Hello everyone! Please allow me to welcome Tamsen Parker back to Wonkomance, with a guest post about how we bury bits of truth in our novels.
I want to talk about pearl necklaces. No, not those kinds of pearl necklaces, you filth mongers. Here, I’ll wait while you get the snickering out of your systems. We good? Cool.
So. People ask writers all the time where we get our ideas. And from what I’ve gleaned from my writer friends, the answer is everywhere. We can’t STOP getting ideas. Ideas for characters and plot lines assault us constantly. In the grocery store, dropping off our kids at school, in yoga class, and god help the writer who travels a lot. Planes, trains, automobiles and especially public transit are rife with plot bunnies. Ideas are everywhere, all the time.
How do we decide which ones to nurture and which ones to shoo away? It’s the ones that won’t let go, or (somewhat less romantically) the ones that show up at a convenient time, that get written—I need two thousand words for a holiday blog hop story? On my fight to the RT conference in May, an attractive man almost fell asleep on me. What if… And go! See? Easy peasy.
But if ideas are the easy part, the execution is the hard part. Let’s say the idea is the thread of your story. You’re going to need to put something on it to make it interesting, otherwise it’s just a string. And that’s where the pearls come in.
Some people advise to write what you know. And some people are like, Screw that, I want to write about dragons! Which, awesome, dude. I like dragons. But there’s a mishmash of both that seems to work best for me. You can research settings, medical conditions and characters’ jobs, among other things. And you should. But I’ve found that the moments in my writing that seem to hit people the hardest are those where I’ve taken a grain of truth from my own life and spun a scene or a character trait around it. Those are the pieces that make eyes water, stomachs flip and hearts pound. That’s when the reader sees the character as human, because they are.
If I’ve done my job, by the time I’m threading the pearl on the string it’s so coated in layers of story, language and craft that no one will notice it’s deeply personal. Which is how it should be; I write fiction, not memoirs. What the reader gets is the naked truth of raw emotion polished to a high gloss, a character made of words becoming flesh and blood.
It works because everyone has those tiny pieces of intensity: the things that have made us feel the most, have impacted us down to our core. We all know sand, we all know grit. The trick is to take that pain, those niggling little heartbreaks and insecurities, and turn them into something beautiful. Like a pearl necklace. Like a love story.
Writers, do you write mostly from real life or is complete and utter fantasy more your forte? Or do you weave them both together? What’s your go-to technique for imbuing your characters with believable, intense emotions? And readers, to what extent do you speculate how much of your favorite stories are directly from the author’s own character and experiences?
Tamsen Parker is a stay-at-home mom by day, erotic romance writer by naptime. She lives with her family outside of Boston, where she tweets too much, sleeps too little and is always in the middle of a book. Aside from good food, sweet Rieslings and gin cocktails, she has a fondness for monograms and subway maps. She should really start drinking coffee. You can attempt to seek out the grains of truth in her debut novel, Personal Geography.
Not much is taboo to me, speaking as a filthy sex-book writer. My characters get up to some major copulating for all the world to read about, and discussing the details with perfect strangers doesn’t make me blush. Erotic romance writers are a shameless group, generally, and we love to overshare. Except about the last real taboo: how much money we make.
When I was a new writer, there was only one place I knew of that offered a sense of what money there was to be made in this gig, and that’s the famous Brenda Hiatt blog post, Show Me the Money! Even now, I don’t really know what my closest writer friends make—and we blab in excruciating detail about nearly everything when sequestered late at night in conference hotel rooms, with our Costco merlot swirling in plastic tumblers and our achy dance-floor feet dangling off the edges of our overpopulated beds. I know random bits and pieces about their earnings, from when I’ve mustered the gall or the wine buzz to ask. I might know that a certain friend scored a certain advance from a certain publisher, but on the whole, no one really asks, and no one really offers…not unless they’re making crazy money. The people making crazy money can sometimes go a little Born Again on you. If you only had the people who talk about how much they make to go by, you’d be forced to assume that every romance writer makes six figures.
Spoiler alert: I don’t.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because toward the end of 2014, I met what I’d always imagined was a ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky professional goal—a dream more than a goal, really. I set this goal when I sold my first book, just over five years ago. I was infatuated with writing, and I told myself that I would feel satisfied and proud and legitimized forever if I could manage just this: to one day make as much money in one calendar year of writing as I’d made as my salary when I stopped being a full-time graphic designer. And this past year, I did it. With a couple thousand dollars to spare.
I say a dream more than a goal because I tend to classify dreams as things you pray for, and goals as things you accomplish through effort and discipline. Goals can be largely controlled. Goals are things like, “I will write 250,000 new words this year,” or, “I will self-publish that manuscript.” Dreams, by contrast, are things you hope will happen, likely through a combination of hard work and good fortune—and you can’t control the latter. I now consider how much I make to be somewhat beyond my control. The market’s just about impossible to predict, as is the performance of any given book. Hitting a list also falls into the dream category, and it’s one I don’t trouble myself with. (The closest I’ve knowingly come has been to break into the middle of the Amazon Top 100 Paid in Romance, with a full-priced book, which I’m led to believe is pretty hard to do. So I think if I were feeling adequately insecure, I could tape a vague but not entirely fraudulent “Bestselling Author” to my name. Time will tell if it ever comes to that.) The lists mystify me. If I ever hit one of the big two, I’ll proudly stick it in my bio, but for now it feels beyond my ability to influence, like a lightning strike—I can keep on waving a golf club around when the storm clouds roll in, but I can’t will the heavens to pick me.
Let’s Get Gauche!
Now, let’s get the figures out of the way, because in all honesty they’re probably not going to blow your mind and so I don’t want a big build-up. At the time my old office in Boston closed in 2009 and I lost my design job, my salary was $44,000 a year. I wasn’t raking it in by some standards, but hey, I went to a state art college. The kid done all right. And now my “Book Earnings 2014” spreadsheet tells me that, from January through December of last year, I earned from royalties and advances $46,517. And eighty-six cents.
I don’t have any expectations about what anyone reading this post will make of that sum. I think a few years ago, plenty of people would have been impressed because writers, aside of those at the very, very top, were largely expected to be starving artists. But since I began writing, a lot’s happened in the industry. First ebooks and then self-publishing exploded, as well as my genre specifically, and these days you can’t swing a turgid member around without whacking an article about a savvy, entrepreneurial self-pubber or fan-fic phenom who’s making millions in erotica, overnight. Hats off to them, but I suppose I’m here to let everyone know there’s a middle ground between penniless obscurity and obscene insta-wealth. It’s called being a working writer. It is a thing. I am one.
I’m comfortable writing about this because in all honesty, I don’t care what anyone thinks of what I make. Money to me is strictly about security and freedom, not prestige or worthiness or even success. I want enough money, but not much more than that. Having much more money doesn’t seem to bring people much more peace of mind. Some might think the amount I now make is great, while some others will probably try to draw me aside in the lobby at RT this spring and murmur conspiratorially, “You know, you could be making so much more by self-pubbing. Let me share with you my secrets.” My intention here isn’t to brag, as in a post-E.L. James world, I’m certainly not blowing the tits off this industry.
“Woman Writes for Several Years, Eventually Makes a Living Wage” is not a headline that’s going to inspire thousands to quit their day jobs.
But at the end of the day, I’m super fucking proud of $46,517.86. I’ll have been published for five years next month, and I worked at my old office job for just shy of five years. I now make twenty-five hundred dollars more a year as a writer, compounded by the fact that I’m 3000% more fulfilled and excited by my current gig. Whether anyone thinks that number is amazing or pathetic is neither here nor there. I only hope some new writer reading this might find it useful to hear that it’s possible to make a living at this, with some talent and ambition, and a lot of hard work and patience, and some luck, and rational expectations. But mostly hard work and patience.
Anyhow, you have now read the bulk of what I wanted to say about my earnings. From here on out, I’ll share more detailed figures, but the moral of the story has been revealed. What follows are just some numbers, for those who might find them interesting.
Let’s Get Even Gaucher!
I have been writing seriously for 6.5 years.
In that time, I have sold 39 original books and novellas to 5 publishers. (I’m not counting anthologies featuring previously released stories, foreign editions, or re-releases.) Of those 39, 6 titles are not yet released.
My first title was published just under 5 years ago, with Ellora’s Cave. (Roughly four people have read it. It’s a strange, borderline dreary novella about a WASP-y divorcée who occasionally assembles a harem of young men in her Beacon Hill brownstone, and watches them jack off. I wish I could say my books have gotten less weird with time. Just kidding. I don’t wish that at all.)
My first royalty check was for $141.00. (Always one to keep my expectations low, I had been hoping for $40, enough to pay for some celebratory drinks, so I was stoked to surpass that by a hundred and one bucks. I’m pretty sure we got Indian food that night.)
In 2010, my first year of being published, I made $11,000 from my writing, with 7 titles released and 1 more contracted. (A large chunk of that came from my first advance, with Harlequin Blaze.) That’s a lot of titles in one year. I wrote short, and quickly. I was intoxicated by this new job that I ached so badly to keep. I was on unemployment, so money wasn’t too much of a stressor between me and my husband. I was very excited to have made five figures in my debut year, considering my initial hopes of getting $40 out of that first royalty period. It was enough of a sign for me to think, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m going to fight to make this my job.”
In 2011, I made $15,000 from my writing, with 14 books out and 1 more contracted.
I used up my unemployment insurance that year (and was not-especially-secretly-pleased not to have found a new design job) and tensions began to simmer between me and my husband. I was suddenly making $30,000 less a year, after all, and the pressure was on him to provide the bulk of our income and all of our health insurance. Greater Boston isn’t a cheap place to live. It was the only time in our marriage when we’ve yet been driven to “serious talks.”
In the spring of 2012, I took a temp design job at an ad agency for a few months to bolster the coffers and prove to my husband that I wasn’t planning to leave us destitute while I traipsed about in pursuit of my dream. (Much as I would have liked to, had he offered.) I was miserable at that job, but in the midst of the misery I sold a three-book proposal to Harlequin and felt I’d finally kicked my way through a soggy, direction-less slump. Also, thanks to Fifty Shades, in 2012 publishers went a-courtin’ after somewhat-known erotic romance authors—in my case it was Penguin who called—and I wound up selling three books to them in early 2013 for the then-largest advance of my career. I also scored my agent with that offer on the table.
So in 2012, I made just under $24,000 from my writing, with 21 books out and 3 more contracted, and the Penguin deal percolating. That year started out very bleak and ended on a high note; to make $2,000 a month felt like real money. My husband relaxed some.
In 2013, I made $33,000 from my writing, with 28 titles out and 5 more contracted. 2 of those 5 contracted titles were my first non-category mass market paperback sales, which garnered me my largest advance to date, in the low five-figures per book. There have been no “serious talks” about money in our house since then.
In 2014, as I said, I made $46,517.86 from my writing, with 33 titles out and 6 more contracted. I’d round that number off, but after carrying that dream around with me for five years, I’m too proud to exclude a single cent.
As of today, I have made a little under $130,000 from my writing, in total. That gives me an average “salary” (over the 5.75 years I’ve been writing full-time) of $22,600.
My highest-earning book to date is my fourth release. As I write this, it has made me $17,800—no advance, no agent cuts. It’s been out for four and a half years, and continues to consistently bring in about $400 a month. Bear in mind, it had a three-year head start on my second-highest-earning title, which has made me $12,000, after agency fees.
My lowest-earning title has made $420, to date. My lowest-earning title that’s been out for a considerable length of time is my first novella, which has made $870 since it came out nearly five years ago. In an average month, that very first book pays for a bottle of wine. (All of my lowest earners are short, so bear in mind that they bring in less money per book sold; in terms of units sold, I’m sure they’ve all outperformed my longest, weirdest, and likely least popular book, which out-earns them only because length dictates price.)
Taking together all of my titles that have been out for 12 months or longer, the average earnings to date per book is roughly $3,500. The median is $2,600.
The healthiest chunks of my income arrive as advance payment checks, not individual books’ royalties. I would not be surprised if my yearly income takes a dip in 2015, if only because I’m contracted and on deadline through the spring of 2016, and don’t imagine I’ll be seeing any juicy signing checks for selling new proposals this year.
Of my 8 books that came with advances and have been out for 12 months or more, only one has yet to earn out its advance—and even that straggler’s getting very close. Modest advances aren’t a bad thing, provided you don’t like a lot of pressure and you’re not too vain.
I won’t bother pulling out any trends I’ve noticed over the years—i.e., ménages sell better than m/f, series sales trump stand-alones, alpha heroes trounce betas in book earnings or vice versa. Write what fascinates you. Readers can taste your excitement with their eyeballs. It’s science. And it’s a facet of craft that no one talks about, but we probably should. Maybe another day, in another post.
So I will leave it here, with what little wisdom I’ve gleaned in six and a half years of writing, and five years of published-authordom, and some numbers pertaining to exactly one writer’s individual career thus far. Results will vary. Take from those figures what you will—hopefully encouragement and not despair, and maybe a little bald candidness amid all the industry murk. And best of luck to everyone with their goals—and dreams—for 2015.
Ooh-la-la, amirite? I do like a chap with big … horns.
Actually, in all seriousness, he’s fabulous. I would legit go for him. He’s funny, tender, protective, stands in front of me when people try to kill me. To say nothing of the unabashed prominence of his pillowy manbosoms. He’s also voice-acted with gleeful conviction by – of all people – Freddy Prinz Jr, and being voice-acted with gleeful conviction is just the sort of thing I look for in an imaginary man.
So, yes, the context of this – and I understand some, perhaps all, of you will want to tune out immediately – is that I’ve been playing Dragon Age Inquisition. I can’t really tell if I’m enjoying it – I’m kind of 50 hours in, and mainly I’ve spent it picking flowers. It’s one of those “you, you are the chosen one, the world is ending but first do this eighty six gazillion trivial tasks that could surely be better undertaken by basically anyone else” type games.
Or as it’s otherwise called: an RPG … or roleplaying game.
This post is, uh, long because I got pretty excited talking about my new boyfriend. So, yes, it’s about computer games, romance,, kink, and just about the most wonktastic romance I’ve ever encountered in a game. So considered yourself warned.
Dragon Age Inquisition (being the third game of the Dragon Age series: in short, by-the-numbers grimdark fantasy) is produced by a company that specialises in glossy, cinematic, story-driven RPGs. They’re the sort of games where people talk a lot of about Choice and Agency and Story and Character. And Your Decisions Really Matter and Oh Look At The Moral Grey Area, and blah blah blah.
But there’s also a lot of focus on how you – your character – interacts with the world around, and the people in it. You get a party of interesting misfits who, in practical terms, help you not die in combat, but in story terms stand about the campfire having life stories they want to tell you, passionate opinions on whatever in-game decision you happen to make, so that it feels like you can’t change your socks with Cassandra Disapproving Strongly, and occasionally they want to bang you.
This is weirdly compelling to me.
Because computer gaming is hugely and problematic dominated by men, and we’re very often complete wankers about it, romance is kind of a … shall we … say fringe and rather devalued aspect of games. I mean, yes, there are sex-workers you can sleep with and/or run over in a stolen vehicle, and plenty of motivational wives and girlfriends, who either get murdered in the opening cutscene or wait for you in another castle while you play the game. But unless you move into visual novels or Indie gaming, actual character-driven romance is pretty rare. And if you pay attention (do not pay attention) to the responses of male gamers to the inclusion of romance (let alone queer romance) in games, I think this is largely because romance is perceived as being For Girls (and gays). Whereas real men enjoy guns and cars and saving the world. Or whatever.
If one so desired, there would be plenty of criticism one could direct at Bioware – the company behind Dragon Age (and it’s space opera equivalent Mass Effect). They always makes basically the same game with different curtains. Their portrayal of women, queers and sex in general is occasionally frankly rubbish. But they are at least portraying these things, and with every game, they do it a little better, go a little further. While male gamers shriek and howl about all the gay girly shit polluting the sanctity of the hobby, Bioware has been writing – or at the very least trying to write – adult, engaging stories that engage players in a broad spectrum of activities: yes you can save the world, or doom the world, make bad decisions and good decisions and change the fate of nations, but you can also, y’know, make friends, make enemies, and fall in love. Of course you can totally ignore all that, but I like the fact it’s there. That its considered valuable. As meaningful as … combat or world-shaping decision-making.
The truth is, I’m a huge fan of romance in games. And I don’t think it has to be defended, but, as a matter of fact, it can be: part of the pleasure of a roleplaying game like Dragon Age is creating a character, articulating them in play (albeit in a moderately limited way since you’re choosing from a set of dialogue options) and having the world respond to them. The sort of person someone loves can say an awful lot about who they are. Since there’s only so many ways you can give a player to define their character – appearance, profession, decisions, dialogue – romance simply offers an extra level of customisation in a way.
Although, honestly, I haven’t exactly been lucky in love in Bioware terms. My first lover abandoned me in a huff because I didn’t make him king (he would have made a terrible king, and I didn’t see the point of putting a random dude on the throne when there was a woman already doing a perfectly acceptable job up there) and my second lover committed an act of terrorism that killed a bunch of innocent people, kicking off a massive war. I was honestly kind of bummed on both occasions. By which I mean, outrageously betrayed and heartbroken, and swearing to never trust another virtual man as long as I lived. I understand you can have perfectly successful love affairs in the games – it’s just I, uh, didn’t. But in both cases, actually, I was kind of satisfied by the story arc: in the first game I chose principles over love and in the second … the very fact of my love and support gave my partner such conviction in his cause that … he did something utterly terrible.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a pretty bumpy road. Sex scenes do not look good in video games. Full stop. It’s like an uncanny valley of awkwardness in particularly ill-advised underwear.
dear god. just no.
And it’s very easy to make romance feel both inorganic and devoid of any real tension. It’s often literally mechanised in the sense that you need a certain approval rating before characters will develop romantic feelings for you or respond to romantic overtures, which I think is meant to reflect the idea that you’re more likely to get on with people who a) are like you and b) you are invested in pleasing, but in practice it hinders any sense of a naturally developing accord and becomes this sort of mini-game where all you’re doing is increasing a Likely To Shag score. And while I know these are imaginary people and therefore can’t give meaningful consent, it nevertheless reinforces the unreality of the characters. Since I’m pretty sure in real life if I badgered someone until they eventually slept with me that would … be the very opposite of romantic. It would, in fact, be abuse.
And obviously there has to be some way for you – the player – to signal to the game what and who you’re interested in, and there has to be some internal barrier to achieving that which implies some kind of emotional journey (even if it’s just a number gradually increasing behind the scenes). I think what Dragon Age Inquisition has done better than its predecessors is to distract from that numerical reality. Because there’s such a lot of character engagement, romance does, in fact, feel (if you’re willing to suspend disbelief) organic enough to be surprising. The other thing it has done, which I very much appreciate, is remove the plastic-doll humping, and instead relegate intimacy to dialogue rather than animation. So there’s a lot of pre-and-post sex conversation, which sort of suggests very effectively the type of sex you’d probably be likely to have with a certain character, and how you might feel about it, but everything else is clinches and fade-to-black. And that’s expressive and specific, and consequently romantic and sexy, in ways the other games haven’t managed to be. I mean, it’s hard to find anything either romantic or sexy when you’re doing cringe face.
It’s also gone further than it has ever before into broad representation. There’s always been queer options in Dragon Age, but they’ve always been, not quite an afterthought, but a side-line. Something you could have if you went looking for it, but not an equal or integral part of the narrative. In Dragon Age 1 characters were either straight or bisexual, except the bisexuality wasn’t really an identity so much as a queer-lite alternative, which only seemed to be there in order to offer queer options in a way that didn’t reduce the options for straight players/characters. This just felt unsatisfying, even more so in Dragon Age 2, where everyone was what you might call operationally bisexual. That is to say, bisexual not in the sense of having any sort of sexual identity, but in the sense that they’d bang the player character regardless of gender. This was even more frustrating because it just made the characters feel hollow (especially since they did kind of have implied sexual identities – the promiscuous pirate queen was blatantly legit-bisexual, and the rebellious mage was clearly gay) – as well as being kind of insulting to bisexuals, since being bisexual is, y’know, a real thing, and isn’t solely about sexual utility for other people.
I need to pause a moment to make this face: >.<
But in Dragon Age Inquisition there’s a broad selection of characters of differing sexualities. There’s a lesbian elf, a gay mage, a bisexual woman, three straight humans, an elf who only does elves, and my gloriously pansexual horny new boyfriend. I’m just sorry Varric the sex-dwarf is still unavailable, since my fingers have been itching to comb through his lustrous chest hair for two games now.
yeah baby yeah
I’m really pleased, as well, that The Iron Bull (that’s my new boyfriend’s name) is bonkable. There’s been a tendency thus far for romanceability to be the sole province of the conventionally attractive. I played a dwarf in Dragon Age – a very attractive dwarf, by the way, with long dreads, full, sensual lips and a large, noble nose with a scar across it, I would have done me in a heartbeat – and there were a couple of romance options closed off to me solely because I was a dwarf. Which was really annoying because – to give the Dragon Age setting due credit – it treats dwarves pretty seriously. You can totally be a sexy, heroic, awesome dwarf, just as world-savingly capable as a square-jawed human or a pretty-eyed elf. So it made no sense, in that contexts, that the ladies and gentlemen of Thedas wouldn’t be interested in my … uh … axe.
But I love the way The Iron Bull looks: yes he’s not going to be Miss Alabama any time soon, but he totally smoulders. And his body is amazing – height and muscle and fat and those, uh, nipples – as he charges past me into battle to save my spindly little arse. It’s just really exciting to me that he’s a viable romantic option. And his voice, I’ve mentioned his voice right? He’s also just a fabulous person: sensual, generous, accepting, laconically amused by most things, and utterly and completely badass.
He’s also – and this I was really not expecting – kinky as hell.
And I’m genuinely not sure how I feel about it. Like, on the one hand, it’s refreshing and startling and interesting to see that portrayed in a mainstream computer game.
On the other hand, I really wasn’t intending to play a submissive gay elf.
I actually had trouble with character creation in Dragon Age Inquisition. I usually play a dwarf – the hottest dwarf I can make – but dwarfs can’t be mages, and mages are just mechanically more interesting to play. That left humans and elves. After what felt like eighty seven hours of faffing around with the character creation sliders I abandoned humans altogether as I couldn’t bear the thought of following some square-jawed chump with a bad haircut round for what would be about a hundred hours of gameplay. So I did what I always do when I’m stuck at character creation.
I made an elf who looks like Davie Bowie.
You got rings on your fingers and your hair’s hot red
Before The Iron Bull stole my heart with his nipples, I’d sort of been vaguely intending to romance the gay character – in general support of the principle of having gay characters in games. Except … when I tried to chat him up the dialogue went:
Gay Mage: My, you’re a rather strapping fellow.
David Bowie Elf: You’re rather strapping yourself.
Because clearly David Gaider has no idea how homosexuals talk to each other. I know I don’t live in pseudo-Medieval Europe but I’ve never called anyone strapping in my life. The idea of even using the word strapping to describe another human being makes my toes curl. So that basically killed love for me. Also while there are many words one could possibly apply to David Bowie Elf, strapping is most assuredly not one of them.
So I started flirting outrageously with The Iron Bull instead, although it wasn’t until we killed a dragon together (I think his combat taunt was something like “that’s badass!” as he charged past me to tank the beast) that he finally got the message that I wanted to ride the Bull. Cue a slightly oblique conversation about whether or not I was sure what was I asking for – which, honestly, I wasn’t entirely, I just wanted to bang the guy, it didn’t have to be complicated – followed by a brief, and rather suggestive, animated scene of Bull pinning David Bowie elf’s wrists above his head… and the next thing I know he’s leaving my quarters, telling my advisor that I need my rest.
And what the shit just happened to me?
I seek the guy out after some incidental world saving, and we end up having a chat about our, uh, activities. Which is the point at which he gives me a safeword.
Yep. A character in a computer game. Just gave me. A safe word.
“I will never hurt you without your permission. You will always be safe. If you’re ever uncomfortable, if you ever want me to stop, you say katoh and it’s over. No questions asked. You don’t need to be afraid … unless you want to.”
I still don’t quite know how to process that. It’s not like I ever wake up in the morning and think “I’d really like to be a gay submissive elf today” and, well, my tastes are my tastes and those aren’t them … but it’s so gosh-darned unusual to see non-traditional romantic relationships portrayed in games – or anywhere outside romance novels – that I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be in one. Also it’s honestly not the worst depiction of BDSM I’ve ever seen. What you actually do together is referenced only obliquely: never explicitly explained or delineated. All the dialogue around it is a little coy, but I think that’s why it works so well. Apparently I’m in a fully consensual power exchange with The Iron Bull – which is tender, loving, intense, and makes me feel good – and I don’t particularly need to know what it specifically entails.
It’s not entirely unproblematic, however. I kind of feel that if the activities in which you’re participating require a safeword, you should get the safeword before you participate in them, not after. Also there’s an extent to which the game – almost necessarily – has to make some assumptions about what sort of person you are, and what you might be looking for from your interest in particular characters. I’ve never had a game assume I was submissive before, for example, just because I like my men big, and grey, and good in a fight. In fact one might almost assume that my pleasure in ordering burly fellows around a battlefield might imply the very opposite of that. So while I’m okay to go with it, I’m not entirely convinced by ideas the game – partly as a consequence of the limitations of the format – has essentially take for granted i.e. that the only/main reason you’d be into someone like The Iron Bull was if you were a submissive bottom.
There’s also a lot of rhetoric about “this” being “what I need” – which, I think, is meant to tap into the idea that the player character, who has a world to save and a war to stop and the lives of thousands of people in his/her hands, can find safety and freedom from those responsibilities in sexual submission. Which is, y’know, nice and plausible but, at the same time, I’m personally bugged that BDSM rhetoric is always so need-focused. As if people can only quite get their head around the idea that you might wanted to be hurt, or tormented, or restrained, or abased (in ways that felt good to you) because you genuinely just … like it. And, again, I don’t like the idea that submission is “okay” (or more understandable, less weird, less emasculating/disempowering) if you have tonnes of other responsibilities, like somehow this balances it out. The value of someone’s submission is no less or greater depending on what they do with the rest of their life.
And the romance in general walks this difficult line between genuinely legitimate and played for laughs. Or rather, it tries to be both (and I think, for the most part its) but, while I am absolutely in favour of humour in life, in games, in romance, in sex and also in kinky sex, I think you sometimes have to ask yourself why something is funny, and what ideas it is tapping in / supporting. There’s this scene, for example, where a whole crowd of your advisors walk in on you and react with hilarious shock/repulsion:
I do know this is just a computer game, and I’m waaay overthinking but … there’s a lot I like about this scene. I like the glimpse of The Bull being magnificently stark, ah, bullock naked, and totally unembarrassed about. And I like that fact that nobody is really homophobic about what’s going on. And, obviously, walking in on your boss bonking is always going to mildly disturbing regardless of whoever or whatever he’s doing. It is funny, it is charming, but at the same time there’s definitely the sense that everyone feels you’re a bit weird. I mean Cullen (the blonde prat on the left) is actively sniggering into his hand when Bull mentions that you’re the one who’s been “taking it.” I mean, honestly, is the fact there’s a receptive partner in anal sex still an inherently amusing idea? Are we still really finding this funny? Give me a fucking break.
I mean, it’s kind of adding insult to injury at this point: the game sort of forced me to adopt one type of sexual behaviour in reaction to my interest in a particular character, and now it’s shaming me for that? A lot of the dialogue options you’re offered when the topic of your relationship with Bull comes up are of the embarrassed/bashful/confused variety … and, seriously, fuck that. Even though I didn’t choose to be a gay submissive elf, in practice I apparently am a gay submissive elf so I’m damn well going to be proud of it. So I’ve spent an awful lot of time in this game telling people that Bull and I are together, and we’re serious thank you so very much, and what we do in the bedroom as consensual adults is our business and, yes, actually, I do take it up arse, as is my alienable right as a citizen.
It’s just … why make these big, bold gestures and then undermine thme with petty micro-aggressions about who is on the bottom? I mean, yes, I guess to a degree it’s realistic: that it’s easy to do the grand things (yes! you should be able to be a queer person in a game! Yes! BDSM is something that deserves representation!) but at the same time miss the small things (having a cock up your arse isn’t funny, kink isn’t weird).
But, don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy – delighted in fact – with what Bioware have been willing to commit to, and what they have achieved with romance in Dragon Age Inquisition. Regardless of the occasional misstep the game is full of moments that support the reality, the validity and the genuine intimacy of kinking it up with The Iron Bull.
One of your party members – my favourite after Bull, actually – is this weird spirit thing called Cole who can sense the thoughts and feelings of others. He’s just an awesome character to wander around with because he says all these random, cryptic poetic things that give you a new way of looking at the world and the people in it: Stuff like: Petals fall open as lips shape words that rhyme. Candlelight softens the edges. Yep, he’s my weird spirit kid. Never go anywhere without him. However, precisely because he’s a weird spirit kid, he has no filter whatsoever and will often announce the personal details of your relationship – or other people’s relationships – to the world at large.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourites because I like the gentleness here and the delicate balance of power it suggests: want and need and give and take and who is control. I think that’s clever, subtle, romantic stuff. Not the usual fare you get in a triple A video game:
Cole: He almost says the word sometimes. Katoh. He tastes it in his mouth, sweet release a breath away, tongue tying it tenderly, like you tie him. But he doesn’t, for you. And for him, because it makes it mean more. A fuller feeling, a brighter burst…
Iron Bull: Yeah. (Coughs) How’s he feel about you saying this in front of everybody?
Inquisitor [me taking the inalienable right as a citizen option, as opposed to the ‘Mortified’ or ‘Pretending this never happened’ option]: I don’t have a problem with it. We’re two consenting adults and I’m not ashamed of what goes on in our bed.
Cole: But not just the bed! Sometimes against the wall… and once on the war table!
Anyway, please excuse me. It seems I’m needed on the war table…