What things in fiction, big or small, really do it for you? Tropes, characters, premises or details that you enjoy so much you’d auto-buy a book or stick with a really bad movie because of them?
A couple of weeks ago I listened to Writing For Your Id, a workshop presented at this year’s RWA National conference by Dr. Jennifer Barnes, a psychologist, cognitive scientist, and YA romance author. I’m super-grateful to 8 Lady Jeanne for recommending it.
The first part of the presentation, which would have been worth the price of admission, was that certain universal pleasures have become hard-wired into our brains, and encountering those treats when we read gives us a deep-seated hit of happy. Stories or scenes depicting sex, touch, beauty, wealth, power, competition and danger push our pleasure buttons. Different genres are associated with different pleasures, and the workshop offered suggestions about different ways to create pleasure-centric stories and to work with and against the typical pleasure buttons.
Lots of food for thought there, but what really resonated with me was the second part of the presentation: that you make your stories distinctive and memorable by adding in to them stuff that you, the writer, personally really, really like.
The idea is to develop a list of all the things that do it for you and use those things to bring excitement to your writing.
Work out which pleasures recur. Which ones you’re strong on and vice versa. And if you’re not looking forward to writing, get yourself in the mood by adding in something from your Id List.
Dr. Barnes said she has a list of more than a thousand items. I just made a start on mine, but here are a few things I came up with.
Sensible, smart, plain heroines who get the hot guy
Especially the overlooked bluestocking sister with a drop-dead gorgeous sibling.
I’d put Lizzy Bennet top of this list—Jane is beautiful, but Lizzy’s smart and interesting. Or quiet, competent Mary Challoner from Heyer’s Devil’s Cub.
Heroines who shoot the hero
That would be Mary Challoner again. And Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels. And Sophy from The Grand Sophy (well, she shoots a friend to prevent the hero from challenging him to a duel, but I think it counts).
Characters who are more than they seem
Many Ilona Andrews heroines, frex the Kinsman sci-fi novellas: a young woman with a rare and deadly talent whose existence has been expunged from her family records so that she can carry out assassinations on their behalf; another with psychic superpowers who’s on the losing side of a war and has to conceal her abilities and her military history to start a new life as a civilian refugee. Or Hugo from Heyer’s Unknown Ajax, who chooses to let his snobbish aristocratic relatives believe he’s the penniless weaver’s brat they assume him to be. Also superheroes, shapeshifters, pretty much any character with an alter ego.
A good con
Phoebe, the heroine of SEP’s It Had To Be You, bluffs her way to a new stadium contract for her team the Chicago Stars. Hugo, again, at the end of Unknown Ajax, plays his aristocratic relatives like marionettes in a glorious deception that outwits the Customs Land Guard and saves the neck of his reckless young cousin Richmond.
Men with strong mothers;
Heroes who are all in from early in the story;
Behind-the-scenes settings: backstage, store cupboards, kitchens, balconies, basements;
Twisted tropes: make-unders, the loser wins;
Hierarchies, internal politics, power struggles;
Humor, community, kindness;
Heroes who snark the bad guy under torture/when all appears lost;
Jewelry real or fake, gold, sparkly, glittery stuff;
I could go on, but you get the idea.
So…what would be on your Id List?
Even though I got to see Dr. Barnes give this presentation in person (and loved it!) I appear to have given it significantly less thought than you have.
Another thing Dr. Barnes said: to help you identify your pleasure buttons, think about how you get your characters out of a jam. If they generally buy their way out, wealth is a pleasure button for you. If they use their beauty (another trick Phoebe from SEP’s book does), then beauty may be a pleasure button for you.
My characters invariably think their way out, generally in a way that’s outside the box, which suggests clever twists and turns are a pleasure button for me (even though she doesn’t list that specifically–it probably falls under competition).
I’m not a wine drinker (I can’t metabolize alcohol very well), but I love seeing people drink wine in books. It always seems so cosmopolitan.
It’s weird: I love dogs, but I seldom put them in my books. Maybe I need to start!
In fact, I’m thinking I need a book where Milton, the demon cat from The Demon Always Wins, returns and goes face-to-muzzle against an angelic dog. Maybe. But not in my current WIP. It already has 6 round characters and that’s enough.
Ooh, that’s another thing I like–scenes with a lot of people pursuing different agendas. Jenny is great at that (e.g. the first scene in Bet Me.)
Let me say, Jeanne, that putting a dog in a book is a pain in the patoot. Back in class, in book one, I mentioned to Jenny that I was stuck, and Raymond Chandler said that when he was stuck, he always wrote in a man with a gun. And Jenny said, whenever she got stuck, she wrote in a dog. So I wrote in a dog, because I didn’t want to write in a man with a gun. It helped at that moment. But that dog has plagued me ever since. Every blasted chapter from the critique group is, where’s the dog? Or, a dog wouldn’t do that. Or whatever. He’s a really sweet dog, but he’s given me no end of Trouble.
Ha! You know, Kay, I think this is exactly what Dr. Barnes was getting at: when you’re stuck, write something fun from your Id List. Knowing what we do about Jenny, I’d bet a chunk of change that dogs are somewhere near the top of her Id List. Yours, maybe, not so much, which is why Trouble turned out to be so much Trouble 😉
I’m really going to keep that in mind for future plot problems. Dogs, I think, are out from now on. Maybe someone could have had a dog in their childhood, and now he’s running with the other dogs in heaven. Or something like that. Otherwise, no.
Replying to Jeanne, as I bet this comment nests in the wrong place. My characters generally use confrontation and action to get themselves out of a jam (hence my Heroines Who Shoot the Hero addiction). They’re not impulsive; they usually try to think or talk themselves out of trouble, and then escalate to blowing the doors off. I do like a clever twist and turn too, though.
With you on the wine front. In fact I love good food and drink scenes, and I heart a hero who can cook.
And I’d LOVE to read Milton the Demon Cat vs an Angelic Dog. Please write that before you wrap up the series!
I’d have on my id list some of the same things (maybe all of the same things) that you have on yours. What I’ve noticed about my writing is that after several books now, it sometimes feels like I write the same book over and over. And then I realize that everyone does that, more or less. Themes recur. And the way the characters resolve problems often recurs also, among other elements.
I’ve written a couple of books that I call “paranormal light,” in which major, but secondary, characters are gods and goddesses that affect human behavior. Those books are still under the bed, so to speak, although I might take them out, dust them off, and see what I’ve got. But in general, my go-to character model is people without special strengths—just normal, everyday people. I’m not sure if that’s my id talking, or if it’s my way of working out everyday problems. Like, you know, therapy. But there it is. 🙂
Sounds like an interesting talk! And potentially really useful. I might just have to get that one myself.
I do think everyone writes the same book over and over, more or less. Dr. Barnes was very funny about it. She said that for some reason she likes scenes set on roof tops and finds she writes them over and over.
I agree that your go-to character models are normal, everyday people, except that I’d say they’re really good at building community and friendship. They save the day with the help of other normal, everyday folk, because they are Good People. That’s another one for my Id List–I like it a lot.
I strongly recommend the recording! Only $6 to RWA members!
I’m going to have to listen to this presentation for sure, but I can tell you that #1 on my list (or quite near the top) are men who DO things for their ladies. Not in an underhanded way, or because they don’t think the women can do for themselves, but because it’s a demonstration of their love. Think Shane from Agnes and the Hitman (when he buys her an air conditioner) or Darcy from P&P (when he arranges all the stuff for Mr. Wickham and forces him to marry Lydia). Jilly and I talked about this at length and I know it’s because I’m the “do-er” in my house (and also because my primary Love Language is “acts of service”), so doing something for me that needs to be done without asking for my permission or getting me involved in any way is a major pleasure point for me. Hence my heroes…if you look at the titles of all of my books, they’re doing something for their ladies…His Lady to Protect, His Lady to Defend, His Lady to Honor (Love, Desire, etc.). That’s a major thing for me.
I also am enchanted with propriety, proper manners, and the illusion of a more gracious time (I know in truth that’s not the case), which is why it’s important for me for my books to be historically accurate (to the best that they can be, anyway, given that I’m writing fiction). Dialogue, mannerisms, customs of the time…all of that makes me happy, and I am trying to incorporate that into my books as much as possible. (Yes, I am a candidate for Austenland. LOL.)
As for whatever else I may like, I’ll have to think more on it. But I can say that as much as I love dogs, there will be none in my books. 🙂
As you say, we’ve talked about this, and I couldn’t agree more. I think men who do things for the women they love, not because they doubt their beloved’s ability to do things for herself, but because they understand that she wants/needs it, would be on many a woman’s Id List. I think I remember SEP saying once, probably at an RWA workshop, that a man who’ll fix a broken toilet is a true hero. And (fun fact) after we discussed this recently, my husband asked whether doing the laundry (mine as well as his own) counts 😉
I think the illusion of a more gracious society would fall under the heading of beauty. In our current polarized world I think many of us would be glad to spend an hour or two in more civilized company.
I wonder if that’s why I like historicals so much…and history. The illusion that things in the past were better. Woody Allen did a movie to that end…(have to look it up)….Midnight In Paris. The main character, Gil, goes back in time every night at midnight. But the girl he falls in love with in that time (I think it’s the roaring 20s) is in love with a time period before that. Okay, so it’s not necessarily the same thing, but I still like the idea of a more gracious society. 😉
Y’all know I’m a Virgo, so I should be practical and like a man who does things for me; but I’m picky and a recovering control freak, so all too often, it’s Not Quite Right.
Instead, in a very un-Virgo-like way, I like shiny and glittery. I like magic that shimmers and twists the focus of reality into something else. I like a hero who almost seems to glow with strength/vitality/magic.
I can not write a strong hero. Jenny noticed it; my heroes don’t do things for their women. They facilitate and let them shine. Miles Vorkosigan is a very active hero in his own right, but because of his disabilities, he’s not leading the battle. He’s stuck back in the control room, supporting people and directing them — and sometimes it chafes, but if he wasn’t there doing that, none of the other people would succeed.
I adore goofy. Peter Wimsy, and even poor Bertie Wooster. Heyer wrote a Freddie (from which novel, I can’t remember right now) who seemed like a goofball, but was so tasteful that he saved the day. And Bujold’s Ivan.
And just like I like my female characters to be a bit strong and butch, I like my male characters to be in touch with their feminine side.
Hmmm, other than that? Well, I do like food and hot beverages as a way to get my people talking and working together, but I suspect a lot of those scenes are just discovery. I think I probably need to cut the sitting and talking, and just move to the action they decide upon. Those scenes still need to be written, and they have helped me through many a NaNo wordcount dilemma, but I’m not sure they need to be read.
I think you mean Freddie Standen from Cotillion. LOVED that book, Freddie is a great, smart-but-doesn’t-seem-like-it hero! Helped Dolphinton get married AND he realized that Kitty was the girl for him. *sigh*
Cotillion! LOVE that book. It’s kind to a whole raft of underdogs who all get HEAs, and the way Heyer transitions Freddy, from “he’s sooo lovely, I wish he were the hero instead of that gorgeous rat-bastard Jack” to “Holy Cow, Freddy IS the hero” is utterly brilliant.
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I really enjoyed this post and loved your detailed list. I’ve just started mine and I definitely see a pattern emerging (art nerd! lol) I hope my readers follow the link I’ve provided and find your blog!
Hi Christine, thank you very much for the kind words, and for the link 🙂
Art nerd? That sounds as though Beauty will be one of your primary pleasure buttons. Good luck with your list! I’m still adding to mine.
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