Sunday, May 31, 2009

Getting Away From Me

By Lisabet Sarai

Kate O'Neill, the heroine of my first novel, had quite a lot in common with her creator. Like me, she was petite and curvy, loved to dance, and was sufficiently adventurous to go live in Thailand. She had graduate degrees and worked as a software engineer, just as I did. True, she had flaming red hair – I've always wanted coppery curls instead of my mousy brown – and she was quite a bit younger than I was when I dreamed her up, but I think it's fair to say that many of her emotions, reactions and fantasies mirrored my own. Most importantly, the journey of sexual self-discovery that she undertook in Raw Silk paralleled my personal sexual quest, in spirit though not in detail.

Writing Raw Silk was surprisingly easy. All I had to do was look inside my own heart.

I shared a lot with Miranda Cahill, the protagonist of Incognito, too. Not physically – Miranda was a tall, slim brunette. However, otherwise, she was much like me during my (many) years in college and graduate school: shy, hard-working, so serious that she doesn't always understand other people's jokes, but seething with desire and sexual curiosity underneath her prim, good-girl exterior.

By the time I got to Ruby Maxwell Chen in Ruby's Rules, I was beginning to create characters whose emotions and history weren't copies of my own. For one thing, Ruby was bossy, bitchy and competitive – nothing at all like me! Ruby was also far richer than I could ever dream of being, and part Chinese. I tried to make her cultural heritage an integral aspect of her personality. With Exposure's Stella Xanathakeos, I moved even further from my roots and comfort zone. Stella is working class and not particularly well-educated. She's streetwise in a way that I, a product of the suburbs and the American middle class, will never be.

In recent years, I've challenged myself to write characters with whom I have very little in common. In my short story “Fire”, my nameless character is a young man from the American midwest with a fetish that compels him to arson. The story is told in the first person – there could hardly be a voice more different than mine. “Refuge”, the story I wrote for Alessia Brio's charitable anthology Coming Together: At Last, is narrated by a dark-skinned youth from the backwaters of northeast Thailand, forced to join the army and work as a guard in a refugee camp by his family's extreme poverty. I'm currently working on a M/M paranormal romance novel called Necessary Madness, featuring the rocky relationship between a homeless clairvoyant teenager and a bitter city cop.

As the social, psychological and experiential differences between me and my characters increase, it becomes more difficult to create characters with depth, breadth and believability. To succeed in capturing my readers, I need characters whose emotions and actions are both genuine and compelling. How can I step into someone else's skin and imagine his or her thoughts and feelings, when that person and I come from different worlds?

Part of the answer, for me, is my conviction that individuals, despite their backgrounds, histories, cultures and gender, are more similar than might be expected based on surface characteristics. Certain emotions are fundamental: fear, anger, desire, sorrow, joy. Although different people express and react to emotions differently, we all experience them. In fact, I think my job as an author is to elicit these emotions in my readers. The very act of creating characters with whom my readers can identify presupposes a level of emotional commonality.

So, when I am trying to create a character very different from me, I assume that I can still use my own emotional reactions as a starting point. This seems to work quite well for sexual desire. If my story requires a character whose sexual interests don't mirror my own, I begin by imagining a scene that does turn me on. Then I transplant my arousal to my character, focusing it on different objects or activities. In Raw Silk, my personal kinks drove the story, quite transparently. My lusts and fantasies still stoke the fire in my work, but now they're subterranean, roiling like molten rock beneath the surface of my characters' existence.

Imagination and analogy can take you a long way toward an understanding of life in someone else's skin. But this strategy will fail if not accompanied by research. Writing requires creation not only of your characters but also the world they inhabit. If you are writing a tale set in a different time period or culture (including a sub-culture), you need to have a deep sense of the world you're trying to evoke and the ways that it shapes its denizens. Assumptions, vocabulary, sexual practices and taboos will vary from one world to another. Sadly, I've read far too many historical romances in which the characters wear period costumes but think and act like representatives of modern Western culture.

So if you are writing, for instance, a homoerotic tale, you can't simply rely on your imagination to tell you how gay men interact. You need to watch and read gay porn. You need to talk to gay men and read about their experiences. In the case of M/M erotic romance, it also helps to read other authors in the genre and figure out what works and what doesn't.

This brings up the fascinating issue of realism versus expectations. I will use M/M erotic romance as an example here, but the same question arises with BDSM or interracial or lesbian or historical erotica. Readers have certain notions about what to expect from a particular genre. In the M/M romance I have read, the rough aspects of gay sex rarely appear. Furthermore, the fear of homophobic attacks, the stigma of being gay in an ostensibly straight society, the effects of HIV on the gay community, are mostly absent. I suspect that if an author tried to be realistic about the experience of being a man who desires men, a significant segment of the readership for M/M romance would be turned off, possibly even upset.

The same could be said of BDSM erotica. Most BDSM tales present an idealized dominant who magically understands the needs of the submissive. (Raw Silk is no exception.) They ignore the far more common situation of insecure, incompetent, ego-tripping or genuinely cruel doms. They usually omit the lengthy negotiation process between dom and sub, in which the pair explores the submissive's squicks and limits. It's far more exciting to imagine a master so intuitive, so attuned to his slave, that he understands what she wants and needs without any prior discussion.

Thus, research by itself is not sufficient. Once you understand how your character's world is different from your own, you still need to decide which differences to highlight and which ones to discard. Reviewing the conventions of your chosen genre can help, but this can also be a trap, producing cookie-cutter stories where the characters and situations are far too predictable to be interesting.

Slipping inside someone else's skin and writing from their experience is tough. It requires considerable effort and judicious craft. Writing characters that are similar to me is far easier. Sometimes I feel like being lazy, just opening up my mind and letting my perversions flow unchecked onto the page. When I do, though, I run the risk that I'll just be writing Raw Silk, over and over again. To keep my work fresh, novel, exciting to other readers as well as to me, I need to get away from myself, to look through the eyes of characters who see a different world.


  1. Hi Lisabet!

    I thought this was a very thoughtful post and highlights one of the difficulties of writing fiction. Early on I realised men characters in my stories were often too much like me, not more brave, not more noble, not more evil. Its a challenge to write someone different from yourself. Also, as you pointed out, the formula expectations of a commercial genre make it difficult to write characters that match the real world. With my vampire character Nixie, instead the genre vampire, elegant and remorseless, superior to humans, I tried to imagine what the world of a real vampire would be, while keeping some of the mythology. I think having a vampire for a lover would be like having a very dangerous crack addict for a lover.

    Its a challenge to imagine other worlds and other people. I think suffering can be a catlyst for that. When people suffer, sometimes it damages them. But if you suffer wisely it can open you to the situation of others.


  2. I wrote my first f/f story back in 2002, and soon discovered simply substituting 'she' for 'he' wasn't working for me. I thought I was comfortable with it, after all, I'd interviewed a lesbian friend at length, but most of the sex scenes are behind closed doors. If and when it ever sees publication, I'm either going to have to open the doors or risk fear of a slew of hate male from readers! I hope I can find that balance.

  3. Nice post, Lisabet,

    Sharing parts of ourselves is what we do as writers, I really don't think there's any way we can avoid it. We use our feelings, experiences and empathy so much in the things we create, there's got to be tidbits of me or you, or whoever writes, in our work.

    The challenge is, letting that part expand, grow into something that's not so much us, as our characters. Yes? Okay, then you jump into an alien or the other sex and where do we think we're going? LOL

    This is going to be a fun week.


  4. Hey, Garce,

    I agree with you, that our personal issues, our suffering and our quests, always find their way into our writing. When they don't, the work seems flat and empty. The trick is to take those issues and experiences and transplant them into someone else. The interesting aspect of this type of heart transplant is that our personal concerns may morph into quite different in the context of someone else's personality and history.


  5. Hi, Molly,

    Thanks for your comments. I think that you have to put yourself into the scene, somehow. If you're squicked by lesbian sex, that is going to come through in your work.

    You might well find that if you revisit this story now, you'll be more comfortable opening the doors. After all, you've had seven years of growth, both as a person and as a writer.


  6. Hello, Jude,

    You're completely right. The germ of the emotion or the passion has to be personal, but it needs to be allowed to grow, to expand as you put it, in the characters we create.

    Looking forward to reading your take on this topic!


  7. Hi Lisabet,

    I'm always facinated by how different writers approach a subject - I'm the complete opposite in this case. I find it much easier to write about characters who are not like me.

    Take care,

    Kim Dare.

  8. This is exactly what I was hoping to hear when I suggested this topic! I love finding out how other writers handle the trickier aspects of story-telling. This was great, Lisabet!

    With regards to reality vs. expectation, you are dead on, but then again, it is fiction, not non-fiction we write.

  9. Hi, Kim,

    I'm intrigued by your comment. I mean, I know you write M/M. But then again, you also mostly write BDSM, and I know that's a personal interest. Aren't you projecting some of your self into your male characters?

    Thanks for your input.


  10. Thanks, Helen,

    It's a great topic. I could say a lot more, but... well, I'm sure the rest of you will pick up the ball and keep it rolling.



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