By Nicole Kimberling
Every once in a while I get a special request from a reader asking me to address this or that problem in m/m fiction. So today I’m going to talk about characters who suffer from the dreaded disease of Career Amnesia. It is estimated that between ten and twenty percent of all romance heroes will at one point during a book either forget that he has a job or will suddenly behave in a way that profoundly impairs his workplace credibility. Something should be done to help these characters retain their imaginary employment, but what?
First let’s look at the symptoms. This particular malady manifests in many ways. It can be as simple as a policeman sleeping with a suspect—by far the most widespread form of career amnesia I’ve encountered—while not worrying about the consequences of his action. Or it could be a soldier who, upon discovering that he loves an enemy combatant, has no qualms changing sides and becoming a traitor. Even poor Dr. Binky has recently come down with a bad case of intermittent mind-wipe. Observe:
Dr. Binky sat his coffee cup down on the nightstand and smiled at Ranger Brutus’s sleeping form. The big lug was so cute when he was snoozing. Because of the stupid wildfires he’d been up at the national park for weeks, and Binky had been all alone.
Not any more though. Absently, he raked his fingers through Brutus’s lush chest hair.
Brutus cracked an eye. “Didn’t anybody tell you that you shouldn’t wake a sleeping bear?”
Before Binky could reply Brutus was on him, tearing his white lab coat and scrubs aside and feasting himself on Binky’s naked flesh like a grizzly ripping through salmon after salmon after salmon. When at last he finished, Binky lay savaged and quivering and mostly upside down. He glanced at the clock and alarm thrilled through him.
“S’okay, baby. You take on too much responsibility,” Brutus mumbled into his pillow. “I’m sure it all went fine. And if they can’t, fuck ‘em. Let them stand on their own hind legs for a change.”
“You’re right,” Binky said, snuggling up against him wriggling his ass against Brutus’s hairy thighs. “It is nice to sleep in!”
Brutus said,“Guess it’s time for another bear attack.”
Oh, Dr. Binky, how could you? What about poor Grandpa, laying there anesthetized on the table all morning cause you can’t stop getting laid long enough to complete his double bypass? Why did you bother to go to medical school at all if you’re just going to behave this way?
It’s because the Cruel Author forgot you were a surgeon. And at that moment you developed Career Amnesia.
Career Amnesia is the root cause of all these seemingly competent men forgetting who they’re supposed to be proud of being? I suggest that there might be a few culprits. First and foremost there is the desire to create dramatic tension between the characters via the oft-repeated saw, “Opposites Attract”.
This is an industry standard that has been around forever. From this concept we have angel on devil action, cops doing criminals, conservatives boinking liberals, jocks greasing up nerds… You get the picture.
Having the protagonists in opposition creates natural friction and gives both characters something to talk about and room for growth. But it goes wrong when no friction occurs. Time and time again I see cops not really too worried about their cat burglar boyfriend’s frequent felonies. Not to mention the lack of judgment shown by the felons. TSTL does not begin to describe the mental capacity of an assassin who just can’t stop dipping his dick into an FBI agent.
But Nikki, you say, it’s okay because it’s romance. That’s the kind of fantasy romance is all about.
I’m sorry but I just don’t think it is. As self-proclaimed advocate for abused characters the world over, I stand firm in my conviction that Cruel Authors should give them plausible reasoning and solid motivation. More than that, characters need personal integrity. Otherwise, they’re just not very hot in the first place. Who fanaticizes about being loved by an incompetent boob who is about to loose his job because he can’t figure out that “conflict of interest” is a real thing? Not me, for sure.
The second manifestation of Career Amnesia I’ve been seeing of late when a Cruel Author has a character perform an action that he, because of his position in society, should not be performing in order to elevate the hawt-ness of a scene by use of a transgressive act.
Again, Binky’s right on trend here:
Father Binky looked at Brutus kneeling there among the rest of the parishioners before him. His breath caught as Brutus parted his lips to receive communion. As the police detective prepared to receive the sacramental wafer, a chill ran down Binky’s spine. So many nights he’d lain awake, imagining Brutus’ hands on his body. Days working shoulder-to-shoulder with the man on the Case of the Missing Nun had brought his level of sexual frustration up to a frenzied agony. Now he could bear it no longer. As he placed the wafer on Brutus’ tongue he suddenly leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Brutus’.
The burly detective forgot all about the Body of Christ and pulled Father Binky down in a crushing embrace worthy of From Here to Eternity. As he felt his mouth invaded by Brutus’ hot tongue he heard the gasps of the parishioners around him. Brutus continued the kiss, going harder and deeper until Father Binky’s mouth felt red and raw.
“We’re going to Vegas and getting married. Now.” Brutus’ voice rang through the stunned silence of the church.
I love this man, Binky thought. I love him more than Jesus.
Aloud he said, “Oh boy!”
As he gazed up at Brutus, he heard a single clap grow to raucous applause as the parishioners rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
If you’re saying, “What?!? Why would the congregation do that? Who is going to run the mass now? The altar boy? Doesn’t anyone care about celebrating Christmas?” You’re not alone. Binky’s Career Amnesia has now metastasized to include the supporting characters. They, too, have started responding in a completely unrealistic fashion to the protagonist’s basic dereliction of duty.
Would it be great if Father Binky could get a big thumbs-up from his congregation for deciding to marry Det. Brutus? Well, sure. But having every single member of a church agree that disrupting an important holiday is not absolutely selfish is highly unlikely. The only way Binky could be a worse working priest is to leave to go on a date with Brutus in the middle of Last Rites.
Moreover, I suggest that Career Amnesia at this level diminishes the victory of Father Binky’s choice to pursue love. Because what has his love triumphed over? Who opposed it? No one, apparently. And in that case why make him a priest at all, except that it’s kind of fetishy?
I suggest to you that characterization should be deeper and more pervasive than just a slutty Halloween costume. For the sake of shallow characters everywhere who yearn to be meaningful—or at least competent—I renew the clarion call to Cruel Authors: let your doctors heal, allow your cops to enforce, permit your priests to minister. You will be rewarded with many readers.
Over and out.
About Nicole Kimberling:
Nicole Kimberling lives in Bellingham, Washington with her wife, Dawn Kimberling, two bad cats as well as a wide and diverse variety of invasive and noxious weeds. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. She is also the author of the Bellingham Mystery Series.