Thursday, December 22, 2016

Someone Else's Skin (#characters #research #empathy)

Raw Silk cover

Kate O'Neill, the heroine of my first novel, had quite a lot in common with her creator. Like me, she was petite and curvy, loved to dance, and was sufficiently adventurous to go live in Thailand. She had graduate degrees and worked as a software engineer, just as I did. True, she had flaming red hair – I've always wanted coppery curls instead of my mousy brown – and she was quite a bit younger than I was when I dreamed her up, but I think it's fair to say that many of her emotions, reactions and fantasies mirrored my own. Most importantly, the journey of sexual self-discovery that she undertook in Raw Silk paralleled my personal sexual quest, in spirit though not in detail.

Writing Raw Silk was surprisingly easy. All I had to do was look inside my own heart.

I shared a lot with Miranda Cahill, the protagonist of Incognito, too. Not physically – Miranda was a tall, slim brunette. However, otherwise, she was much like me in during my (many) years in college and graduate school: shy, hard-working, so serious that she doesn't always understand other people's jokes, but seething with desire and sexual curiosity underneath her prim, good-girl exterior.

By the time I got to Ruby Maxwell Chen, in Nasty Business, I was beginning to create characters whose emotions and history weren't copies of my own. For one thing, Ruby was bossy, bitchy and competitive – nothing at all like me...! Ruby was also far richer than I could ever dream of being, and part Chinese. I tried to make her cultural heritage an integral aspect of her personality. With Exposure's Stella Xanathakeos, I moved even further from my roots and comfort zone. Stella is working class and not particularly well-educated. She's streetwise in a way that I, a product of the suburbs and the American middle class, will never be.

In recent years, I've challenged myself to write characters with whom I have very little in common. In my short story “Fire”, my nameless character is a young man from the American midwest with a fetish that compels him to arson. The story is told in the first person – there could hardly be a voice more different than mine. “Refuge”, the story I wrote for Alessia Brio's charitable anthology Coming Together: At Last, is narrated by a dark-skinned youth from the backwaters of northeast Thailand, forced to join the army and work as a guard in a refugee camp by his family's extreme poverty. My M/M paranormal romance novel NecessaryMadness features the rocky relationship between a homeless clairvoyant teenager and a bitter city cop.

As the social, psychological and experiential differences between me and my characters increase, it becomes more difficult to create characters with depth, breadth and believability. To succeed in capturing my readers, I need characters whose emotions and actions are both genuine and compelling. How can I step into someone else's skin and imagine his or her thoughts and feelings, when that person and I come from different worlds?

Part of the answer, for me, is my conviction that individuals, despite their backgrounds, histories, cultures and gender, are more similar than might be expected based on surface characteristics. Certain emotions are fundamental: fear, anger, desire, sorrow, joy. Although different people express and react to emotions differently, we all experience them. In fact, I think my job as an author is to elicit these emotions in my readers. The very act of creating characters with whom my readers can identify presupposes a level of emotional commonality.

So, when I am trying to create a character very different from me, I assume that I can still use my own emotional reactions as a starting point. This seems to work quite well for sexual desire. If my story requires a character whose sexual interests don't mirror my own, I begin by imagining a scene that does turn me on. Then I transplant my arousal to my character, focusing it on different objects or activities. In Raw Silk, my personal kinks drove the story, quite transparently. My lusts and fantasies still stoke the fire in my work, but now they're subterranean, roiling like molten rock beneath the surface of my characters' existence.

Imagination and analogy can take you a long way toward an understanding of life in someone else's skin. But this strategy will fail if not accompanied by research. Writing requires creation not only of your characters but also the world they inhabit. If you are writing a tale set in a different time period or culture (including a sub-culture), you need to have a deep sense of the world you're trying to evoke and the ways that it shapes its denizens. Assumptions, vocabulary, sexual practices and taboos will vary from one world to another. Sadly, I've read far too many historical romances in which the characters wear period costumes but think and act like representatives of modern Western culture.

So if you are writing, for instance, a homoerotic tale, you can't simply rely on your imagination to tell you how gay men interact. You need to watch and read gay porn. You need to talk to gay men and read about their experiences. In the case of M/M erotic romance, it also helps to read other authors in the genre and figure out what works and what doesn't.

This brings up the fascinating issue of realism versus expectations. I will use M/M erotic romance as an example here, but the same question arises with BDSM or interracial or lesbian or historical erotica. Readers have certain notions about what to expect from a particular genre. In the M/M romance I have read, the rough aspects of gay sex rarely appear. Furthermore, the fear of homophobic attacks, the stigma of being gay in an ostensibly straight society, the effects of HIV on the gay community, are mostly absent. I suspect that if an author tried to be realistic about the experience of being a man who desires men, a significant segment of the readership for M/M romance would be turned off, possibly even upset.

The same could be said of BDSM erotica. Most BDSM tales present an idealized dominant who magically understands the needs of the submissive. (Raw Silk is no exception.) They ignore the far more common situation of insecure, incompetent, ego-tripping or genuinely cruel doms. They usually omit the lengthy negotiation process between dom and sub, in which the pair explores the submissive's squicks and limits. It's far more exciting to imagine a master so intuitive, so attuned to his slave, that he understands what she wants and needs without any prior discussion.

Thus, research by itself is not sufficient. Once you understand how your character's world is different from your own, you still need to decide which differences to highlight and which ones to discard. Reviewing the conventions of your chosen genre can help, but this can also be a trap, producing cookie-cutter stories where the characters and situations are far too predictable to be interesting.

Slipping inside someone else's skin and writing from their experience is tough. It requires considerable effort and judicious craft. Writing characters that are similar to me is far easier. Sometimes I feel like being lazy, just opening up my mind and letting my perversions flow unchecked onto the page. When I do, though, I run the risk that I'll just be writing Raw Silk, over and over again. To keep my work fresh, novel, exciting to other readers as well as to me, I need to get away from myself, to look through the eyes of characters who see the world differently.

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