25 Jun How To Write Erotica: Creating A Convincing Character – Part I
THE IMPORTANCE OF STRONG CHARACTERS
Characters are possibly the most essential element in general fiction. This is particularly true for erotic fiction.
- Readers want to meet interesting and exciting characters.
- Readers want to invest in the adventures of characters who are believable.
- Readers want to enjoy the adventures and challenges faced by those characters.
- Readers of erotic fiction want to witness and share the sensual experiences of the characters contained in the story.
No doubt there are some successful stories that contain no characters. In writing there are exceptions to every rule. However, exceptions side, it’s hard to understate the value of strong central characters in fiction.
The use of character names for titles has been consistently exploited by authors of erotic literature.
- The Marquis de Sade’s titles include Justine, with its sequel, Juliette.
- Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs refers directly to the novel’s antagonist.
- John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is better known as Fanny Hill.
- Pauline Réage’s Story of O refers to the story’s protagonist, O. The title of any piece of fiction has several important roles.
- It acts as a label for the story.
- It reflects the content.
- It’s used as a sales tool.
The fact that a character’s name is so often used as the title shows the immense importance of characters within fiction.
Mr New York, Action Man, the Scottish Antonio Banderas, the French Gigolo, the Danish Pastry, Tantric Andy, Opera Man, and on and on. And on. I rarely call them by their names. My friend Michelle says my men shouldn’t get a name until I’ve slept with them three times and, using her criteria, most of them remain nameless. That doesn’t bother me. I’m not looking for a boyfriend. I’m looking for sex. It’s my weekend retreat.
Portnoy, S., The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker In the real world the relationship between name and personality is curious.
The majority of us live with names given to us either from before we were born, or from when we were too young to have established any personality traits. Yet it’s surprising how often certain names suggest specific types of people. It’s more surprising how often those suggested types are accurate.
This relationship between the person and their name is even more important in the world of fiction.
- Rupert conjures up images of a wealthy individual with an Oxbridge background and a BBC English accent.
- Nikki, with its modern spelling, suggests someone youthful, vibrant and exciting.
- Agatha brings to mind an elderly matriarch.
- Jack is the name of a likeable rogue.
Obviously, the associations with these names change for anyone who is closely acquainted with a Rupert, Nikki, Agatha or Jack, or anyone who is known by one of those names. But, for the rest of us, these names (and many others) conjure up immediate personality types.
In erotic fiction many new writers are tempted to select comical names with lewd humour at their centre. Jenny Talia, Fanny Rash, Dick Cummings and Eric Shun are names that can titillate. But this humour is likely to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief and diminish the effectiveness of the fiction. We read about characters and expect them to be based in some sort of reality that resembles the world we inhabit.
If there is a world where Mr and Mrs Rash elect to name their daughter Fanny, it’s to be hoped it’s nothing like the reality the rest of us inhabit. With the exception of the James Bond and Austen Powers films, with characters such as Pussy Galore and Felicity Shagwell, character names in fiction are usually kept to a level of realism that does not stretch the bounds of the reader’s credulity.
Names can change depending on the relationship a character has with other characters. A character could be called:
- Elizabeth by her parents;
- Lizzie to her co-workers;
- Bet or Betty with friends and lovers.
This is true for a variety of names. Consider the types of character suggested by the different use of names with these pairings:
- Gerrard and Gez;
- Constantine and Connie;
- Theodore and Ted;
- Barbara and Babs.
The formality of the situation, and the relationship the character shares with other characters, will always dictate the name they are given in that context.
WHAT DO YOUR CHARACTERS DESIRE?
Credible, interesting characters are invested with desire. All the obstacles that prevent a character from satisfying that desire are the conflicts that fuel the story.
- Anastasia, in Fifty Shades of Grey, desired Christian;
- Severin, in Venus in Furs, desired Wanda;
- Juliet, in Shakespeare’s play, desired Romeo;
- Justine, in de Sade’s story of the same name, desired piety;
- O, from Réage’s novel The Story of O, desired to be of service to Master Steven.
Desire in relation to a fictional character does not always mean physical or sexual yearning for another person. Desire is an essential element of fully rounded characters in all fiction. But it doesn’t have to be desire in the sense of lust or sexual need. Desire, in fiction, can be something as simple and universal as the need for a meal or the search for security. In erotic fiction it would be easy to use desire as a springboard for the story’s sexual content. The danger with this approach is that it can be perceived as being too easy.
- Centres on the resolution to questions raised early on in the story.
- Allows us to see ingenious solutions to difficult and challenging problems.
- Should never be about simple solutions to unchallenging problems.
The editor of a successful UK erotic magazine issued a ban on stories that began in the style of: ‘‘My name is Mandy and I love to suck guys . . .’’ Admittedly, this sort of opening does introduce the central character and her core desire but it offers no challenge to make the narrative interesting or intriguing. No reader is going to get through those first ten words and think, ‘‘I wonder what’s going to happen in this story?’’
Demonstrating your characters’ desires
In this short extract from the opening of a Nikki Magennis short story, ‘The Red Shoes (Redux)’, the heroine’s core desire is fairly transparent:
The window stretched high above her head, the plate glass polished so
bright it reflected her image like a mirror. But Lily wasn’t looking at herself.
Her gaze was totally transfixed on the shoes. Glossy, cherry-red, skyscraper
high, patent-leather fuck-me shoes that made her heart beat faster just
looking at them. They had deep curves and a dangerous heel and they stood
centre stage on a podium by themselves, proud, shockingly beautiful and
insanely unaffordable. They made Lily’s mouth water. She could almost
taste the red of them.
Magennis, N., ‘The Red Shoes (Redux)’
This description takes place on the first page of the story and shows Lily’s core desire. She wants to own a pair of red shoes. Specifically, she wants to own this particular pair of shoes, displayed in the shop window. The description is a feast of sexual imagery. The shoes are described as:
- Cherry-red; and
Lily’s response to them mimics the symptoms of sexual arousal.
- ‘. . . her heart beat faster . . .’
- ‘They made Lily’s mouth water.’
- She considers the shoes as ‘shockingly beautiful’.
Magennis never lets us doubt that these shoes are wholly desirable. The description also shows us the conflict thwarting the immediate gratification of Lily’s desire. The shoes are described as ‘insanely unaffordable’. Lily doesn’t have the money for the shoes so the reader begins to wonder how she is going to pursue her goal of attaining them.
Being unable to afford the shoes is a simple but effective conflict. Every reader at some point has experienced the frustration of not being able to afford something they desired. It’s a familiar challenge universally faced by all of us. This makes Lily’s predicament more engaging and allows the reader to empathise with her plight.
I read this story and, on a subconscious level, I think: Lily wants those shoes and she can’t afford them. There are things I want but I can’t afford – she’s just like me.
- Will Lily approach the shop owner and offer sex in exchange for the shoes? This is erotic fiction so that solution is not beyond the realms of possibility.
- Is Lily going to find some other sexual method of getting the money together? The story is in its earliest stages and the realms of possibility are wide open.
Whatever develops beyond these opening lines, the reader is already aware of Lily’s defining desire and is empathising with her situation.
The same techniques can be seen below in the opening lines from Sommer Marsden’s short story, ‘The Student.
‘And here is the Wolff home,’ he says. ‘Even the most seasoned paranormal
investigators will not go here.’
The house is a nightmare behind a chain-link fence, imposing and dark and
‘Why?’ I don’t get it. Why would this big-ass spooky mansion be off limits to
ghost heads like us, the student body of NAPS? The North American
Paranormal Society frowns on avoidance. I tap my pen and wait for our
teacher to explain.
Marsden, S., ‘The Student’
Again, we see the central character’s core desire being foregrounded in the opening of the story. The student, Helen Marsh, is a paranormal
investigator. Her tutor tells her she is forbidden from entering ‘this big-ass spooky mansion’ and Helen is clearly going to rebel.
As with the piece by Magennis, we can empathise with Marsden’s central character. Each of us, at some point, has been told we are not allowed to do something. Even those of us who have not directly disobeyed such instructions have wondered what it would be like to rebel. Admittedly, Helen Marsh is being told she can’t go into a haunted house, and most of us would be thankful for the refusal in those circumstances. But, even though most of us may have no urge to investigate a haunted house, we can identify with Helen’s rebellious need to challenge authority.
- How will she achieve this?
- What will she have to do to get into the house?
- What will she encounter there?
All of these questions occur in the reader’s mind because Marsden has presented us with a central character possessed by a very clear desire.
This is the core component for creating believable characters in fiction: invest them with an identifiable desire. Once the reader understands what the character wants, their interest in a well-written story will continue through to the final page where the desire should be satisfied.
CREATING CONFLICTS FOR YOUR CHARACTERS
Identifying a character’s central desire allows us to see what conflicts and challenges they could face in the story. To be engaging and compelling, every story needs conflict.
In Mitzi Szereto’s version of Rapunzel, the husband/father of the story tries to please his wife by scrumping an alligator-pear from their neighbour’s garden. The desire here seems relatively simple:
The wife/mother wants an alligator-pear. The husband/father wants to satisfy his wife’s desire.
But the husband is caught in the act of stealing the alligator-pear and faces
Weeping with relief, the grateful husband thanked his gap-toothed capturer
and proceeded to shift himself back in the direction of home.
‘ On one condition,’ added Old Gothel in an ominous tone.
The alligator-pear thief froze, dreading what would be coming next. Indeed,
it was not considered prudent to strike a bargain with a witch, especially
‘Ye must bestow unto me the child that shall be born of your wife.’
Szereto, M., ‘Rapunzel’
Here we can see how the desire has caused escalating conflict.
- The husband and wife desired a child.
- That desire was conflicted by fertility issues.
- To compensate for the lack of children in her relationship the wife transferred her desires onto food.
- Consequently, it came as no surprise to the reader when she then desired an alligator-pear.
- To satisfy his wife’s desires the husband agreed to steal this forbidden fruit from a dangerous neighbour.
- To stop himself from being punished by the witch (because he desires to be unpunished) the husband agrees to the witch’s sinister condition.
The story is building quickly and it’s driven solely by desires and the conflicts that challenge those desires. This relationship between desires and conflicts is what fuels all fiction. It’s richly exploited in the production of erotic fiction and sex scenes.
Conflicted desires don’t need to be particularly complex. As I’m writing this, I desire a bar of chocolate. In itself, this wouldn’t make an interesting story because there is no conflict. I could simply reach into my desk drawer, remove a bar of chocolate, and eat it. However, if I thought this desire would make an interesting story, I could set up challenges for the character wanting the chocolate.
- What if there was no chocolate in the house?
That’s not a particularly demanding challenge. The character I’d originally envisioned lives in a contemporary town, no more than a five-minute walk away from a 24-hour shop. But it doesn’t take much imagination to make these challenges sound more compelling.
- The nearest shop selling chocolate was a hundred miles away?
- There was some barrier between my character and the shop?
- The nearest shop selling chocolate was on a different planet?
Now the conflict challenging the central character’s desire starts to look like a challenge worth reading about. Admittedly, it would be difficult to justify a long-distance journey (or an interstellar flight) solely for the sake of a bar of chocolate. But, in fiction, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.
- What if the character desiring chocolate was on a diet? Now the situation takes on another aspect. We have an internalised conflict with
a character wanting something and not wanting that same thing at the same time.
Psychologists refer to this state of internalised conflict as cognitive dissonance. It’s a mindset that can be seen in smokers and other addicts: wanting to indulge in a drug that at the same time they don’t want to take because they know it’s harmful to their health. Cognitive dissonance is indicative of levels of indecision that can work particularly well in BDSM fiction as the central character tries to balance their desire for sexual submission with their knowledge that the experience might be more extreme than they can tolerate.
Returning to the example of the chocolate bar:
- How long has the character been dieting?
- Would a single chocolate bar matter in the great scheme of things?
- Would a single chocolate bar simply be the beginning of a binge of overindulgence?
- Could a chocolate bar lead to something else?
The character has two desires: to eat chocolate and to not eat chocolate.
- Which of those desires will triumph?
- What if there’s chocolate in the house but getting it presents ethical problems?
There could be a box of chocolates, gift-wrapped and waiting for our central character’s partner.
- Would the central character open that gift?
- Could the central character steal the chocolates?
- If they committed themselves to such a theft, would they try and cover their tracks or would they admit to the moment’s weakness?
- Would there be repercussions?
There are other points to consider too:
- Does our central character keep their chocoholic status secret?
- Is it a secret that they share with an illicit friend?
- What other things are they likely to share with that illicit friend?
- How does this relationship conflict with the central character’s morality?
What started as sharing a discreet bar of chocolate with a chocolate buddy could escalate into a torrid affair based on sensual indulgence, deception and denial. The bar of chocolate here has become a metaphor for infidelity and it’s analogous to gateway drugs, substance abuse and chemical dependence.
Conflicts arise from character desire. Conflicts make our fiction interesting. Easily resolved conflicts are less intriguing. No one really wants to read about a character taking a five-minute walk to the local shop. But the more challenging conflicts can turn a commonplace need into something profound.
- Should the dieter eat the bar of chocolate?
- Which is preferable:
- the fulfilment of long-term goals or
- the satisfaction of immediate gratification?
- Is it justifiable to unwrap someone else’s gift?
- What other trust issues could such an action uncover?
- Having a secret chocolate buddy may seem innocent – but doesn’t secrecy always have a price?