Assuming the romance between two characters is appropriate (i.e., within acceptable cultural guidelines), in terms of their ages, there’s another factor that can sometimes give readers pause: the balance of power between them. I’ve recently come across this in a novel that takes place in feudal Japan, and I’ve been running up against it, as I write Shinosuke.
Basically, if one character is in a position of relative power over the other, it makes readers a little squeamish, when a romantic relationship starts up between those characters. Teacher-Student is one example, even if the student is over eighteen, and another is Employer-Employee. There is also the potential for this issue to come up any time the age difference between the two characters is more than a few years, especially if one is between, say, eighteen and twenty-five. The reader finds herself wondering if the romance is real, or if the subordinate character simply feels that they have no choice but to go along with what the dominant character wants. Or, in the case of a large age difference, the younger character may be subconsciously dominated by the older character. (This, to me, seems less of a concern in a contemporary story, than in a historical. Young people growing up in the modern Western world are no longer raised to automatically defer to their elders. Kids today!)
This is particularly an issue in feudal japan, when dealing with the relationship between a samurai and a commoner. Samurai had the right to kill any commoner who displeased them! So, getting back to my story, from the get-go, the relationship between Shinosuke and Senpachi is imbalanced. Obviously, Senpachi has no intention of harming Shinosuke, but Shinosuke has no way of knowing that. Even if the samurai says, “I would never harm you,” Shinosuke would have to be pretty naive to believe him. And even if the character believes Senpachi, the reader might think Shinosuke is being a stupid teenager.
(The issue I had with the first third of the samurai novel I’m currently reading, which is otherwise well written and enjoyable, is that the lord made it clear that the other character’s life was at his disposal several times, imprisoning him and punishing him in ways that would have Amnesty International sending reports to the U.N. While it was perfectly in keeping with the culture and period, I had a hard time sympathizing with the main character falling in love with this man. On the other hand, I suspect it was meant to appeal to the BDSM crowd — of which, I am not a part. *)
So, what to do, what to do?
Well, step one is to make damned sure Senpachi doesn’t ever mistreat Shinosuke. He’s teaching the young man bushido — the Way of the Warrior. And as a teacher, he will have to be stern. But most readers have seen enough movies like The Karate Kid or even Kung Fu Panda (which we watched last night — not bad!) to recognize the difference between stern and sadistic. Whether I can pull it off will simply depend upon my writing ability.
Step two is to make the romance almost entirely Shinosuke’s idea. There is simply no way to have Senpachi broach the subject without it appearing that he’s abusing his position as mentor to the young man. In fact, he will have to put up some resistance. His attempts to rebuff Shinosuke, and Shinosuke’s hurt over having his advances refused, will, one hopes, eventually make the reader sympathetic to Shinosuke’s cause — i.e., winning over the heart of Senpachi. We then move from “Why is that lecherous older man hitting on his student?” to “Why can’t that jerk see how much his rejection is hurting Shinosuke?”
Welcome to Romance Plotting 101!
*NOTE: It’s also a common element in manga, which may be more pertinent. I’m a fan of manga and anime, but I often find the dominant/submissive elements of the stories not to my tastes.