Tag Archives: Love

Struggling to Define Love

A guest post by Stephan McLeroy.

Acid bubbled in my gut as I stared down at Jamie from the front door of my double-wide.

“Pat, come on, just let me in, just for a second.”

I took hold of the screen door’s aluminum frame and gripped it for support. The urge to look away so I could think through things for a moment itched at my eyes. But I didn’t. Jamie’d seen through my bullshit yesterday. Now I had to at least seem resolute as I made my choice: would I let us be together, or would I keep running the safe play.

“Damnit, Jamie, why can’t you just cut your losses and get the hell outta town.” I said, my voice stumbling over every syllable.

Jamie moved up onto the first step below the screen door. The rubber of Converse high-tops scraped against the sandpaper laminate, shaving away the edges of composure. Bright eyes, the color of pool table felt, stared at me with an understanding that called my bluff.

“Pat, come on, this isn’t cards here, I’m tryin’ to show you that you can have something better, something real, and I’m willing to work through all that baggage you got, but you haveta stop pushin’ me away.”

Without warning, I felt my sinuses tighten up, and fluid fill my eyes. I started to close the screen door, but Jamie had mounted the second step. Long, rough fingers slid over my hand and I felt my tight grip on the aluminum melt to butter. I tried to inhale, ready to make some excuse neither of us wanted to hear, but the air caught in my mouth as Jamie pressed against me. A river flowed through me, washing away the fear, the doubt, crashing through the calloused sphere I’d worked around myself. I’d loved and lost, loved and been hurt, but all of a sudden, with Jamie’s soft lips pressed against mine, it all didn’t matter anymore.


Whew! I hope that was as fun for you to read as it was for me to write. Love is fantastic isn’t it? For me, I’ve always been keenly interested in the subject. It’s incredibly challenging to try and define love for others, but the task is extremely important when writing love relationships between characters. When it comes to love, however, there is one thing you can always count on: Everyone’s version is unique.

Let’s go back to the little scene I wrote above. You might have noticed I kept the two characters gender neutral. For fun, I let three friends read the scene and then asked them two things. First, I asked them what gender the two characters were. As you might have guessed, the genders of the characters changed with the gender of the friend being asked. Then I asked them to describe Pat’s relationship with love prior to the events of the scene. All three agreed that Pat, whether they were male or female, had been hurt and, as a result, had developed a fear-based relationship with love.

Now, don’t get me wrong, gender is a major source for experiences we utilize while building our individual definition of love. We use experiences to decide what we associate with love. For some that love feeling could come from a sense of security, for others, it’s centered on unconditional trust. Then you have other people who associate love with something specific like height or weight or how obsessed the person is with the band Gwar. A definition of love for any given person can be associated with almost anything. This can create great differences between two love definitions, but it can also allow for some similarities as well. We empathize with friends and connect with stories of love gained and lost because the love definitions we encounter resemble ours. However, at some point, deep down, these definitions will all diverge from your own.

Okay, let’s get back to your characters. As with real people, each of your characters will have been formed by their unique experiences; their current and former relationships create the patterns for how they love someone. With this in mind, you’re going to have to define love for them. Then the problems arise: how do we define someone else’s love without having lived through every single moment in their lives that could have affected their love definition? Ah, the glorious struggle of character development. I’ve found that dealing with this problem is often quite similar to dealing with other character development issues. For each writer it might be different, for me, however, it came back to that idea of people with similar life experiences. Who do I know that would be able to empathize with a character I have no shared experiences with?

To answer this question, I revisited some of my favorite fiction for characters I felt would have connected in the ways I was struggling to define. Not for a mirror but for a frame of reference. More importantly, I began talking to the people around me. At first, my intentions were to go about this wholesale; I intentionally went to people who either grew up in extremely different cultural environments or had very different love relationships from myself. I found that having these conversations expanded my view of what could mold love into definitions completely different than mine. Although I couldn’t experience the feelings associated with those different kinds of love, I could at least begin to see how my characters could begin to form their own love definition.

Love is a tricky thing to nail down in the real world and in fiction. Your definition will be different than anyone else’s, including your characters. If you choose to speak with other people about defining love, consider how the elements of their experiences could help to frame the ways in which your characters love. By reaching outside your own personal frame of reference, you can, in a way, ‘experience’ many definitions of love; perhaps foreign to you, but perfect for your character.

Stephan McLeroy is a historical urban fantasy writer based out of the San Francisco Bay area. He is currently working on a new novel, The Adventures of Lockwood and Blackfox. If you’d like to hear more of his thoughts on things like writing and Elder Fashion Cocktails, check out his blog:http://stephanmcleroy.com/

The Monster Mash: Writing Sex Scenes, Part Two

A guest post by Joshua Essoe.

In part one we talked about if you should go all the way, how to decide, creating tension in all the right places, and what position you should take. Tonally speaking.

Today, let’s get into some specifics of when you’re trying to verb the adjective noun.

Your characters should inform everything that takes place between them. Who are they? Are they gregarious and shameless? Well then, yeah, a character like that might just throw their clothes off, give strip teases for the thrill of it, and view kisses as fun but meaningless.

Is your character shy? Well that character is very unlikely to just throw their clothes off or have sex in a changing room. Maybe they want the light turned off first, maybe they kiss tentatively, and slowly, maybe they need their partner to undress first.

And let’s not forget about laying down complications, hiking up tension, and stroking inner conflict. Maybe your character feigns confidence and it gets tested terribly when things heat up. Maybe they’re worried about some perceived physical defect. Maybe the character is married or committed to someone else–what kind of inner conflict would that engender? How would that other relationship inform their choices in the romance with someone else? Are they in love with two people at once?

Let’s get deeper into the question of how far you should push.

Just like any other scene, you focus on what you want your readers to focus on. And that is what your specific character would be focused on. What does your viewpoint character find attractive and sexy about the character they are with? Both physically and in their personality, their movements, their smell, the sounds they make. Maybe that shameless character is turned on by having everything articulated. That character definitely likes the dirty dirty. Maybe that shy character is focused on the eyes and minute facial expressions. Use all the senses. What is going to make it interesting and unique are the specific details you use. The more specific and narrow you make your focus, the sexier the scene will be. And yes, sometimes that means you’ll be writing about what parts go where and what that feels like.

The way you inform your readers of that, what words you use, will depend on your characters, the tone of the story, and how you’ve set it up. There should always be some words on your Do Not Fly list. Let me suggest a few:

  • Turgid, adj
  • Purple, adj/noun
  • Fleshy, adj
  • Wrinkled, verb (If this is an adjective, then please don’t send me this MS.)
  • Pert, adj
  • Moist, adj

These are not sexy words. Even penis. Penis is not a sexy word. They accurately describe something, sure, but analytically relating what a thing is, or what a thing does, does not sexy make. Likewise, be careful with the placement of your sexy words because it will be hard, err, difficult to keep from using them over and over. Keep track of those little buggers or everything is going to end up wet, or hard . . . or turgid.

But, like everything else in writing, it is a careful balancing act. Just like any other action scene, don’t go overboard with your descriptions or you’ll bog down your prose, and kill your pacing and interest. When I say focus in and use specific details I don’t mean that you should describe every single movement or action taking place. You can leave some things to your readers’ imaginations. They’ll fill in the blanks.

Be aware of the tropes. There are a lot out there, but here are some common ones:

  1. The woman or man is unattainably attractive.
  2. She has an apparent willingness to have sex with the male protagonist, usually as a means of manipulating him.
  3. The female character is duplicitous, and either secretly evil or forced to act that way for some reason.
  4. Rape. I can’t tell you how tired women, in particular, are of reading rape used as a tool to garner sympathy, or stoke conflict. But that is a separate article.

One final note. It’s worth talking about the actual, physical writing of these kinds of scenes. I heartily recommend your local Starbucks if you want the dude with the Beats by Dre, the man in the pinstriped shirt, and the cute, spikey-haired girl sneaking stares as your face flushes, your breath quickens, and you start to sweat. Just please keep your hands on your keyboard at all times.

Or maybe you should plan to write these things in private. And then you can let your hands do whatever they gotta do.

Wherever you chose to write your dive in the dark, don’t stop, once you start. Going halfway into the scene, then pulling out for a break kills your own tension and takes you out of the flow. It would be like texting with your buddy while you’re bed-pressing with your partner. Just like in real life you want the process to go smoothly without interruption. Write the whole scene in one ecstatic burst. Do not go back to read what you’ve written. Do not count how many times you’ve used the words “moist,” and “pert.” It doesn’t matter, don’t break your rhythm.

That means do not stop to edit yourself! The scene might suck, but that does not matter, just like any first draft, you’ll have your chance to go back and massage it into splendor later.

If you’ve never written a sex scene, and maybe even if you have, you may feel embarrassed, or even scared enough that you can only manage a tag to yourself, “put the sex stuff here.” For those of you that this applies to, take heart. You don’t have to view writing sex and romance as writing a sex scene or writing erotica. You’re just writing a scene. That’s it. You’ll do great. Let your characters guide you, listen to them, just as you would with any other scene, and write.

Joshua EssoeAbout Joshua Essoe:

Joshua Essoe is a full-time, freelance editor. He’s done work for best-seller David Farland, including the multi-award winning novel, Nightingale; Dean Lorey, lead writer of Arrested Development; best-seller, James Artimus Owen; and numerous Writers of the Future authors and winners, as well as many top-notch independents. He is currently the copy editor at Urban Fantasy Magazine.

Together with tie-in writer Jordan Ellinger, indie success-story, Michael J. Sullivan, and traditionally published author and NY Times best-seller, Debbie Viguie, he records the weekly writing podcast Hide and Create

When not editing . . . ha ha, a joke. He was a 2014 finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and lives with his wife, and three horrible cats near UCLA.

All You Need Is Love

Love doesn’t always mean romance.

Let me say it again.

Love does not only mean romance.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like the way so many movies and books portrayed romantic love as the ideal be-all and end-all of human existence.  I wasn’t interested in romantic love; if anything, I was kind of disgusted by it.  I remember feeling disappointed that there were so few heroines who would turn down romantic love in favour of remaining free and unattached, able to take off on another exiting adventure with no need to give notice to a boyfriend or husband.  I remember the medieval festival in school, where I was the only girl who chose to be a knight instead of a princess (even though everyone was given the choice between knight and royal), and how I wanted nothing to do with the passive role where traditional romance made the woman into a prize to be won.

I decided that I was going to tell stories about characters I wanted to be.  Stories without mushy stuff.  Stories without love.

Only that wasn’t what actually happened.

As it turned out, my characters did experience love, even if they weren’t big on romance.  Most of them had friends.  Some of them had children, adopted or biological.  Some of them cared for parents or grandparents or other family members.  The most devoted warrior cared for her comrades and her country.  The most daring adventurer cherished her belief in knowledge and discovery, and risked her life for that belief.  The most dashing pilot loved his aircraft like a child.  These characters might not have experienced romantic love, but they felt love all the same.

A character who doesn’t love anything or anyone rarely cares about anything.  Love is the strongest form of caring that there is, and strong emotions mean high stakes and dramatic potential.  Who wants to read about a character who feels no passion, experiences no attachment, has nothing to lose, and can’t summon any feelings about it?  An utterly apathetic character is hard for readers to be interested in, because if the character himself cares about nothing, why should we care about him?

So let your characters love.  Let them develop friendships.  Let them have families, if the story allows for it.  Let them care passionately about a cause.  Let them believe in something:  a goal, a religion, a duty, another person.

What happens when a character is torn between two things they love?  This need not be a romantic love triangle.  What if a character has to choose between tending a sick relative and following their dreams?  Between their religion and their new friends?  Between their two children?  Between serving their country and raising their family?  These conflicts can create all kinds of tension without involving romance.

Sometimes I think it’s a little ironic that I’ve actually written some romance stories.  But even when I’m writing romantic elements in stories, I try to stay away from that old, abhorred idea that “falling in love” meant a heroine giving up her life of adventure for the sake of a man.

Sometimes romantic love means a bittersweet annual liason between a pacifist doctor and a female revolutionary.

Sometimes romantic love means the dashing gentleman pilot and the young man who fixes his airplane falling in love with one another.

Sometimes romantic love means sacrificing everything to save your partner…and failing, and your story is about what you do after that.

Sometimes romantic love means a turncoat and a pirate setting off together to found a new colony in the depths of uncharted space.

Romantic love is appealing to many readers.  It’s also an important part of many people’s lives.  These are only two reasons why so many stories contain romantic elements, and why romance as a genre is so successful.

I also, though, want to remember the readers who have been burned by romantic love, and want a story about a character who picks himself up and learns to live again.  I want to remember the readers who don’t experience romantic attraction and who are looking for characters who represent them and speak to them.  I want to remember the readers who, like me, are tired of forumlas and stereotypes and narrow definitions of what romance can (and by implication, should) be.

So let your characters love.  Let them love strongly and deeply:  family, friends, hobbies, careers, beliefs, and ideas.  Let the things they love create conflict for them.  If they experience romantic love, let it be as challenging and complex as any other form of human attachment.

Let love in fiction represent the multi-faceted presence of love in real people’s lives.








Can the Science of Love Explain Love’s Murky Middle?


Love has a murky middle? Of course! It’s the part that happens after the first euphoria of new love and before contentment or divorce. It’s the part people ask about, “What’s your secret to a long and happy marriage?” or “How did it end this way?”

It’s the no-man’s land of relationships and in a novel it’s the murky no-man’s land of plot and character development. The stages of love are just as complex, with 3, 5, 7, 9 or 10 stages depending on who you read. Then there is the life stages perspective (adolescence, young adult, family, etc.).

What’s a writer to do? I mean, you want to make the love relationships genuine and not everyone can be at the same point or have the same experience at any given stage. The answer is to be aware of the stages, put each character in a stage and then mix it up with life’s curve balls.

There are many sources and websites on all these topics, but here’s a quick run-down.

There are three stages (source here) in which our hormones affect how we react.
1. Lust – gets you out looking for a mate. Testosterone and estrogen levels are high.
2. Attraction – the ‘love struck’ phase. High levels of hormones influence how we act during this stage. Surging levels of dopamine has the same effect as taking cocaine by triggering an intense rush of pleasure. There is less need for sleep or food, increased energy and the rose colored glasses which make every detail a delight. Adrenaline rushes make you sweat, your heart race and your mouth go dry. Increased serotonin keeps the new lover popping into your head. This is the love sick stage. The rejection of love however, can have disastrous consequences too such as depression.
3. Attachment – Vasopressin and oxytocin are hormones released after sex and helps keep people together for long term commitments. Serotonin keeps those warm and fuzzy feelings necessary for long term relationships.

Other factors, some of which are triggered by other hormones, affect how we fall in love and choose a mate. There are physical features such as face shape, height, voice timbre, as well as emotional stability, smarts, status and friendliness. Add to that body language, smell (love those pheromones!), touch and even taste (kissing). These are present in all stages from falling in love to being in love.

From a psychological perspective, there are nine stages of love. For more information, read here.
1. infatuation
2. understanding
3. disturbances
4. the opinion maker
5. the moulding stage
6. the happy stage
7. doubts
8. when sex life plays a pivotal role
9. complete trust

As a story teller, it’s important to know what the stages of love are because that allows us to add details to make the situation authentic and allows the reader to relate to the character. Mix it up with background experiences that affect the failure or success, add her determination to fail or succeed and you’ve created scenarios for us to sympathize with, be repulsed by, or even laugh at.

Choose your character’s stage of love and an aspect of that stage and use it to show us who she is and how she perceives her current situation. Do you remember falling in love and noticing how good that person smelled, how it excited you?  Then when you lived together and when that person went away on a trip, how you missed him and took comfort by smelling his clothes? In the attraction stage, it might be wonderful to smell the dirty shirt when you pick it off the floor. Oh the euphoria! But what happens in the attachment or happiness stage? Is the contentment still there when you carry the load of laundry to the washer? Is there passion, resignation or even disgust? That reaction tells us reams about your character, the stage of love she’s in and the dynamics of her relationship.

To understand what triggers your character, consider the science, hormones and the traits we subconsciously use to assess potential mates. Add in the life stage (adolescence, young adult, raising a family, middle age, old age) and a back story and that smooth scientific explanation suddenly gets clouded and twisted by life’s experiences. This is where back story is really important. Will your character go beyond the lust or infatuation stage? Why or why not? What is attractive or repulsive (such as physical features or attitudes) and why? Who does the person remind them of? What happened in their past to form their world view about love and what a relationship should be like? No matter the stage, is he happy, content, discontent, resigned or resentful to be there?

It’s the twists and turns in a character’s back story (and sometimes the current situation) which form a worldview and determines how a character handles each of love’s stages. The steps are the same for all of us but what makes us unique is our previous experiences, our childhood (experiences and role models), and successful and failed adult relationships. It’s also about those walls we all build and the subtle ways we keep our deepest yearnings from being met. That’s who we are and who our characters need to be – a complex of hormones and life experiences, of wishes and dreams fulfilled, sabotaged and failed. Love is what we strive for, biologically and emotionally, and what we aspire to – and if we don’t, that’s another story, isn’t it?

Science can provide the foundation for love’s murky middle, but we, as story tellers, need to mix those hormones with back story, expectations and life stages to make the murky middle a most interesting muddle.