Who's on Top?
Intimacy, Control, and Conflict

Virginia Kantra

At the center of every story is a protagonist who wants to do, accomplish or change...something. In pursuit of his goals, our protagonist must struggle, learn and grow to become a more self-realized, self-reliant, autonomous character. This is the character arc.

But as readers and writers of romance, we expect - we celebrate - the development of the pair bond from attraction through exploration to emotional intimacy and sex. This is the romance arc.

Unlike the character arc, in which our flawed protagonist becomes strong, capable and independent, the romance arc is about the development of vulnerability, trust and dependence.

This is our dilemma: we want to be swept away by passion at the same time we crave control. The differences between men and women, and our struggle to negotiate the right balance between intimacy and control, is the stuff of relationships and the heart of romance.

As writers, we're not just chronicling the battle of the sexes. We must reconcile the battle of the arcs. How we do it depends on what each of us has to say, on each writer’s unique values, gender politics and genre expectations. This is a difficult subject to write about succinctly or even intelligibly because our genre ranges from BDSM erotica (talk about issues of intimacy and control!) to Inspirational romance, where the role of the sexes may be defined by the teachings of a particular church, to women’s fiction, where relationship issues are only a part of a woman’s journey.

In novels that belong more or less equally to hero and heroine, each protagonist has a character arc. Which means each has to change both in terms of achieving autonomy (that is, becoming stronger and more capable) and developing intimacy (that is, allowing themselves to be vulnerable and to depend on another person).

As romance writers, our job is to develop all three arcs, the hero's, the heroine's, and the relationship's, in an emotionally satisfying way.

Our task is complicated because at times men and women seem to be negotiating with different aims and almost in different languages. Yet those gender differences can actually enhance the romance and add another level to the romantic conflict.

Speaking generally, men are conscious of rank and hierarchy. This awareness is evident in everything from the games they play to their patterns of speech. In You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen writes

Boys tend to play outside, in large groups that are hierarchically structured. Their groups have a leader who tells others what to do, and how to do it, and resists doing what other boys propose. It is by giving orders and making them stick that high status is negotiated. Another way boys achieve status is to take center stage by telling stories and jokes [of others]. Boys’ games have winners and losers and elaborate systems of rules that are frequently the subjects of arguments. Finally, boys are frequently heard to boast of their skill and argue about who is best at what.
(Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: HarperCollins, 1991, p.43.)

What happens when you bring this male hierarchy structure into a male/female relationship?

• Since male groups have a leader who issues orders, guys are going to assume that one person in the relationship should be the one giving orders. They will not automatically seek consensus and may resist a female’s authority. Look at Nathan Fillion’s character in the new TV series Castle.
• The hero's preoccupation with rank and status, his own or others', can be a source of conflict. Think Pride and Prejudice.
• The hero may be unable to protect or provide for the heroine, a starting point for lots of wrong-side-of-the-tracks romances and a great way to raise the stakes in romantic suspense.
• The heroine might object to being protected or provided for. Remember Jane Eyre? Or any number of competent, kick-ass heroines.
• In a one-up/one-down hierarchy, the same gestures which establish the guy as a good mate, provider and protector can also put the woman who is the object of those gestures down. For a woman in a male-dominated work environment, even something as simple as opening a door can make her appear other-than-equal.
All of these conflicts require action and negotiation to resolve, which can further both the character arc and the romance arc. In your own writing, pay attention to the way the characters take action in a crisis. Who takes charge? Do the hero and heroine act separately or together? Do they talk about what they should do or should have done? Changes in that dynamic reflect changes in the characters and the development of their romance.

It is not only men who are conscious of rank. There’s a reason for the popularity of the alpha male in our stories: the leader of the pack, the duke, the tycoon, the Navy SEAL. As women and as readers, we want to be reassured that our heroes are capable of protecting and providing for our heroines and their future offspring.

As one behavioral biologist put it, "[For females, the] challenge, biologically, is not to find a partner but to find a high-quality partner, and keep his attention throughout the long process of pregnancy and child rearing.” (Melvin Konner, “Bridging our Differences,” Newsweek, 16 June 2003.)

Yet perhaps because of that need to "keep his attention," women seem to place a greater emphasis on relationships than rank. Their communication style is less about giving orders and more about building consensus. Psychologist Marano claims that “Women’s perceptual skills are oriented to quick—call it intuitive—people reading. Females are gifted at detecting the feelings and thoughts of others, inferring intentions, absorbing contextual clues and responding in emotionally appropriate ways. They empathize. Tuned to others, they more readily see alternate sides of an argument. Such empathy fosters communication and primes females for attachment." Hara Estroff Marano, “The New Sex Scorecard.” Psychology Today, July/Aug 2003, p.3.

Biology is no substitute for character. The genders may cluster in one area or another, but a full range of attitudes and behavior is available to us as women and as writers. For the most part, however, our heroes need to be strong and sexy and our heroines must be sympathetic. Part of the appeal of our genre is the chance for the reader to lose herself in another character by identifying emotionally with the heroine–harder to do if she is someone the reader would never choose as a friend.

What happens when the female bias toward consensus and connection is introduced into the male/female relationship? More conflict.

The heroine’s attempts to communicate by establishing identification and parity can make her appear weak or put her temporarily at a disadvantage.

Her need to know the hero, to find his weaknesses and vulnerabilities, can run smack into his need to save face and maintain status.

The heroine’s ability to express emotion can threaten the hero’s need for control. A confession of love can become a source of conflict. In Sea Fever, the heroine, Regina, tells the hero she loves him after they’ve made love. He’s not ready to say the same.

"Of course I care about you," he offered stiffly.

Regina looked at him like he was the restaurant cat and he'd just deposited a dead mouse at her feet. "Don't throw me a bone," she said. "I told you I love you. You don't love me back, that's my loss and your problem."

"My father claimed to love my mother."

She set her hands on her hips just above the line of red elastic. "So? I'm not your father. If you leave me, I'm not going off on a drunken twenty-year bender. I had a life before you came. I'll have a life when you're gone. But I'm not going to hide or lie about how I feel because you might be threatened by it."

Dialogue (the wrong kind or the withholding of it) can signal a breakdown in a relationship. Think of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett in Pride & Prejudice. He withheld all intimacy, all communication, from his wife. She was reduced to nagging and tears.

John Gray, the Mars/Venus guru, says that when men and women fight, the tendency is "Instead of arguing about the problem, you start arguing about how you talk about the problem." Women, he says, need to feel understood. Men need to feel right. He identifies something he calls the "four Fs" as unhelpful communication strategies. Men tend to choose Fight (they blame, judge, criticize) or Flight (avoidance, i.e., "I don't want to talk about it"). Women tend to choose Fake ("Nothing's wrong") or Fold (they give in or assume blame).

But I would argue that in addition to these negative models, men and women actually have skill sets that in life or in fiction help them negotiate the proper balance of intimacy and control, furthering the romance arc.

We all enjoy banter, the challenge, the humor, the spark. Who's up? Who's down? In a good argument, it shifts. As author Judith Viorst writes,

"Can't you just obey?" I only half jokingly will say to my husband, Milton, when there's something I want him to do and he - too often, much too often - doesn't want to do it or wants to do it an entirely different way. "Must we have a discussion on this?" my husband will exasperatedly say, when there's something he wants me to do and I resist. "Why," I once moaned when we were having one of our testy exchanges over whether to pay off the mortgage (or was it what kind of vinegar to use in the salad?), "didn’t both of us marry much more pliable people?" "Because," my husband replied, "if we married people who went along with whatever we wanted, we wouldn't respect them."
(Judith Viorst, Imperfect Control: Our Lifelong Struggles with Power and Surrender New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, p.125.)

The male’s communication style - scoring points to establish a one-up/one-down relationship - may actually lead to the development of respect. The male tendency to be direct, even confrontational, may help your couple address and resolve real issues instead of simply bickering.

The female pattern of communication - creating connection - helps the development of intimacy. It's often the woman whose probing will bring out back story, create context, and reveal secrets.

So the give-and-take in dialogue helps the romance couple achieve a balance of power. So does the give-and-take of...


Sex is the ultimate "show, don't tell." Sex - when it springs from character - demonstrates more graphically than almost anything else the balance of power and the degree of intimacy within a relationship.

According to research, "Men are more open to sex with strangers, more likely to commit adultery, less insistent on emotional intimacy as the foundation of a relationship...and less likely to talk about their feelings." (Konner)

This is not a new development. D.H. Lawrence wrote:

I wish I knew a woman who was like a red fire on the hearth
glowing after the day's restless draughts.
So that one could draw near her
in the red stillness of the dusk
and really take delight in her
without having to make the polite effort of loving her
or the mental effort of making her acquaintance.

In a romance novel, your average male is not going to get away with that attitude for long.

Notice I said "your average male." I am not suggesting that all men practice or even desire casual sex or that all women equate sex with emotional intimacy or commitment. In Sea Witch, I subverted the gender stereotypes as part of the characterization:

Margred stared at his long, strong line of his back, frustrated. Amused. Affronted. Sex had never been this much trouble before. Humans were always in rut. Any other male would have had her flat on her back on the table and be pounding away between her thighs.

"I don't need you to feed me," she said.

Fire leaped in the grate. Straightening, he turned to face her, humor curving his mouth. "You don't get cold. You don't get hungry, either?"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Not for food."

He laughed. He had a nice laugh, deep and wry, but his eyes remained steady and sad. "I thought women liked to be courted."

She didn't know anything about what women, human women, liked. "It's not necessary," she repeated.

Your characters' attitudes and behavior will depend on your story, your values, your gender politics, and your genre expectations. But wherever your characters fall on the spectrum of male/female attitudes towards sex, they need to negotiate where they will stand as a couple.

Both men and women can attempt to use sex to achieve control, by withholding sex, through seduction, or through actual force (rape). As writers, we can get into tricky territory here because the sex in romance novels may be fantasy sex, and surrender, either to passion or to another person, can be a powerful and effective fantasy.

It can also be a great source of conflict and growth. Taking responsibility for and control of her own sexuality can be part of the heroine’s character arc. A lot of the sex in romance novels - sex from a female perspective, enjoyable sex that is the result of choice - is an equalizer.

Sex is giving and taking. Writers can use sex to show shifts in control and the growth of intimacy.

Most of my books have at least two sex scenes: a discovery scene, where the hero/heroine are learning about each other and still jockeying for (excuse the pun) position; and a second scene that I call the epathalamion scene. The epithalamion was originally a poem written to celebrate a wedding. For me, the term is a mental marker. This is the union scene, where the hero and heroine finally get the right balance of self expression and surrender, intimacy and control.

Characters are best defined, not by description, but by their dialogue and their actions. So their relationships are best illustrated, not only by what they say, but by what they do. More than courtship rituals, more than dialogue, more even than sex, the balance in a relationship is determined by our characters’ choices and behavior.

If a couple is not equal at the beginning of a relationship, or if they are equal but working at cross purposes, you can use all kinds of strategies in the struggle for control:

• manipulation
• coercion
• secrecy
• subversion (undermining the other person's efforts)
• fait accompli (the "I've made my decision and there's nothing you can do about it" approach).
These unhealthy strategies actually make for great dramatic conflict. Your characters’ choice of strategies can reveal their growth. The point at which they give up working independently or at cross purposes and begin to pull together says a lot about their relationship. Showing these shifts in behavior is a wonderful way to chart both the character and the romance arcs.

One way to ensure that your characters work together is to give them a common goal. Yet even when your hero and heroine remain strongly and rightly opposed until the climax, they can still help each other. How? Because each sees the other as his or her best self. They challenge each other to be that best self. This vision of the beloved in the eyes of the lover has transformative power.

Near the end of Sea Lord, the heroine is forced to choose what she believes is right at the expense of her relationship with the hero; in effect, to choose control over intimacy.

Lucy's legs shook under her. All her life, she had shrunk from confrontation. All her life she had given in to avoid raised voices and hard looks. Until Sanctuary. Until Conn.

"You are stronger than either of us imagined," he had said.

Strong enough to leave him, she thought.

Strong enough to do what needed to be done.

Even apart and in opposition, Conn strengthens Lucy by strengthening her belief in herself.

Candice Bergen has said, "I used to believe that marriage would diminish me, reduce my options. That you had to be someone less to live with someone else when, of course, you have to be someone more."

This is the secret to reconciling the character arc and the romance arc.

Our task as romance writers is to develop all three arcs - the hero's, the heroine's, and the relationship's - in an emotionally satisfying way. It's satisfying when the characters support, even force, each other's growth; when they have learned to cherish rather than command and obey; and when we believe they have negotiated the proper balance of intimacy and control.

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