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Tue, Jun. 9th, 2009, 03:49 pm

an ordered list and an unordered list

I want to start a discussion about something, and I'm having a hell of a time framing my question effectively. Bear with me if I flail a bit here.

Here's two things I've been thinking a lot about lately:

  1. What is "realism" in fiction? How desirable is it, how important? What are the different things we are referring to when we use that label? Is there anything distinctive about our standards for realism in porn, as distinct from other genres of storytelling?

  2. What is identification, and how does it work? The usual model (at least in a pornographic fiction context) goes something like this: You start reading a story. You pick a character whose role best matches your tastes, either by gender or some other criterion, and then you project yourself into the story thus, imagining yourself doing and done-to as that character is.

    I think what actually happens is more complex and subtle than that. I'm not sure how eccentric that is of me, and therefore how much work I should actually be putting in to being persuasive on this point.

These are old. What's new is trying to bring these lines of thought together. I had a conversation with a friend lately where she talked about how certain failures of realism blocked her from identifying with female characters, and therefore from enjoying those stories. She cited this as one of the advantages, for her, of reading M/M slash over heterosexual fanfiction.

Previous attempts to write this post foundered 'cause I have a lot of thoughts and ideas here, but an uncharacteristic lack of grand unified theories, so the posts ended up meandering for a while before trailing off in mid-paragraph. I want to try starting some discussion here instead, and see if that brings stuff together. Here are some questions...

  • What kinds of realism are important to you? Are your expectations different depending on the genre you're reading* in?
  • What makes a character compelling to you? What have you encountered that drove you out of the text?
  • If you enjoy both porn that includes your gender and porn that doesn't, does that divide color the way you approach the characters?

I'll probably have more as I try to pull these threads apart.

* or watching movies or listening to podcasts or what have you

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 01:53 am (UTC)
vinnie_tesla: I'll try to start

Much of my favorite porn is frankly and playfully unrealistic. Particularly since a lot of my favorite tropes have a distasteful dark side (unequal power relationships or coercion, for example), stylized settings can mute those elements that I find disturbing rather than erotic.

On the other hand, naked wish-fulfillment stories leave me bored and annoyed. Storiesonline is packed with wildly popular sagas about a regular schlub who acquires mind control powers and uses them to crush his enemies and gather a harem of unquestioning love-slaves, who then come to love him for himself of their own free wills once they get to know how deeply awesome he is. They leave me mostly embarassed for the author. I think my tendency to close my stories with some minor discomfort or humiliation for the protaganist is partially based in that distaste.

Edited at 2009-06-10 01:54 am (UTC)

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
fierceawakening: Re: I'll try to start

Much of my favorite porn is frankly and playfully unrealistic. Particularly since a lot of my favorite tropes have a distasteful dark side (unequal power relationships or coercion, for example), stylized settings can mute those elements that I find disturbing rather than erotic.

Seconded like whoa.

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 08:19 am (UTC)

I like my fiction to be realistic even if its fantasy if you know what I mean, one of the reasons I like Dresden, because (unlike Potter) he takes the laws of physics into consideration and has things like magic depleting you.

I've never identified with a character. Not ever. I know people DO put themselves into a character's place, but that seems very strange to me. I want to read about the characters, not become them.

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 04:49 pm (UTC)

Realism in genre fantasy is another deep, deep subject. I think when I figure out how that hooks up to our standards for porn, that'll be a sign that I finally have a bit of a handle on the whole Gordian barrel of wax, as it were.

For myself, I agree that weightless, effortless magic, as in Rowling, is a buzzkill. But what I enjoy instead is not the meticulously logical magical systems, but the irreducibly mysterious, as in Tolkien, or Susanna Clarke's stories; otherwise I feel more like I'm reading an RPG sourcebook rather than a novel.

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 11:38 am (UTC)

Realism, to me, mostly means consistency. There are a few other key points, too, but that's the big one.

Characters should largely behave in ways that conform to some underlying personality, and changes to that personality should progress in a reasonably logical sequence, and each character's personality should be at least a little bit different from the rest so that I can tell them apart.

Events should unfold in ways that conform to a coherent, internally consistent system of physical laws. That system should pretty much look like the real world, with a few minor exceptions permissible here and there; in the case of science fiction or fantasy settings, deviations from reality such as magic and faster-than-light travel should be clearly demonstrated and come with rules of their own.

There are very few things that make a character not compelling to me, but particularly easy targets are as follows: Demonstrate vulnerability and I'm there. Demonstrate adaptability and I'm there. Demonstrate protectiveness of loved ones and I'm there. The converse of this, of course, is that if a character seems to be psychologically inviolable, adheres to rigidly set patterns of thought and behaviour, and/or doesn't give a rat's ass about anybody but themselves, I will probably go and find another story.

Oh, and I'm weirdly fascinated by characters who are mentally ill (or just mentally a little nonstandard) and/or almost complete assholes. (The difference between almost and completely is whether or not the character has people s/he really does care about.) Dexter Morgan is a perfect example of someone who hits almost all my buttons: sociopathic, yet cares deeply in his own twisted way for a select few individuals, demonstrating both protectiveness towards them and vulnerability about them. If adaptability was one of his major character traits, you couldn't pry me away from him with a crowbar.

I don't really approach the characters that differently in m/m, f/f, or m/f porn. Which characters I identify with in a story depends more on whose point of view the story is written from than it does on the genders of the characters involved. Then again, my vantage point is a little peculiar: I identify as both male and female depending on whim and context, so the fact that I identify equally well with both male and female characters comes as no surprise.

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC)

A lot of the character qualities you're talking about (quite reasonably) are, I think, organizable under the banner of "likability." I would guess that the qualities that you list are mostly similar to stuff you look for in friends. Are they also qualities you tend to find sexy, if I may ask?

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC)

Yes, you may ask.

I'm not entirely sure of the answer, though. What I find sexy is a lot more context-dependent than what draws me to a character in terms of enjoying their part in a story and/or identifying with them. All those qualities are things that I can find sexy under the right circumstances, but I'd hesitate to generalize that I usually do.

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)

Realism as such isn't important to me. I like fantasy (high fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism, interstitial fiction, "weird-boiled," experimental, surrealism), plus I like humor, which is often pretty highly exaggerated and unrealistic. I don't expect everyday realism in porn (even unlikely acrobatics may not throw me out of a story) and actually get kind of irritated when people complain about it not being realistic. Why should it be? There's another genre for realistic sex: it's called "sex manuals."

However, I do feel the same way your friend does about "certain failures of realism" that block me from identifying with female characters (in porn and in other fiction). But thinking about it, this seems to be more of a failure of imagination. Your example about the schlub with the harem of beautiful women is to the point. If women characters aren't characters at all but cardboard -- no wait, V. Woolf's mirrors that reflect the male character/author at twice his size -- then I'll definitely be thrown out of a story.

Also, a lot of m/f porn, and until recently, *all* romances, pretty much force the reader to identify with the woman character as the one being "done to," even when ostensibly she's the one "doing." All gazes lead to the female body (I've written about this before), and if I want to focus on a male character being "done to", it pretty much has to be m/m.

And... hm. At least when reading m/m fanfiction, I identify with both characters (even though most slash is written in an almost airtight third person limited, there's something about it that lets you move between the characters... I need to think about this more). It's much harder for me to do this with m/f porn, either because I don't like the thing with mirrors or because I feel coerced into identifying with the woman -- and resist it!

Then again, with something like The Story of the Schlub, I'd be backing out of the story at light-speed, since I for damn sure don't want to be identifying with such a horrible cheeseball. 8-) Again, not because he's unrealistic but because he's a irritating cliche.

So, erm, short version: for me it's not so much a matter of realistic vs. unrealistic as imaginative vs. cliche? Something like that?

Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)

There's a lot of good stuff to discuss here; I'll try to break up my responses into pieces.

I recently read Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, wherein he argues that writing non-sexist novels at this point in history requires featuring female characters who make active choices that have consequences, in pursuit of goals that are not romantic. This is of course as interesting in what it implies as in what it says, and it echoes a lot of your point about how even female protaganists end up more object than subject in our literary tradition.

It also helped me put my finger on a lot of what bugged me about the famously "girl-positive" Girl Genius.

Sun, Sep. 20th, 2009 12:33 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): Realism & Identification

I tend to like fantasy (as in elves and demons and all that) themed stories, though I don't think I'd say that it's because I dislike "realism" so much as that the usual schoolgirl/dirty wife/daddy's daughter/etc. sort of fantasies that seem so common in adult stories don't appeal to me. If something happens that comes off in a really jarring "that does not work that way" sort of way, then it annoys me, but I don't mind magic and stuff unless it's a way to pull some cheesy alakazam or if the explanation behind it is stupid pseudoscience (Non-porn example: among other reasons that I hate the Darren Shan books, one that sticks out in my mind is the part where is says "vampires can't be photographed because they're made of 'bouncing atoms'".) I suppose that's part of why I prefer fantasy to sci-fi, come to think of it... I'm more accepting of weird stuff going on if it's passed off as supernatural rather than given some "scientific" explanation that someone with enough understanding in science can see is blatantly wrong.

Also, realism-wise, a few stories I have read involve a heroine who gets repeatedly raped/abused in the course of her adventures, but keeps on stoically cruising along. "Wraith Spider" by Jashin and "Zara's Quest" by P. Jurado both come to mind. Now, this doesn't really ruin the story for me... I rather enjoyed some of the things in both the aforementioned stories, but it does wake up the little voice in the back of my head that says "Shouldn't that chick be a quivering psychological wreck after all that?" It does kind of spoil that approach for me if I'm doing my own writing, though.

When it comes to identifying with characters, I wouldn't so much say that I imagine myself as the character (I have roleplaying for that) so much as I enjoy things along with the character(s) that I take a liking to. A vicarious sort of thing, more so. That said, I do like a story that has a character who does things that I'd like to do if things were different, and tend not to like it if he meets a bad end. This isn't the case with every story though, for example the aforementioned "adventure w/ punching bag" stories that focus on a female protagonist vs. monster-of-the-day, where the male characters are usually kind of faceless. It's more of an "I like what's happening to you" than an "I like what he does to you" there if that makes any sense. Thinking about this, it's probably the reason I tend not to be interested in female-female type stories. Nothing about ordinary run-of-the-mill lesbianism appeals to me, but I can admire the workings of some sort of dark Mistress sort of character or the like ("Fey" by Tabico comes to mind.) The same deal with male-male stuff, for me to be interested in it something has to interest me besides just run-of-the-mill mansex ("The Price" by Maureen Lycaeon comes to mind.) Although, while I like male doms female, and sometimes male doms male or female doms female, I rarely if ever like female doms male, so the sex of the character does matter to some degree.