Hope everyone from the states celebrating the 4th is having a wonderful holiday weekend! San Francisco was delightfully free of low-hanging fog last night, so we saw spectacular fireworks over the bay at the party I was at instead of the colored fog we frequently get (though even the colored fog has its charms, as it’s so very San Francisco).
At the start of the holiday weekend, I guest blogged on Romantic Inks about giving your characters a past–specifically, past romantic and/or sexual experiences. It was an interesting blog to write, so I thought I’d repost it here, especially since I’m curious to hear what the other writers who read this blog have to say.
Creating a rich backstory for our characters is one of the first things we do as writers in working on a book. In the title of this post, I’m referring to a very particular sort of past, the sort referenced in the“a woman with a past” (funny we don’t talk about “a man with a past”—the old double standard at work). Part of developing characters is thinking through their sexual and romantic history. This is perhaps particularly important in a love story. The characters’ previous experiences will inform their attitudes toward love and sex and relationships. They will influence how the characters interact with each other, even if they are consciously trying to do things differently this time. In the case of characters with a checkered past, their pasts will also affect their position in society (much more so for the women than the men thanks again to double standards) and perhaps threaten their prospect of a happy ending (think of the Camille/La Traviata).
There are a host of questions to consider, from the simplest and most obvious “have they ever had sex?” “have they ever been in love?” to the more complex “do they think sex and love have anything to do with each other? “do they believe romantic relationships can last?” And of course “what experiences underlie these beliefs?” Often your plot will dictate elements of your characters’ pasts. When I began developing Charles and Mélanie, I knew from the initial premise that Mélanie would be a sexually experienced heroine. It’s all tied up in the secrets that were the starting place for the first book.
I thought for a bit of giving Charles a rakish past of his own. But as I thought through the story more, I decided I wanted him to be more of a contrast to Mélanie. Mélanie has a quite pragmatic attitude toward sex. Charles takes sex a lot more seriously. He’s much more inclined to romanticize it and at the same time much less comfortable with desire. As Mélanie says in Beneath a Silent Moon, “Lovemaking doesn’t always have to mean more than an exchange of pleasure. Surely there’s no harm if the pleasure is mutual.”
To which Charles replies, “That reduces us to rutting animals.
And Mélanie says, “Perhaps animals have the right idea. They don’t try to think about everything so much.”
Charles is inclined to think about everything, which is one of the things I love about him. He can’t separate sex from its emotional resonances, which is why he’s constitutionally incapable of being a libertine. As he thinks in Secrets of a Lady, “Intimacy was difficult enough for him. He could never bring himself to pay for the substitute.”
Working out why your characters have the attitudes they do toward sex and love often means looking back even before their first love affairs. To explain how Charles developed his attitudes, I gave him parents who were the sort of late 18th century aristocrats depicted in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Charles’s reaction to the environment he grew up in was to be quite the opposite.
Another decision I made early on was not to make Mélanie an experienced woman who’s romantically untouched until she meets her true love. She was in love with Raoul up to when she met Charles and overlapping with her falling in love (against her better judgment) with her husband. I knew that very early in my planning of the book, before I had all the elements of the Charles/Melanie/Raoul triangle worked out. I hadn’t thought of it until I started writing on this topic, but I wonder now if I was subconsciously reacted against the archetype of the experienced heroine whose heart remains untouched until she meets the hero. Mélanie’s past with Raoul in turn drove some of the plot twists as I worked out the rest of the book (not to mention on going plot twists and issues in the series).
It’s hard for me, looking back now, to think I even considered making Charles a rake. His and Mélanie’s different pasts and different attitudes toward love and sex continue to create interesting tensions and complications between them as the series continues. Their pasts are so much a part of who they both are now that I can’t imagine them any other way.
Do you like to know about the pasts of characters you read about? Writers, at what point in working developing a story do you think about your characters’ sexual and romantic pasts? Do you find your characters’ pasts inform their attitudes toward love and sex or do you consciously give them a past history that would lead to the attitudes you need for your story?
I’ve just posted a new addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter from Mélanie to Lady Frances in which she talks about Talleyrand and his glamorous niece Dorothée.