Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Go ahead, let them have sex!

A lot of writers like to prepare their characters by creating a sort of dossier for them. Knowing their likes and dislikes helps the writer attain greater character depth. Unfortunately, for me, such lists feel like a false front. I can’t just say he likes this and that, because there has to be a motivation behind why a person is the way they are. It is too easy to make the character perfect, with perfect flaws, like playing in a build-a-bear workshop. The result being a cardboard character as opposed to one what grows before me, revealing themselves bit by bit. In short, I would rather the character tell me what makes them tic as opposed to me telling them who they ought to be.

Logic would prompt me to start the story at point A then work my way to Z –the result being a fully fleshed character by the end of the book. Problem being, you want a fully fleshed out character at the beginning of the book –you just don’t want your reader to know the whole of him at that point. So how to proceed? Oddly, I’ve found that writing a love scene (anything from a kiss to the whole shebang ) is a great way to develop your character.

It’s been said that a good love scene is about emotion. That is true. Sex is emotion –including lack thereof. It is communication of the highest form. Our senses are heightened during sex. But more than anything the way we give and receive, lead up to it, during, and after, reveals a huge amount about who we are as people. Now what better situation are you going to have in which your character’s true nature will come forth?

Perhaps you are a linear writer and object to writing a chunk out of order from the rest of the story. Or perhaps you find there is no reason for your characters to kiss, much less make love. That’s fine; you needn’t even keep the scene, think of it as an exercise (‘Cause it is!).

If love scenes are about emotion, then something visceral must occur to set the moment into action. I’d go one further here to say that a good love scene is equally about the reader’s emotion. If the reader doesn’t achieve a visceral response, then it isn’t worth writing. In the greater picture, the whole of the book is about engaging a reader’s emotion. In essence, we (the writers) are emotional manipulators.* Therefore, a love scene is much like a microcosm of the whole book. (Yes, I _may_ be over analyzing things here, but hopefully you get my meaning.)

Back to trying out a love scene. When starting, West Club Moon, the following little exchange popped into my mind fairly early on and went something like this: [note: this whole bit went through some changes and the current version is quite different. Also, excuse any typos as I used very rough first draft snips here.]

“I desire…” The leather of his glove stretched and groaned as his hand curled into a fist. The fist came crashing down, hurling backgammon pieces in all directions. “I shall come to your rooms tonight and exercise my marital rights!”
The desperate shout hit me like a slap. I was out of my chair and running breathlessly toward the door before true thought entered my mind.
He was quicker, slamming the door shut and trapping me before it. I skidded to a halt and stood with my breath quick and light, my stays stabbing my sides. Archer leaned against the door, not facing me. His shoulders lifted and fell as he breathed just as rapidly as I. His black gloved fist pressed against the door jam. “It is my right.”
I stared at the sharp line of his profile, made sharper by the black silken mask and the white of the door beyond him.
“I-I did not think…” my voice failed. But, I had thought it, hadn’t I? [This bit of italics came later as I came to better understand the situation.]
He angled his head slightly and I caught the gleam of his strange grey eyes. “In point, the contract of marriage is not valid until I do. Nor is our agreement and all that accompanies it.”
My mouth dried. I had known that much to be true. He remained unmoving, half turned, neither looking at me or beyond me.
Why was I dithering? Daisy had gone to her marriage bed with a man more than twice her age. And had done so without complaint. I had seen the barely concealed lust within her groom’s rheumy eyes.
I shuddered and Archer went rigid. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I shall not harm you…”
My eyes went from the door to him. Archer was not old and withered. His form was lithe and powerful. He moved with grace. Despite the mask, I saw the outlines of true masculine beauty. Further, he was gentle and kind to me.

That was it. So okay, so what was that all about? Why did she bolt from her chair? And what set of circumstances made Archer shout out his desire in such a way? Is he a brute that takes what he wants? He can’t be; his last words are out of concern for Miri’s feelings. Already, thinking about a love scene has got me thinking of how these characters will interact both with each other and, more importantly, when faced with a challenge. So I came to this (which happens just before the scene above):

I looked up from the game board to find his eyes upon me once more.
“You’re staring,” I murmured and moved my piece along the board.
The husky statement warmed my cheeks. I raised a brow and the corner of his lips curled. “You look beautiful.”
The heat in my cheeks traveled across my breast. I could only be thankful for the mellowing glow of candlelight to hide it. “You told me you cared not for beauty.”
Archer leaned slightly forward in his chair, his silver eyes fixed on mine. “I am an ass, Miri,” he said thickly. “You well know it. A boorish, unpardonable ass.”
I had to smile. “Just as long as you know it.” My voice did not work properly. The words came out thick like honey and just as slow. I handed him the cup and dice but he did not take them.
He moved forward an inch and his large frame enveloped the small gaming table.
“I know that your beauty renders me senseless.” Archer’s well formed mouth broke into a smile. “I look upon you and pure stupidity flies from my mouth. The sight of you in that golden dress makes my toes numb. I want to send Monsieur Falle [dressmaker] roses, I’m so grateful.”
I laughed and he did too, a rich unguarded laugh that made my insides flip. “You see?” he said through his laughter. “Pure, unmitigated stupidity.”
The corners of his grey eyes crinkled in mirth and I laughed again. “Then I shall save you from yourself,” I said, still laughing. “I am appeased. Speak no more of my beauty and spare yourself further humiliation.”
I touched his hand lightly. The smile on his lips wavered and fell. His eyes went to my hand on his and a shuddering sigh passed over his long frame. I drew back as though burned, but he paid no notice. He continued to blink down at his hand resting upon the game board.
“I fear I must humiliate myself further,” he whispered suddenly as though the words were forced from him. He swallowed hard and attempted to meet my eyes. The endeavor failed and he looked off into the fire. “Miri…I want…”

More clues. These two obviously are friends. They are comfortable bantering with each other so I know they’ve been in each other’s company for some time, so I know this scene will occur later on in the story. They interact well yet it is clear pride and fear of rejection (In Archer’s mind, especially) makes them tentative.

Before I even started WCM, I knew that Archer hides behind a half-mask, part of him is, as he states, ‘deformed’ and society has shunned him. So it is understandable for him to fear rejection. But the way in which Archer speaks shows me that he isn’t a tentative creature. His choice of words and confident humor belie that fact. Thus he must have some reason to hope and ask for a night with Miri. And there is Miri to consider. Her notice of him focuses here on the physical for the most part, his eyes, lips, and the size of him –all markers of physical attraction. So why does she bolt from her chair? Which led me to this:

Everything shall change,” I heard myself whisper.
Archer exhaled through his nose. “Change must come,” he said slowly. “I can only bear so much. I-I want this, Miri…”
The desolation in his voice cut me. I wanted it too. The realization stunned me. But I wanted Archer’s companionship more.
“Yet you will not reveal yourself to me,” I said.
“No,” I repeated. He flinched and averted his eyes

At this point I don’t have to know what his secret is but the information gleaned from this exercise is enough for me to proceed with confidence when writing other scenes, because I now understand their main motivation. Had I not tried a love scene, I’m not sure it would have been as clear so early on in the process.

Additionally, I know that Archer and Miri’s relationship is about shells, masks, hiding their true feelings behind false fronts. Making love for them will be about peeling away these false fronts. All this helps immensely when I tackle the actual love scene. More importantly, I’ve discovered a huge theme that will run throughout the story, and I can approach each scene with this new knowledge. Because as a writer, we do slant scenes/the story in a certain direction.

So my challenge to all of you is: write a kissing scene, or analyze one that you already have. You’ll learn a lot about your characters in doing so; I guarantee it! And if you feel so inclined, post them up here, give us your analysis. I’m always up for a good kissing/love scene. (g)

*Next week: emotional manipulation and the writer.


  1. Is this seriously one of the first scenes you wrote for WCM? Cuz let me tell you...it's AWESOME. You're right -- you do learn SO much about both characters in the matter of just a couple of pages. It's such a great starting point because you have so much underlying tension apparent between them...and man, it just makes me want to know MORE. And I've read the book! LOL. Can't wait to read it again--in print! :)

    FWIW, this is the first scene I wrote for FAKING IT:

    I awoke with a bad taste in my mouth. You know the kind where it feels like you have cotton balls in the back of your throat? I popped an eye open and tried to figure out what was off in my room. Looking around, nothing immediately came to mind until I felt a slight shift in the bed that didn’t come from me. Oh shit.

    Gabe lay beside me, his broad chest exposed. The covers barely skimmed the top of his hips, and unable to help myself, I lifted them slightly to take a peek. _Not bad, Madison_. He made a small noise and turned over, exposing his backside to me. _Not bad at all_.

    Disjointed memories of the previous evening’s events flooded through my mind and I blushed despite myself. Oh sweet Jesus.

    I slapped a hand to my forehead and tried to bury myself back in the covers. What the hell had I done?


    She slept with a suspect, that's what she's done. (vbg)

  2. It's interesting having read all of WCM to know that this came first because it absolutely felt fully developed and PERFECT the way that you laid it out. Which always amazes me when I read the work of chunksters because the entire concept of writing out of order for the whole book feels like utter lunacy.

    I think you make a lot of good points for why this is a great exercise for getting to know your characters (though I have to admit, I despise writing love scenes so much that if I had to write one BEFORE I wrote anything else, I'd probably never finish anything).

  3. Thanks, Jen. And right back at you. Awesome first snip. Hehe. I love that she takes a moment to check out the goods.:) And doesn't that tell you so much about her? Already I know that this woman may get into *cough* sticky situations, but she clearly prioritizes. (vbg)

  4. Thanks Kait!

    Actually, the first scene I wrote was Archer, Miri, and her father meeting in the alley (I didn't even had names for the yet), followed closely by these scenes, and, oddly, Eula yelling at Miri in the kitchen. Eula was the first character name to pop into my head. :)

    And you bring up good points. I know a lot of writers are all but allergic to writing a love scene. I know that when I wrote my first sex scene, I was blushing so badly I wouldn't be surprised to find my cheeks actually sizzling. Which is why I'd suggest trying a simple kiss scene or better yet, to do what I did here, which is a prelude to "the scene". Archer and Miri don't even touch, but them facing up to their desires still tells us so much about them. :)

  5. REALLY thought-provoking post, but it makes perfect sense. Also great snip!

    And great snip to you too Jen!


  6. Hi Kristen,

    Interesting idea. Making a dossier or taking a personality test as your character doesn't work for me either - too false. And how am I supposed to know whether my character prefers mountains or the ocean when I don't even know her name? *g*

    I tend to "float" around for a bit writing not-very-interesting scenes about how the character comes home from work or some such - the "gangplank", that gets me kind of started but isn't really going to be necessary to the story - and then after a few weeks of that I'll find that scene that "clicks", really puts them in the deep end and tells me so much about them.

  7. Kristen,

    There was a time when I would have run screaming from the whole idea - mainly because nothing I've been writing really requires a sex scene! And also because the current WIP is based on the lives of my great-great-grandparents, and while they had 10 kids, I really wasn't ready to think about how they got them - too icky, like thinking about your parents having sex! Then in the great Skiing from Armageddon houseparty on the Books and Writers Forum in September, one of the challenges was to write an intimate scene. I didn't think I could, I really didn't want to go there, but in the end I did it. I'll never use it, but I was amazed at how much it told me about my characters and their relationship. Somehow it really shook something loose for me - it's easier to write them, knowing something about their sex life. Weird but true. So I've added your fiat "let them have sex" to my list of indispensible writers' tools!

  8. A master-class worthy post, Kristen.

    It's so true; in sex scenes/love scenes, your characters bare not just their flesh, but also their inner-most motivations, their souls. You've hit on a great way to *really* get to know what makes your characters tick; I think I'll have to write a few such scenes of my own!

  9. Great post Kristen!
    I love all the frustration that lies behind this "“I desire…” The leather of his glove stretched and groaned as his hand curled into a fist. The fist came crashing down, hurling backgammon pieces in all directions. “I shall come to your rooms tonight and exercise my marital rights!”"

    I don't think I could create a dossier either (the very word speaks of office-ese). I did once, for a story I thought of, involving... aw, heck, it barely involved anything! But I spent days drawing up character charts of Katherine and... forgot the guy's name. All sorts of details about their jobs and families and appearances. In the end, it probably didn't work because I didn't let the characters grow organically - I just kept tacking features and histories on to them.

    Putting characters into a love scene seems like a great idea for taking them out of their comfort zone and seeing how they react. I'm going to try that this week I think; even though the scenes probably won't end up in the final version, I'm interested to see what happens if Rose tries to, ahem, come on to an older monk, and later what happens when she rejects the advances of a guy her own age. At least, I think she's going to reject him - we'll see!