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Filtering by Category: Character Development

Empowerment

Steven Wells

As I finished editing Yes Means Yes, I encountered a scene that caused some spirited debate with several test-readers. It arrived in chapter three of the book, after protagonist Katie had spent her first summer, post-college, agonizing over a broken heart and a looming decision about graduate school. I liked the scene a lot. But in the end, I decided to delete it, and how I arrived at that decision illustrates one of the many challenges of writing. Here is the scene as originally written.

BY LATE AUGUST, KATIE HAD FINISHED her last day as a barista and had begun to pack. She didn’t own much beyond clothes, books, and a few kitchen things, so she could squeeze most everything into her five-year-old Subaru, a high school graduation gift from her parents. She shipped a few remaining boxes to the school to be picked up once she arrived. At her mom’s request, Katie convinced one of her roommates, Teresa, to accompany her on the drive to Boulder.
On her last night in Claremont, Teresa suggested that they go out for a farewell drink. Teresa drove her to a restaurant; when they walked inside, Katie was surprised to find six of her best friends crammed into a large booth in a corner. On the table were several gift bags surrounded by drinks from the bar. Tears and laughter came easily as she relived their many great memories from school. The enormity of her move began to sink in. She knew she’d really miss her friends and the comfort they brought her. Each of them had encouraged her after her breakup with Justin and now repeated what they’d told her earlier: she wouldn’t have any trouble meeting other desirable guys.
After opening and passing around the pile of cards and presents, Katie made a trip to the bathroom. Afterward, she returned to her friends by way of the restaurant’s crowded bar. Over the din of loud, alcohol-fueled conversations, she heard someone calling out her name. She turned and saw a guy she vaguely recognized from campus. She stepped over to join him, and he quickly reminded her that they’d taken sociology together. She hadn’t noticed him at the time, but while talking to him near the bar, she decided he was seriously cute. Better yet, he seemed mature. He mentioned that he, too, had just graduated and that he planned to stay in Claremont for work. When Katie mentioned that she needed to rejoin her friends, he suggested that she return to the bar afterward. She surprised herself and said “Sure.”
About an hour later, while saying good-bye to everyone, she told them about her earlier encounter. They all wanted to go check him out for themselves. She dissuaded them and planned to return later on by herself. Before leaving, Teresa made her promise to text her if she wouldn’t be coming home.
She found him in the bar with a couple of other guys, drinking beers and laughing. She guessed it was around midnight. She didn’t even know his name. She walked up to him and extended her hand. “I’m Katie.”
“I’m Ryan. Nice to finally meet you.”
Katie appreciated his firm handshake. He stopped suddenly. “What happened to your hand? I’m not hurting you, am I?”
“No, it’s from an accident I had playing soccer in middle school.” Katie held up her right hand and displayed her crooked index finger. “It was badly broken, and the doctor didn’t set it right. It doesn’t hurt—just looks funny.” She teasingly poked him in the arm. “See? Doesn’t hurt.”
Ryan’s eyes sparkled. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Just a glass of water.” She’d already had enough alcohol.
When a beer and a glass of water arrived, Ryan suggested they go find a table.
Katie studied his smooth face and solid jaw. “How’s the job hunt going?”
“I’m looking. I hope to find something soon. My parents keep telling me I’m on my own.”
“What’s your major?”
“Economics. I’m hoping to work for a couple of years and then go to graduate school. That’s my plan, anyway.” He laughed and took a sip of beer. “What about you?”
“I’m going to graduate school straight away. In fact, I’m leaving for Boulder tomorrow.”
“Great place. ‘Rocky Mountain High’ and all that.”
“I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s one of the best college towns in the country. I’m excited.” Katie turned and faced him square on.
“I’m sure you’ll like it.”
They were silent for a few moments. Ryan finally broke it and said, “Hey, weren’t you dating a guy named Justin?”
Katie could have gone all night without hearing that name again. “I was. Not anymore.”
“I’m not too sorry to hear that.”
“I’m not too sorry to tell you.”
“You want to get out of here?” As he said it, Ryan reached over and touched her hand.
“What do you have in mind?”
“Let’s go to my apartment. It’s quieter there.”
“OK.” Katie had just crossed a line that was unusual for her—spontaneity. Maybe it was the alcohol talking. Perhaps it was the reality of leaving town the next day and never coming back. Maybe it was a way to take one more giant step away from Justin. What she couldn’t deny was that she felt some serious desire for Ryan.
They walked half a mile or so to his apartment. He had a very nice condo, she noted—especially for a student—and she appreciated its great view and the tasteful furniture that didn’t appear to be secondhand. Katie was impressed. “Nice place. Didn’t you say you were worried about money?”
“My parents bought this for me after my sophomore year, once they believed I’d actually graduate. They felt it was a better investment than just giving me rent. Now that I’ve graduated, I have one year to start paying them back, or they’ll evict me. I’m sure they mean it.”
“Well, I’m guessing that with a major in economics, you won’t have any trouble.”
“I hope not.”
They walked into the living room. Ryan took Katie’s jacket and tossed it onto a nearby sofa. He put his arms loosely around her waist and kissed her, softly at first, then with increasing passion. Katie responded and explored his mouth with hers. Ryan wound his arms around her waist and pulled her in tight. She felt his strong chest underneath his shirt. Katie gave herself permission to shut off any second-guessing and enjoy what she knew was going to happen with a very sexy guy. She moved her hands down and started to unbutton Ryan’s jeans. His hands began to unbutton her white blouse.
Katie asked, “Got a condom?” Please say yes.
“Yes.”
Following an erratic path across the living room floor, interrupted by more kissing and clothes falling away, they arrived in his bedroom. She was down to her underwear and he his boxers. It wasn’t long before those hit the floor as well.

KATIE WOKE UP FEELING CONFUSED, and she rolled toward the opposite side of the bed. Justin’s naked body lay partially covered by a sheet. She lifted it up and took a quick peek. A smile crossed her face as she recalled the pleasant details of the past several hours. Then she panicked when she realized that it was light outside and that she had planned to meet Teresa back at her apartment for the drive to Boulder. She’d also forgotten to text Teresa that she wasn’t coming home. Katie quietly slipped from the bed and retrieved her clothes, a task made harder because it required her to follow the trail they’d left from the living room. After she dressed and found her purse and phone, she returned to the bed and kissed Ryan on his forehead.
He opened his eyes partway and in a shallow whisper said, “Can I call you?”
Katie thought for a minute. Her eyes swept across his form lying under the sheet. “No, I don’t think so. But thank you.” She slipped out the front door.
Katie reflected on the evening’s events during the short walk to her apartment. It was her first one-night stand. She didn’t quite know how to react; it was out of character, to say the least. Her life suddenly seemed full of new possibilities. She felt empowered. One aspect of her actions was undeniable: she’d just put the final nail in the coffin of her relationship with Justin.
Later that morning, after only a few hours of sleep, Katie left Claremont for the last time. After a stop at the apartment’s rental office to drop off her key and leave a forwarding address, Katie and Teresa drove northeast to Boulder by way of Las Vegas.

So what was it about this scene that elicited such strong opinions from my test-readers? It was Katie's decision to participate in her first one-night-stand, and her reaction of feeling "empowered" afterward.

One readers said "Sure, having casual sex might be fun, but empowering?  No way." I explained my motivation in writing it that way, that Katie was doing what men have been doing for generations, having casual sex and moving on, and that she felt empowered to realize that she too could enjoy sex outside of a commitment. It put her on equal footing. The test-reader wasn't persuaded.

Another reader said, "At that point in the book, Katie, wouldn't do it. She was too conservative and still hurting after her painful breakup. Plus, she didn't really like sex."  I agreed, and found several others who had the same concern. Casual sex was just too inconsistent with her character.

The aspect of this feedback that I found most interesting is how it broke along age. There were eight women who weighed in on this point, ranging in age between eighteen and seventy. All women thirty or under felt the scene was totally appropriate and believable. And without exception, the older women all said they didn't like Katie engaging in such casual sex. So I decided to cut the scene. I felt for the majority of readers, it just didn't work. And with it gone, no one would notice that it was missing. It's hard for a writer to let something go. As an editor once told me, if a reader has a problem with a certain aspect of the book, they can attribute it to personal preference.  But if several people have the same problem, then you as a writer have the problem. It was great advice. 

Cultural Appropriation

Steven Wells

While I was editing Yes Means Yes, an interesting incident occurred in Portland. It started when two women, while vacationing in Mexico the previous Christmas, fell in love with local burritos.  They were so enamored by the flavorful food they decided to study the skills of local cooks and learn their secrets.  After returning to Portland they opened a breakfast burrito pop-up inside a Southeast Portland parking lot to rave reviews and growing crowds.  Things were going well for several months, including mentions in the press, until a local website published an article that accused the owners of cultural appropriation.  What followed next can be best described as bizarre, and some might suggest typical of Portland culture.  They were besieged by negative comments and death threats.  They quickly closed and removed all public on-line presence.  A flurry of worldwide press started a healthy conversation about the reality of chefs everywhere learning cooking techniques of other cultures. Even the beloved Pok Pok collection of local Thai restaurants, started by a house-painter who traveled to Thailand for inspiration, creates food that is culturally from another place.  A feminist organization went so far as to publish a list of more than 60 restaurants that serve ethnic cuisine but are owned by a white person and demanded they be boycotted.

So, what does this possibly have to do with writing a book on sexual assault?  As I began researching and writing the book, I was keenly aware that I was taking on a subject that is a deeply personal experience for women.  How could I accurately express the point of view of my characters involved in sexual assault?  Based on careful research, first person interviews, and feedback from multiple test readers, I feel confident I have succeeded. In the beginning of the project, I hired a young woman who had just graduated from the University of Washington to consult with me on early versions of the manuscript. At the time, she worked with a fellow Microsoft alumnus who does great work in Ghana through his non-profit, Literacy Bridge.  We met frequently, she read early drafts, and then coached me on the experiences and expectations of female students about dating, sex, and careers. During the middle of the project, eight female test readers, aged eighteen to seventy, read the manuscript and provided feedback that shaped the final manuscript.  During our discussions, I intentionally asked them if it bothered them the book was written by a man.  Without exception, they said “No.”  I had considered authoring the book under a pen name for this reason, but in the end, chose to go with my real name.  And since launching the book, several readers have weighed in, building my confidence that a well written story, regardless of gender, can approach accuracy.  There are limits, of course, and some experiences can’t be learned. But generally, by listening and understanding, knowledge can successfully shape character development.