Monday, January 22, 2007

Too Stupid to Live?

“Too stupid to live.” It’s a phrase used by romance writers and reviewers to describe a heroine who’s apparently had her common sense gland removed. She just does something, or possibly a series of things, that no self-respecting woman with two brain cells to rub together would consider doing.

When I was in college/grad school, there were all sorts of warnings about how to date safely. Things like, never tell the guy where you live; instead, meet him somewhere neutral. Make sure you have the means (transportation, funds) to get yourself home. Have a prearranged call scheduled with a girlfriend; if she doesn’t hear from you, she knows there’s a problem. And so on.

In almost all romances (Gothics, some suspense, and MMF erotic romance being the exceptions), you know the moment the hero’s introduced that he’s the hero. The heroine may not know it, but the reader does. Thus the reader knows the heroine is safe—the hero would never willingly put her into danger, much less turn out to be a serial rapist.

The heroine, however, doesn’t know that.

But where do you draw the line? If she’s appropriately cautious, the relationship will take forever to develop, and the process will be pretty boring for the reader. In erotic romance in particular, we expect to see some hot-and-heavy foreplay, if not outright sex, within the first few chapters.

In some books, this just works. You believe in it, and you never give a thought to the fact that the heroine is taking some serious chances with her life and health.

In other cases, this kind of behavior makes me throw the book across the room.

For the life of me, I can’t tell why one works and one doesn’t. It’s worse when I can’t figure it out in my own writing. I’m struggling with a novel right now in which I keep thinking the heroine is being an idiot for going to the hero’s house right after she meets him. Why? They have some rip-roaring sex all through the book, and end up with at least a strong pathway towards commitment. He’s a great guy (a little stuffy, but the heroine breaks him of that); she’s an independent woman who knows what she wants both in and out of bed. Why do I have this nagging feeling that their first encounter—which is essential to both their emotional development and the plot—involves her being too stupid to live?

What do you think makes the difference? Characterization? Plot? Good writing vs. not?


On a related note, let’s talk about safe sex. Black Lace and Cheek Books carry that “In real life, always practise safe sex” disclaimer, which I’ve always found a little funny. I mean, doesn’t everyone understand that they’re reading fiction, not a how-to book? Do we need that disclaimer?

By the same token, do you notice when the heroine hooks up with a new partner and there’s nary a condom in sight (and not a wisp of conversation regarding them)? Or do condoms end up ruining the one-handed read moment? Do they sound obviously shoe-horned in to an otherwise steamy sex scene? And if condoms are necessary, what about dental dams? Latex gloves? When does she ask for a blood test?

And how soon should the heroine go gleefully into bondange with a new man? It’s not important to even know his name, because she’s just going to call him Master anyway… Right?


So where’s your balance? What’s fun and fantasy, what constitutes too stupid to live, and does anything else about a particular novel affect your answer?


Fiona Locke said...

Oh, I could write a full rant about this one myself. (Don't worry, I won't!) I'm well aware that I'm reading a fantasy and in my fantasy world, condoms don't need to exist. It jerks me right out of that fantasy when condoms are mentioned. Having the disclaimer (however obvious and silly) at the front of the book should take away any need to kill the mood by reminding me of the dangers of unprotected sex.

But the thing that annoys me most of all is the constant need to reassure the reader that it's all consensual. In reality there has to be informed consent. But do the CHARACTERS necessarily have to spoil my fantasy by calling attention to the fact that it's not really a fantasy after all? Nothing spoils the mood for me faster than interrupting a hot domination scene with, 'The ropes aren't too tight, are they, honey?' or 'Even though she was helpless with a knife to her throat, she knew that HE knew it was a game they'd negotiated beforehand...' Argh! (I have a special hatred of these little 'reassurance tags' because I have to put them in nearly all my stories.) **pout**

Nikki Magennis said...

Great thoughts, Dayle.

Fiona - But I find condoms sexy! The ripping open, the pause, the forethought, the rolling down. Even the smell.
Likewise with bondage scenes - showing concern for a partner to me makes the scene more realistic and intimate, and therefore sexier.

As far as reckless behaviour goes, though...well, I'm not making Public Service Announcements. The reader has to suspend their disbelief. I'm happy to throw my heroines into perilous situations - though I hope they're aware enough to be doing crazy things out of desire and vim rather than stupidity.

Fiona Locke said...

Nikki: Fair enough. I hope that didn't come off as too 'One Way: MY Way'. I can only speak for myself, obviously. (I have to confess I never realised anyone found condoms sexy, though - you learn something new every day!)

Concern for your partner is definitely intimate and sexy in reality. And if that's the tone of the story it's not at all out of place. But my fantasies tend towards the edgier end of the spectrum, so it doesn't really work for me and it often sounds contrived.

There's certainly room in the world for everyone's kink. I just wish I didn't have to restrain myself so much. (There are evil villainous men out there to do that for me!) LOL

Nikki Magennis said...

Yes, Fiona, I guess it depends a lot on the type of story. Do you really have to put in a disclaimer?

One would think the words 'erotica' and most of all 'fiction' would be enough of a disclaimer, really.

But then, I only yesterday discovered that 'Obscenity' is still a criminal act (in the UK at least).

Uh, that link goes to a site about human rights, not anything obscene. Sorry! ; )

kristina lloyd said...

Sometimes I use condoms, sometimes I don’t (er, in fiction, that is). I used them throughout Asking for Trouble, mainly as another way of making the setting realistic. When I wrote it, there was a lot of talk about safe sex, much more so than there is now, and I thought my characters would be likely to use them. I wanted to create a believable, everyday platform that readers could relate to and then crank up the tension and danger.

My female characters often take risks and put themselves in jeopardy. I think of the reading experience as comparable to that of watching a horror movie. We can experience the thrill and danger vicariously because ultimately we know we’re safe. If a female character does something dim and readers cry out in alarm, then I think the flaw probably lies in the characterisation or narrative. It means a reader’s credulity has been stretched and they’ve lost sympathy. Maybe it’s about self-awareness, as Nikki suggests. If a character behaves stupidly but knows this and is troubled by it (much as the reader is) then you stand a better chance of keeping the reader on your side.

The issue of participants declaring consent is tricky and contentious. I do sympathise with Fiona because I like to skirt close to the edge as well. But having to make sure it’s in there doesn’t bother me unduly and I’d probably feel uncomfortable doing, say, a straight rape (fantasy) scenario with no implied consent. I’m still undecided about it, tbh. On the one hand, I think as writers we have to exercise a certain amount of responsibility and yet other genres don’t have these constraints. There are no disclaimers at the front of horror fiction saying ‘In real life, please make sure you don’t practise murder’. Either way, I think a skilled writer should be able to find a way of slipping it in without it seeming disruptive.

Our blog got fatter over the weekend. Amazing.

Madelynne Ellis said...

I think you're right that the key is in the characterisation, Kristina. If you understand that the character is something of a risk taker or in the case of paranormals, there's some other force at work, it's much easier to accept their behaviour. It's when you get otherwise meek or sensible characters doing things you know they wouldn't do, that it jars.

Re: the condoms thing. I mention them when it seems appropriate to do so. Sometimes they're a fun part of the foreplay, sometimes they just get in the way of the action so I turn a blind eye. Strangely, though, as a reader, unless I'm told they are going at it bareback, I assume that condoms are involved whether they are mentioned or not.

Anonymous said...

You know this is one time where if you write femdom rather than femsub you are onto a winner (for once!) In Equal Opportunities Mary ties up David on the second date. I can't really see this working the other way about.

I suppose I just don't write bar pick up leads to hot bondage sex stories. I have so many get outs. I write a lot of toppy women, I write of a lot of established reltionships, I write a lot of unconsumated attraction, I write a lot of werewolf porn. Um, hang on...

SIDE NOTE: I love condoms in erotic fiction. Condoms are fucking hot. He's all touching his hard cock and he's about to have sex and she's panting and ready and wet and open and come on and do it to me and it's just this fabulous hitch in time where the sex is going to happen right now OMG but just wait one last delicious antipatory moment...

My story in the forthcoming Sex in Public - Lust for Glory! - is all about a gold condom.

Nikki Magennis said...

Every time you say 'femdom' I instantly think of the female condom. Remember them? Sort of like a vast bin bag with added lube.

They would rustle like petticoats when you moved.


Janine Ashbless said...

My WIP is my first full-length erotic novel with a modern setting and I'm running across these questions seriously for the first time.

When you write fantasy it's easier because condoms and(prior-to-the-act-)contraception generally don't exist, so you assume all sex is unsafe and hang the consequences. And it doesn't matter because your reader is never going to be in that situation.


I gather that if you write for Scarlet they want you to put in condoms.

Janine Ashbless said...

Oh, btw Nikki, it actually states in the Black Lace contract that the author must guarantee that the Work is not obscene (or blasphemous, defamatory or - weirdly - inaccurate)!

Makes you wonder why we bother if we can't be obscene, eh? ;)

Nikki Magennis said...

Crumbs, Janine, I must have missed that clause!

How very odd. I'd have thought we had to guarantee the work was obscene.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dayle. Could you some more about knowing who the hero is as soon as he's introduced. Like, how to you do that. It's giving me a little trouble in were-book.

Or anyone, how do you make it clear who your hero is?

Alison Tyler said...

Oh no! I guess I missed the note about dating safely. I did so many stupid things in college that I definitely could have been the star in one your "throw the book across the room" novels.

In my own work, I tend not to mention condoms, contraceptives of any sort, or STDs. I set characters in a real world — but they are in a fantasy real world. I think "having the talk" about previous partners, diseases, etc., is just too brutal in a novel or story intended to take people to a luscious frame of mind.

Actually, I tend to feel the same way about overly accurate descriptions of sweat, drool, smells, and so on. Sure, people’s socks might have an unpleasant aroma—but not in the stories I publish.

But that’s just me.


Kate Pearce said...

Being a lapsed Catholic I'm totally fascinated by the whole topic of contraception throughout the ages and I often use it in my plots...for me, the whole edge in my erotic historicals is about the risks of getting pregnant and the danger that brought to every sexual encounter.

In my contemporary stuff my characters usually mention the condom thing and then agree whether to use them. It kind of 'covers' the problem without drawing too much attention to it.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Your blog is always so fascinating.

Well done, condoms in the lit are, as Mathilde notes, entirely fucking hot, especially that whole rolling down with the mouth thing guys like. And the extra, shaky sense of tension, is great, too. It only reads like a Surgeon General's PSA if the writing's stilted. I think readers don't much care how you handle the protection or lack of. But imprints that encourage inclusion of those dreadful "are you clean" discussions are well intentioned.

Oh, can I say what kinda bugs me? Every bondage scene that explains to me that s/he could get out of the cuffs/tape/cushy velvet ties any time s/he wanted to. I don't really need that kind of tenderness in the scene. It bothers me in "playful" sensual romance, erotic romance, and erotica.

Btw, your Vgn/Chk safe-sex PSA is kind of a nice use of the bully pulpit, even if it's preaching to the choir. I write about loving forced seduction, that women should embrace their rape and other fantasies w/out apology. Yet I run a PSA directing women experiencing abuse to a crisis line. Any time you can give women info, I say good on you.

And, truly, don't you educate women every time you write your erotic novels?

Anonymous said...

Speaking for myself... I'm in favour of bondage scenes in general checking that everything is OK still (although probably without reiterating the "it's all consensual" line) - they add a beat to the scene for me that I've come to realise I miss if it's absent.

That's not between every smack or whatever, but each change in activity, sure. It also makes, as a wise friend of mine once commented, a difference between it appearing as a kinky form of loving and torture. The actual acts may be identical, but those little touches remind both parties AND the reader that this is about love on the edge rather than torture.

Condoms... assuming it isn't a fantasy/historical/sci-fi setting where such things are irrelevant ([to paraphrase] On Gor there are no sexually transmitted diseases because the men and strong and virile and resistant to such things, for this is the way of Gor. The beautiful kajirae are also resistant to such things, for scratching their itches and running sores would make them less than beautiful and on Gor the kajirae are beautiful for this is the way of Gor) I think the answer has really been given by Kristina: If you establish your heroine(s) as risk takers then don't mention it and let the audience decide. If one, or both, is obsessive and anally retentive and it's a new relationship then condoms would be pretty central to the character and probably ought to be there. You don't have to go into all the detail every time though... unless you're going to fetishise it. Simply mentioning he's got a condom, or he uses it could do.

And as Nikki said, sometimes that pause is damn sexy too. Sometimes, even if an irregular thing, the description of it being rolled on in a suitably sexy way can make the scene way hotter. At least, that's my take on it.

Anonymous said...

about the disclaimer at the beginning of the books - as a reader (not an author, as i've said before i am not), i actually appreciate it being there b/c i think of the younger set that might be reading these - it's good to know that it's there and hopefully reinforcing what *should* be taught at home and in schools - PROTECT YOUR DAMN SELF!

anyway, i also like condoms myself and do find them sexy.


TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

Sometimes characters have to act impulsively to get the ball rolling. What makes it work?

First, you have to convince me that the attraction is so overwhelming that the otherwise rather clever heroine will leap first and think, "My, that was silly. Glad Mr. Hottie wasn't actually an ax murderer!" later.

It also helps if we've had some of the hero's point of view, so the reader feels safe with him even if the heroine is just following her gut instincts.

And it helps to remember that in real life, smart people do stupid things sometimes--including stupid things that turn out well. But you have to justify it by showing that this particular stupid thing does fit in with the person's character. For instance, I recently read a book by a Well-Known Romance Writer I Will Not Name where the normally extremely cautious, sensible, highly intelligent heroine gets dumped by her fiance and, out of anger, picks up a stranger at a party thrown by the law firm that just hired her--who turns out to be a client. I almost threw the book across the room because I couldn't see that particular woman acting in that particular way, no matter how furious she was and no matter how hot the hero was. (I did finish reading it and never did buy the characterization. The only way I could excuse a lot of her behavior was that she was one of those intellectually gifted but socially naive people, so she made poor choices.)

I've had a lot of trouble with hot and impulsive versus just plain foolish equation in one of my current WIPs. I originally had the hero and heroine do the whole go out with mutual friends, set up safe call, etc., routine since it was glaring obvious that as soon as they were alone, d/s and kink would commence.

And it made things drag hideously. So I cut it out and now I'm afraid that both hero and heroine look like complete dumb-asses!

Safe sex? I think it depends on how realistic a feel you're going for. It also seems that if you mention it the first time, readers will assume latex from then on. On the other hand, I've read (and written) a lot of stories where people are apparently barebacking like mad and it didn't bother me.

Anal sex without lube...that one always throws me. And I see it a lot. Yuck!

Olivia Knight said...

I'm on the "it's fiction" side of the condom debate - they're only sexy to me inasmuch as they denote there's about to be some sex, which all the other slathering, gasping, etc, gets across. But mostly, in any of these, as anything, it's about projecting yourself onto the heroine, and having that projection broken by some idiosyncractic thing - I now live in a very safe country, and so don't bat an eyelid about women walking home alone in the dark from the hero's house; once, that freaked me out too much to believe the rest of the story. (As far as I was concerned, she was already lying dead in the gutter.) Condoms don't turn me on, so I'd rather not read about them; anal sex without lube - fine. BUT - important but - really good, immersive writing can carry you through all sorts of experiences that you might personally not prefer, unless it really slams on one of your personal taboos. So I'd be inclined to go with whatever I felt natural for those characters in that context & what I find sexy, on the grounds that if I write something that jars me, it'll probably jar the writing as well. And hope my readers are so deeply engrossed by that point that they'll go along with anything... ;-)

Anonymous said...

I can see situations such as Teresa describes when writing it "safe" comes out as uninteresting, writing it dangerous comes out too stupid to be believable.

Maybe writerly skill is called for? Not to suggest Teresa isn't skillful, but a balance between the two is necessary? Something along the lines of a paragraph or two about them getting to know each other safely rather than a chapter or two, or five?

You give enough that it satisfies your, and hopefully your readers' needs for the characters remaining plausible whilst not boring everyone whilst they wait for the kink to develop.

A bit like cut-aways in movies and TV shows. You don't see the whole journey, you see the hero get into the car, maybe a flash of him/her driving (although increasingly rarely) and then getting out of the car somewhere else.

Perhaps that other TV technique of the flash-back is worth considering. You skip over the safe bits for the hot, heavy action. In the in-between bits they can flash back to shared memories of their very safe first meeting (especially if they've just done a very unsafe pick-up scene say) so that the characters are shown to have been safe but at times that aren't interrupting the flow towards their (and our) fulfillment.

ADR Forte said...

Here are my two cents (which have proven unpopular on this topic before) but I'll say it anyway. I think sex is such a touchy and difficult topic in our culture- at least for Americans- that as sex writers we tend to worry about things like safe sex *more* than is realistic.

The reality is that some people practice safe, sensible sex as a matter of course, some people take really STUPID risks, and most people fall somewhere in between- probably taking calculated risks.

As Teresa mentioned, it depends on the situation and the person. In real life someone's personality, state of mind, perceptions, and quite often blood alcohol content level will all affect what they do.
I don't know if my characters are realistic or if they come across as too stupid to live, but I try to make them real by going through all those questions about context and character and then deciding "would this person really do/not do this if this was real?"

The other thing is that I don't think safe sex practices always need to be spelled out. If the character is drawn clearly enough then the reader should be able to fill in the blank to their satisfaction without being told.

When I say that Mary Jane took her kids to daycare, I don't spell out the fact she strapped them into their carseats first. We know she's woken up early to fix them a healthy breakfast, she turned on the house alarm before she left and she vacuumed up the cheerios they spilled yesterday from the floor of the minivan... so the carseats are pretty much a given.
If on the other hand, she's still hungover and is piling the kids into an '89 chevy with plastic wrap over the tailights while she yells obscenities and coughs in-between drags on her cigarette, then the carseats are probably not happenin.

When it comes to safe sex, I ask myself whether the mention of it fits the action or enhances it. And if not, can I leave it out and feel reasonably certain the reader will be able figure it out.

Bondage is less obvious, but it still comes back to the character. I had a friend once who would regularly pick up 2 or 3 guys at a club, take them home and let them tie him up. He knew how incredibly stupid it was, but he was 20 and still had that sense of "it'll never happen to me". People do crazy things. I don't believe characters have to be reasonable or sane or logical all the time- they just have to be consistent and believeable. Like we could walk down the street and meet that person and go "ok you're nuts, but I buy it"

That's my take anyway. I'll just go and um... put the soap back in the box now :)

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Mathilde said: "Could you some more about knowing who the hero is as soon as he's introduced. Like, how to you do that."

Um. Ummm... I never really thought about it! I don't have a way of doing it myself, but here's how it seems to be made obvious in romance fiction.

1. He's the first man in the book. (If he isn't, then the first man is obviously not the hero--a father, brother, or the villain.)

1a. He quickly has scenes with the heroine.

2. POV. If there's something in a man's POV early on (and again, it's not the villain), then he's the hero.

3. Looks. He's gorgeous.

3a (+1a). They're attracted to each other.

4. He's obviously a nice guy. He may not be perfect, but he's got a moral center and you know he wouldn't put the heroine in danger.

Stuff like that. Again, I never consciously "made this character the hero" in anything I've written. It might help you to look at some books and see how others have done it...

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Alison: We've all done stupid things. Absolutely! But RL isn't fiction, and we often hold heroines to a higher standard. Not a moral standard, but a "don't be an obvious idiot" standard.

An example I forgot to put in my initial post was something from a recent RWA session I listened to. In a horror movie, if the heroine goes down in the basement when she knows there's a bad guy in the house, then she's Too Stupid To Live. If she goes into the basement because her child is in danger, she's admirable/believable/etc.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Bondage: checking to see if things are okay or not?

For me, I think this depends on the book, the characters, and the scene. Done right, it can be romantic, believable, and even hot--for example, if it's a long-time couple trying out something new. But if the scene has a different tone, then it might be jarring.

Which brings me around to my original thought, which is that the writing and the situation both have a big part to play in determining whether the heroine is stupid or believable.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Teresa: I would have probably thrown that book across the room, too! For one thing, it's so overused to have the heroine have a one-night stand with a stranger only to discover he's her new boss/client/important business relation. At least the author tried to explain the heroine's actions--she was angry and bitter, so she did something out of character for herself. If written skilfully, I could believe someone acting out of character. Obviously that wasn't true in that book.

Sarah and I grappled with the problem of whether a heroine would put her job/career in jeopardy for the sake of lust. In A Little Night Music, we finally wrote a short conversation where the heroine and hero agree that a one-night fling will not affect their business relationship. (Boy, are they wrong! Well, it's not the one-night fling that does it, but the ongoing... [g])