I was talking to an artist friend at a party recently, and he mentioned listening to some author interviews where they described how they create their characters. He was astounded that some authors create very detailed backstories and personality inventories for their characters, including information that never makes it into the final novel. He asked if I did the same.
I confess I do not.
Do we need to know backstory? Well, yes, if that backstory affects the current narrative of the book. Character history, traits, quirks, likes and dislikes, physical features are all elements that an author may need to keep track of, especially if one is writing a series involving all the same characters. One method of tracking such information is by using a “story bible”.
But, as Rochelle Melander says at the end of her blog post on story bibles: “Creating the story bible should never become more important than writing your book.”
So, while I might know that Nicholas Ramsay (aka Nicholas Atherley) went to Cambridge and Samuel Taylor was born in New York, I don’t know who Nicholas’s friends were at university and I don’t know what sort of toddler existence Sam had. It’s like how I don’t necessarily know the backstory of all my friends, except what they’ve told me or what we’ve shared together. And, despite this lack of knowledge on my part, we’re still able to carry forward the story of our lives as friends.
This is the approach I take with my characters. As far as their personal histories, I only know what my characters tell me. And they don’t tell me everything.
Which my artist friend found equally interesting, because I had admitted I engage in conversation with my characters, conversation that knows no bounds. And when it comes to sex, I always ask my characters before I make them do stuff, “What do you want?”
I’ve learned the hard way that if two (or more) characters do not want to have intimate relations with each other they will tell me so and refuse to perform in such a scene. And forcing a character to do something will not be honest, will not ring true to that character.
But sometimes I really want two (or more) characters to share a sex scene, especially if I need that sex scene for the plot (and since I write erotica, sex scenes should really move the plot forward, i.e., not be gratuitous). So what is an author to do?
I get my characters acclimated to each other.
I learned this trick from theater class back in junior high school. When the theater teacher was asked how she got romantic scenes to work so well (oh, they worked well!), she explained she would have the actors take small steps toward physical intimacy: touching, holding hands, a hug, brief kiss, bigger kiss. Then, suddenly, wow, chemistry!
So, I (mentally) put my characters in the same room and get them acclimated to each other. While I’m checking email, they talk. While I’m paying bills, they hold hands. Eventually, usually while I’m walking the dog, they get more, um, “acclimated” to each other. So then it just becomes a matter of what exactly they will allow me to make them do.
The whole process reminds me of architect Louis I. Kahn’s rhetorical query, “What do you want, Brick?”
By the question Kahn meant: What does the brick, at its essence, want to construct? The answer is another question: What does the brick do best?
Kahn’s purpose was not wholly rhetorical, to be sure. He was expounding on the innate nature of things. As am I.
“What do you want, Arthur?”
“What do you want, Julius?”
“What do you want, Lavinia?”
To be more specific:
“It’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use. You don’t bandy it around as though to say ‘we have a lot of material around. We can do it one way. We can do it another.’ It’s not true. You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of just shortchanging it or giving it an inferior job to do, where it loses its character.”
Writing a book is a lot like building an awesome Modernist structure.
More than honoring what the character wants to do, this approach to writing (or building) is forward looking. We do not necessarily need to know the particulars of how the brick was made, at what factory, or how it was transported to the work site. We just need to know “What do you want, Brick?”
What happened the other day when I was writing a sex scene is that I had it all planned out. The hero and heroine would have sex with maybe some gender-bending role play and maybe there would be rimming. There wouldn’t be anal because it was only Chapter 9 and I was saving that for Chapter 22.
My characters ignored me. They closed the door (probably while I was paying bills) and decided they wanted to have anal sex, now, in Chapter 9.
So they did. And I let them. It was awesome.
Now, I, the author, need to step up my game for Chapter 22. Which means I need to (get to) have another character get acclimated to their intimacy, because, obviously, threesome is the next level. I’ve already begun and we’re all having fun trying to block this scene out.
As the man said: honor and glorify the characters, they know what they want.