Bicker versus Banter: Learn the Difference between True Love and a Hot Mess

chemistry“The main characters had no chemistry together.”

One of the most damning sentences that any creative artist can read in a review. I don’t care if you’re an author, or a scriptwriter, or a producer—the words make you cringe, and strike fear deep in your heart. Lack of chemistry between your lead characters can turn a potential blockbuster or bestseller into a mediocre mess. The opposite is true as well—if people like your leads and love the interaction between them, then they will forgive you just about everything. Plot holes the size of Detroit, incorrect grammar, inconsistent POV…none of it will matter to the reader who loves your characters. The majority of those enthralled readers simply will not see these problems in the first place.

I came across these words recently in reference to one of my stories, and I have to admit, I did a classic cartoon double-take when I saw them. Hey, my flaws as a writer are legion, but people usually like my characters!

How could they have no chemistry together? What about that scene in the basement, that fairly crackled with sexual tension? Or when they are pressed up against the wall—and they can hear someone else on the other side engaged in the same activity?

Granted, one person’s idea of smokin’ hot is another person’s idea of tame, so I usually take statements like this for what they are: one person’s opinion. But this time, I got to thinking about how someone could fail to see the unwilling attraction and heat between these two characters—and then it hit me.

They didn’t fight with each other.

They didn’t yell or throw things. They didn’t slam each other into the wall, or punch each other out. They didn’t say terrible, nasty things to each other. No whiskey bottles were shattered, there were no slamming doors, no one peeled out of the driveway with a squeal of burning rubber and a desire to do self-destructive things.

I find the idea that these things are necessary to show ‘chemistry’ a disturbing trend in romantic fiction. Now, mind you, I understand how difficult it is to tell a story without introducing conflict. It’s conflict that makes for drama, which engages the reader and draws them in. One of the hardest things any television show can do is successfully maintain audience interest once the UST been the lead characters has been resolved. I can only think of a handful of shows that did it well. Why? Because happy couples make for nice endings, not interesting story-telling.

But to me, there’s a big difference between bicker and banter. I’ve seen bickering couples in real life; they’re no fun to be around. Banter, on the other hand, sucks me in every time. Take Castle in the early seasons. Okay, pretty much an unbelievable premise. But because the dialog was so clever and because there was clearly chemistry between the characters, I suspended disbelief and fell in line whole-heartedly with the series.

There’s a scene where Castle and Beckett are standing in a hallway, about to knock on the door of a witness. As Beckett knocks, Castle says something about inspiration. Beckett glances at him with a sly smile and says, “I thought I was your inspiration, Castle.”

“You are, you are,” Castle hastens to assure her.

“Well be careful,” she says, still smiling slightly. “You might find that inspiration will strike you sooner than you think.”

It’s witty, and clever, and she is obviously teasing him, even as she is still being dismissive of his presence in her investigation. It was dialog like this that made me a Castle fan.

Banter is teasing. It can be exasperated, but it is seldom irritated. It’s a quick, snappy trade of one-liners that should have the reader following the thread of conversation like a sports fan at a tennis match. It can be slightly mean, but it is never angry or aggressive. It worries me that aggression is so often seen as attraction in fiction or entertainment. I don’t want to live my life like a soap opera, and my characters don’t want to love like that either.

What’s wrong with depicting healthy relationships?

Nothing, except from a writer’s perspective, it’s a heck of a lot harder. To me, it’s a bit of a cheat to make your characters angrily and abusively attracted to one another for the sake of dramatic effect unless you’ve laid out the background for why these people are so damaged in the first place. And then, if you want me to believe in their True Love at the end of your story, you have to show me that they’ve worked through these issues. You also have to show me why they are worth the effort. Telling me that they are so unbelievably hot doesn’t cut it.

south beach sunsetThere was an episode of CSI: Miami in which Joe Flanigan played an abusive boyfriend that was a suspect in a murder investigation. It turned out that his girlfriend was not the murder victim, and he was cleared to go. However, Horatio tried to convince the woman to press assault and battery charges against him. She refuses, looking doe-eyed and helpless as she walks over to Flanigan, where he is seated on a bench, wearing handcuffs.

Joe Flanigan is incredibly hot anyway, but in this role, with his smoldering anger and his three day stubble, he could have carried the part based on his looks alone. His character has beaten this woman, has threatened to kill her, but she won’t leave him. He’s good-looking enough that as an audience, we would have bought it right there. But when she sits down beside him, this man who’d frightened her so badly that she’d run away from him, turns to her and gently presses his lips against her bare shoulder. For the first time ever, I could understand how someone could stay in an abusive relationship. I got it. But only because Flanigan made me believe it.

But it was not a healthy relationship. It was clear from the start that Flanigan’s character was a bad guy, if not THE bad guy. Lest you think I’m not about Bad Boys, let me tell you, some of my favorite characters are Bad Boys. I adore the Tortured Hero. More than anything, I love watching his path to redemption through finding love with the right person.

And I don’t think fists need to fly for sparks to fly.

Bio: Sarah Madison is a writer with several cats, a large dog, an even larger horse, and a very patient boyfriend. She writes M/M erotic romances in her copious spare time and relies heavily on the smoke detector to tell her when dinner is ready.

Coming this fall, book 3 in the Sixth Sense series: Truth and Consequences.  Also, be on the lookout for the re-release of The Boys of Summer!

Why Peggy Carter resonates with so many women today

Value2Anyone who knows me even slightly knows I am a HUGE fan of Peggy Carter. Captain America: The First Avenger is one of my favorite movies, in part because I adored Peggy Carter in it. (I also might have a thing for the time period, seeing as I wrote The Boys of Summer 🙂 ) I’ve written about why I think Steve Rogers is the kind of hero we need, and I’ve written a little about my adventures in cosplaying Carter. I’m obsessed in the way only a fangirl can be. If you search this website for references to Peggy Carter, you’ll see what I mean.

Ever since Captain America:TFA came out, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing what would happen to characters like these after the war. After their brilliant, adrenaline-driven careers were no longer necessary, and they had to meld into suburban America. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a series under the pen name Madison Dean, a kind of X-Files meets Ward and June Cleaver. I thought it would be fun, and I was enjoying the research for it. Then Agent Carter came out, and I realized that I’m going to have to change much of how I envisioned my original characters in order to prevent it from feeling derivative.

Besame 1940 PerfumeYou know what? I don’t care. Because I enjoyed Agent Carter as a television show so much, it doesn’t bother me that it might have shot down my brilliant idea for a romantic adventure series. I enjoyed it so much, it even knocked Queen Elsa off the throne for my current fangirl obsession. (Lord knows, I’ve posted a lot about Frozen, too! You should do a site search on that one if you want to read them all…)

Yesterday, I got a text from a friend off at Emerald City Comic Con, saying she had a surprise for me. Now, I’ve been running on fumes this last week, dealing with an injured horse needing round-the-clock treatment in an effort to save his eye. So when I got her text, it piqued my curiosity but I’d forgotten where she’d gone this weekend. Then she sent me a photo of my surprise: an autograph from Hayley Atwell! Those high-pitched dolphin squeals of glee you heard around the world yesterday? Yeah, that was me.

I showed the image to the BF last night at dinner, and he said he’d been looking for some sort of Agent Carter-related thing to get me ever since the series came out, but he’d had trouble finding anything he liked. Which gave me the warm fuzzies, you know? We watched Agent Carter together each week when it was on–it was our one Must See Live television show, and I believe he looked forward to it almost as much as me (given the amount of teasing I got, I’m sure of it!). The fact that he’s been looking for something Carter-related as a gift shows he *gets* me.

Besame Red VelvetWhich got me thinking this morning, why Peggy Carter? Why not Black Widow, or Wonder Woman, or Kate Beckett, or Brenda Leigh Johnson, or any of a number of excellent female characters over the years? What is it about Peggy that strikes such a chord? Why did Twitter explode with live tweeting during Agent Carter? It’s not just because Hayley Atwell is adorable (have you seen the pictures she posts of her sleeping almost anywhere on almost anything? The one of her in the suitcase is my favorite) but because Peggy Carter herself really struck a cord with a lot of viewers.

For a heroine, she’s super-feminine in a way that is disarming. She’s not in a catsuit. She doesn’t look like she could break your nose with her elbow, despite the fact she can. She is under-appreciated at work, and her male superiors dismiss her abilities while at the same time take advantage of them. I love the fact that she anticipates the mission’s needs and has the information ready to provide before her bosses can even ask for it. I confess, I was disconcerted by the scene where she takes a male co-worker to task for standing up for her–I thought she should have rewarded him for being progressive, after all! But I realized that she dressed him down for intervening because no one should have to intervene on her behalf. To have a man back her in that scenario meant that her presence and usefulness was only allowed if validated by a male co-worker. It was an interesting distinction to make, and one far more subtle than the average comic-book show.

Cinnamon Sweet resizedBut she can ditch the feminine look to get dirty in the trenches. She can knock back Scotch with the best of her male companions, the ones who know her true value and don’t question what she brings to the team. Her hand shakes when she diffuses a bomb. She’s known heartbreak, and personal loss. She’s made mistakes, ones that have gotten people killed, and she’s suffered the guilt, as well as the consequences of her actions. She eats out at restaurants a lot, because seriously, when does she have time to cook? She curses when she hits her head. She is tempted by the luxury of staying a night in Howard Stark’s townhouse, so far removed from a life sharing flats with other women. She is wonderfully realized as a character. She is human. And she is a damn sight closer to most of us than the average role model we see on screen.

One of the best moments in the series is depicted on the mug above: Peggy states clearly that she doesn’t need outside validation to know her worth. She doesn’t expect it. She’s learned to live without it. She’s learned that the only person she mustn’t disappoint is herself. Praise from others is nice, but she doesn’t need it to know she’s done her best.

Forites shoes 1That is a wonderful, amazing, empowering mindset. Seriously, it is everything we could ever hope for in a role model. No, we’re not going to be able to take out bad guys with a mean right hook, but we can look smashing while we go about our business, do our jobs to the very best of our abilities, and we can hold our heads–and our standards–high when the rest of the world would put us down. Without whining.

I sincerely hope Marvel and ABC decide to renew the series for another season. It was by far the best thing I’ve seen on television in years. We need more female characters like this in television, movies, and books. And she’s inspired me to create some of my own.

A friend, knowing my obsession, linked me to this wonderful, amazing essay on Agent Carter and the power of friendship. Do check it out. You won’t be sorry. 🙂

 

Did Remington Steele do us a disservice? The bias against women

Smith CoronaI was a huge Remington Steele fan back in the day. It was the one show I had to watch each week.

I loved the premise: a woman trying to make it as a private detective figures out that she’ll be more successful if she creates an imaginary boss–a decidedly masculine boss. She cobbles the name together out of things in her office and Remington Steele is born. In many ways, it’s a sheer stroke of genius. Young, pretty, and female, Laura Holt probably didn’t inspire confidence in the sort of people who needed an private investigator. By creating an imaginary boss, she could present herself as his representative, could defer unpleasant decisions until she could speak with the boss; she could even make the boss the bad guy if the situation warranted it. It was a great plan, right until the time a con artist walks into her life and takes Steele’s identity. Laura is in the uncomfortable situation of not being able to out him without outing herself as well–and the con man needs a place to cool his heels. As premises for romantic dramedies go, this one was more clever than most.

I wanted to be Laura Holt. I admired her gumption, her classic sense of style. I wanted her shoes. I had a crush on Remington Steele. I loved Brosnan’s accent, I loved the banter between the characters. In fact, I think it was this show that made me fall in love with banter. It was like watching Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies, which was appropriate, given Steele’s ability to find similarities in each case to old movies that he loved to watch.

I enjoyed the show so much that I was delighted to run across it recently on DVD. But watching it again proved to be a big mistake. With hindsight, I remembered that Brosnan wanted out of his contract to play Bond (though really, he was far too young at the time–his is the attractiveness that gets better with age) and was upset when they wouldn’t let him go. Despite being good actors, this situation strained the working relationship between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, and it clearly shows in their romantic scenes together, at least to my more mature eyes. The banter feels more like bicker, and the plots, meant to reflect some of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, seem dated and cheesy now.

And then there’s the premise itself. Laura Holt can’t be taken seriously in a man’s profession without pretending to have a male boss. Despite having trained and apprenticed for her career (as she said in the opening narrative each week), it was usually Steele who solved the case, by recalling an old movie with a similar set up. So not only does Steele move in lock, stock and barrel into the identity she created, he’s better at solving crimes than she is, too.

handwriting_flickrI’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately. Recently I came across a NYT post by Fay Weldon, titled “Writer of a Certain Age.” She spoke of her long experience in television and the theater, as well as that of a writer. It was an extremely well-written and eye-opening essay.

It was also bloody depressing. In it, Weldon spoke of truisms in the various entertainment industries in which she’s worked–and in nearly all cases, the only time a women was considered important and worth listening to–be it in television, theater, or novels–is when she is young, pretty, and the love interest for a male lead.

Worse, Weldon seems to imply in her post that if you are so unfortunate as to be ‘a writer of a certain age’ and female, that you should really take advantage of the internet to lie to your fans and create a false persona like Remington Steele. Take a gender neutral pen name. Or if you acknowledge that you are, in fact, a woman, take this opportunity to pretend to be younger, thinner, prettier than you really are. Ouch.

ink pen_wikipedia_orgDiscussion of this post among my friends lead to whether or not bias still existed against women writers in this day and age. I found a blog post titled Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants, which seemed to parallel Laura Holt’s dilemma: she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman. It wasn’t until she took the pen name James Chartrand that her freelance writing business took off–and she was able to pay off her mortgage. The discussion among my friends turned inevitably to gender neutral pen names. In the thriller/mystery genre, a gender neutral pen name is almost mandatory–just look at J.D. Robb versus Nora Roberts. I argued that this was more about branding, about allowing your audience to know by your pen name what kind of story to expect. However, J. K. Rowling was born because her publisher thought a female name wouldn’t appeal to the primary audience for the Harry Potter series: adolescent boys.

The Boys of Summer400x600Then there is my own genre. I write primarily M/M romances. At the time I sold my first story and was selecting a pen name, there was a big brouhaha about an author who’d been discovered to be female instead of male. The anger readers felt, presumably for being deceived, was so great that I deliberately chose a feminine pen name because I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about my gender.

Frequently, the question of whether or not women should even be writing books about gay men and their sexual adventures is raised within the genre. Time and again, the same arguments come back: Tolkien never met a hobbit. Mystery writers usually aren’t murders themselves. Rowling never went to Hogwarts (I KNOW. Say it isn’t so!!) and to my knowledge, all science fiction is just that. Fiction. And yet I never seem to hear a single person take a male author to task for creating a female protagonist. This particular complaint about women writers seems to get raised every few months among my various lists and groups, too.

You will hear people say as long as the story is written well, they don’t give a hoot about the gender of the author, and since I feel that way myself, I believe people when they say this. But I have to wonder, especially in light of Weldon’s post. Of her encouragement to be anything other than what I actually am. Believe me, that post made me wonder if I’d made a serious mistake by going with a feminine pen name, and whether I should delete all my previous posts on aging and sexuality. Whether I should be someone other than who I really am. Because writing isn’t just a little hobby for me. I need it to help pay the bills.

I pretty much thought these arguments were limited to my genre (with the possible exception of the mystery genre as well). Lord knows, romance writers in general are considered the lowest of the low when it comes to ‘real’ writing. Turns out sci-fi and mystery writers also come pretty low on the ‘respect’ list, compared to the literary giants of the fiction world, which is sad because on any given day I’ll take a good mystery or sci-fi story over any self-indulgent, introspective Grand Literature novel. But I digress.

One of my friends pointed out this article to me on Literary Sexism: Still Pervasive and Real. It bears reading. While the beginning is about a critical review and the author’s response to it (which may not make a ton of sense if you aren’t familiar with Mary Gaitskill‘s essays and fiction), read it all the way through. There are some links to some searing examples of ongoing bias toward women. It’s enlightening as well as disheartening. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the pie chart graphs of the number of books reviewed by male versus female authors.

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image11166602I can’t change who Sarah Madison is now unless I want to start all over again building a platform and readership from scratch, but I can certainly give more thought to creating my new persona for my projected traditional romances. Ironically, Sarah Madison would be a good fit for that genre, better perhaps, that for writing about hot men in hot water. The jury is still out as to whether or not I will actually take another pen name to write traditional M/F romances. The polling has run about 50/50 either way. I myself think, like Nora Roberts, it will be easier for those readers who don’t care for gay romances to find what they like to read if I keep the names separate.

This is certainly not meant to be a ‘wah-wah, woe is me, I’m a woman and the world is out to get me’ post either. It’s just that it seems to me that we should have come farther than Remington Steele by now. I’d like to point to one of my favorite television heroines, Kate Beckett from Castle and say we have come a long way, baby. But then I recall how much Stana Katic’s appearance has changed over the six seasons of Castle and how little she resembles a NYPD homicide detective anymore and how much she looks like a fashion model instead. And Castle usually solves the crime, too.

So it is tempting here to say that Remington Steele was a bad, wrong message to send to impressionable young women. But that would be wrong. I recall not all that long ago getting very angry over some young person’s lambasting of Star Trek: The Original Series on Twitter–commenting on how sexist, nationalist, racist, etc the show was. I tried to point out that for its time, it was groundbreaking stuff. That yes, the women wore mini-skirts and go-go boots, but it was the first show that depicted a black woman in a role other than that of a maid or a cook. That it tackled big issues. That it envisioned a future in which we’d solved so many of our problems by working together instead of trying to kill each other. The Twitter Hater wouldn’t listen and I had to drop her from my feed. She couldn’t understand that it took those very baby steps taken in Star Trek to bring us forward to the kinds of diversity and equality we see in roles for characters today.

I have to give that same kind of credit to Remington Steele. It was groundbreaking in its way as well, giving us a strong unmarried female heroine who had an interesting career and did exciting things. Laura Holt was smart and independent and I wanted to be her. She was one of the first characters I can recall to influence me that way. That’s exactly the sort of baby step that was needed back then. Today we have Kate Beckett, and Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer), and Rizzoli and Isles, and Captain Sharon Raydor (Major Crimes), and Peggy Carter (Captain America) and I could go on. It’s getting better. We’re seeing better roles for women, more older women in good roles. But the numbers are still pretty small compared to the good parts for men.

The fact that men got all the best parts and best lines was one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to male characters my entire life. I very much want to try my hand at writing a female character I can like and respect. The thought terrifies me, to be honest, which is why I haven’t seriously attempted it so far. But I will. Some day I will. And I have Laura Holt to thank for it.