Thursday, June 9, 2011

Letting Characters be Themselves

I am always amused when a writer tells me that they had a plot for their story, but the characters simply aren’t behaving themselves, and are taking the story somewhere else. What I hope she means is that in the course of writing the story, things didn’t work out logically the way the author thought they would, and she’s figured out a new story that she’d rather tell. After all, as authors, we can always go back and change the character’s personalities so that they fit the plot. We’re not locked in a linear process where the moment we’ve penned a word it has to stay in the final draft regardless of what havoc it plays with everything else. We only have to keep what we write when it’s better than what we planned -- and it often is, because in the process of writing scenes flow organically one after another in ways they don’t always in the outline. If we outline. I sometimes do, and sometimes I need to just put the characters into action, see what happens, and then come up with a plot after I know who they are. Sometimes the plot conforms to the characters, and sometimes I need to find the right characters to conform to the plot.

The question of how to conform comes up in BDSM, and especially in BDSM fiction. A lot of times characters seem shoe-horned into some over-arching orthodoxy about how BDSM ought to work. In these books, there’s a right and a wrong way to do things: how to kneel, how to address a dominant, whether subs should avert one’s eyes. This can be hot, and it can move plots along, and I’ve done it myself. In Purple Passion I have my heroine get into trouble for looking a dominant in the eye. I don’t think it’s the most realistic scene I’ve ever written, and I think any real dominant who presses a case that he’s entitled to something from a stranger because of a breach of protocol is an ass. But I think it worked well in that story, even if it did feel a little gimmicky -- and the hero is there to save the day, anyway. The relationship between them isn’t about how it “should” be, but about how it can be, because they want it to be.

All this came to mind on my current WIP. My heroine, Stella, sees herself as more interested in sensations than submission. My hero, Evan, thinks she’s not being totally honest with herself, and is instructing her to kneel. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen in books where a submissive is shown that she should kneel knees wide apart, back arched, chest forward -- there are variations, after that, often equally dogmatically presented: hands behind the back, or turned up and resting on the thighs; always looking up at the dominant or always looking down and away. And if a top wants to insist that one of those is the right way, well, that’s hot, or can be. He (or she) is the top, after all.

But Evan isn’t concerned about any of that, or what anyone else thinks is the “right way” -- he’s concerned about his sub. And Stella needs to ease into it a little more. So instead, he makes everything as comfortable as possible, preparing her cushions that are just right for the traditional Japanese seiza position, which isn’t intended to be sexy at all and in which those knees are together. Because he’s involved in directing her, making adjustments in her position, etc., Stella feels the submissiveness of her act. And because his adjustments are about keeping her posture sustainable and comfortable, rather than for his own visual pleasure or that of others, she doesn’t end up having the difficulties she might have if he tried to make her do it the way you usually see it in books. Seems like a small thing, and it doesn’t turn my plot upside down or anything like that. But it is letting my characters be themselves, and not just be “Dom” and “sub” with different names. If my characters aren’t telling me what to do, and telling me about their special way of connecting and how it’s different from the norm, or the (often imagined) BDSM norm -- well, then it really is time to rewrite. Or start over.

Jumping off my soapbox now. :)


  1. Before I started writing, I thought writers who talked about their characters as if they were people making decisions were a bit, errr, touched. They'd say, "Jane decided she wasn't going to do that, she wanted to do this instead", and I would think, but you are writing Jane, you get to write what she does.

    Now, I get it. I create my characters, but then I have to make them act in character, and sometimes once their personality is established the really do want to head off in directions I hadn't planned.

    I have gone back and rewrote things once, because the character was headed too far off of what I had planned, and I really liked what I had planned. But most of the time it works to just go with it. I love the idea of kneeling for submission in a way that isn't necessarily sexual to meet a particular submissive's needs. My current WIP has a lot of cushions laying around in place for the people who kneel, but for a different reason. Some kinds of pain are good, some kinds of pain aren't.

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  2. I always thought the way many subs have to kneel in books seemed a little...forced? Uncomfortable? To me, kneeling in a relaxed, comfortable way is pretty sexy already.

  3. I loved this post, Sindra. I know what you mean about letting them be themselves rather than having characters re-iterate exactly what readers have come to expect in BDSM books. I actually get down on myself if my books start to seem too same-y to everything else that's out there (and too same-y to other books I've written, that's even worse). I think it's those little changes in typical protocol and original viewpoints of characters as far as what BDSM is, what it isn't, etc. I think that's absolutely necessary, otherwise, you're just writing the same things over and over again.