Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blood and Guts

By Lisabet Sarai

You know, I love Garce dearly, but he comes up with the hardest topics! This week his choice is "character dynamics". He wants us to talk about what makes our characters tick when they're together—how their interactions reveal their separate motivations and their mutual conflicts. At least I think that's the gist.

As you've probably gathered from his posts, Garce thinks about these things a lot. He takes a remarkably analytical approach to his writing. I say remarkable partly because all that analysis somehow doesn't suck the blood and guts from his writing, the way it would for me. He manages to keep the flame of genuine emotion alive in his work even as he slices and dices, rethinks and reworks.

Not me. I can't pick my own characters apart the way I used to do with Anna Karenina or Holden Caulfield. If I do, I'll kill them. I'm not one of those authors who hear voices in their heads, potential characters screaming for me to write their stories, but when I write, my characters sit on my shoulders and answer my questions. “Now what are you going to do?” “What do you want?” “Why do you feel that way?” I ask. Then I listen to what they tell me. When I write a conversation, I mentally put the characters in the same room and wait to see what they'll say. It's something of a mysterious process, and definitely synthetic rather than analytical.

About a month ago I was working on an erotic romance tale involving BDSM initiation of a younger woman by a more experienced man. I'd recently been reading a blog about character profiles, so I decided to try that technique with this story. I wrote down everything I could think of about the two protagonists. You know, all their back story, plus items like “deepest secret”, “strongest desire”, “biggest fear”, “biggest character flaw”, “most admirable quality” and so on. Then I began writing the story. I promptly ignored about half of my analysis. When I went back and re-read my profiles, I saw that I hadn't followed them very closely. But I couldn't force my characters to fit their descriptions. I'd written those sketches before I got to know the two of them, and the analyses were only partly accurate.

Still, I understand the value of Garce's approach, digging deeper. The sort of questions he asks (we've discussed this quite a bit) bring out the underlying meaning in a story. In the best literature (and I count Garce's work in this category, though I know he'll deny it), characters are more than just players acting and reacting. They also embody abstractions—psychological, philosophical, or political. Nixie is more than just a confused, horny, bitter, very female monster. She's trust betrayed, faith destroyed, and yet she's also the flickering of hope, refusing to be drowned in despair. The suicide bomber in “How Paradise Comes to the Blind” strikes me as a very real person—arrogant and yet humbly seeking the peace and reassurance of God's presence—but at the same time he represents intolerance, ignorance, fanaticism. Even Garce's intimate tale “An Early Winter Train”, about a man stuck caring for his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife, has multiple levels. It's about the persistence of love and memory, about power, about flaunting conventions.

I didn't really intend this post to analyze Garce's character interactions. He can do that far better than I. I was going to talk about my current work in progress, a dystopian scifi romance. As it happens, at the moment I'm actually stuck trying to understand the dynamics between my two main characters.

Rafe is the sole human guard at an internment camp for gay men. When the Plague raged and the dying populace rioted in the streets, the Command swept all men with a supposed genetic marker for homosexuality into remote “quarantine” camps. Legions of powerful robot warriors patrol the camp. Rafe himself doesn't understand why he's needed, but he accepted the lonely, boring job as alternative to a prison sentence for a gang murder he didn't commit. He's cynical and bitter, a loner just trying to do his time.

Dylan has been a resident in the camp for seven years, since he was seventeen. A genius with electronics, he has been working methodically on a plan for escape for the past three. He has become convinced that the multiple levels of security at the camp are too difficult even for his skills, so he's using social engineering to snare Rafe into helping him. Dylan is cynical, too, but he's also a manipulator. He's not the type to sit around waiting to see what will happen. He has almost boundless self-confidence. He's also an extrovert, a natural leader.

I'm a chapter and a half into the story. Rafe and Dylan are just about to meet for the first time. (Rafe has watched Dylan on the security camera. Dylan knows this.) Dylan is being hauled into Rafe's control room after deliberately and visibly reprogramming a robot guard.

What should happen next?

I know that before long, Dylan needs to seduce Rafe. It's part of his plan. Rafe needs to think it's his idea, however. I also know that ultimately, the two must fall in love (this is a romance, remember) and both become fugitives from the Command.

So how should I play this scene?

I could dive in, just letting the characters do what they want. But they're not talking to me.

What are the emotions here?

Rafe: curiosity (how did Dylan manage to control the guard?); anger (who did this hotshot kid think he was, breaking the rules?); a bit of fear (would Rafe be blamed? and what about the Plague? Is Dylan a carrier?); lust (Rafe has watched Dylan masturbate); a touch of sympathy (Rafe has looked up Dylan's sad history).

Dylan: triumph (his plan is working); guile (he must not let on that this is deliberate); fear (but just an edge); exhilaration; lust (this is his first sight of Rafe, and the guard is something of a hunk).

And what are the underlying themes in their relationship? Obviously trust—initially they mistrust each other. Dylan must seduce Rafe and win his trust. Then he'll lose it again when his deceit is unmasked. Freedom. Rafe is as much of a prisoner as Dylan. Being with Dylan will make him realize this. There's also the political dimension of discrimination. Rafe has had sex with men, but he doesn't have the “homo-gene”. He's been conditioned to think of Dylan and the other residents as deviant and in some sense less than human, the scum who unleashed the Plague upon humanity, while he himself is not “queer”. So part of the character arc will involve Rafe coming to terms with the fact that there's no real difference between him and Dylan, sexually speaking. This will lead to a re-evaluation of many things that he has taken for granted.

But that comes later. Right now I'm just trying to work out the control room scene. I think that it ends with a blow job, Rafe deciding to use Dylan's mouth. Dylan's hands are bound behind him. There's a power dynamic here. Rafe believes that he is in charge.

Dylan knows better. How should Dylan act? Should he taunt Rafe,or should he pretend to be frightened and humble? I think that the former would work better. He'll goad Rafe, work him up, encourage the guard to take him. That's Dylan's immediate goal, to snare Rafe sexually and induce him to assist in Dylan's escape. At the same time Dylan will subtly show Rafe that the guard is no freer than the inmate. He'll also earn Rafe's grudging respect. As an ex-gang member, Rafe will think more highly of a bold, rebellious Dylan than a compliant one.

Hmm. This might work. But honestly, I really won't know until I sit down and try to write the scene. All the analysis in the world isn't going to help if my characters decide that I'm wrong.


  1. Lisabet,

    I don't think even the most detailed character profile could tell you how a character would act in a given situation especially when your character is manipulative. In that case, he would act the way he wants the other character to see him, not the way he would act if there was nothing at stake for him. So he has to reflect and redirect the other character's emotions.

    But even if you characters are relatively honest and straightforward, I still don't think a list of traits or even psychoanalysis would tell you how your character will act in that one scene. A good character is complex, and in a romance, breaking through the outside defenses to reach a person's soul is critical.

  2. Hi Lisabet!

    You've been thinking about my stuff almost as much as I'vebeen thinking about yours. I'm reading "Rough Caress" these days.

    I had thought I'd have finished the whole thing by now, but Minnesota was so intense I hardly read anything. I'm just catching up.

    I have no suggestions to offer, but you sound like you have a complex character web building up. Being a gay man in a prison full of gay men doesn;t sound like such a bad deal. It would be like sending me to a women's prison full of smart, busty heterosexual Asian women. Wow - what do I have to do to get to stay?

    I keep thinking of spins to suggest, but I promise I won;t. You sound like you;ve got something good going on.


  3. Hello, Kathleen,

    I definitely think you're right. You can plan a plot (though even then you have to be ready for characters to hijack it!) but not a character.


  4. Hi, Garce,

    This is a dystopic vision. The men in this camp are not allowed to have sex with each other.

    I wrote the scene yesterday, using my blog ideas as a starting point. However, things got a bit twisted toward the end. But that's okay, I feel as though I made progress.


  5. Lisabet,

    I'm sorry for coming into this so late this week.

    I have to agree about Garce's choice of topics. They make me sweat :-)




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