without the publishers having to admit that it was, well, pointless sex. (Note that I don’t at all mind sex that has a point and pulls its weight in the story, even if there’s a lot of it.) Unfortunately, until publishers start printing “55% of the wordcount is taken up by pointless sex scenes” on their book covers, we’re going to have to just keep taking our chances. [wry smile]

      I hope you like EM! 😀


      • All right, I am ready to kill our spam filter, who keeps telling me that my comment is just a little bit spammy. UGH. I know, it had too much SEX in it and not enough boinking LOLOL.

        So, I tried once yesterday and once today, first of all happy belated birthday :), second of all thanks for the book :).

        Okay, let me try to briefly reiterate about BOINKING selling well. Hear me spam filter?

        Basically what Cryselle said. And about boinking selling well, eh, I am sure it does but the readers like Cryselle and myself really do exist. But even if a lot of writers do not really care about readers like us (not all, I know that :)), at the very least readers whom I talk to (not that many, but lets imagine that they count as proper statistic group for a second) still want a good story. Yes, they absolutely looking for hot sex as vital component of the story, but they also look for plot and characters, they want it all, not just more and more BOINKING (the caps are because I am so agitated at our spam filter :)). Personally I do not care if all boinking fades to black, but if sex is there in addition to story and characters, I will certainly enjoy it, just please make it *in addition* not *instead*

        • Sirius — thanks! I had a great time, being geeky enough to think hanging out with folks online is an awesome way to spend a birthday. [grin]

          When I’m wearing my reader hat, I’m just like you and Cryselle and many other people I’ve talked to, so I definitely get the frustration. I also agree that it’s not the boinking itself that’s the problem, but rather boinking that’s just duct-taped on for the purpose of being boinking, and doesn’t further the plot, show character, develop the relationship, or do any other work in the story. I’ve had people tell me I should just avoid books with a high heat rating, but they’re missing the point. :/

          My favorite example of a book with lots of boinking that all pulls its weight is Laney Cairo’s Bad Case of Loving You. This is one of my favorite m/m romances, and I’ve read it over and over. It has a lot of boinking in it, but every bit of the boinking supports the story; none is just stuffed in there to be all Yay More Boinking!

          It’s not a matter of how much boinking there is, or how hot the boinking is. It’s a matter of the boinking contributing to the story, to the characterization, to the relationship development. If it does, then I’m fine with it. If it doesn’t, then it’s boring and I’ll start skimming.

          This is my preference as a reader, and I definitely get it as a writer. And as I said above, I love that Torquere leaves sexual content completely up to me, and there are bigger (potentially more lucrative) publishers I’d never submit to because they require more boinking than I feel I’d be able to shoehorn into a book.

          So long as they’re making piles of money on books with more-more-more boinking, though, the publishers have no incentive to take any action here.

          Maybe what we need is a specialty review site where the focus is on sorting books by how much gratuitous boinking they have? So a five-star rating would go to a book that might or might not be well written (there are other review sites for that, like this one) but in which every bit of the boinking pulls its weight and has a purpose in the story, like Bad Case. And a one-star book would be one that might be wonderfully well written, but which is packed with pointless boinking to the point where someone like me or you or Cryselle is going to skim through more than half the wordcount. I’ve read some like that, too, and regretted buying them. :/

          I don’t know. It just seems there should be some way of letting folks like us know ahead of time how much pointless boinking a book has, not just how much boinking in total or how hot/kinky the boinking is, which is what current heat levels tend to reflect.


          • Oh I enjoyed Bad Case of Loving you myself, but yeah I definitely agree with most of what you said. I guess I usually end up loving the book which has few boinking scenes (or none) because not many writers actually do it to my taste (make boinking a part of the story which matters?).

            I mean, it is hard to name my absolute favorite books because I have so many in this genre, but amongst my top five is Tamara Allen’s “Whistling in the dark” (which has no boinking whatsoever and her other books have either none explicit or really not much), Ann Sommerville’s “Kei’s gift” (which has one or two boinking scenes and it is a *very* long book) and my recent addition to my top favorites is JCP “Magic mansion”, which again has a lot of plot and love story, but really not much boinking.

            It is not because I dislike boinking being part of the story, it is because I can very rarely find story which has a lot of boinking and still to be a great story and have wonderful characters.

            Forgive me for rambling, I am not sure what I am trying to say anymore besides agreeing with you. Ah, I know – I guess my point is that if you cannot make the boinking to be the part of the story, but can make everything else done right, I would much rather you did everything else right and not stuck the boinking on top of everything, which would make me roll my eyes and skip, skip, skip.

            As to how we can find it, eh I really doubt somebody would make a review site just to warn about gratuitous boinking, although I would be totally grateful for such services heh. I also have to say that after almost five years of reading mm, I know the writers who can deliver a good story and either not put in unnecessary boinking or make it a fun part of the story, but do the new writers really want me to stick to the established ones only?

            • On the possibility of a specialty review site just for us, probably not. I’ve been mentioning it for years and no one’s taken me up on it yet. Although I just got the image in mind of the site awarding, instead of stars, little rolls of duct tape. Five rolls means you and I stay away; one roll means we glom. 🙂

              I know what you mean about finding authors who do it right and sticking with them, but even that can be iffy. Frex., with most of his books it seems like Sean Michael buys his duct tape in case lots, but there are some where the boinking does mostly pull its weight. Elisa Rolle mentioned in a review of X-Factor that there was no boinking at all until… a third or halfway through, something like that, so I tried it and although I did some skimming, it was a good book and one I’ll probably read again some day. And I tried the first Hammer book when ARe had it as a free download, and that worked for me too; since the story is about a sexual journey, a lot of boinking actually contributes to the plot and characterization and all, so I’ve been working my way through that series. Still doing some skimming, but not as much as I did in the first Sean Michael book I tried. (Which was wonderfully well written, BTW; I just skimmed through more than half of it. [sigh]) I still wouldn’t pick up a random Sean Michael book, especially if I have to pay for it, but Elisa’s recommendation got me to try him again, and the freebie let me try his major BDSM series, which is a subgenre where sex is more likely to be relevant and pull its weight in the story.

              You’re right, though, that new writers are in danger of pigeonholing themselves. If I pick up a book by a new writer and end up doing the skim-skim-skim thing, I’m not going to try that person’s work again unless I get some kind of reassurance — like Elisa Rolle’s review of X-Factor — that this newer book is different. But to a lot of new writers, they see that boinky books sell, they see that the biggest publishers want lots of boinking, they see that so many of the seriously popular writers include lots of boinking, so that’s the path they often go down, unless they start out with firm thoughts of their own on the matter.

              We’re back to the institutional and financial pressure to write lots of boinking. 😛 It seems the best we can do is what we’re doing — take our best guesses based on the summary blurbs and reviewers’ comments, and build up our own lists of whose work we like.


  • Happy Birthday 🙂

    Great post, I have read a few books recently with more boinking than plot/character development, I prefer to go the other way, no boinking at all and lots of plot or character development (if I get both I’m in book heaven)
    I like action in my books, I’ve read a few where the MCs were on the run from the bad guys, but they still found time for sex in every chapter 😕

    Hope you’ll write more in the Sentinel series, I love it 😀

    • Majken — thanks! You know you’re a geek when you’re cool with spending your birthday online. 😀

      I agree about the books where characters in immediate mortal danger stop to boink at every other turn. One really has to wonder just how incompetent the bad guys are, or how dumb the main characters are to trust to random luck that often. I get that danger is a great aphrodesiac, but save it for after the danger is past, LOL!

      I’m glad you like the Sentinel books. [beam] I’m about half way through the third novel, which is Manny’s book. We get to see what he’s doing while the rest of the guys were up in Seattle. No clue when it’ll be done, unfortunately; my muse has never been willing to punch a clock. 😛


  • I think of “touching” being more about love than anything else. when Lana and I get on an elevator, she often leans against my shoulder and I’ll kiss her on top of her head, or I’ll rub my hand on her back. when we’re driving in the car she will often rest her left hand on my knee. Whenever we greet each other, even in the house when we’ve been at opposite ends of it, we will squeeze hands or hug. Periodically in the day when we’re working at our ends of the house we’ll each take a break just to go check on the other. These are the things I think about as love.

    • Charles — I think that’s a great point. [nod] Jim and I do that too; we’ll hold hands while we walk, and touch while we’re watching TV, or just rub a shoulder or arm when we pass by one another. That kind of touching, where it’s not at all about sex but just about the contact, is a great signal of affection.


  • Happy birthday, Angie! 🙂

    I laughed out loud at the mention of the toilet paper hanging the wrong way and squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle. There’s so much truth in that. Relationships can definitely be affected over time by such simple details. J has a habit of distractedly swiping his big toe over his second toe again and again while he’s reading, and even though it’s a small sound, I can hear it and it drives me up the wall. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve griped at each other over something so stupid, but that’s part of being human, and I like the characters I read about to seem human, too.

    I know we’ve discussed this before but I wanted to mention that something I’ve always admired about your stories is that you have always insisted on character development and a solid story line first, and then writing the sex where it made sense to have it, rather than, as you put it, “duct-taping on a sex scene” here and there for the sake of having one. I have read lots of stories with sex just chunked in haphazardly in places in the storyline where it made no sense; it makes me crazy every time I read it.

    One author in particular, whose stories I find otherwise decent and entertaining, somehow ends every one with the characters magically “in love” and in a supposedly committed and solid relationship, moving in with each other, taking vows, or some such thing within a week or so of meeting. That is so unrealistic I want to smack something when I see it, since often the author’s tendency to do this seriously diminishes an otherwise good story. I hope the writers who see your post will consider what you’ve talked about today next time they’re working on a story. 🙂

    • Angel — I think that’s one of the ways you know you’re mature enough to be in a relationship, when you recognize that you’re raging annoyance with something minor really is unreasonable, and understand that both of you having to grit your teeth over some dumb little things the other does is normal. Jim has some habits that annoy the heck out of me, but I also know I’m not an easy person to live with, so he puts up with just as much if not more. I still gripe sometimes, but at least I make an effort. 😛

      I know some writers like the one you mentioned too. [nod] It’s particularly annoying when their writing is really good, and it’s just their idea of what a romance looks like that’s making me want to break something.

      To be fair, though, it’s easy for fiction-time to concentrate, and to feel like more than it is. Between A Hidden Magic and Emerging Magic, which is about 187K words, Paul and Rory have still known each other less than a month. I had to think about that, and be consciously aware of it while I wrote, to keep their relationship realistic. One of the things I like about m/m is that we don’t have to wrap up a romance in one book — Josh Lanyon takes five with his Adrien English series — so I can let the boys get to know one another and plan for a real HEA moment later on. Yet another reason I write m/m instead of het. 🙂


  • Some very good points, as usual. I’m going to have to check and see if I’ve got any non-evil exes in my stories, but I suspect the answer is going to be ‘no’. Sigh, something else to fix.

    I know I have read many romances where I found it hard to believe that there was any love involved – particularly in old(vintage sixties and seventies) het romance where the hero avoided the heroine, and verbally abused her if they did meet, for most of the book before declaring his undying love and proposing marriage which she accepted instantly. The m/m equivalent seems to be non-stop boinking to the exclusion of all other activities – at least it is easier to believe that the relationship makes them happy even if it is not so easy to see the love in it.

    A more rounded story gives a more rounded relationship and is much better reading. If there is no give and take on both sides then it is difficult to believe in a lasting love.

    • Mara — I remember the old stuff, where you were never in the guy’s head, and he and the girl were apart for like 90% of the book. They were fun, but not exactly manuals on how to build a good relationship. [wry smile] Of course, half the time their first encounter was when the guy raped her, so…. 😛

      And that’s exactly it — if I can’t see them having problems and working things out, it’s hard to have confidence that they’re going to last in the long term.

      Since you write them too, I’ll point out that it’s tough to show a whole lot of this in a short story. Heck, it’s hard to have an actual romance in a short story, period. Most of mine are erotica, and the romances often start with an established couple who are having problems, so I just have to solve that one problem, rather than going through all the meeting and hooking up and figuring out he likes me too, and cetera. No time for that in just a few thousand words, especially if you want to get a sex scene in there too. [laugh/flail]


      • Angie, why do M/M authors believe that their books have to be erotica? Many M/M romances are no longer erotic romances but straight erotica with no character development. I do understand that books with lots of sex sell more copies, but personally I would much rather read a book with well developed characters (and no insta love please) who were realistically portrayed and an actual plot. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who skips over the sex scenes because they are so boring. Not many writers can hold my interest with sex scene after sex scene and no content. In addition, it’s hard to come up with something new in the sex department after you have read the first 500 or so books that are similar.

        Not every gay man humps his partner’s leg like a dog the minute he walks in the door. “Honey I’m home – where’s the lube?” 😀 My gay friends find this portrayal so ridiculous they tell me all the time that no man has the stamina of the MCs in M/M romances. I know this is fantasy but the stories have got to be believable. 😯

        • Wave — you’re like me. If I’m reading and hit a boinking scene that’s only there to be boinking, if it doesn’t further the plot or show character or develop the relationship or something, I start skimming and I don’t slow down to read again until the boinking is over with. And if I do more skimming than reading (which I have a few times) then I start to regret the money I spent on the book.

          At the same time, despite your opinion and mine and those of a lot of other folks I’ve talked to, the fact is that if they’re well written, these books sell really well. There you go, that’s why people write them. That’s why the biggest publishers in our end of the business identify specifically as “erotic romance publishers,” and require a certain amount of boinking in their guidelines. I’ve heard from writers who’ve submitted to this or that big e-pub that they subbed a novel and were told that it was good and the publisher wanted it, but they’d have to add boinking so that there was at least one boinking scene in every other chapter.

          That’s fine if the story requires it — and some of the BDSM books I’ve read, where the plot and character/relationship developement are based on a sexual journey do require that much boinking — but to take a book that only has however many boinking scenes in it, and whose writer clearly thought it was complete as-is, and reqest that more be added? :/ Sorry, no, I couldn’t do that. Writers who can and do make a lot of money, though, and so long as that’s the case, I’m pretty sure there’ll be writers willing to do it, and publishers that demand it.

          [Leaving aside the fact that an “erotic romance” isn’t just a base romance with more boinking tacked on. [sigh] Nor does “hotter” or “kinkier” make a book erotic romance. That’s another rant, though.]

          If a writer becomes known for lots of hot boinking, if their fans expect lots of hot boinking in every book, if publishers expect lots of hot boinking in every book, then it’s going to be hard for a writer to write something else. I remember one of Sean Michael’s books had no boinking in it, and everyone was all 😯 because seriously, this is Sean Michael. [wry smile] And he never did it again that I noticed. Maybe it didn’t sell well?

          This is one of the reasons I like writing for Torquere, BTW. Their heat rating goes all the way down to “bell pepper” and they have no problem taking a book with little or no boinking. I like having that freedom, and not having to worry that my editor might try to urge me to add another boinking scene or three.

          [Continued on Next Rock…]

          • […Continued from Previous Rock]

            This might be uncool to talk about [hides under keyboard] but I got a review on one of my books on a review blog that does some m/m but not a lot. The book got an okay but not great rating, and one thing the reviewer specifically mentioned was that she was expecting lots and lots of boinking and only got a little. I don’t know for a fact that the relative dearth of boinking affected the rating, but I did get that impression. I’ve seen that same thing (m/m = boinking) in other places as well; Lee Wind, who works to make YA and kids’ books more GLBT-friendly, said once that when he asks a writer or artist who works in the kids/YA area whether they’ve ever included GLBT people in their work, he often gets this, OMG-that’s-disgusting-you-pervert!! sort of reaction, because many people assume that he’s asking whether they’ve ever depicted gay people boinking in their kids’ books. It’s just the first idea that comes into people’s heads.

            So there’s enough of a perception of m/m = boinkfest out there, in various groups and not just ours, that people are startled when a m/m romance doesn’t have lots of boinking, and that startlement is publicized for other people to read and absorb. And I think the fact that this particular review blog didn’t get a lot of m/m is telling. What little they’d heard about it, and what few m/m books they’d read, led them to believe that m/m books were all boinkfests; that meme is out there, and it’s strong enough that even people who are only lightly in contact with the m/m romance community have heard it and believed it.

            [Continued on Third Rock…]

            • […Continued from Second Rock]

              And how often do we see m/m books that aren’t boinkfests shelved at a vendor site as “boinkotic romance” or even “boinkotica?” Or tagged that way? Heck, ALL m/m is shelved under “Boinkotica” on Fictionwise; you can’t find the gay or lesbian or bisexual romance if you just click on their “Romance” button on the sidebar. Same with their inter-racial and multicultural romances, BTW; you have to go through Boinkotica to find them, as though the fact that there are brown people in the book makes them automatically smuttier. Just like there being gay people in the book makes it automatically smuttier, even if it’s a sweet romance with no boinking at all. That’s one of the reasons I don’t shop at Fictionwise anymore, no matter how great their sales are.

              So there are people and institutions all over telling folks, directly and indirectly, that the m/m is all about the boinking. I’ve been refuting that whenever the subject comes up, and I know some other people do too, but we’re not going to win so long as the vendors label m/m automatically smut, so long as the major publishers focus on erotic romance and want more boinking, and so long as large numbers of readers want boinkfests and expect m/m books to be boinkfests and spend more money on books that have wall-to-wall boinking. The push, social and institutional and financial, is toward boinkier books, and a few voices protesting aren’t going to be able to buck that.


              PS — edited to replace “sex” (and “erotica”) with “boinking,” and divided in half thirds, and then pausing for a few minutes before hitting [Submit], to avoid the spam filter, because it’s very thorough 😛


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