Here’s the truth: if your characters engage in any type of sexual activity, if they even have a vaguely sexual thought, your readers are going to think it all comes directly from your own personal experience.  And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

In my first novel, Chemical Pink, there is a male character that likes to masturbate while playing with, and talking to, his fruit and vegetable dolls.  He’s got a whole collection: the macho Eggplant doll, the Sweet Pea Sisters, the double headed Cherry Girl, the towering Zuchini boy.  He gets comfortable in his bed and creates different scenarios in which he acts out his fantasies.  Mr. Corn and Ms. Cantaloupe are particular favorites for the rough stuff.

I have never found these dolls even remotely exciting but my character Charles Worthington does.  The vegetable doll scene in Chemical Pink was generated from deep within his mind.  It was behavior that only he would understand based on a complicated maternal relationship and a deep seeded yearning for intimacy.  The details of his life in no way mirror my own.  Nevertheless, many of my readers believed they knew a little secret something about me after they read about Charles and his dolls.  They wanted to see my collection.  I kept telling them that I don’t own any dolls, that they are not interesting to me, but no one believed me. They just smirked and winked and felt privy to my dark little secret. I’m sure they called all their friends, spread the word. And there was nothing I could do about it.

The Wentworths is filled with sex because sex drives interesting behavior and I believe most people are either running towards or away from it for a good portion of their lives.  Again in this novel I have a male character, Norman Wentworth, who thinks and does some unusual things.  He has cannibalistic fantasies involving his family members.  He dreams of wearing animal pelts and a penis shaft made from the leg-bone of his neighbor’s German Shepherd.  HE’S A GAY MAN.  I am a heterosexual woman.  But as with Chemical Pink, many of my readers thought they were joining me in my bedroom when they read about Norman’s escapades.  No point in arguing.

My new novel, Point Dume, has got sex.  Of course it does.  And one of the main characters resembles me.   She’s a woman who shares many of my beliefs; she does some of the same stuff that I like to do. And she lives exactly where I live.  Those readers who are looking for clues into my personal life are going to think they’ve hit the jackpot with this new novel.  I can just see the smug, knowing expressions right now.

So how do I handle this?  I laugh–because it is pretty funny, if you think about it.   For every reader who believes I put on a silkworm costume and roll around on the floor while someone tries to squash me, I say, “Oh, you’re so clever.  You figured me out.”  And for those who feel they can confess their deepest darkest fantasies to me because they think I’ll understand them now that they’ve read a particularly lurid spanking scene, well, I plead with them—PLEASE DON’T SHARE.  The reader can think they know my secrets but really, I don’t want to know theirs.  I try and keep a firm line between fiction and reality.

 

 

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KATIE ARNOLDI has published three novels. The first, Chemical Pink, was a national bestseller. Her second novel The Wentworths was a Los Angeles Times bestseller as was her most recent book, Point Dume, which was published in May 2010 and released in paperback on 4-20 2011. Katie was the 1992 Southern California Bodybuilding Champion. She was also a competitive longboard surfer, an enthusiastic backcountry survivalist, fanatic scuba diver and a constant traveler. She has an extensive knife collection and is currently writing another novel.

35 responses to “The Challenges of Having Sexually Active Characters”

  1. It’s a good point, Katie, and something that probably causes a lot of authorial self-censorship. On the other hand, a long time ago I read part of one of Newt Gingrich’s spy novels (yes, he writes spy novels) and there was this one scene where the hero (presumably thinly-veiled Newt) is having sex with a Russian spy (certainly thinly veiled Newt-fantasy) and I’ll never forget this line, something like: “and they rolled into bed, and then she sat athwart him.”….I am quite sure no woman has ever willingly “sat athwart” Newt Gingrich. In fact, usage of the word athwart might actually be spy code for “I am still a virgin.” So, maybe it’s a two-way street.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      “Athwart”! That is so funny, Sean. Hilarious.

    • dwoz says:

      “Loins”.

      ’nuff said’.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Sean, that line will never – AND I MEAN NEVER – leave my head now. Newt Gingrich will now forever summon the word “athwart”.

      • admin says:

        This piece by Lauren Collins in a back issue of The New Yorker seems like it’s worth mentioning. It’s about Scooter Libby and his criminal ways, and his penchant for writing fiction….and his penchant for writing really disturbing stuff in his fiction (often of the sexual variety).

        And on a broader level, it’s about the tendency of high-profile right-wingers (Safire, Buckley, O’Reilly, Lynn Cheney) to write really bad—if not downright disturbing—sex scenes in novels. A trend.

        Great post, Katie. You PERVERT! 😉

      • God, I know. We should start an Athwart Recovery Group. I’ve been carrying the damn thing around in my head for years.

  2. dwoz says:

    I think you win the pun of the week award, hands down. Mr Zucchini having deep seeded yearnings?

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      I wanted to put up pictures of the dolls but couldn’t figure out how. You are absolutely right about Mr. Zucchini.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Please take another shot at it. I must see Cherry Girl.

        The Add Media option is confusing, but it does work.

  3. dwoz says:

    I have the OPPOSITE problem than yours. I am male, writing a novel in which there are female characters that have sex. In re-reading my first draft, I am appalled. “this is SO OBVIOUSLY a guy writing this!!!” I say to myself. Not pretty.

    Maybe that’s the problem…it has to be outlandish sex? In my own experience, I have not experienced any difficulty in managing the techniques and mechanics of female orgasm, In fact this is the least of my problems…but that somehow utterly fails to qualify me in UNDERSTANDING it.

    • Joe Daly says:

      One of the things I have always admired about Tom Robbins is the way he writes from the female perspective- including sex scenes.

      Now, I understand that it might be the height of folly to praise Tom for nailing the female perspective, when I likely have no idea if he’s close or not (being a man). But the way he approaches it feels sincere, at least, rather than more stereotypical perspectives by other authors.

  4. Art Edwards says:

    My experience has been that you kind of want your readers making horseshit assumptions about you from your character’s exploits. It’s part of the dance that goes on in a reader’s head while she reads fiction, part of what makes it interesting. As a reader, I know I do it.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      I don’t know Art. I don’t really think about the reader’s assumptions while writing. I probably should because I’m always a little shocked and sometimes surprised by the reactions. But I think that as a reader I often do it to other writers.

  5. Hi Katie!

    I have this problem as well. I spoke at a class that read one of my stories. In the story, the protagonist suffers from a bad case of herpes. When I walked in the classroom, they were all staring at me so strangely. So, one of the first things I said was: “I don’t have herpes.” I just wanted to get it out.

  6. dwoz says:

    Isn’t this just a specific example of the larger question of whether, as a writer, you engage your reader either “acting as a window, through which the reader sees the story,” or whether you grab them and “shove them through the window?”

    The difference being whether the reader perceives the author, or the author disappears.

    Both are clearly valid techniques. But one would of necessity lead your reader to say “I KNOW the author” and the other not.

    thoughts?

    • Both are techniques, and while personality-voice-infused writing might lead readers to believe they know the writer, it’s a technique, and not necessarily the writer’s personality. But it is a way of grabbing the reader, seducing the reader.

      If the writing is autobiographical, then it might lend itself to that “knowing the writer” revelation.

      Here’s another question: Doesn’t it seem like male authors employ the personality-voice-infused writing technique more than female writers? Why?

  7. I think this is funny and problematic in regards sex, but it’s also true throughout the other aspects of an artist’s work. No matter how much imagination you through into something, people will always think there’s a lot of you in that character. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Even if you deny it, they’ll say “But you don’t realise that’s you in there…” and try and turn psychology against you.

    It’s enough to make a person wary of writing weird or evil characters.

    I think it’s pretty funny that people see a male character’s mastabatory techniques as inspired by the female author’s own personal kicks. That, perhaps, shows a certain lack of imagination on the part of the reader.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      At one point my daughter asked me, “Aren’t you worried about what people will think of you when you write this weird stuff?” (she’s never been able to finish one of her mother’s books and I don’t blame her). And I realized when she asked me that I actually had finally let go of worrying about other people. I think not caring–or at least not worrying–about the opinion of others is absolutely essential if you want to write fiction.

      • Good for you. I’m still waiting to reach that point. Every time I write a book – and often when I write an article, essay or even a damn blog post – I put it in a mental pile of “For when I stop giving a crap” stuff. I worry too much about what my parents will see, or, as a teacher, what my kids’ parents will see.

  8. Matt says:

    Man, have I struggled with this! The small fear, even when writing fiction, that the readers will assume that everything my characters do in their sex lives (kinky or otherwise) is something I as the author have experienced personally kept me from actively dealing with sex as a subject for a very long time. And I’m guilty of that as a reader myself.

    It’s an interesting point to consider, from a sociological perspective: we’re willing to except the rest of the book as fiction, so why do we insist on the sex scenes being real?

    I’m still not entirely over it. I always find myself feeling bashful while writing those scenes; I’ll write a sentence or two, realize I’m blushing furiously, and find something else to do for an hour or so. Repeat.

    Conversely, I’m perfectly comfortable talking about my actual sex life in perfect candor with an absolute stranger. Still can’t figure that one out.

  9. zoe zolbrod says:

    I guess it’s not enough to get to spy on characters, we have sex on the brain and want to project it ever outward. (As you say, it drives interesting behavior. I just read it for the interesting behavior!)

    Daphne Merkin wrote that piece about spanking in the New Yorker like ten years ago, and I read an interview with her recently where she said it’s still the first thing people ask her about when they meet her. Of course, her piece WAS nonfiction!

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      I LOVE that spanking piece. It was so honest and I really understood her compulsion. Daphne Merkin writes so well about herself.

  10. Katie — I have the same problem. The characters in my book ( straight and gay) enjoy pretty active (descriptive) sex lives. Some of my relatives are no longer speaking to me and book groups want to know how I can be so convincing writing from the viewpoint of a gay man and strangers who have read the book look at me with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. One woman actually thanked me for explaining HOW gay men have sex. I’m thinking of bringing visual aids to my next reading…..
    Great piece!

  11. Gloria says:

    Extremely well said and fascinating. You answered a lot of questions I didn’t even know I would have as I embark upon the writing of my first novel. Thank you!

  12. dwoz says:

    Part of the problem may be whether or not the erotic episodes are gratuitous?

    For example, I have some characters in my novel that are pretty much DEFINED by their sexuality, so going there is part and parcel of the character’s very structure. At that point, the assessment of gratuitous hinges on what level of detail is required/offered.

    The other part of the problem, for me: Teen daughters. I know at some point there will be a “reckoning.” I’m very conscious and apprehensive of the “ewww” factor for them.

  13. Tell me about it! Loved this, and you are dead on correct. My mother-in-law didn’t speak to me for almost 6 months after my first novel came out, for this very reason . . . and now, as my daughters are 10, I’m living in dread of them deciding to pick up some of my writing and read it–yikes!

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Well if your kids grow up to be anything like mine–who are both in college–you won’t have to worry about them reading the dark parts of your work. All I have to do is mention the fact that there’s a sex scene in any given story or book and they run for the hills. Same with my mother!

      Gina–I’m loving Slut Lullabies. It’s great.

  14. Jordan Ancel says:

    I think readers often think that writers must only be able to write about what they know, that unless it’s science fiction, or some kind of thriller, and close to reality, then it must be reality. If it’s plausible, it must be true.

    But being that it’s not, and if people are going to believe it is anyway, it’s a good cover to write about some really sick personal shi*t that is true! So it kind works out in our favor, no?

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      That is really funny and I guess it’s true. It’s a win-win.

    • dwoz says:

      But there’s a problem with that. You get bitten by the “you can’t make this shit up” rule.

      (basically, the entire genre of reality TV takes to one knee every morning and prays that the angel of “you can’t make this shit up” will bless them with a visit, at least once per episode. Unfortunately, the angel of ‘you can’t make this shit up’ is timid and demure.)

  15. Excellent post Katie. Makes me want to read your novels (and I will)!

    My characters have a lot of sex, too. It’s usually bad sex, which I find way more interesting than good sex. And much more fun to write.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Thanks Jessica. I agree with you completely about bad sex. Is there anything funnier than bad sex? I don’t think so. And then sometimes bad sex is the most heartbreaking thing in the world. Either way, bad sex is way more interesting than good sex

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