Being Edgy – Use contrast to grab your readers by the balls
Recently I’ve been watching the brand new season of The X Files. I know, not erotica, right? But us sex writers can learn a thing or two from the other pros sometimes, and one of those things is contrast.
For those of you who aren’t initiated (philistines) The X Files follows the exploits of FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. They investigate cases known as X Files – such cases show phenomena that is officially unrecognised by the FBI, such as aliens, monsters, telepathy, etc.
But what is it that attracts people to the show in such huge numbers that they’ve brought it back – with the original cast – after a 15 year gap? Obviously, that’s open to debate, but I’d be willing to bet it has a lot to do with contrast.
In this article, I’ll show you how to create 3 types of contrast for your characters: environmental, interpersonal and internal. This powerful technique can be used to hook your readers from the start and keep their attention to the end. It also makes writing much easier, because it adds conflict (see my previous guest post for more information).
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
Cliche, right? The thing is, most cliches are cliches because they work. That’s why they’ve been overused.
Imagine you’re in a really seedy bar. This place is the dregs. There are actual teeth on the floor from the fight last night, and the beer tastes like puke. Disgusting. Now, who’s the most interesting person in here? Pick from the following four options:
- The group of dock workers playing cards and laughing too loudly
- The prostitute grinding herself on a patron’s lap and laughing at his jokes
- The old geezer who plays the piano
- The middle aged lady in the white cotton dress, looking around the place nervously
My money’s on option 4. What’s she doing here? Is she waiting for someone, or is there another agenda? This isn’t her part of town – she looks like she should be in a nice house with a dog and a couple of kids.
Contrasting a character with their environment instantly makes them interesting because it makes you want to know what they have in common. Sure, any of those characters could have an interesting past or future, but right now the middle aged lady is clearly having an interesting day.
In the case of The X Files, Mulder is at odds with the FBI environment. He wants to pursue the truth when the system constantly wants to conceal it. Scully, on the other hand, is an up and coming protege, yet she’s forced to work on cases that have no chance of ever being taken seriously.
Each character is in contrast with their environment, but did you notice how they’re also in contrast with each other?
Buddy movies. We all love them, right? The way two mismatched characters try to achieve a common goal. It’s comic genius and it makes for some electric interaction between them.
What is the key ingredient for a buddy movie, then? Contrast, of course! Any time you have two characters interacting, the scene improves the less they have in common. When those two characters have to work together despite their differences, you have an electric relationship.
Romance riffs on this theme a lot. Why? Because you generally have two main characters and a common goal (a budding romance). They need to settle their differences in order to get there, and that creates the conflict.
It makes those characters interesting because the differences highlight the similarities. In The X Files, Mulder wants to believe in the existence of strange phenomena while Scully wants to hold on to her scientific scepticism at all costs. But what they have in common is their dogged determination to pursue the truth at all costs – even if one or both of them has to rethink their beliefs.
In the wake of the unfathomably popular Fifty Shades franchise, one interesting fact has come to light. A lot of women – ordinary, well-to-do mommies with ordinary lives and husbands and jobs – are turned on by seedy millionaires, powerplay and BDSM.
That’s internal contrast.
By far the most compelling for making your characters memorable, internal contrast is when a character conflicts with his or herself. They believe in conflicting ideas. They do things that cause problems for themselves. They like knitting during the day and ball gags at night.
And this is where The X Files excels. It is, in my opinion, what keeps people coming back for more. Because when a character conflicts with himself or herself then you can never be sure what the outcome will be.
Agent Mulder is suspicious of authority, sceptical about science and quick to find fault with evidence that comes from official sources. But he’s also a brilliant detective who’s proven himself time and time again. He’s always willing to drop any previous theory in the face of new evidence – even if that means admitting that he was wrong.
Agent Scully is a doctor and a scientist. She wants to maintain her belief in an orderly universe and a government that only wants the best for its citizens. However, when the evidence is overwhelming she’s willing to make official reports stating the facts of a case – even when those facts suggest that the world isn’t such a straightforward, safe place after all.
Get down and dirty with contrast
OK, so there you have it. A quick overview of using contrast to add interest. Now it’s your turn. Write a story or a character sketch that uses one or more of the contrast techniques above and link back to this post so that we can all read it.
I want to see what you’ve got.
Nicci Haydon writes erotica, both in her own name and as a ghost writer. Her goal in life is to convince the world that stories about sex are healthy, safe and a lot of fun. To that end she gives away free samples on her blog, like some street corner smut peddler. Find more of her writing at https://niccihaydon.wordpress.com/