Category Archives: Characters

To Sex Scene or Not to Sex Scene

Sex scenes can be truly difficult to write and write well so that they move the story forward or reveal character or both. The question I usually ask myself — how does this scene reveal character or move the story forward? — before I decide to include a sex scene or not doesn’t really apply, I’ve discovered, if you’re writing bodice-ripper style romance novels. Then the question becomes more about how well to write the scene — how much of the physical action to include vs. the emotional action — and if an explicit sex scene is consistent with your characters’ beliefs and behavior. I’d also question whether or not the sex is gratuitous, because after all, sex does sell.

This reminds me of an experience I had years ago with a movie called Die Hard starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. The first time I saw this movie was on TV. It had been edited for length and content, but I didn’t think about the parts that I were missing. The version I saw on TV was highly entertaining — suspenseful, twisty, and really fun. Then I decided to buy my own copy of the movie for my movie library. I purchased what was available at the time, looking forward to seeing this fun movie again. When I viewed it, I discovered all the parts that had been edited out for the TV broadcast — primarily explicit violence — and was startled by how little the edited parts added to the story or character development. In other words, I would not have missed those edited parts if they hadn’t been included.

Sex scenes are similar. Sometimes sexual tension or the suggestion of sex going on behind the scenes is far more effective because they don’t stop the action or forward momentum of the story. And they’re not nearly as boring. I’ve now read two historical romance novels in which the authors chose to stop the forward momentum of the story and character development to have the romantic leads have sex with each other for 100+ pages in various ways, in various places, and with a varying degree of explicitness — and nothing else. The story just stops. And after about 15 pages of this, it gets really boring. At least for me.

The most recent novel I read, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, included explicit sexual violence, including rape, against the main female character. This historical bodice ripper takes place in 1743 in the Scottish Highlands where the men are depicted to be far from sophisticated or considerate — as far as they are concerned, a wife is their property and they can do whatever they want to her and she cannot complain about it. Loving a woman essentially means fucking her whenever and however they want. At least, that was the message I understood from this particular historical novel. It really disappointed me. I got to the point where I thought that really, Gabaldon was a good writer and it was a shame she was wasting her skill on these scenes that went nowhere. But sex sells.

While Jamie and Claire were characters with a lot of potential, I thought all but a few of the sex scenes could have been cut in favor of focusing on the development of their emotional and intellectual intimacy, how they get to know each other as people rather than only as two bodies. The last 100 pages of the book gives them a wonderful opportunity to deepen the emotional connection and trust between them, and to perhaps broaden Jamie’s realizations that there’s far more to Claire than he thought. There are glimmers of this possibly happening, but I did not see it coming to the fore and going to another level for their relationship.

I know that there’s a market/audience for this type of bodice ripper romance and perhaps Gabaldon and other writers in that genre feel a responsibility to give their readers what they apparently enjoy. Maybe that’s fine, as long as it’s well written.  I know now more than ever that I am not a member of that audience. To me, all those sex scenes could have been cut and not hurt the story or character development at all, just as the gratuitous violence in Die Hard could be cut and not have the movie story suffer at all. To me as a reader, stopping the story for page after page of sex scenes isn’t titillating but boring.

This reading experience has certainly shone a new light on the issue of writing sex scenes. It’s no longer a matter of how to write them well, but whether to include them at all. The question still remains: how does the scene move the story forward or reveal character or both? And I’d add the question: how does the scene (or scenes) affect the pacing of the story’s momentum?

Revealing Character Through Language

How does a writer reveal character in a story or novel? The usual answer is through action, speech, and then there’s also description. For these 3 elements, the writer uses various tools, of course, but the most basic are words, i.e. language. Last week, I talked about language in terms of word choice. I was also talking about the use of language to show who Pierre is when the reader meets him in the first Pierre chapter in Perceval’s Shadow. The excerpt I used was a descriptive passage showing Pierre in action as well as his thinking. This week, I want to explore that more and add the dimension of speech.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, how the experience of that novel affected me and McCarthy’s use of Anglo-Saxon words. Through the use of ancient words, he took the reader back in time to a period in human history when survival was a primitive and violent endeavor. He created a tone, an atmosphere, to the story by using Anglo-Saxon words in his description.

In Perceval’s Secret, Vassily Bartyakov is a young Russian pianist who grabs experience and people with such gusto, it’s hard to not to like him. He’s far from an innocent in the world, but a realist. I wanted to convey primarily through his speech, however, his Russian soul.

Before I had written much, I spent a lot of time listening to Russian immigrants speaking English, watching how they used their hands as they spoke, and what about English tripped them up. I have to admit it was a lot of fun. In return, I was conversing with them, helping them with their English, explaining why weigh is not pronounced the same as conceive, and the differences among there, their, and they’re. The one element of English they tripped over all the time was the articles — the, a, an. They don’t exist in Russian, so Russians didn’t use them in English much. Another element was word order. In English, there is a definite order to a sentence. In Russian, word order depends on what meaning the speaker wishes to convey. For example, in English “I love you” is specific and set: subject, verb, object. But in Russian, those 3 words can be moved around to show emphasis and change the meaning — “You I love” or “Love I you” or “I you love” with the first word being the strongest. So for Bartyakov’s speech, I wanted to emphasize through word order and lack of articles that he was truly Russian, not an Austrian with a Russian name.

Another example of revealing character through speech concerns showing a character’s level of education by the kind of vocabulary she uses. A character who has a post-graduate education and is well-read will have a broader and deeper vocabulary (and be a true challenge for a writer) than a character who’s graduated high school and works at a blue collar job. Having written that, I have also met people in life with college educations who speak with the vocabulary and understanding of 5th graders. So education is not necessarily a reliable indication of intelligence. Writers demonstrate a character’s knowledge and understanding through actions as well as speech.

I love to watch fine actors at work. They reveal character by using their bodies through movement but also through clothing and grooming. The first example that pops into my mind is a description of a young woman in the 1950’s vs. a young woman today. In the 1950’s, a young woman might wear a shirtwaist dress, bobby socks, or pedal-pushers. What of a young woman today who describes her dress as a shirtwaist, her socks as “bobby socks,” or her cropped pants as pedal-pushers? What would that say about her? Fashion vocabulary changes often, morphs, and returns, but it can reveal how a character sees herself.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of how language or word choice reveals character in a story. It’s one of the things I’m conscious of when I’m reading novels — how does the writer use words to reveal character? Describe behavior or action? What words does the writer put in her characters’ mouths? While description of action or how a character responds to a location creates a definite image of a character in a reader’s mind, the character’s speech can support or demolish that image depending on how the writer chooses words to put in a character’s mouth.

Language

In On Writing, Stephen King comments that readers never ask writers language questions, i.e. how does a writer come up with the right language for a story? Or a character?  Dialogue? It’s hard work, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this past week because my revision work on Perceval’s Shadow last weekend put the question of language in my face. It’s all about word choice, but that sounds much simpler than it is.

I worked last weekend on chapter 2, a Pierre chapter, i.e. a chapter told from third person point of view close in to a 10-year-old French boy who’s been living on the future war-torn Viennese streets. He loves Japanese anime, specifically the anime of Hayao Miyazaki in two of Miyazaki’s famous movies, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, especially the latter. This boy just started identifying himself in his mind as a friend of the Wizard Howl as well as the Warrior Ashitaka, I had no idea why, but I went with it. Pierre is also artistically gifted — he loves to draw and he loves architecture, so he’s visually oriented. I wanted to capture a sense of his mind, his personality, and explore more his love for Miyazaki.

This excerpt is from the first draft:

He strolled down an aisle of butcher stalls, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, eyeing the sausages, the gruff stall owners, and where the most shoppers had stopped: a stall on the left, four stalls ahead. He increased his pace. At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand. One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Not bad. But everything about this excerpt screams me writing description. I wanted to choose words that would be revealing of Pierre, not me. How does he see this outdoor market and the people around him? Is he afraid? Confident? Does he have a plan? His goal is to steal enough food to get him through another day. With these questions in mind, here’s what I came up with in the revision:

He strolled down an aisle of the butcher section, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, devouring the sausages with his eyes, keeping his distance from the gruff stall owners.  Most of the shoppers had stopped at a stall on the left, four stalls ahead.  He increased his pace.  The crowd around the stall would hide him while he snatched the meat.  All those Viennese women!  They became flustered when something extraordinary happened, like an invisible French boy stealing from right under their noses.  He grinned.  They probably saw the meat move up and fly through the air on its own.  Imagine!  Of course they would become flustered.  They could not explain what had happened.  The police would come and shake their giant heads at the women and their stories of meat flying through the air on its own.

At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand.  One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.  These women had tried to stop him.  How could they see him?

In this revision, I wanted to show him thinking more of being helped by the Wizard Howl, and Pierre immediately decided that Howl had made him invisible. I realized after I’d finished, that as a homeless boy, he felt invisible to most of the people around him. All the nice Viennese do not want to see him or other homeless boys, dirty and starving, collateral damage from the war. If they saw them, the Viennese would either feel helpless to do anything or uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the “problem” and want someone else to take care of it, i.e. the police or government.

Photo: der Standard/Robert Newald

In the second excerpt, I write much the same thing as in the first excerpt, but in the second it’s no longer me describing the action. By sinking into Pierre’s thoughts, the paragraph takes on the quality of Pierre’s personality. It begins by changing “eyeing the sausages” to “devouring the sausages with his eyes” and sinks deeper with the exclamation “All those Viennese women!” He imagines their reaction to meat rising through the air all on its own. He is psyching himself to make his move to steal the bratwurst. The language I’ve chosen reflects that and his narrow escape in the following paragraph.

This is an example of working with language, how language supports character and action, and how it sets the tone for the story. The words I chose reveal Pierre’s character. To accomplish this, I thought long and hard about who Pierre is, how he sees the world, how he sees himself in the world, and how he’s chosen to cope with his circumstances. I was satisfied with the result.

Remaining True to Characters

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo at the Sistine chapel, Vatican city, Rome, Italy

What writer hasn’t grappled with the sense of playing God while writing characters? It is a seductive feeling.  Power.  Control.  Bossing characters around so that they do and say what I want. Wow. Certainly can’t do that with people in real life. But guess what? It doesn’t work anymore with fictional characters than it does in real life. That is, if you want your characters to truly be themselves. I’ve experienced characters staging protests and coups when I’ve forgotten my true place as the writer and tried to play God, and so now that I’m doing lots of revision work, it’s time to remind myself just what remaining true to characters really means.

Observe

People Watching

The first thing is to step back and watch. As I read my writing, or anyone else’s, that’s what I’m doing mentally. I wouldn’t try to interfere with someone else’s characters, and so I will not interfere with my own. And actually, that possessive “my” is relative — at some point, characters become their own people with their own personalities, thoughts, and feelings, motivations, behavior, and speech, and when that happens, that’s when a writer knows he or she has succeeded in creating characters who are as real as people in the real world. Part of getting to that point is believing they are real people.

While doing revision work, it’s important to set aside all my own ideas and preconceptions about each character, and just watch them as I read. Who are they? What do they want in the context of the story? What will they do to get it? What is their worst fear? What is their primary emotional flaw? Watch the characters in their behavior and speech to learn the answers to these questions. I’m usually not surprised by the primary characters but sometimes a secondary character will shock or surprise me, and then that opens up possibilities for the story that I had not seen before.

listen

iStockphoto

How a person talks reveals an awful lot about their character, education, and background. Pay attention to the rhythm of the speech, to the use of language, to the choice of words. Pay attention to how characters talk to each other.

When I was working on Vasia Bartyakov in Perceval’s Secret, I knew that he was Russian, and that his English would reflect the influence of his native tongue. But what really came through to me from him with his English was a sense of his natural exuberance. He’s old enough to have some idea of the way the world works, but still young enough to believe in optimism and the inherent goodness of human beings. He loves life. He loves music. Every word out of his mouth and the way he said it reflected that. I learned all that by stepping back and listening to him, and stopped myself from putting words in his mouth that I believed would move the story forward or reveal character. What I learned from Vasia is that characters love to reveal themselves through their speech if you shut up and listen.

witness

Write what you see and hear. Describe it as closely as you can to what you saw and heard from your characters. I call this “witnessing.” This is where the give and take between the writer and her characters really comes into play, and it’s important that the writer remain true to her characters, i.e. be worthy of their trust and belief in her by being faithful to what she’s seen and heard.

In the revision stage, it’s just as important to remain true to the characters, to insure that even if dialogue needs to be cleaned up for whatever reason, the writer preserves the original intent and meaning of that dialogue. What I most often run into with dialogue is that I need to relax it, make it more like the spoken speech that it is rather than only speech that is read. People rarely speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. I want my writing to be the best it can be in order to be an accurate and trustworthy witness to the lives of my characters.

conclusion

Characters may be watching the writer as closely as the writer watches them to determine if the writer can be trusted with their story. They give themselves over to writers, and at the same time, writers need to respect them and the process that the writer and characters are both part of. The next time you’re tempted to play God with your characters, just think of how much you may hate being bossed around, controlled and manipulated, and treat your characters the way you want to be treated yourself.

Out of the Dream, On to the Screen

Photo from Terra Kate at Pinterest

This morning, I woke from a dream, one of those “processing” dreams that rehash something that happened the day before or a week ago. This one succinctly reviewed an issue at work and how I’d responded, giving me “two thumbs up” for handling it well. Why don’t I remember more of these “Atta girl!” dreams?

The notion of remembering dreams stuck like a burr in my mind through the morning, until I finally realized that dreams have played an important role in my writing life. In Anais Nin’s book, The Novel of the Future, she quotes Jung in the first chapter: “Proceed from the dream outward….” She then defines dream: “…ideas and images in the mind not under the command of reason.” She goes on to discuss that dreams are not limited to sleep time, but they can occur at any time the mind slips away from the command of reason which includes daydreaming, playing in the imagination, and hallucinations sparked by drugs. Any products of the imagination proceed from the dream outward.

When I write fiction, I am using my imagination, encouraging it to provide me with the characters, dialogue, and action for the stories I write. When I’ve run into walls during this process, I have asked for help from my subconscious mind before closing my eyes to sleep at night. Patience has rewarded me with paths around the walls or ways to scale them in dreams I have had asleep. Characters have sometimes haunted my dreams at night.

While working on the very first draft of Perceval’s Secret years ago, I really wasn’t that excited about Evan Quinn being an orchestra conductor. The way I saw it, I’d need to do an awful lot of research in order to make him authentic because I knew very little about professional orchestra conductors, especially the successful ones, and of course, I wanted Evan to be a successful something. So, I began thinking about other possible professions. At the time I knew nothing about his story (I didn’t know his name at the time), only that he’d grown up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I’d seen him conducting on stage in my mind. Professions I thought about included auto mechanic, high school teacher, dentist, and a construction executive, sort of a real estate developer who actually works construction, or real estate agent.

A couple days after I began thinking about changing Evan’s profession, I went to bed in the evening dog tired. I looked forward to a restful night’s sleep. But it didn’t turn out to be: I had a dream in which Evan, dressed in his white tie and tails (his working clothes), stood in front of me, glaring at me with anger in his eyes, then very fast pushing his face into my face, so fast it startled me awake. I lay in bed thinking how odd it was to dream about a character, but then it made sense because the character had emerged from my imagination much the way dreams do. I went back to sleep. But restful sleep it wasn’t, because that dream came back, waking me again, and again, and again. The same dream. For four more nights.

I mean, really! I was annoyed with Evan Quinn, annoyed with myself, and cranky because I wasn’t getting much sleep. It took me five days and nights before I figured out what the dream was about. Evan always appeared in his white tie and tails, as if just about to go on stage or just come off stage. He wasn’t wearing a mechanic’s coveralls, or a suit, or jeans and an Oxford shirt. It was always that tux. And that was the key. He didn’t speak to me in the dream, just glared at me and threatened me by getting in my face. He wasn’t happy. He was angry with me. He was showing me that he wanted to wear his white tie and tails, and he wanted me to know that. In other words, he was an orchestra conductor and nothing else, and he was angry that I was entertaining any other profession for him.

This revelation led to the end of the dream. He left me alone once I’d given in, with some trepidation because of the amount of research I’d need to do, and let him be an orchestra conductor.

Proceed from the dream outward, indeed. It’s time for my dreams to stop being about the job and start helping me with Evan Quinn again as I begin work on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow.

What do you dream about?