Tag Archives: Devil in Winter

Writing Good Sex: Thinking About Steamy Sex Scenes from the Standpoint of a Reader and a Writer

1 Jun

Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet by Stacia Kane (CreateSpace, January 13, 2011)

A writer who can pen hot, steamy, and emotional sex scenes – interactions that are a lot more than tab A going into slot B – always win my loyalty.

I know there are people who love sweet romance and don’t need to to see what happens in the bedroom, but for me, those bedroom scenes often say more about a relationship than the dialogue or character descriptions. Sex also strips people down (no pun intended) to their essential self with the result being that it’s often obvious that a couple is in love with one another before they get around to actually revealing that fact in words. As Stacia Kane puts it “… the fact is, the deepest truths of our characters can be found when they are naked, when they are at their most vulnerable both physically and emotionally, when they let their guards down and just interact.” (Kane, p. 125)

A sex scene – a good one – is the epitome of showing and not telling. “I’m so hot for you” is not as strong as “His hand trembled as he touched his thumb to the thudding pulse in her neck, a beat he had to taste under his tongue while he reminded himself, go slow, don’t rush this…” Just like any other writing skill, some writers are better at this than others and no matter how much of a natural you are, understanding the elements of a good sex scene that take it from “okay, they are having sex” to “my book just burst into flames and not from an ereader malfunction” is vital to success.

Why We Need Great Sex Scenes

Stacia Kane’s fantastic primer for writers is infinitely valuable to readers as well. We know that we love a certain author or a certain scene but can’t always put our finger on why. In her book, Be a Sex Writing Strumpet, Kane took a series of blog posts and organized them into densely packed book focused on understanding why sex scenes can be so vital to plot and character development, how to write them well, and exercises to help each writer understand his or her sex writing voice and comfort level. It’s pure gold for $2.99.

But your crotchety uncle and that nun who taught you in the second grade definitely don’t feel sex should be in books, which begs the question, do we really need sex scenes? Hell, yes! I think I’m going to let Stacia Kane answer:

If you can find another way to illuminate the most private acts of your characters, to demonstrate their connection, their trust, the depth of their feelings…, their desire for each other, the moment their relationship deepens and changes beyond anything they’ve been through before, while also strengthening the story, increasing tension, and adding complications, and also—let’s be honest here—giving the reader what they’ve been waiting for, and you can do all of that in one scene, then no, you don’t need the sex scene. (Kane, p. 6)

firework-79374_640That’s a lot of points in favor of the sex scene. Note she didn’t say titillation? One of the major criticisms of romance novels (and clearly plenty of books outside the genre have sex scenes but they are expected in romance) has always been the “pornographic” nature of the sex. This criticism has always seemed like total bull to me; I’ve never seen a crime or horror writer criticized for too gory a murder. Instead the critic just grimly mentions the level of violence to the reader, as if it’s a point in their favor about their writing style and that they don’t shy away from reality. But romance writers – and let’s face it, it’s because they are usually women writing for mainly other women – get the “mommy porn” thing because god forbid we should show anyone what two people engaged in a mutually satisfying, sexually healthy relationship looks like. Those soccer moms might get ideas or *gasp* expectations.

Some key points Kane touches upon for writers (and which are visible to readers) are vital for emotionally tying us to the characters. Her warning to make everyone wait (for example, the suggestion to write an amazing kissing scene that’s clearly headed you-know-where and interrupt it) builds anticipation. For writers blocked about writing sex scenes, she has the brilliant idea of writing a dialogue between your characters where they talk about their feelings – and then you turn it into a sex scene where they are showing all those emotions through their actions.

Because that’s the point, isn’t it? That our characters show their true selves via their actions (and okay, sometimes their words, when they are actually coherent having sex) and that everything – from first glance to foreplay to actual sex to the aftermath – is built around revealing their soul and their emotion for one another. Let’s take a look at my top love scenes that fit this bill.

Memorable Sex Scenes: The Mrrrrooowwww Worth Reading and Re-reading

If you’re a romance reader, there are memorable sex scenes that are so hot you can’t help but think of them as I’m writing about this topic. Naturally, the writers showcased are women who also happen to be incredibly talented at strong characterization and airtight plotting, but since I’ve seen those qualities in other writers who are terrible at writing sex scenes, I consider these ladies to be the total package. Here are my favorites and why, in no particular order.

Author: Jeaniene Frost
Book: This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress series #5)
Genre: Paranormal/Urban Fantasy
Couple: Cat & Bones
Why: I adore this series (Jeaniene Frost seems incapable of writing anything that’s not absolutely stellar) and I’m sure people familiar with it are surprised that I didn’t list the famous/infamous chapter from the second book in the series, One Foot in the Grave. I absolutely agree that half-vampire Cat Crawfield and her vampire lover/husband/former professional whore Bones is an unbearably hot combination, but that truly astonishing sex scene is brought about the presence of Bones’ former lover Annette and his need to prove to her that she’s truly the love of his heart after she lays down a challenge to him to make her blush the next morning (and she does).

But the sex scene in This Side of the Grave is one between two people who have weathered ups and downs in their relationship and are secure as a result, and it gets listed here because of one very specific reason. It’s not just the unbelieveably inventive combination of candle wax and fangs, but the fact that Cat consciously lets down her final barrier in her relationship with Bones – the fear of how devastated he would be if she lost him. That realization makes this sex scene one in which she demonstrates how she’s decided to hold nothing back by consciously constructing a night of total pleasure for him. It’s so hot and moving that I find myself alternately fanning my face and choking up whenever I reread it.

Author: Stephanie Laurens
Book: A Rogue’s Proposal (Cynster series #4)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Demon & Flick
Why: I am the first to admit that Stephanie Laurens drives me insane with her tendency for purple prose. But the earlier Cynster books, while peppered with the occasional “flotsam” reference (ocean debris = not sexy, Stephanie!), possess fewer of these references with the sex scenes  stronger as a result, none more so than Flick’s deflowering scene. It happens on a dresser in an inn. Harry, aka Demon, is the most sensual beast of all the Cynsters and – as frustrating as his inability to express his love for her is – the one place he can show her how he feels is when they are intimate with each other. It’s not surprising she feels smug looking at his ass in the mirror as he makes love to her. Who wouldn’t?

Author: Lisa Kleypas
Book: Devil in Winter (Wallflowers series #3)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Sebastian & Evie
Why: Another deflowering scene that’s a favorite and honestly one that probably didn’t stop the clock in terms of how long it took. Sexy Viscount Sebastian needs a fortune and heiress Evie is happy to give him hers in trade for letting her escape her abusive relatives but they both agree the marriage has to be legal. Not a problem for Sebastian who’s seemingly bedded all of London’s females over age 17. Exhausted from their trek to Gretna Green and quickie marriage, Evie awakes from a very sexy dream to Sebastian kissing his way all over her naked body. What makes this so unbelievably sexy? The fact that he talks to her – playful, sexy, Sebastian talk that is the essence of his charming, roguish self – until you’re a puddle listening to him bring her to ecstasy  That he has an orgasm so mind-blowing and long that he feels that he might have been the virgin? Icing on the cake.

Author: Jennifer Ashley
Book: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #1)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Ian & Beth
Why: If you have to ask, you haven’t read this book yet! Lord Ian Mackenzie is one of the more memorable and unique heroes I’ve ever read. Landing on the autism spectrum in the 19th century meant you were thought mad no matter how brilliant you are, and it’s not like the era was renowned for the tender care of people with psychological differences. When Lord Ian meets the young and beautiful widow Beth, brought up in poverty and the recent heir to a fortune, he immediately wants her while his honest candor and devastating sexuality proves more than she can resist. While I like all their sex scenes, the one that stands out is the one where Beth visits him at his brother’s art studio in Paris to apologize for being nosy (she really didn’t need to). Ian worried he would never see her again and talks her into baring herself to him. Feeling her freedom, she takes off her clothes and dances a little around the studio in happiness with a sheer scarf, which Ian uses to reel her in and proceeds to bring her to orgasm, while never removing a stitch of his clothing. That in itself is damn erotic, but it’s his utter focus on her pleasure, the sensual enjoyment he takes of every little detail of helping her reach ecstasy, that makes this scene one of my favorites.

Author: Laura Kaye
Book: Hearts in Darkness
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Couple: Makenna & Caden
Why: Laura Kaye can throw down the hot emotional sex scenes with veterans in the business and always land at the top of the pack. In this book, our two protagonists are trapped in an elevator together, in the dark, and they didn’t get a good look at each other when they got in. Getting to know one another when it’s hot and stuffy in an enclosed space doesn’t sound awesome, but it is when the two people in question have a lot to reveal and the dark makes for perfect cover. That they get hot and heavy in the elevator (and then take it to her apartment) has been done before, but not like this. The unbridled sensuality and emotion inherent in Makenna, in the pitch black, feeling the piercings and scars on Caden face and connecting them with what he’s revealed to her makes your heart beat faster.

Author: Shelly Laurenston
Book: The Mane Event (Pride #1)
Genre: Contemporary Paranormal Romance
Couple: Dez & Mace
Why: I adore Laurenston’s ability to bring her brand of earthy humor to this incredibly sexy paranormal series. Mace Llewellyn has left his elite military unit (one made up of shifters like himself) and has gone into the security business with his best friend. They’ve based themselves in New York, not just because Mace’s pride is located there, but because this lion has been head over heels in love with the husky-voiced, half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican (extremely busty) Desiree MacDermott since they began high school. He knows that she’s the one for him, and class issues and the pesky fact that he’s a shifter (and she has no idea about their existence) isn’t going to get in the way. This book makes the short list based on one particularly AMAZING scene – and let me tell you, there are plenty of sexy love scenes in this series! – where Dez handcuffs Mace to her bed and has her wicked way with him. The neighbors calling the police is a given since lions are extremely noisy while being tortured with sexual ecstasy. It’s off the hotness meter not just because of what Dez feels comfortable doing with herself in front of Mace but because he wants to prove himself to her so much that he lets her take control.

Author: Kele Moon
Book: Defying the Odds (Battered Hearts #1)
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Couple: Melody & Clay
Why: If you haven’t jumped on the Kele Moon bandwagon, I honestly don’t know what you are waiting for. This astonishingly good writer won my heart with her unlikely tale of a working class victim of domestic abuse slaving long hours as a diner waitress who finds love with a UFC fighter. I knew absolutely nothing about this kind of fighting but Kele Moon’s plotting and characterization moved her into my “must-buy the pre-order” category and she’s never let me down. Clay Powers is a disciplined athlete with a tough beginning but good friends and the way he sees through Melody Dylan’s stress and exhaustion to the beautiful woman underneath will have you sniffling. That Melody discovers she is a highly sensual being at Clay’s hands is wonderful, and the make-up sex which occurs when she travels to Las Vegas to cheer on Clay in his big bout will have you never looking at a picture window over Sin City the same way again. Yowza.

The Future of Sex Scenes in Romance

While many people are crediting the Fifty Shades phenomena or the decline of civilization, the fact remains that romance novels, unless of a specific genre (like inspirational or Amish) are becoming more explicit in their sensuality levels. What RT Book Reviews lists as a “Scorcher” now would very likely have been erotica over a decade ago and there are classic romances that were considered hair curling in their time that I flip the page back with a “that’s it?” comment, thinking I’ve missed something.

My hope is twofold. One, that the trend toward explicit sex between characters means that readers and writers are more comfortable with sex as a natural expression between people. Clearly we see more sex on television and in movies, but a lot of it is objectification, not a loving expression between individuals, so romance fits a vital need to remind us of what sex can be. Second, I believe that there are a lot of truly great authors (see my shortlist above) and publishers who want women to demand their due both as consumers of the romance genre (hell, we deserve hot sex scenes between those fictional people we’ve fallen for!) and as healthy sexual beings in the bedroom. In the end, writers who write hot, emotional sex scenes have not only demonstrated their facility as people who have mastered a craft, but as pioneers showing us all what really love can look like in its most elemental form. And I would like to say to all of them – Thank You.

What favorite sex scenes of yours fits the criteria here? I’d love to hear about them. Happy Reading! 🙂

References

Kane, Stacia (2010-07-19). Be A Sex-Writing Strumpet. Kindle Edition.

Building the Perfect Hero: A Study Using Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas

21 Nov

The perfect hero – Sebastian St. Vincent from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas (Avon, February 2006)

I recently listened to one of my downloaded RWA Conference sessions, “Building the Perfect Hero” run by authors Jenna Kernan, Susan Meier, and Debra Mullins at the 2011 conference. I was wowed by their whirlwind tour of all the details necessary to build the ideal hero (I could barely keep up when typing notes and I am a fast typist!) and I couldn’t help but think, of all the romance books I’ve read who is a perfect hero?

Since I’ve read over a thousand romance books at this point, I sifted out only the five star books in my Goodreads account, keeping the four stars in mind. One five star book was hands down my favorite – Devil in Winter, book 3 of the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas. A Victorian era historical romance, I’m not compelled to reread the series over and over (like I do with Kleypas’ Hathaway series – I have to read all five of that series two or three times a year) but it’s rare a two month period goes by without my treating myself to a hot bath and Devil in Winter. In my opinion, it’s the best romance novel. Period.

Kleypas’ Wallflower series centers on four young women – two American heiresses, one penniless British beauty and a stammering redhead with a good dowry – who have discovered they are not hot properties on England’s marriage mart. They form a close friendship, determined to help one another find a good marriage and hopefully happiness. In the book prior to Devil in Winter, the oldest American heiress has managed to marry the Earl of Westcliff, but not before being kidnapped by his former best friend, renowned rake Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent.

In the opening of Devil in Winter, Sebastian is in his comfortable London townhome nursing the bruises from the beating Westcliff gave him after kidnapping his fiancee. Sebastian needs to marry an heiress, and quickly, since his wastrel father has spent almost the entire family fortune and Sebastian is rather used to a certain level of comfort. When Evangeline Jenner, the quiet redhead wallflower, turns up on his doorstep, unaccompanied, he has no idea if she’s there to berate him for his miscalculation in snatching her friend Lillian away from her betrothed or if she’s there to proposition him.

The answer is the latter. Evangeline (Evie to her friends) has kept secret from the other wallflowers just how bad her situation is. Daughter of a well-born woman who died young and cockney gambler, she has lived her life with her mother’s family with only visits to her father, the famous Ivo Jenner, owner of a renowned gambling club. Jenner has provided Evie with a substantial dowry and would inherit his fortune upon her father’s death, but that’s not helping her prospects. While lovely, no one looks twice at her due to her shyness and stammer, both conditions which can be laid at the feet of her highly abusive relatives. After they announce she will have to marry her corpulent and cruel cousin so they can benefit from her fortune, Evie takes a gamble herself. If Lord St. Vincent was desperate enough to kidnap a woman who didn’t want him, wouldn’t he be willing to elope with one who did?

One of the possible mental images for Sebastian

Sebastian agrees, a little surprised that he, a notorious womanizer, has never noticed just how beautiful this awkward young woman is. He bundles her to Gretna Green and then returns her to Jenner’s so she can nurse her father, who is rapidly dying of consumption. The transformation he undergoes in the course of the novel as he falls in love with Evie is what makes him the ideal example for crafting the “perfect hero”.

Using the some of the structure of their workshop, I’m going to highlight why Sebastian is such a perfect hero, but let me first point out that when Kernan, Meier and Mullins use the term “perfect” they are talking about a man who can carry a romance novel on his broad, muscled shoulders (along with the heroine, naturally). He may be perfect for the heroine, but like a rough diamond, a certain amount of transformation is going to take place on his journey and that, after all, our desire to see just that is why we bought the book in the first place. Be warned, if you are unfamiliar with this classic romance, there are plenty of spoilers in this post!

Strong Description of Hero

The first part of crafting the perfect hero is giving the reader a strong description of him. While readers of the Wallflowers series have met Sebastian in the other novels, it’s important that we see him through Evie’s eyes. Sebastian is known for his physical beauty, his wit, and his womanizing, so we already have a sense of a clever but selfish man clearly willing to put his own needs before others.

She was amazed that she had managed to communicate so well with St. Vincent, who was more than a little intimidating, with his golden beauty and wintry ice-blue eyes, and a mouth made for kisses and lies. He looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise. He was also selfish and unscrupulous, which had been proved by his attempt to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee. But it had occurred to Evie that such a man would be a fitting adversary for the Maybricks…

There was nothing kind, sensitive, or remotely boyish about him. He was a predator who undoubtedly liked to toy with his prey before killing it. Staring at the empty chair where he had sat, Evie thought of how St. Vincent had looked in the firelight. He was tall and lean, his body a perfect frame for elegantly simple clothes that provided a minimum of distraction from his tawny handsomeness. His hair, the antique gold of a medieval icon, was thick and slightly curly, with streaks of pale amber caught in the rich locks…His smile itself was enough to steal the breath from one’s body…the sensuous, cynical mouth, the flash of white teeth…Oh, St. Vincent was a dazzling man. And well he knew it.

What I liked so much about the points being made in the workshop was the idea that the description of the hero needs to be richer than just a police blotter sketch of what he looks like. Using the description to incorporate backstory, speculation, attraction, perceptions, unique detail and possible conflict are ways of maximizing a physical description into something much more powerful to the reader. Jenna Kernan’s accompanying handout from the session has some terrific examples of this rich description.

Cultural Heritage

A view of 1840s British society – life would have been largely characterized by being seen at the right events

In contemporary romance, we live in an age where so many heroes and heroines come from diverse cultural and religious traditions, aspects of their culture that clue us in to their character based on how they embrace or reject these pieces of themselves. For historical romance, usually our main characters are white and well-born, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to consider their cultural heritage.

For Devil in Winter, understanding Sebastian means understanding the early Victorian culture of the time period and how it would shape his view of himself as a dissipated nobleman and also affect his view of women. As the son of Duke (and a very old dukedom at that) he would have gone to the best schools and universities, yet be raised for a life of indolence since his father was controlling and uninterested in having his intelligent son help him.

Yet for all we understand that, however distasteful to the modern mind, this profound regular waste of money in a society marked by horrible poverty at its base was accepted by the majority of citizens as simply the natural order. Noblemen were seen as wastrels and the hardworking poor led shortened lives. But Kleypas doesn’t make poor financial ability one of Sebastian’s flaws, unlike many of his ilk. Instead we are given to understand that Sebastian, while enjoying comfort, is not totally of this world of the profligate, but at the same time he’s hardly blazing a progressive trail, either. After hearing of his father’s unbelievable waste, Evie expresses her horror.

“No wonder you’re poor,” Evie said, appalled by such waste. “I hope you’re not a spendthrift as well.”

He shook his head. ‘I have yet to be accused of unreasonable financial excess. I rarely gamble, and I don’t keep a mistress. Even so, I have my share of creditors nipping at my heels.”

“Have you ever considered going into a profession?”

He gave her a blank look. “What for?”

“To earn money.”

“Lord, no, child. Work would be an inconvenient distraction from my personal life.”

Women were also divided into categories usually women you could marry (suitable, dowered, relatively class equivalent) and women you had affairs with (often from the same class, frequently married or widowed).  With no loving female relatives, Sebastian’s view of women is highly skewed as his womanizing puts him largely in the company of the type of women he can sleep with, and virgins like our heroine are very, very different.

Understanding not only the current status of Sebastian’s history and character, but more importantly the type of heritage which has formed him (and to his credit, I can’t imagine the heir to any dukedom taking up a profession) gives the reader a foundation when we watch him change as a result of his falling for Evie.

Naming Your Hero

The actual St. Vincent coat of arms from the Earl of St. Vincent (no relation)

It was interesting to hear in the workshop how authors choose the names of their hero. Names are definitely meant to evoke a visceral response in the reader and taking into account historical uses and the sound of the name (soft consonants could mean a smooth operator, shorter names with hard consonants denote men of action) is crucial.

Sebastian is derived from a Greek word, sebastos, meaning “venerable” which is turn is derived from the Greek verb sebas meaning “awe or reverence”. More tellingly regarding this Sebastian is it is also related to the Greek verb sebomai which translates as “feel awe, scruple or be ashamed”. A big piece of Sebastian’s transformation in Devil in Winter stems from his realization of how innocent Evie is in stark contrast to the debauchery he’s participated in and for which he now feels ashamed. His past gets in the way of his future when he worries he’s literally not good enough for her and the idea that he could taint her, ruining the part of her he admires the most, if he sticks around.

I think the St. Vincent part of his name (since we don’t ever read of a different surname, I’m assuming St. Vincent is both his surname and his title) certainly conjures up two reactions. First, it poses a foil for the current state of Sebastian when the reader first gets to know him. While his appearance brings a fallen angel to mind for Evie, she knows that his looks (and name) actually are the opposite of his behavior to date. Second, St. Vincent as a name hints at Sebastian’s true nature. From the start, he begins taking care of Evie and recognizing the wonderful qualities in her. Like a true saint, Sebastian is almost martyred when he literally dives in front of a bullet for Evie. It’s a very appropriate label for him.

It sounds as if many writers use resources like The New American Dictionary of Baby Nameswhich, despite its title, actually covers names from all cultures, explaining their meaning, the centuries and decades the names were popular, and any important literary references to the name. If you are looking for online resources, the Baby Name Voyager lets you put in a first name and see its rise and decline in popularity, at least from the 1880s to the present.

Family Matters

Heroes (and heroines) always bring a lot of emotional baggage as a result of their family experience, whether it be good or bad. It shapes the person they are.

Everyone brings baggage to a relationship. Sometimes it’s a little overnight bag of quirks and at other times it’s several steamer trunks worth of crappy home life and a violent adulthood, but our family and background shapes us. Even when your hero’s family is not present, they are still in your novel, since their influence for good or ill impacts how your hero will behave and react to events and people.

On their hellish drive to Gretna Green, Evie and Sebastian talk a little about themselves and their backgrounds, both as a way to pass the time (like soldiers in foxholes bound together by discomfort) and to know each other better since they are marrying. When she asks him if he has any family, he tells her his mother died when he was an infant, leaving him with his four doting older sisters. But all that love drastically changed when he was a child and he lost three of his siblings to scarlet fever – as the male heir he was sent to safety. His eldest sister married but she died in labor as well, leaving him with no one but an emotionally distant, spendthrift father.

Evie was very still during the matter-of-fact recitation, forcing herself to remain relaxed against him. But inside she felt a stirring of pity for the little boy he had been. A mother and four doting sisters, all vanishing from his life. It would have been difficult for any adult to comprehend such loss, much less a child.

It’s Evie’s understanding of this pain in his background – she’s a keen observer and an astute reader of character throughout the books in which she appears – that allows her to push through the walls he desperately tries to erect toward the end of the book when he is overwhelmed with feeling for her. After almost losing her again, he decides to send her away, on the surface for her “safety” even though the threat is removed, but in reality because he can’t handle his emotions or even put a name on them.

…He broke off and stared at her incredulously. “Damn it, Evie, what is there for you to smile about?”

“Nothing,” she said, hastily tucking the sudden smile into the corners of her mouth. “It’s just…it sounds as if you are trying to say that you love me.”

The word seem to shock Sebastian. “No,” he said forcefully, his color rising. “I don’t. I can’t. That’s not what I’m talking about. I just need to find a way to -” He broke off and inhaled sharply as she came to him. “Evie, no.” A shiver ran through him as she reached up to the sides of his face, her fingers gentle on his skin. “It’s not what you think,” he said unsteadily. She heard the trace of fear in his voice. The fear that a small boy must have felt when every woman he loved disappeared from his life, swept away by a merciless fever. She didn’t know how to reassure him, or how to console his long-ago grief. Raising on her toes, she sought his mouth with her own. His hands came to her elbows, as if to push her away, but he couldn’t seem to make himself do it. His breath was rapid and hot as he turned his face away. Undeterred, she kissed his cheek, his jaw, his throat. A low curse escaped him. “Damn you,” he said desperately, “I’ve got to send you away.”

Of course, he doesn’t and in fact Evie reassures him that the unsettling new feelings surging through him are not only natural but that he will adjust to them in time. As with so many crisis moments in romance novels, fear motivates a character to make a drastic decision, in the hope that they’ll avoid pain. Half the time the character isn’t even fully thinking through the situation. In Sebastian’s case he thinks that by sending Evie away, he’ll both keep her safe and have time to get a handle on his feelings. I think he would have lasted a whole hour without her before ordering his carriage!

Moral of the story: always consider what the family of the hero has given him and, in most cases, how it relates to his internal conflict (which is a whole separate section below).

Flaws

I gather from the knowing murmurs of the crowd at the RWA workshop and from the statements of the authors themselves, editors will often ask for a character’s “fatal flaw”. It seems like writers don’t seem to prefer that term (and it does sound like a terminal disease diagnosis, so I can’t blame them) but understanding the flaws of a character, and more importantly comprehending how to use those flaws in the course of a story, is the mark of a good writer.

What is a flaw, then? A flaw is a trait unique to your character that can be perceived as negative. Habits, attitude, or even physical imperfections all constitute areas for possible flaws. These details help people relate to the character which makes the story compelling, and a compelling story keeps readers coming back. (And as an aside, the speaker mentioned that stories must possess four qualities: they must be interesting, compelling, credible and consistent. I agree. Usually when I get cranky at a book, one or more of these pieces are missing.)

According to our experts, flaws play a few key roles in a story. Let’s take Sebastian as an example, specifically the flaw that he seems to be by his very nature, selfish. This is even acknowledged by the other characters in the book, like when Evie’s friend Lillian comforts Evie that Sebastian will not die of his wounds. “‘He’s not going to die you know. It’s only nice, saintly people who suffer untimely deaths.’ She gave a quiet laugh. ‘Whereas selfish bastards like St. Vincent live to torment other people for decades.'” But Sebastian’s selfishness plays a key role, one that I don’t think could have been fulfilled by different kind of flaw.

  • The flaw needs to fit in the story. Considering the fact that this is a story of a selfish man transformed by love, it’s a great fit.
  • Make your character empathetic but not perfect. Selfishness is often a developmental stage and the argument can be made that his age, his financial circumstances, his lack of responsibility and the absence of anyone who loved him all gave Sebastian a rather extended adolescence. The sudden acquisition of a business and a lovely wife who depends on him to live up to her expectations are all bound to challenge his selfish flaw.
  • What purpose will the flaw serve? Sebastian’s selfishness forms a clever barometer of his level of transformation (see the transformation section below for more information on this key factor in a perfect hero). He relapses here and there, but for the most part is faced with one situation after another in which he must choose to put his own comfort and needs behind that of others, thus eroding his selfishness and beginning his transformation.

The key piece to remember about flaws is that a hero shouldn’t possess a flaw that doesn’t in some way contribute to the story. Like everything, valuable word space is not to be squandered and detailing a flaw is no exception.

Internal Conflict

The hero’s sudden realization that his core belief is actually incorrect is a lot like the coyote having an anvil fall on his head. It’s painful and often requires recovery time.

Meier, Kernan and Mullins make the point in their workshop that all internal conflict arises from what they term “an incorrect core belief” the character has regarding themselves. This was utterly fascinating to me, since I hadn’t really spent any serious brain time contemplating core beliefs as they relate to characters, but obviously it is a great way to go more in depth with characterization.

A core belief is a broad and general conclusion people form based on life experience. Basically everything people do is for the express purpose of avoiding pain and creating pleasure. In thinking about Sebastian’s previous history of womanizing, it’s obvious that, in taking into account his personal history of losing his mother and four sisters, his core belief regarding women is that 1) women are designed to give him attention and 2) women don’t stay. These key points would make it a logical behavioral choice to sleep with plenty of women who are admiring you for your beauty and the great sexual reputation you have and then leave them before they can leave you. Core beliefs rule behavior.

However, most people have an incorrect core belief and these are core beliefs where the conclusion is not based on fact but instead often relate to shame or lack of trust (in self, in others, in life in general, you name it). Certainly Sebastian’s internal conflict centers on his understanding of his nature, which he feels is that of a totally debauched nobleman unsuited for life with Evie. You could say his incorrect core belief is that he doesn’t feel he can be trusted with anything innocent because prolonged contact will sully that which he most admires. His belief is delivered in the novel under various guises and with his characteristic wit, as evidenced by his reaction when Evie stubbornly refuses to move to Sebastian’s nearby townhome and instead insists on staying in the gambling club to nurse her dying father around the clock.

“I was afraid you might say that,” he replied dryly. “It’s a mistake, you know. You have no idea of what you’ll be exposed to…the obscenities and lewd comments, the lecherous gazes, the groping and pinching…and that’s just at my house. Imagine what it would be like here.”

While in the midst of attempting to prove himself to Evie, Sebastian even ponders how his very past would corrupt her, preventing him from having any real relationship.

He was in a peculiar state, struggling to understand himself. He had always been so adept at handling women. Why then, had it become impossible to remain detached where Evie was concerned? He was separated from what he wanted most, not by real distance but by a past tainted with debauchery. To let himself have a relationship with her…no, it was impossible. His own iniquity would saturate her like dark ink spreading over pristine white parchment, until every inch of clean space was obliterated. She would become cynical, bitter…and as she came to know him, she would despise him.

The fact that this supposition is incorrect is even reinforced by other characters who see the truth. While awaiting her husband and Cam, Lillian tells Evie that Westcliff believes Sebastian to be in love with Evie, a fact which startles her and gives her hope. When she asks why the Earl thinks this, Lillian answers.

“…Westcliff sees an odd sort of logic in why you would finally be the one to win St. Vincent’s heart. He says a girl like you would appeal to…hmm, how did he put it?…I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like…you would appeal to St. Vincent’s deepest, most secret fantasy.”

Evie felt her cheeks flushing while a skirmish of pain and hope took place in the tired confines of her chest. She tried to respond sardonically. “I should think his fantasy is to consort with as many women as possible.”

A grin crossed Lillian’s lips. “Dear, that is not St. Vincent’s fantasy, it’s his reality. And you’re probably the first sweet, decent girl he’s ever had anything to do with.”

Every editor wants to see characters grow, and having them correct an incorrect core belief is the easiest way to satisfy this need in a story. It doesn’t happen overnight, but instead it’s a gradual change with a satisfying ending. It begins with awareness “What if I’m wrong?”  The hero starts to watch for times when he’s wrong, begins experimenting with the veracity of his belief, and then finally undergoes the realization that he’s wrong. By using the idea of correcting the incorrect core belief, we can see how internal conflict leads right into breaking character or “the big transformation.”

Breaking Character or the Big Transformation

A phoenix rising from the ashes is a decent metaphor for a character’s transformation.

Our workshop authors tell us that “Donald Maass calls this the BIG TRANSFORMATION, not just character growth but the moment when the character is changed forever and will never be able to go back to who and what they were before. He calls this: ‘deep-down, soul-shaking, irreversible transformation for good and always.'” The easiest way to demonstrate this change is to show the hero putting someone else’s needs above his own. Despite the constant reminder, usually from Sebastian himself, that he is self-centered, evidence begins to pile up throughout the novel to the contrary.

The early flashes of kindness are the first clue that there is more to Sebastian than merely being a selfish womanizer and Evie sees this when she is taking stock of her fiancee’s character on the hellish ride to Gretna Green.

As the journey continued in a companionable vein, Evie was aware of a contradictory mixture of feelings toward her husband. Although he possessed a large measure of charm, she found little in him that was worthy of respect. It was obvious that he had a keen mind, but it was employed for no good purpose. Furthermore, the knowledge that he had kidnapped Lillian and betrayed his own best friend in the bargain, made it clear he was not to be trusted. However…he was capable of an occasional cavalier kindness that she appreciated.

After they arrive back in London as a married couple, they proceed straight to Jenner’s so Evie can see her father. Sebastian almost instantly begins to evince a strong interest in the gambling club he and Evie are about to inherit. For a man of his dubious personal background, a gambling club is all-too-familiar territory and he has a strong knowledge base. But having declared to Evie his abhorrence at anything resembling work, she’s surprised at his demeanor.

“I’m going to go over every inch of this place. I’m going to know all it’s secrets.”

Taken aback by the statement, Evie gave him a perplexed glance. She realized that subtle changes had taken place in him from the moment they had entered the club…she was at a loss to account for the strange reaction. His customary languid manner had been replaced by a new alertness, as if he were absorbing the restless energy of the club’s atmosphere.

The only thing that Sebastian is more interested in than the club is Evie, who is still refusing to sleep with him out of self-preservation. His obsession with Evie rapidly becomes apparent to others. Cam Rohan (future hero of the first novel in the Hathaway series, Mine Till Midnight) works in the club, having been friends with Evie since she was a child. Sebastian is jealous of their comfortable relationship and warns Cam to stay away from his wife, a wife he has said he has little interest in, despite evidence to the contrary. Cam observes:

There it was – a flash of warning in St. Vincent’s ice-blue eyes that revealed a depth of feeling he would not admit to. Cam had never seen anything like the mute longing that St. Vincent felt for his own wife. No one could fail to observe that whenever Evie entered the room, St. Vincent practically vibrated like a tuning fork.

His obsession with Evie reaches a crescendo when, after some passionate kissing, Sebastian asks her why she won’t sleep with him when it’s obvious she desires him. She lets him know that she has too much self-respect to become one of a stable of women who he sleeps with.

“All right,” Sebastian said huskily. “I agree to your terms. I’ll be…monogamous.” He seemed to have a bit of difficulty with the last word, as if he were trying to speak a foreign language.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Good God, Evie! Do you know how many women have tried to obtain such a promise from me? And now, the first time I’m willing to take a stab at fidelity, you throw it back in my face. I admit that I’ve had a prolific history with women -”

“Promiscuous,” Evie corrected.

He gave an impatient snort. “Promiscuous, debauched – whatever you want to call it. I’ve had a hell of a good time, and I’ll be damned if I say I’m sorry for it. I’ve never bedded an unwilling woman. Nor, to my knowledge, did I leave anyone unsatisfied.”

“I don’t blame you for your past…or, at least…I’m not trying to punish you for it.” Ignoring his skeptical snort, she continued, “But it doesn’t make you an especially good candidate for fidelity, does it?”

His tone was surly as he replied. “What do you want of me? An apology for being a man? A vow of celibacy until you’ve decided that I’m worthy of your favors?”

Struck by the question, Evie stared at him.

Women had always come far too easily to Sebastian. If she made him wait for her, would he lose interest? Or was it just possible that they might come to know each other, understand each other, in an entirely new way? She longed to find out if he could come to value her in ways beyond the physical. She wanted the chance to be something more than a mere bed partner to him.

“Sebastian…” she asked carefully, “have you ever made a sacrifice for a woman?”

He looked like sullen angel as he turned to face her, leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, one knee slightly bent. “What kind of sacrifice?”

That drew a wry glance from her. “Any kind at all.”

“No.”

“What is the longest period of time you’ve ever gone without…without…” She floundered for an acceptable phrase. “…making love?”

“I never call it that,” he said. “Love has nothing to do with it.”

“How long?” she persisted.

“A month, perhaps.”

She though for a moment. “Then…if you would forswear intercourse with all women for six months…I would sleep with you afterward.”

Six months?” Sebastian’s eyes widened, and he threw her a scornful glance. “Sweetheart, what give you the idea that you’re worth a half-year of celibacy?”

“I may not be,” Evie said. “You’re the only one who can answer that.”

It was obvious that Sebastian would have loved to have informed her that she wasn’t worth waiting for. However, as his gaze traveled over her from head to toe, Evie saw the unmistakeable glow of lust in his eyes. He wanted her badly.

“It’s impossible,” he snapped.

“Why?”

“Because I’m Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I can’t be celibate. Everyone knows that.”

He was so arrogant, and so indignant, that Evie suddenly had to gnaw on the insides of her lips to keep from laughing. She struggled to master her amusement, and finally managed to say calmly, “Surely it wouldn’t harm you to try.”

“Oh, yes it would!” His jaw hardened as he labored to explain. “You’re too inexperienced to understand, but…some men are possessed of a far greater sex drive than others. I happen to be one of them. I can’t go for long periods of time without -” He broke off impatiently when he saw her expression. “Damn it, Evie, it’s unhealthy for a man to not release his seed regularly.”

“Three months,” she said, “and that’s my final offer.”

“No!”

“Then go find another woman,” she said flatly.

“I want you. Only you. The devil knows why.”

But in the end he agrees. So astonishing is this promise that when Evie tries to convince her friend Annabelle (the heroine of the first Wallflowers novel) how Sebastian is changing by trying to be celibate, Annabelle almost has a heart attack and exclaims, “Good God. I don’t believe St. Vincent and the word ‘celibacy’ have ever been mentioned in the same sentence before.”

Evie’s idea works amazingly well, with both of them spending time together refurbishing and running the club. He continues to kiss her (and in some very provocative places) but they don’t have sex. After Sebastian takes a bullet for Evie while protecting her from a deranged assailant, he realizes that he in all likelihood won’t survive the infection that’s bound to set in. Lord Westcliff, his former best friend, had come to see that Evie was all right and to offer to take her home to live with him, but is able to see just from Sebastian’s demeanor that he has strong feelings for Evie. Returning to help combat the fever, Westcliff has the unique experience of Sebastian begging for protection for Evie, and apologizing to Westcliff for kidnapping Lillian. This uncharacteristic behavior prompts the following reflection from the Earl’s perspective.

To receive an apology from a man who had never expressed a single regret about anything, and then to hear him practically beg for his wife’s protection, led to an inescapable conclusion. St. Vincent had, against all odds, learned to care more for someone else than he did for himself.

In caring for Sebastian as he thankfully recovers from his infection, Evie begins to provoke both admiration and fear in Sebastian. He is moved by her tenderness and desires her presence all the time but finds himself overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings for her.

He hadn’t comprehended her strength before now. Even when he had seen the loving care she had given her father, he hadn’t guessed what it would be like to rely on her, to need her. But nothing repelled her, nothing was too much to ask. She was his support, his shield…and at the same time she undermined him with a tender affection that he had begun to crave even as he shrank from it.

Even after Sebastian is up and about, a second attack on Evie causes him to feel that it’s too risky for him to love her. Luckily it’s transparent to her what is happening and she’s accumulated enough confidence at this point to speak her mind and gently demand what she needs from her scared husband.

“You’re not trying to protect me. You’re trying to protect yourself.” She hugged herself to him tightly. “But you can force yourself to take the risk of loving someone, can’t you?”

“No,” he whispered.

“Yes. You must.” Evie closed her eyes and pressed her face against his. “Because I love you, Sebastian…and I need you to love me back. And not in h-half measures.”

She heard his breath hiss through his teeth. His hands came to her shoulders, then snatched back. “You’ll have to let me set my own limits, or -”

Evie reached his mouth and kissed him slowly, deliberately until he succumbed with a groan, his arms clamping around her. He answered her kiss desperately, until every part of her had been set alight with tender fire. He took his mouth from hers, gasping savagely. “Half measure. My God. I love you so much that I’m drowning in it. I can’t defend against it. I don’t know who I am anymore. All I know is that if I give in to it entirely -” He tried to control the anarchy of his breath. “You mean too much to me,” he said raggedly.

In the end, the real resolution of Sebastian’s big transformation comes when he finally understands that Evie knows him and loves him for himself, understanding every sordid thing he’s done in the past, and she is still the same wonderful, innocent person he first fell in love with, unchanged by this intimate knowledge..

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sebastian interrupted roughly. “Your stammer would never bother me. And I love your freckles. I love -” His voice cracked. He clutched her tightly. “Hell,” he muttered. And then, after a moment, with bitter vehemence, “I wish I were anyone other than me.”

“Why?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Why? My past is a cesspool, Evie.”

“That’s hardly news.”

“I can’t ever atone for the things I’ve done. Christ, I wish I had it to do over again! I would try to be a better man for you. I would -”

“You don’t have to be anything other than what you are.” Lifting her head, Evie stared at him through the radiant shimmer of her tears. “Isn’t that what you told me earlier? If you can love me without conditions, Sebastian, can’t I love you the same way? I know who you are. I think we know each other better than we know ourselves. Don’t you dare send me away, you c-coward. Who else would love my freckles? Who else would care that my feet were cold? Who else would ravish me in the billiards room?”

Slowly his resistance ebbed. She felt the change in his body, the relaxing of tension, his shoulders curving around her as if he could draw her into himself. Murmuring her name, he brought her hand to his face and nuzzled ardently into her palm, his lips brushing the warm circlet of her gold wedding band. “My love is upon you,” he whispered..and she knew then that she had won.

You can see from these excerpts how Kleypas manages to do it all. She shows the minimization of Sebastian’s flaw of selfishness, resolves his internal conflict by correcting his incorrect core belief that he would somehow corrupt Evie and alter her personality, while simultaneously completing the transformation he began in the first chapter. It’s a masterful piece of writing and characterization. Jenna Kernan also has a great handout on some of the key features of this big transformation (along with other terrific examples of transformation) that would be of great use to anyone working on their own perfect hero.

Since the tagline of Tori Macallister is “because in love we discover our best self” I’m naturally a huge fan of the big transformation. I firmly believe that strong, true, unselfish love for another person is the crucible that can strip away our worst qualities and transform us into a better person. Lisa Kleypas, by creating the immortal character of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, gives us literally a textbook example of creating a perfect hero. As a final note, I thought I’d leave you with a list of the other perfect (or damn close to it by these criteria) heroes I can read over and over again.

Perfect Heroes I Never, Ever Tire Of:

  1. Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas
  2. Cam Rohan, from Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas
  3. Leo Hathaway, from Married by Morning (Hathaways #4) by Lisa Kleypas
  4. Bones, from Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
  5. Simon Cynster, from The Perfect Lover (Cynster #10) by Stephanie Laurens
  6. Alasdair “Lucifer” Cynster, from All About Love (Cynster #6) by Stephanie Laurens
  7. Sylvester “Devil” Cynster, from Devil’s Bride (Cynster #1) by Stephanie Laurens
  8. Cameron Mackenzie, from The Many Sins of Lord Cameron (Highland Pleasures #3) by Jennifer Ashley
  9. Ian Mackenzie, from The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #1) by Jennifer Ashley
  10. Lucas Hunter, from Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh
  11. Nicholas St. John, from Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord (Love by the Numbers #2) by Sarah Maclean
  12. Douglas Kowalski, from Midnight Angel (Midnight #3) by Lisa Marie Rice
  13. Dimitri Belikov, from Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead

Enjoy your perfect hero, whoever he is, whether reading about him or creating him from the ground up. Just like the heroine who believes in him, he’s worth all the hard work to see him become a better, wiser person in love.

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