Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Protagonists, endearing and otherwise

It’s a truism that characters take on a life of their own. When this happens, it’s hard as a writer to watch your characters being attacked or misunderstood. It feels personal, as if you’re having to defend your friends from calumny. It’s also just one of those things we have to get used to. We put our work out there, and what people make of it is out of our hands. So our characters have to take their lumps.

Some of the reactions just make me laugh. Like the readers who don’t like Anders’ left-wing politics or his taste for fiddle music. Both of these characteristics come straight from me with no reworking whatsoever (except for the wish-fulfillment of actually being able to play the fiddle, something I swear I’ll do in another life). I bestowed them on Anders with a full ironic twinkle in my eye, wondering what readers would make of them. So the reactions are there for me to enjoy.

On the other hand, when you build a character one way and readers see them quite differently it’s more of a challenge. Many readers enjoy Maia at the beginning of As She’s Told, but say that by the end think she’s so utterly compliant and objectified that she’s become a zombie. That does bother me, because that was the furthest thing from my intention. Maia’s not thinking in language a whole lot while she’s at the farm, but the person that is Maia is still in there. She’s still considering and processing experiences and feelings; her own inner voice continues amused and ironic as well as submissive. She’s just allowed herself to go all the way down into her animal self, to be that “amphibian in her native swamp,” confident that Anders will pull her back up the evolutionary ladder when he decides it's time. I think those readers mistook the behaviour for the person.

Then there was the discussion on Fetlife that referred to Anders as a “weak dom” because he entertained some doubts, and because he discussed what he was doing with a fellow dom in order to keep some check on himself, since Maia would not. And this made me blink in astonishment. Anders, weak? The brain…does not…compute…

And so of course I wonder what readers will make of my new characters (assuming I ever actually write the third book). My sub will be tougher, my dom in no way larger than life. They’ll be as human and complex as I can make them. Stereotypes beckon always; I back away from one such pit and find I’m falling into another. After I wrote As She’s Told I found some list of stereotyped ways to write about a character’s conflict. And there it was: guilt because you couldn’t save someone from something. Anders’ own backstory. Ack! I wrote that to keep him from being the stereotyped domly dom with no weaknesses. See where it got me?

What do you love about your favourite characters? What makes you think about them, worry about them, want to know what happens to them? What makes them real to you?


  1. I have so many responses to this question - and comments on the fascinating views of As She's Told! - that I hardly know where to begin. (Quick background. I am 61, and have been married for 43 years to my dom, who is a lot lazier than Anders, I might add! NO micromanagement here.) When I encountered As She's Told, I was unfamiliar with pony play, as well as many other delights that I learned about in the book. I was, at first reading of the farm section, shocked. Not horrified, mind you. Just shocked. It disturbed me. I had to reread the book, entirely, four - (yes. Four!) - times before I truly "heard" Maia, her voice, as you note, internalized, but funny, almost smartass, intellectually present and perfectly whole, despite her condition and behavior. NOT a zombie, by any means.

    I realize that your question had to do with what makes characters appealing, and that I am launched, apparently, on a kinky book review, but in point of fact, I found both Maia and Anders appealing for the same reason I find Jane Austen characters appealing. They are both dynamic, thus capable of change. They grow. I see Maia growing into herself, accepting herself, a very dynamic character, rather than a static, objectified being without a soul of her own. Her commentary is hilarious. Horny pony thoughts, the debate over whether or not picking up straw with her toes is an infraction of the no-hands rule, her oh, shoot, this is gonna HURT comment as the pole is used to give Karl that elusive chance to watch her orgasm, her overall awareness and growing acceptance of her actual delight in being used in the fashion Anders has decreed - all of these made me giggle, even through the disturbing images.

    And Anders is positively tender with her, on many occasions. I think of the scene in which she is uncomfortable with all the folks on the ferry - (I'm at work, so relying on memory, and must beg your indulgence if I get it wrong!) - and he interposes himself between her and them, to give her a safe space. Sure, he's snarky about her being irritable, but he takes care of her in the moment, which is infinitely precious. He listens to her with more attention than I suspect many men give their wives and women, and he is able to learn from her. (Must be that "weak" dom thing... HA!) He benefits from her observations as often as she from his, if one reads with attention. He's as far from a stereotype as I can envision, and the scene at Christmas is just gloriously delicious, full of celebration and love and happiness.

    There are many pages of conversation in the book, and for me, the dialogue revealed the growth of the characters, their commitment to their relationship, and the fashion in which they work around the real problems of real life and the real world, using the safe base of their love as a jumping-off point.

    I like characters who are feisty, intelligent, humorous, socially responsible, tenacious and tough. I like them to demonstrate commitment. I like love stories, but love stories that take into account the difficulties of life, on both the personal and universal level. I love music, so it's always a bonus if there's music in a book. (And the bell-ringing music making just cracked me up, by the way!) I like characters who are devoted to making a relationship work, whose love is tangible, and who know, in the deathless words of Rick, in Casablanca, that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans" in the grand scheme of things.

    In all these ways, Maia and Anders are vital characters, who compel my attention and affection. (Oh, and the sex is pretty hot, too!)

    Thanks so much for writing a *real* book in a bdsm context. It's a true pleasure to read it.

  2. Wow! GenuineRisk, you can write a kinky book review here any time! It's wonderful to hear from a reader who sees the characters as I do. And who gets the jokes! Thanks so much for the feedback. I did work hard to make Anders and Maia people who grow and change, and who look after each other as partners should do, despite their rather bizarre dynamic.

    I have to say that the scenes with humour were the ones I enjoyed writing the most. Did you like the hide and seek chapter?

  3. Anders was not weak. Not by any stretch. He tried to give himself some checks and balances, which is always a good thing when you give yourself total power. He was being responsible -- not weak.

    I've been thinking a bit about what makes a character real, as well. I think it's a combination of seeing the person in both easy situations and tough situations, seeing their sense of humor (or lack of), getting to know their various quirks, and watching them grow and change based on their experiences. It's more than that, but I think that's a good start.