Friday 11 October 2013

Characters only a parent could love

Back in the days when I was still a review junkie (it's getting better, I'm definitely recovering), I did look quite closely even at the negative reviews (minus those written by trolls), based on the old saying that you can learn something from everything. In the case of negative reviews, that is that you can't please everybody and some people won't get what you tried to do, and others have waited all their lives for that book. Usually, they talk about the same book.

One of the internal standards some readers seem to be measuring characters against is what I call the "loveability scale", based on the reader's ability and desire to fall in love with the characters. I think it was Sarah Frantz who told me that the hero in (hetero) romance is vastly more important as "dream mate" for the reader than the heroine - I might be over-simplifying, but it made sense to me. Therefore, for the (usually) female reader, m/m offers two characters to fall in love with. Which is great. Twice the emotional investment.

So statements like "I LOVED THAT CHARACTER!" and "URGH, I CANNOT LOVE A CHEATER!" make perfect sense in the context of a review, even though the writer knows why he/she did such a thing and has a much deeper insight into the emotional jungles of that character.

Now, I keep reading in "how-to" books on romance how the characters have to be "loveable". Makes sense. Clearly, considering reviews, that is hugely important to romance readers.

For all other genres, this goal seems to be mostly expressed as "the reader has to identify with the character". (Cue the success/appeal of juvenile wish-fulfillment of most epic sword and sorcery fantasy and most Marvel/DC comics - and I don't mean "juvenile" in a derogatory sense.) I would argue that both aims are really the same - I can't completely hate somebody I know very well. Or rather, once I understand a character, I empathise. Once I empathise, I really, really struggle to hate. I might still get angry or upset with them, but hate is kind of out.

Where I'm from (genre fiction), characters are seen as the identification foil of a reader who puts her/himself into the book (aka the identification hypothesis = "readers want to identify with the main character/s").

This whole identification thing is severely over-rated in my view.

When we go back to Aristotle (who kinda started it all), the kick that an audience gets out of watching a play, comes from releasing emotional energy ("catharsis") by seeing people do stuff and act out strong emotions. The audience goes home afterwards, emotionally cleansed and maybe wiser. You'd go to the theatre for some basic "soul hygiene". (I'm simplifying again.)

Aristotle doesn't posit at all that there's identification going on. The audience member doesn't BECOME Oedipus sleeping with his mother and killing his father. I assume most Greeks would shudder at the thought and find the idea offensive to be forced to BE that person, even if just temporarily.

But apparently that soul hygiene part of the entertainment even works when we don't BECOME the person on the stage.

So what is still going on is watching, learning and an emotional component that leads to a discharge of energy.

Berthold Brecht hated the whole idea of "identification" so much he created a theatre theory that basically dis-allowed the audience any kind of identification ("dialectic theatre" - where he aims to pair education, critical thinking and political act and keeps messing with the play to get his message across. The story is just a vehicle--almost an excuse to get an audience into the theatre).

Personally, I hated Brecht's plays (a constant source of friction with my German teacher who was a Brecht groupie). My question was always, "Why should I care? So this guy seems to think he knows it all and then rams it down my throat without even managing or bothering to entertain me?" Actually, my final exam in school was an analysis why I don't believe that Brecht's theory works at all.

Audiences WANT the emotion.

But do they want the identification? Or is it just empathy, that weird, miraculous ability of humans (and quite a few other species) to tune into others?

This might be a matter of gradients, but those questions have some serious implications for writers.

If readers want identification, we have to give them characters that they want to be.

If readers want to tune into the character, we just have to bring them alive (so there's a corresponding somebody who can be tuned into).

Maybe there are two types of readers with two different needs - or the same needs, just with different priorities.

Correspondingly, maybe there are different approaches/structures at work in the author too. There might be those who "are" their characters (so they write about themselves, with only facts changed, but emotional structures left intact). Some of these characters might turn out to be Mary Sues, but most often they aren't. These are quasi-biographical writers.

There might be those who "become" their characters during the writing, but switch back out of that mindset when they are done. (That's my process, though echoes of Kendras, for example, linger in my real life while I'm writing him, and I hear Silvio whenever I access the part of my mind where he lives, and sometimes when I don't.) I call these types the "method actors". I see it as accessing parts of myself and unlived possibilities. Sometimes, I'm just pushing my own limits - for the hell of it.

There might be writers to whom writing is a more or less emotionally neutral undertaking that's driven primarily by the rational mind (and that can be fun, too). Their characters obey and do what's necessary to tell the story. I've heard these authors called "puppeteers", though that has quite a negative ring to it. As long as the story works for the readers and the writing process works for the author, there's nothing wrong with it.

And then there are other types, but I think these three are fairy common.

Having said that, all three methods (and all those I've left out) can live in the same writer.

Now, the secret of love - or rather, of making a character loveable.

Honestly, no clue. I can make characters come alive, but I can't set out to make them loveable. All the writing books on romance stress how the hero has to be perfect; money, breeding, looks, "manly virtues" (aka, alpha male traits), sexual power, magnetism, billionnaire bank account. And the reason why he's not a cliche is - he has one fatal flaw (like Superman has Kryptonite issues). He might be a vampire. He might have a Dark Past.

I've seen that "fatal flaw" worked to death in m/m, such as characters have been raped and recover from abuse (very common), often including healing with the magic cock. On the other end of the spectrum, m/m is rife with characters who appear to consist of nothing but flaws, and have maybe one strength (such as beauty or smarts). They might be so weak, neurotic or phobic or incompetent that this reader wonders a) how on earth have they lived this long, and b) why does the other character fall in love with a gibbering trainwreck of a man. (Well, the allure of the healing/redemption theme is strong to the reader, probably stronger than in real life.)

Sometimes, the fatal flaw ... isn't. I mean, seriously, Kryptonite is so rare the flaw is basically meaningless. Now, if Superman had issues with concrete or stone, now that's a proper issue. It's like telling somebody in a job interview your big flaw is "perfectionism" (yep, done it, got the job, but most recruiters roll their eyes at the cliche.) So, the guy's perfect, but he has a small scar in his face that makes him look like a rogue pirat. Yeah. Crippling, crippling flaw. The horror, the horror.

Never mind.

And then there are characters who aren't made to tick the boxes (hot, rich, alpha, plus flaw). They might even be less "made" and just "step into being", and often, they have issues, but most of all, they are people. Still story people (so somewhat larger than life/better/smarter/wittier/fiercer than real-life people), but people first. To my mind, they are more balanced, too. Most of my characters that "happened" that way have huge issues (Vadim, Silvio) and flaws. They cope with their flaws in a variety of ways, and sometimes aren't even aware of these flaws. Or are in denial about them. Generally speaking, I know stuff about them and even though they might look unsuitable to be romance heroes (because they are racists, or rapists, or unrepentant criminals who rack up a huge bodycount before lunch), I'm interested to see how they respond to falling in love. What does it mean for a self-sufficient badass to fall in love?

To me, seeing somebody fall in love and go through the absolute terror of love (being scared, being insecure, being nervous, having that sick feeling in your stomach) is enough to trigger the "I care about you" reflex. Everybody gets challenged and changed by love. Some people, I think, get redeemed through love. Some people might be bad, but they are still capable of love and being somebody's beloved. To that end, love can be the fatal flaw, the thing that unhinges a character's equilibrium forever and, much like a big fucking asteroid, change their orbit forever. Love can be the challenge to the ego. Sex can be/mean the same as death. Certainly ego death, as they transcend themselves.

It's that kind of story I want to tell, although I appreciate that a huge amount of readers are not following me onto the ledge there. I like to stare into the abyss. I don't really do wish-fulfillment. I can't. I don't care.

I've recently had a discussion with a very smart person who told me that "all romance is wish-fullfillment", and that, by my very structure and DNA as a writer, I'm not actually part of the genre. (As a note, she didn't say that in any nasty way or with the intent to exclude me. It was more an academic observation of story archetypes and structures.)

I think she has a point. I also think that I'm not accepting anybody's definition of a genre in such narrow terms, even if that is the "majority opinion", to borrow a term from my semesters studying law. Just because it's the dominant creed doesn't invalidate the minority, and the days are over when you had to tick all the boxes just the right way to get published (and therefore read) at all. Personally, I believe romance is older, deeper, and wiser than mainstream category romances, which have come to "set the genre's standards/rules".

Yeah, well, I think we should challenge all dogma when it comes to stories, and what you can and cannot do. Or as an NLP trainer I know likes to say, "I reject your limiting beliefs."


  1. Another well written and insightful post and I thank you for it. I have enough rejection letters to accept I may never have anything published, I cannot follow the formula of the genre. I applaud you for telling your stories the way you want to tell them. The danger of following accepted dogma plays into the exclusion of the "other". I am not only referring to people of colour but to those stories worth telling of characters with real mental and physical limitations. I am weary of reading about the prince, I'd much rather read about the gardener who has to toil in the soil to create beauty taken for granted by royalty, because they think it comes easy. Again thank you for your rejection of their limiting beliefs, the genre is better for it.

    Peace and joy,

  2. Shell, I like that analogy of the gardener! Very nice.

    Aleks, I've looked into the abyss myself a time or two. I'll stand on that ledge with you.