In 2006, I wrote Love vs Honour, which I then self-published nearly ten years later, in 2015. The novel is a sideways step outside of my usual world of thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy and children’s adventures. Teenage romance isn’t something I dabble in, but when the premise of Love vs Honour occurred to me whilst stuck in traffic during an interminable bus journey, I felt the story was too good to ignore.
A tale of star-crossed teenage lovers with a religious twist, Love vs Honour begins as a conventional romance, with a holiday attraction leading to something more serious. Then it takes an unusual turn, as protagonists Johnny and Sabina try to appease their religious parents by pretending to convert to Islam and Christianity respectively. A tangled web of deception ensues, building to a much darker final act.
Reviews have been mostly positive. However, at least a couple of people have told me there is a big, gaping flaw in the centre of the story: Johnny is not likeable enough.
Romantic fiction is not my area of expertise, and it seems this factor was a colossal oversight. The typical male lead in romantic fiction is handsome, dashing, charming, intelligent, perhaps roguish and flawed in some way, but above all he should be desirable. By contrast, I wrote Johnny as a realistically conflicted, angst-ridden teenager. He has a dark past that colours his view of the present, sometimes in negative ways. Like many teenagers he can be selfish, sulky and not entirely sympathetic. His statements are sometimes exaggerated, and are very much his side of the story (for example, he is quite scathing of his parents who, despite their more extreme religious viewpoints, are kind and generous people). Obviously he isn’t without redeeming features either, and as the novel gradually reveals dark elements from his past, he perhaps becomes a person with whom it is a bit easier to sympathise.
However, I think my critics might have a point. Even if Johnny is a realistic and believable character, he simply isn’t likeable enough as a conventional male romantic lead. By contrast, I think Sabina is far, far more appealing, and whilst it is plausible that intelligent girls like her would fall for someone like Johnny, in a romantic novel it can lead to a feeling of the story being unbalanced. I think in retrospect I was wrong to strive for realism, and should have erred more on the side of genre convention.
I’m still very proud of Love vs Honour as I think it does contain interesting characters and thought provoking scenarios. In that sense, it is best viewed as a drama rather than a romance. I also stand by my ending, which provoked a little controversy as well. However, if I were writing the book now, I would make Johnny a much more appealing character. Experience is a great teacher, and in the unlikely event I try my hand at teenage romance again, I will bear in mind what I have learned.
Check out Love vs Honour here, if you are curious.