Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July and August, which means that it’s time to look at action.
In the ‘show don’t tell’ world in which we live, action is probably the best way to introduce a character. However, action in erotica doesn’t always have to be vigorous passion and Olympic sexual aerobics. In the opening to one of short stories below, the action is relatively static.
“He treats us like slaves,” Sarah hissed.
She had whispered the sentiment into her mobile phone but the words echoed around the haberdashery shop as though they had been bellowed through a megaphone.
Monica glanced at Sarah in surprise.
Old Mrs Higgins closed her eyes and shook her head in dismay.
Green, his eyes unreadable through his dark glasses, regarded Sarah with an expression that was thin-lipped, inscrutable and unsmiling. It was a moment that transformed the mood of the day into something lethargic and heavy with the threat of impending disaster. Each passing minute dragged like slow-motion footage of an inevitable car crash.
Monica’s chest was tight with the sense of anticipation.
An aeon later the church bell chimed six times to indicate it was the end of the working day. In the stillness of Greens’ Haberdashery the sound was like the champagne cork-popping promise of a long-awaited armistice.
Monica took a step back to watch developments. Old Mrs Higgins reached for her coat. Sarah was rushing to the doorway with unseemly haste.
“Wait!” Green snapped the single word as Sarah placed her fingers on the door handle.
Monica is our narrative perspective in this story and the tension builds from her perspective. She glances at Sarah in surprise. Her chest tightens with anticipation. She is giving the readers cues for how to respond to the action in the story. As a narrating character she is going to remain relatively undeveloped in this story but we’re already aware that she’s someone trapped in an uncomfortable situation and, as readers, we’re trying to work out whether it will be best if she simply observes the action or becomes a participant.
Admittedly, I’ve got a couple of pieces of dialogue in this, so the example isn’t all action. However, the majority of character development comes from the action.
Old Mrs Higgins, closing her eyes and shaking her head, is clearly a been-there-done-that individual who has seen it all. She’s not going to be surprised by any development in this narrative – and I think it’s fair to say we all know someone with similar collected composure. We’re not told that Old Mrs Higgins is cool under pressure. But we can see that’s how she’s responding to the situation.
Green, is motionless – the antithesis of action – yet we get a sense of his character. We’ve heard Sarah say, “He treats us like slaves”. If we associate that phrase with this inscrutable, unsmiling individual in the dark glasses, the individual who seems to be causing the tense atmosphere that’s tightened Monica’s chest, we have enough action from this inactive character to understand that he is a powerful and dominant individual.
And then there’s Sarah. Sarah is the one who made the remark that’s caused the tension. Sarah is the one who spoke more loudly than intended. Sarah is the one who breaks from the pack and runs for the door. Sarah is clearly in a state of panic and dread: but there was never any need to mention that to the reader. The use of action has told the reader all they need to know about this character, just like it is action that has defined each of the other characters at the start of this story.
Action in erotica doesn’t have to be overblown descriptions of passionate interludes. As the example above shows, it’s relatively easy to introduce characters through their actions, even when they’re relatively motionless and trying to avoid the impending perils of one character’s wrath.
As always, if you have your own examples of introducing characters through action, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.
by Ashley Lister
Last month I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. As we looked at appearance last month, I figured this month would be a suitable time to consider speech.
The basic rules to writing speech in fiction can be summed up in one word: clarity. So long as your reader understands what your character is saying, you’re doing it right. And one of the most frustrating ways of messing with clarity comes when readers give their characters regional accents.
The following examples comes from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
The first and third line of dialogue belong to the broad Yorkshire character Joseph. Those who are familiar with Wuthering Heights will probably be familiar with the intrusion of Joseph’s dialogue in this otherwise entertaining tale.
Perhaps I’m biased here. I grew up in Yorkshire and Brontë’s representation of Joseph’s accent strikes me as being a long way from what I encountered from friends and family. But, more importantly, I find this to be a distracting piece of text. Instead of concentrating on Joseph’s message, I’m trying to work out how to pronounce ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.’ This is a novel and I’m supposed to be engaged with the story and the characters. I shouldn’t be trying to work out how to say words.
Elmore Leonard in his 10 Rules of Writing says, “Use regional dialect and patois sparingly” and it’s a rule I would fully support. Dialogue is intrusive and, regardless of how much fun the author things the reader will have in decoding a phonetic transcript, the truth is most of don’t want that added nuisance.
If it’s important to your character to have some regional flavour in their speech, allow them to use the vocabulary of an area rather than the dialect. For example, in the extract above, Brontë could have written, “The maister’s down in the fold.” We’ve got that single word ‘maister’ which suggests a Yorkshire accent, but is sufficiently close to ‘master’ so we’re not puzzled by the content. And we know that Joseph isn’t going to simply utter one word in this dialect and then articulate the remainder of his speech in BBC English. To my mind, this is a more effective way of conveying regional difference without interrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief and their immersion in the narrative.
This is not to say that no one should ever write characters with a regional accent. I’ve just come back from a writing conference where a very clever lecturer explained that no writing rule is an absolute and there will always be scope for subverting rules under some circumstances.
I agree with what he said and I believe, if you’re writing a piece and it’s essential that your character says, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him,’ then you should follow your authorial instinct and produce the story in that distinctive fashion. However, if your beta-readers and your editor say that some parts were a little confusing, or dragged them out of the story, I don’t think it will take long to work out where the problem is.
I’ll talk more about creating characters through speech next month but for now, as always, if you want to share any of your dialogue in the comments box below, I’m always happy to read and respond.
writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, and dark
fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four
cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook
page, and her Amazon Author Page.
Every writer on
Facebook has seen a variation of this meme: “Be nice to me or I’ll put you
in my book and kill you off”. Those same writers probably gave the meme a
wry smile. I have based some of my characters on real people. Two professors in
my Night Owl Top Pick erotic romance novel “Don’t Call Me Baby” are
based on two professors I had flings with in college. Neither man knows I’ve
done this. If they read the book, they’re probably recognize themselves. Why
did I do this? Because I wanted to write a fictitious account of one summer
during my college years, and those two men were a part of that summer. I’ve also
based a few characters in some short stories on people I’ve met in real life.
The depiction of one prof is not very flattering, but the other one is. I’ve
even based my character Eric in my free “Tuesday’s Tales” short
stories on my husband. He likes that. Those stories are available at my web
With the recent news
that J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter character Dolores Umbrage on a
teacher she despised, you may wonder what other characters have been based on
real people. Here are a few of the more famous ones:
Tintin – The Adventures of Tintin
Based on Palle Hude,
a Danish boy scout who traveled around the world in 1928 as part of a
competition set up by a Danish newspaper. He had to circumnavigate the world in
44 days, unaccompanied, and not set foot on a plane. Hude’s travels made
newspapers all over the world, and it’s likely Tintin’s creator in Belgium
would have read about him. 20,000 people greeted Hude at the end of his tour,
not unlike the crowd that greeted TinTin at the end of his first album.
Ebenezer Scrooge – A Christmas Carol
Based on John Elwes.
He was an 18th century politician who was a miser. Despite his
wealth, he lived a sparse, hermit-like life. He’d eat rotting food rather than
spend the money to buy fresh produce. Rather than part with his fortune, he
chose to horde his money and live in squalor.
Severus Snape – Harry Potter novels
Based on John
Nettleship. J. K. Rowling’s former chemistry teacher. He had no idea he was the
basis for the character until after the movies came out. He, his wife, and kids
figured it out as they saw Alan Rickman play Snape on the big screen.
Dolores Umbrage – Harry Potter novels
Based on an unnamed
teacher J. K. Rowling “disliked immensely on sight”. This person had
been Rowling’s teacher “long ago… in a certain skill or subject.” In
her essay on Pottermore, Rowling wrote “The
woman in question returned my antipathy with interest. Why we took against each
other so instantly, heartily and (on my side, at least) irrationally, I
honestly cannot say,” Rowling wrote. She was also struck by the woman’s
“pronounced taste for twee accessories,” including “a tiny
little plastic bow slide, pale lemon in color,” which Rowling felt was
more “appropriate to a girl of three.”
Dorian Gray – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Based on John Gray,
one of Oscar Wilde’s alleged lovers. Wilde gave the character the first name of
Dorian in reference to the Dorians, an ancient Greek tribe that engaged in m/m
sex. John Gray was mortified when the story came out since he could see it was
based on him, and it caused a rift in his relationship with Wilde.
I interviewed several
writers who based characters on people they know. They had plenty to say,
including why they chose to do it.
Romance writer Jeanne Guzman: Years ago, while
having lunch at my favorite lakeside restaurant, The Oasis on Joe Pool Lake in
Grand Prairie, Texas, I said to myself “Self, this would make the perfect spot
for a murder,” and so was born my novel, Bridge Over Troubled Waters.
the enthusiasm of my waitress, my main character was born. The character of
Misty was a combination of several of the waitresses on staff, but the name was
a gift from the original Misty who sadly moved away and found other employment.
From the manager, to the cook, and even the ladies I was having lunch with are
mentioned in the book.
in mind, I had to change the names, but once you read the book, you’ll be able
to go to The Oasis and know who everyone is. Most important, you have to meet
the matriarch who not only has inspired me, but is so love by those around her
that the city named a street after her. (The book is dedicated to her, and all
those who put up with me while I did my research and wrote the book sitting on
the outside deck.)
inspiration came from the servers and the managers at the Oasis, it’s my
favorite place to go to relax and have a good time. The ones that were working
there at the time knew of my book, and the fact that I was using them as models
for my characters. They allowed me to take pictures and follow them around as
they did their jobs. I had originally wanted to use the name “Oasis” as my
setting, but when I talked to the owner, she said she didn’t feel right gaining
publicity through my book, even though she, and the employees were cast in a
positive light. I told her I would change the name and the location, but I
would still dedicate the book to her. And I did. As for the employees that
still work at the Oasis, they all have a copy of the book and even though I
combined different aspects of them into the characters, they knew who I was
talking about. They loved it.
Romance writer Lindsay Klug: My male leads are almost
always, without fail, based on my husband. He’s everything I’ve ever wanted, so
why not use his attributes? When he was military, the leads wore shaved heads
and clean faces. Now that he’s got a beard, I can’t imagine a lead without one.
Kind of weird, eh?
far as inspiration goes], [i]t just flowed naturally into my story lines. He
doesn’t read what I’ve written but he knows he’s a part of it. Lol, I just
couldn’t and still can’t picture anybody else for my leads. He always makes fun
of the pictures I look at for inspiration, but he doesn’t know I’m seeing his
face and character with them.
Romance writer Phoenix Johnson: So my only ‘based on real
life’ character is Bailey. She’s the slightly-overweight, self-conscious,
lacking self-esteem and confidence leading lady in my contemporary romance
Acapello’s Lady. So far, she’s much like me. We’re also both on a weight-loss
track to be happy with ourselves. I’m hoping that writing her story week either
motivate me or shame me to keep at my own. However, unlike me, Bailey is
single. She doesn’t feel deserving or needing of a guy right now. Until hunky
escaped-con Joe shows up looking for somewhere to hide. He was doing time for
someone else’s crime, and couldn’t stand it. Silly man. However, his heart was
broken when his wife died so his actions aren’t the smartest right now. His
attraction to Bailey, and their growing connection, however, reminds them both
that it’s ok to love and that they do deserve happiness.
Bailey is not just a way to try to motivate myself. I’m finding that she is
freeing for me, and in writing that she deserves to be happy and to love
herself, I’m frankly telling myself the same thing. Bailey, unintentionally, is
my way of saying to myself “be happy, you deserve it. And love yourself;
you’re allowed to, and it’s ok.” It’s actually something I want all
readers to take from her when I finish Acapello’s Lady and get it released. (I
haven’t intentionally based Joe on anyone but I think, with the lost-love, and
escaped con elements, he could possibly be based on the potential I see in my
fiance as well. Or he could also be a combination of the potential I see in
both of us.)
why she chose to base her heroine on herself]: I was having a shower after a
workout, and it started running through my head as a written scene. And it
occurred to me that there aren’t enough heavier heroines, so I thought it was
my turn, and loosely basing her on myself would hopefully be like a sounding
board for healthy changes. It’s also therapeutic, in a way, when you’ve
actually worn your heroines shoes.you know exactly what she’s thinking or
feeling because it’s what you have or would think and feel.
Romance writer Jacques Gerard: Yes, I have written many short
stories with one of the characters based on somebody I know. In those stories
the heroine is based on a lady I use to be involved with. I don’t use the
lady’s real name, but the heroine’s name begins with the same letter of that
lady’s first name. Those short stories
are based on a date that lead to us making love or what could have happened
between us two in a certain scenario I dream up. I have never shared with a
lady I knew that they were in my one of my stories. However, one lady I know
had an idea I used her as a character and was flattered.
inspired him to base his character on that particular woman? “She was a
co-worker and we had a special chemistry.” He said. “She also read
one of my stories and enjoyed it. We were talking at an office Christmas party
and got on the subject of romantic Christmas getaways. It was funny because at
the time I was thinking of writing a Christmas story for my website. I shared
that with her and asked her opinion about a lounging dress for the female
character in my story. She chuckled and asked if I was going to write about us.
I replied that wasn’t a bad idea. She
also knew about my foot fetish and liked it as well.”
Horror writer Dave Gammon: Eric A. Shelman often does
this and in fact has written myself in his runaway zombie hit series Dead
Hunger. I come in at part 2 and part 5 is my actual POV and continue on until
are many reasons writers may choose to base a character on a real person. Writers may even base characters on themselves. This inspiration has lead to the creation of some fine fiction. Without Palle Hude and John Gray, we may not have had
the pleasure of enjoying Tintin and Durian Gray. It’s always interesting to
learn who influenced certain characters. It’s sometimes flattering, and that
spark helps bring characters to life.
find these authors at Amazon and other sites.
Gammon: http://horrornews.net (regular contributor)
If you’re interested
in reading my novel “Don’t Call Me Baby”, you may find more
information at Amazon and other outlets.
Kindle – US
Kindle – UK
By K D Grace
Like most writers, I spend a lot of time analysing what
makes a story work. Why does one story grip me when another doesn’t? Why do the
characters in one tale make me want to curl myself around them and never let
them go while others feel more like they’re only people waiting at the bus stop
with me, people who barely register in my mind.
How much of what makes a story work is plot and how much is character?
Sometimes nothing happens in a story, and I’m enthralled. At other times
everything happens in a story, and I don’t care. Am I just picky? I wonder if in
the age of free Kindle downloads, being spoiled for choice hasn’t jaded us so
much as it has left us frantically searching for The One. And the stories that
really do work for me are the stories in which I most fully experience the
power of The One.
It seems to me that the power of The One is more evident in erotica and romance
than it is in any other genre. I suppose that sounds really obvious in a
Cinderella and Prince Charming, or best fuck ever sort of way. At the risk of
over-simplifying, it’s all about being The One, finding The One, enticing The
One, seducing or being seduced by The One. Happily ever aftering with The One.
In our need to connect, in our need for intimacy, it seems to me that the power
of The One draws us more than any other element of story. It isn’t so much the
need for a knight on a white horse as it is the need for a kindred spirit, as
it is the need for someone who groks us, someone who gets us on the deepest level of our quirkiness, our flaws, our potential,
our Oneness. The archetypal story is that The One goes on a journey that no one
else can go on, and on that danger fraught journey, The One finds The Other
One, the only Other One who really gets
him/her, who is the flint to The One’s steel. And the resulting fire is what
propels the story, what takes the reader in and entices her into her own place
of Oneness. Hearts and flowers – maybe. Best fuck ever – could be. Magnetic
connection – bound to be.
The thing is, not everyone’s fire is fueled the same way. One person’s One is
another person’s bloke at the bus stop. The story of The One can be a game of
substitution in which our minds edit out the hero/heroine and insert ourselves
making the story about us. WE become The One. Or the story of The One can be
more of a voyeuristic menage in which we find ourselves happily inserted into
the relationship, experiencing a bit of the hero, a bit of the heroine, and
basking in the chemistry that happens in the space between, when two Ones
collide. I find this to be more of a 3D way to experience The One. In a lot of
ways that space in between, that joining place where the rough edges rub up against
each other is the real One. The joining place is the space in which the two become
a different kind of One.
Beyond romance and erotica, the power of The One is what so much of story is
about. The One who catches the serial killer. The One who is the serial killer.
The One who wins the battle, The One who pulls the Sword from the stone, The One
whose face launches a thousand ships. The One who can wear the glass slipper.
The tale of The One is the mathematics of story. The One plus the Other One
equals One, and that One is the Whole, the plurality of One.
The tale of The One is the physics of story. When the One
fuses with the Other One, when they join together to form THE ONE. That fusing
results in a release of energy, energy that feeds the reader, energy that
drives the story.
When The One reader finds The One story, the energy released
can change the reader’s internal landscape. The constant search for The One
story by the reader is a treasure hunt that can change everything. Every reader
has experienced that post coital bliss of indulging in The One story. It’s
chemistry, it’s fire, it’s magic! It doesn’t happen often, but every time it
does, it’s enough. It’s enough to drive us on in search of the next One.
By: Craig Sorensen
“We’re you just going to leave without saying goodbye?”
“I just haven’t had time, it’s been crazy trying to get this cross-country move this together.”
“Yeah, I know, but I gotta bust on you.”
Yes, he did. He had for over a quarter of a century. He busted on me about work, busted on me about home, delivered digs with a serious face, but once I got to know him, I learned to read his eyes. He was a curmudgeon, even when we first met and we were young men.
Truth was, in a way, he remained young, despite his hair, graying and receding as it did over the years. He was in amazing shape, even on this day when I was loading crap into the POD for the cross-country move, and he rode up on his trusty bicycle.
He complained about things, but he worked his ass off as hard as anyone I knew. When another member of his team trashed an important disk drive on a Friday and brought the system I supported to its knees, G was in all weekend working to recovering the lost data. It was not an easy job, and for a time it looked like I’d have to work my ass off to rebuild from scratch. My stomach was in my throat at the thought.
But he got the job done. Come Monday, you wouldn’t have known the near catastrophe that befell our system.
He called me once from Colorado during one of his biking trips to check on a problem that had occurred. He was on vacation, but he wanted to be sure everything was okay, and he’d found a small pocket of cell reception in his cross country ride. I told him we had it in hand. “Okay, call me if you need me. I’ll be checking in.”
He was always there for people. He was always checking in. Give you the shirt off his back. He’d say things like “I don’t give a shit.” But he always did, when it came down to it. He had a great sense of humor. His smiles were usually small and wry, occasionally opening briefly into a wicked apex. His eyes had a constant gleam in them, even in the worst of times.
I didn’t know a person who knew G that didn’t like him.
Monday, he wrote me an email. My former employer, his present one, was having a problem with a set of files I used to maintain, and no one could figure it out. Often, when that happened, they’d turn to G. “I don’t have a clue,” he wrote. I explained about the files and what had been done to fix them in the past.
“Thanks,” he wrote back simply.
Tuesday, at lunch, he went to work out. They say he passed out, and they could not revive him. Later that afternoon, a second heart attack and G was gone.
Some might say it was ironic that he worked out pretty much every day of his life, and he died so suddenly, working out. But I know that the only way he would rather have gone would have been on the back of his bike, somewhere between there and here, taking pictures of dead skunks on the road which he would use as wallpaper on his PC at work, or perhaps running into the ice cold ocean in January with a group of crazies, only to emerge with one of those twisted smiles, and have his picture taken with his arm around an attractive young woman he didn’t know know, but just asked if she’d pose with him.
She was grinning too.
It is now 2500 miles between me and where he died, and it was all so sudden. I could not make it to the service, but I asked a friend to tell me how it went. “Craig, it was more like a block party than a memorial. There were people lined up outside on the sidewalk.”
And that was how it should be.
G was a good man, a good friend, a good coworker, and he left this plane far too soon for my taste.
Less than 24 hours before his death, his last word to me in an email: “Thanks.”
I wish I’d had a chance to thank him.
G was the sort of man a fiction writer wishes they could craft. The gold-standard of character. Funny as hell, smart as a whip, determined, vital and vibrant and alive every day he was on this earth, and complaining all the way. Did I say good man? No, he was great.
I had started a story about a week before I got word of his passing, and central to the plot was dealing with death. Perhaps there is some significance to this timing, I’ve found that life and fiction have a way of merging. But fiction is always fiction, and life is always life. Finding a center ground is where the magic happens, methinks. That short story I started has since expanded to be a novella. I continue to work on it, with love, and with passion.
My contribution to this blog is about pivot points, and there are no greater ones than how life begins, and how it ends.
Well, maybe I’m wrong about that one. There is this big-assed middle part to tend to, and I suppose that is what makes those beginnings and ends so significant.
That is where character is formed and proofed.
I miss you, G. Thank you for living, and for inspiring me in so many ways. Thank you for sharing your bigger-than-life character.
A couple of weeks ago, Jean Roberta wrote a marvelous post on what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk and act as editor. It got me thinking about some specific aspects of how I teach writing in class, and the flaws I see on a fairly frequent basis in the writing of even well published authors.
I’ve bemoaned the demise of the old-style editor before. When I hear accounts of writers being edited today by editors at their publishing houses, I find it sort of chilling. There was a time when every manuscript submitted to an agent or a publisher was considered to be ‘in the raw’. There was an understanding that each piece of creative writing could benefit from a good, stern editor. But in those days, editors weren’t proof readers or line editors; they were more like distillers of fine perfume, taking fresh, recent blooms and turning them into rare essences. They were often writers themselves who had subsumed their own aspirations in order to make other people’s writing better. But most of all they were readers. They could spot the difference between a brave stylistic approach and a mistake a mile off. To have this kind of regard – love, even – for another’s work is an unusual calling.
Those days are, for the most part, over. If you want your writing (not just your spelling or your grammar) to be good, you’re going to have to do the bulk of this work yourself. A considerable amount of it you can simply avoid at the outset, by interrogating your plan before you start writing. Some of it you need to do after you have finished the work and have allowed it to sit for a while, once you have some distance from it.
Different editors have different hot buttons. I have two major ones: unbelievable characters and bad dialogue.
People will often say that you should separate yourself from your writing. That a bad review is not a bad review of you, but of the work. The difficulty with both the problems above is that they can sometimes point to the psychology of the writer, rather than a flaw in the writing. These are dangerous waters, but fertile, also.
Let us be honest, all the characters we write are, in some small way, part of us. Just by virtue of the fact that we create them, this must be true. There’s no use saying this is bad practice and we should stop it. It does help if you are writing, for example, main characters with a gender different to your own, or a large age gap, but not much. We invest ourselves into our characters like Geppetto breathed life into Pinocchio. We can’t write living characters unless we imbue them with our lifeforce, but if we invest too much in them, we impede their potential to be ‘all that they can be’ and we are reticent to see them put at the kind of external and internal risk that makes for really good conflict in a story.
One of the first exercises I give to my writing students is designed to allow them the pleasure of writing themselves as characters. I ask them to write a portrait of a character who could easily be them. Go to town on it, I say. Give your character all the attributes you think you have, wish you had, or hope you have. Make them beautiful, sexy, clever, agile, strong, virile, courageous, rich, etc.
Now think of the most awful, most humiliating, most unfair or tragic thing that could happen to them. They could lose all their hair overnight. They could find out they have HIV. They could suffer from a bout of explosive diarrhea at the dinner table in front of their date. Whatever it is you most fear, take your character there and put them through it.
Next, write a scene in which your character willingly, consciously does something absolutely reprehensible to you. Make them steal, lie, cheat, sell themselves on the street for $20. Whatever it is you think would be the worst thing that you could do in life, put your character there and make them do it. Don’t make it something they have no choice about – don’t allow them to be the innocent victims of circumstance. Write them doing it willingly.
These are some of the hardest pieces of writing my students ever do. You cannot imagine how violently they balk. Well, in fact, if you try these exercises, you probably will. And if you find this easy to do, then you probably didn’t need to do the exercises. But I will bet most of you will find it very hard. I know I do – I always do.
But once you’ve done it the first time, you never forget how to get yourself over the hump of reticence to really put your character at risk. You know you’ve done it and can do it again. And every new beloved character you create will be freer to be what they need to be in your story afterwards.
The other big problem for me is dialogue. I read a lot of stilted, unnatural dialogue, and not just in my student work. I find it lurking in places it has no business being: between the covers of books published by some of the biggest and most prestigious publishing houses in the world.
Bad dialogue is written by people who don’t listen. I have noticed that as writers grow older, usually, their dialogue gets much better. Steven King used to write atrocious dialogue. So did William Gibson. Now, both those authors write wonderful, vibrant, realistic interchanges between their characters.
The cure for this is eavesdropping. Get yourself to a place where you can overhear conversations and listen, and watch. It’s not helpful to do this in social situations where you know most of the people there. Because our prior knowledge and our relationships can deeply interfere with our objectivity. So, public spaces with a lot of strangers is the best option. Coffee shops and quiet bars are good because people often go there for the express purpose of talking. Notice how we speak to each other. Notice how, the closer we are to our conversation partner, the more telegraphic and abbreviated the sentences become. Notice how people establish their social position by what they say and how they say it. Notice how people put ‘spin’ on the ideas and opinions they’re trying to promote.
The second part of the exercise is observation. And for this, you need to be able to put yourself somewhere you can stare at people. Which is why I love airports. People are stuck there for hours. Everyone is people-watching.
A great deal of our communication is nonverbal. Watch interactions between people. Look at the space they make or close between themselves and others. Look at the way they tilt their heads, nod encouragements to continue, apologize. Departure areas and arrival areas are interesting, too. How people say goodbye, how they meet. Not just what they say, but how their bodies speak. Those meetings and partings are hardly ever the cliched tearful farewells or ecstatic embraces of welcome you expect. I once saw a woman say goodbye to her departing husband at the entrance to the international departure area. All her gestures to him were exactly what you’d expect, but the minute he walked through the doors, the relief on her face and in her body was shockingly obvious. And I’m sure you can guess just how fertile my mind grew after seeing that.
Finally – this is the hardest one – take a trip down memory lane to the most painful interchanges you’ve ever had with others. Force yourself past what you felt, to get to what you heard, and then to what was actually said. What words, inflections, gestures triggered the most discomfort in you? There is a clear mechanism at work there. You need to find it. You need to discover how word-choice, inflection, context and back-story fed into the ways that you were vulnerable to those interchanges. Words can open us up, but they can also close us down.
Both these sets of exercises may help to make your writing better, truer and stronger. Both involve a significant amount of self-examination and there is undoubtedly going to be discomfort. But I’m a firm believer that good writing is seldom painless. In fact, I have a theory about the link between masochism and good writing, but that’s another post.
I’ve been fortunate to have played host on my blog to a very interesting discussion on the rise in popularity of ‘cipher’ characters – protagonists who are blank slates. The most topical one at the moment is Anastasia – the female main character in Fifty Shades of Grey. She is, by no means, the only one. Increasingly, I’m coming across characters, in both erotica and in erotic romance, who have no goals, no aspirations, no talents, no agency. This is especially true when it comes to sexually submissive characters.
It goes against everything I was taught as a writer, and against all the most celebrated literary characters who are held up as exemplars of brilliant characterization. And yet these novels are wildly popular. Too popular to simply discount as literary flukes. Too well-liked to attribute their popularity to a readership lacking in discernment.
I think it behooves us as writers to examine how it became not only acceptable, but desirable to deliver up protagonists with no personality, no agency. And then to examine what has happened in our culture to support or encourage this change. Finally, I think we are required to consider the ramifications of this shift.
As interactive media evolved, it allowed for a very different kind of relationship between the story and the consumer. There were always role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, but the rise of the computer game enabled the creation of story-space that required the immersion and active participation of the player. The once maligned 2nd Person POV became a necessary narrative device for interactive gaming. Writing games necessitated the author to, in essence, make a hole in the storyworld where the player could insert themselves, and allow enough flexibility of plot to make the player feel like he or she had invested enough agency to care about the outcome of the story/game.
Post-modernism greatly influenced many aspects of creative content creation. There was a thorough democratization of the validity and worth of opinion and experience. Expertise, craftsmanship, authority of the subject were rejected in favour of the lived experience of the common man/woman. Entertainment types like reality TV have become very popular, valorizing the experience of the everyman – and turning it into spectacle. It also is very cheaply produced entertainment. It doesn’t require a lot of the creative expertise of earlier forms – actors, writers, set designers, etc.
From a literary theory perspective, the rise of new ways of understanding the author’s role in the narrative exchange between the text and the reader forced us to examine where meaning-making lies. And in the latter half of the 20th century, it was generally agreed that the reader played a much greater part in the reader-text-writer relationship than previously acknowledged. Readers internalize the written text and then, essentially, re-write it into their own experience. This allows novels to have the intensely personal impact that they have on us.
This has influenced writing enormously. Writers began to accept their roles as proposers of fictionality rather than transferrers of truths, and attempted to write increasingly more ‘open’ texts, in which the reader was left to formulate conclusions themselves. It no longer matters what the novel meant to the writer as he or she wrote it. Now all that matters is what it means to the reader through the filter of their interpretation.
So, in a way, it’s not all that surprising that startlingly vapid characters like Anastasia, are as popular as they are. As one commenter on my blog said: “I like to immerse myself into what I’m reading and imbue characters with my own thoughts and ideas.” And what better way to do this than to provide the reader with an essentially empty vessel? As another commenter wrote: “…she will be easy to step into as an identity character because so little of her is really fleshed out.”
It occurs to me that this is a reflection of a greater sociological polarization. Not only does it seem we are, as a factionalized society, unwilling to listen to an opposing argument or consider that any part of it might be valid, but now we can no longer even tolerate the fictional portrayal of characters who cannot be easily made into ourselves.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge that there are deeply feminist implications in the rise in popularity of female characters who have no goals or aims or aspirations other than to be a compliment to the male protagonist in the story, but I don’t really want to get into that discussion.
The desire for empty vessels into which we can insert ourselves literarily has broader implications that go beyond gender. At its heart, this relates to a society in which individuals have no interest in the experiences of others. It is not enough to sympathize with or be co-travelers on a character’s fictional journey. We have to have space made for us to be in the starring role. And I have to wonder whether this is a fundamental product of a consumer culture in which the customer’s voice is, ostensibly, the only one that matters. Have we had our consumer egos pandered to with such intensity, that we cannot tolerate the other, the alien, the different? If it is not our story, is it unconsumable to us now?
I think Barthes was simply a little premature. The ‘Death of the Author’ did not occur when we relinquished the role of meaning making to readers. But when writers can no longer write rich, complex, evolved main characters and are compelled, if they want to be popular, to write empty vessels instead, then it really is the death of the author.
It is fairly easy to program a computer to spit out a sequence of fictional events. And certainly, most of the scenarios we create in fiction are not all that new. The thing that afforded writers creative space was to write interesting characters who transgressed through those familiar landscapes in new and interesting ways. Now, it seems, we are not required to do that either.
Are we dead, yet?
by Ashley Lister More often than not, enjoyable fiction is all about characters. Many readers approach fiction for the excitement of meeting new and interesting characters – the characters that you, the writer, have created. Characters often remain the most vivid and memorable parts of any fiction. This is particularly true in erotica with a heritage that has given us such literary stalwarts as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), Pauline Reage’s O (The Story of O), and Justine from de Sade’s Justine ou Les Malheurs de la Virtu. But creating convincing and credible characters can be one of the trickiest aspects of the craft. The following exercise might be helpful for those writers who want to create a distinctive character that readers will remember long after they’ve finished the final page. 1) Think of an easily identifiable activity or occupation such as cop, soldier, cowboy or office worker. Ideally, pick an occupation with which you are already familiar, or with which you’d like to be familiar. (It’s worth noting that in the list of occupations above, each of these job titles has been the subject of themed anthologies focusing solely on characters connected to that particular occupation). 2) Once you’ve picked an occupation for your character, write down all the stereotypical things you’d expect that character to do, both positive and negative. Using one of the examples from above, you’d expect a cop to eat donuts, or blurt out the name of the culprit when watching a whodunit film, or have a set of handcuffs dangling from his or her hip. You’d expect a cop to have a natural air of confidence and a commanding air of authority. But the chances are you’ve picked a different occupation other than cop. Write a full list of traits that you’d usually associate with a character in the occupation you’ve chosen for this exercise. Include the good traits and the bad traits. 3) Now start to think of things your fictional character could do to become an individual – things that break the stereotypical mould. As an example, the cop I mentioned before might collect fine glassware. This interest in the aesthetic breaks the mould of the stereotype because few people consider police officers to have an appreciation for art or craftsmanship. This is not to say that police officers don’t have refined taste. But there are a lot of readers out there who see police officers solely as the face of authority with little interest in art. Could this unexpected aspect of my police officer’s character be considered erotic? Well, if he has an appreciation for fine glassware, then there’s a chance that his strong and powerful hands could be taking masterful yet sensitive control of a piece of fragile and delicate Lalique. His fingers could smooth against its detailed curves. His broad palms could cup the swell of a rounded base. He could caress a smooth and swollen surface. He could trace his fingernails against unyielding ridges. And this is before the situation has even moved toward being erotic. Compile a list of traits that would go against the stereotype of the occupation you’ve chosen – make this a list of things that no one would expect your character to do. These facets will make your character stand out as memorable. 4) Write a short scene showing your character going against the conventional norms of their occupation. Write a short scene that shows your character as a unique individual. Take time with this exercise. It’s not easy but the rewards can be plentiful – for yourself and for your readers. The chances are, after trying this a couple of times, you will have created an intriguing character who demands a place in your next fiction. The characters we create in our stories are going to live on the page and exist in the minds of our readers. Making these characters as vivid and memorable as possible is a sure way of making our work stay with the reader. More importantly, they give the reader a valid excuse to return to our writing again and again in the future. Ashley Lister
By Ashley Lister Constant Reader, My name is Ashley Lister and, aside from being a regular columnist and reviewer at ERWA, I’m also a freelance writer and a creative writing lecturer. I’m reminding you of this because so many interesting contributors have appeared in this space since I last blogged here I can understand if you’ve forgotten me. As I mentioned last month, I’m using this space to share some of my favourite writing exercises. This month’s exercise deals with characters. Have you ever met a person that you thought you would like – only to discover they were completely unlikable? Conversely, have you ever met a person you expected to despise – only to discover they were surprisingly charming? This happens all the time in the real world. However, it’s only in fiction – and really, only in badly written fiction – where we encounter characters that are written in shades of unmistakable black or white and absolute flavours of good or bad. As writers creating characters, if we want them to be believable representations of real people, we have to keep in mind that real people are multifaceted individuals who are never wholly good or wholly evil. We also have to remember, whilst some characters and their characteristics will remain consistent, their traits will appear to change depending on who is looking at them. To illustrate this point, I recently read out rude a poem to a large audience. The audience members that laughed and applauded clearly thought I was risqué and funny and deserved to be on the stage in front of them. The audience members that walked out and complained clearly thought I was vulgar and humourless. I was the same person at the microphone. But I was a vastly different person to each of those responding in such diverse ways. Here’s the exercise: Write about yourself from the perspective of someone who likes you. Write for about half a page on this first part of the exercise. Now fill out the other half of the page writing about yourself from the perspective of someone who doesn’t like you. Hopefully there should be a contrast in perceptions here. Ambition and greed are often different sides of the same coin. It’s admired to be relaxed but few people approve of someone being lazy – yet the two adjectives can be used interchangeably depending on whether we like or loathe a person. A beloved bargain-hunter can easily be regarded as a despised tightwad. This exercise is not only useful for self-examination. You can use it to better understand how your characters are perceived by other characters in the fictional world you’re creating. Your fashion-conscious protagonist could be seen as a vacuous clothes-horse by her detractors. A sexually adventurous hero could be seen as an immoral man-slut. Take a shot at this exercise and feel free to share your favourite contrasts via the comments box below. It would be interesting to see how readers of this blog believe themselves and their characters to be perceived. Ash