Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Author Responsibility

So you write a book. It’s fiction right? You can write whatever you want, right? Have your characters do whatever they want? Well, not exactly.

For many of us, our books are based in reality. I’m not saying that we’re rewriting true stories and touting them as fiction. I am saying that many of us are dealing with “people” who we’re sending out into the human race. We need to pay attention to the laws of reality. I think every author has two overriding responsibilities: research and safety.

We have to research? People know this is fiction. Can’t we take creative license? Well, mostly…no. If you want to write people living in a real-life society, you need to know history. You need to know how things work. You need to know laws. You need to know the actual lay of the land. Not only will it add flavour to your book, but there will always be someone to tell you a “2005 Taurus doesn’t have that option” or that the word gay to designate a male-male relationship didn’t come into use until the early 1900s, in fact meaning a womanizing man as recently as the 17th century. Therefore your character in 1352 wouldn’t use it in that context. (Yes, if you write historical books, you must be conscious of word origins)

If you want to be a credible author, you’ll know your facts. This leads me to the other half of what I call author responsibility. Safety. Some of us write some edgy subjects. A lot of us write steamy sex, but just because we write fiction doesn’t mean a reader won’t read something we write and think it would be a good idea to try. Heck, I have. Why wouldn’t someone else? As many of you know, I write a lot of BDSM novels. Everything I write has to go on the page with an eye to safety. Safe, sane and consensual is the BDSM credo, but it should be the credo of romance writers, too. Don’t write something that could potentially send someone to the emergency room. You’re not writing a how-to manual, but you still need to present things in a “this is how this is safely done” format.

This doesn’t just apply to edge play. I read a book recently where the characters were playing with food and my instant thought was “this isn’t going to end well.” And how about…condoms. Should we put them on our characters? Should we worry about STDs and unplanned pregnancies? Or should we make an unobtrusive public service announcement and just slip the latex on? Condoms are a sore spot with me. As a writer I still wrestle with the responsibility of this one. And I say to myself, “Come on…it’s fiction.”

Brynn, please read above…

Seriously, especially when it comes to sexual activities in a book, an author must be responsible in how things are presented. Our characters might run around performing acts of daring-do around the continent and a reader will read with vicarious enjoyment. This is interesting and things they might never dream of doing. But when our characters settle down with their lover and get basic…this is something the reader could do—and might.

Variations on sex are still somewhat taboo things. It’s not something that’s openly taught or discussed. And if someone wants to spice up their love life and they don’t want to go to a sex shop, order a sex manual or surf the net for porn, where are they going to turn? Perhaps that spicy romance novel, with that dashing hero and kick-ass heroine…the book that’s sitting on the bed stand…page 56…


  1. Yep. It's an interesting thought, isn't it, that we might be influencing people>

  2. It is. Truthfully when I started writing I never thought about it. Then my very kind editor pointed it out to me. She's smart. Anyway, I've been preaching it ever since.

  3. This is true. And you know what else I had never thought of til, oh, YOU? The whole condom back entry issue. You should really discuss that Brynn.

  4. LOL! Well, I was trying to keep down the ick factor in my post. I did think of it...but I eliminated the back entry info and also the prediction of yeast infection in relation to the food. But, yeah these are things to consider...

  5. See, I knew I couldn't be the only one squigged by the butter scene in Last Tango in Paris for more than just the implications of it. I too was torn from the scene by worries of...infection. Ick. LOL.

    Great post Brynn!


  6. Thankfully I missed out on that movie. I hear I should avoid it ;)

  7. Lora Leigh went one further on that subject by detailing "preparations" in her books. I always found that level of information kind of interesting. Especially her "trojan" books and her August brothers series.

    If condoms are in use in the book genre/era I write, then I make sure they're in the story.

  8. I'm one who definitely fudges on the details of that kind of thing in my books, but I get away with it because my characters aren't human. Not human? Well, you can't get the AIDS, so go ahead and get down bareback, for all I care.

    I do have a special sort of feeling for the BDSM thing, though. I have a friend who is writing a novel with BDSM as part of the plot, and she's done a ton of homework-- gone to clubs, hired a dominatrix to show her how everything is done, etc.-- and found out some really interesting facts, like, "Oh, hey, you can paralyze someone/cause them to lose an arm/suffocate them if you do not know what you're doing when you break out the rope." Now, I, personally, would not imitate something done in a book, but there are people who do use romance novels as jumping off point for their sexual imagination, so I suppose I wouldn't want to take the risk, as an author, of my hard work killing somebody.

    My stance on author responsibility sort of ends with stuff like BDSM, though... I mean, if someone hasn't figured out by the age of fifteen that condoms = happy life without death from horrible, painful disease, then I don't think a romance novel is going to turn that lightbulb on in their brain. At that point, authors are basically making themselves feel more responsible.

    I guess the point of my tl;dr comment is: There are PSAs for things like using a condom, and readers should, for the most part, understand that fiction is fantasy. There are not PSAs for "Hey, don't put that chocolate syrup in your cooch," or "Use a safe word when your sweetheart is duct taping you to the drywall," so maybe authors need to shoulder some of the burden for those things ourselves.

  9. Most of my characters practice safer sex to some extent or another, although some considerably less so than others, because in the real world people vary too.

    As for my BDSM content. I always stick to SSC or RACK, but at the same time, what the characters get up to is sometimes more fantastic than realistic.

    If, in the real world a character left in that position for that long would get cramp, I'm sometimes happy to pretend my character is special and just doesn't do that, unless it fits the story line.

    In the same way I wouldn't actually encourage a reader to go home with a stranger and let the guy tie them up on the first date. But sometimes my characters do that and it works out great for them.

    Interesting post - lots of things to think about :)

  10. Great post, and very thoughtprovoking. Yeah, I think we really need to be aware that our readers are to some degree influnced by what we write, I don;t think we need to go so far as to make this a fictional hygiene book, but we do need to elt people knwo there is such a thing as RESPONSIBILITY.
    And I'm with on the research, too. A lot of writers don't so any geographical research, figuring they can pick a location and fudge it, but people are a lot more savvy than we realize. I even have a group I belong to of professionals I can query about guns and explosives, things I use regularly in two of my series.
    Sooo, research and responsibility. R $ R takes on a whole new meaning, right? OL.

  11. Great post and good stuff to remember. I'm sure my editor would let me know if I mess up.

  12. I heartily agree with you, Brynn. Not only as a writer but as a reader. Whenever I read a scene where there's anal sex followed immediately by vaginal entry, I just cringe... And Judith is right on, readers are often far better informed than we might give them credit for.

    In writing BDSM (which I do quite a lot), I focus more on the psychological and emotional states of the participants than on the physical activities. A scene can be quite extreme, in the perception of the players, without actually involving anything dangerous. (Actually I have had LONG discussions on the question of danger and escalation in BDSM with my master/mentor in this realm.)

    Condoms? Depends on the characters and the story. Some characters are reckless. Having them use a condom would be jarring. Most characters are responsible and the brief pause to put on a condom helps to reinforce that aspect of their personalities. A monogamous couple isn't likely to use a condom; chance met strangers might (should, but maybe they're in denial, or even have a death wish).

    In a fantasy world (I mean, a fabricated world) you can perhaps ignore some of these issues. However, most of what I write is intended as realistic, and often contemporary. I remember the golden time before AIDS, but for most of my readers, it has been a fact for their entire lives.

  13. Great post, Brynn. Definately some, er... food for thought there. Seriously though, definately good information to remember.


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