This post is the second in my series of addressing major desires. I’m going to explore what it means to be desirable, why many readers are ashamed of it, and why this particular desire sells so many books and invokes so much enthusiasm. I will also try to make note of the differences between the masculine and feminine audience, what their general expectations and preferences are, and how the interactive fiction writer has the difficulty of satisfying both.
While the below ascribes differences and makes assumptions of men and women, it is not intended to make a statement. Instead, it is intended as generalized writing advice from observations that will not apply to everyone.
As Low As It Goes
You as a writer cannot feed your readers or keep them safe. The most primal and human desire you can satisfy however, is intimacy. This is indicated on the diagram above (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Romance novels, harem animes, dating sims and the entire human species—each owes its success to where that arrow is pointing. Being desired is an almighty need that you must respect if you hope to impact your audience.
At the heart of being desired is validation. It validates us so well, in fact, that it becomes dangerous—unfortunately, many people get their sole source of validation from others, particularly their significant other. Those relationships never end well.
If someone is attracted to you, it means you are healthy and sexually appealing. As a human animal in this game of life, you are winning. It sounds shallow, yet it is at the core of countless poems and stories, epics and ballads throughout human history. When our imaginations get into the mix, romance is the result. And nothing but romance can turn simple urges into classics. The Little Mermaid didn’t just want legs to dance!
There are countless ways to display attraction, to chase after the player and make them feel worthy of being chased. Here’s a small list: a flushed face, a heated voice, a prolonged gaze, a Freudian slip, a competition for your attention, an attempt at acting more feminine/masculine when you’re around, a double entendre, an excuse to be alone with you, a compliment, a resentment towards those who wrong you, a possessive temperament.
Just as every character you write has a different personality, each of them should display attraction in their own, unique way. The furious mercenary might let his guard down, whereas the aloof executive might become less professional. Often, the tension is at its peak before any confession is given: Rumiko Takahashi made a career out of that, with characters who drove relationship tension to ridiculous levels. She is now considered one of the richest women in Japan.
Being Desired, Masculine Version
If you’re writing a series of books targeted to most guys, do yourself a favor: keep ‘romance’ off the front cover. In fact, hide it as best you can until they’re too many chapters in to back out. There are many reasons why fellows flee from the genre, even though they enjoy it as much as women do.
The major reason is shame, and here’s the primal logic behind it: if you are successful as a man, then your intimacy needs are already met. And since no man wants to be seen as unsuccessful, it’s especially hard for guys to admit that they do have this unmet need and that they do want to be desired. It’s why their harem animes and dirty visual novels are so often guilty pleasures (that is, they feel ashamed of their interests).
What can an interactive fiction writer do? The solution I’ve found is to empower the player. You must have a protagonist who is able to take an active role in the relationship, initiating and making choices, expressing lust and not being shamed for it or punished, but rewarded. Don’t just allow the reader to chase after a romantic interest, encourage them.
Being Desired, Feminine Version
Society is very harsh on women who show desire, but are far kinder to those who show a need for being desired. That little difference echoes in so many dynamics that you need to be aware of as a writer. It’s one of the reasons why girls are less likely to make the first move in a relationship, and why some would rather have all the moves be made for them (by Mr/Miss Perfect, of course). This issue of control is one of the most delicate and important when writing a relationship.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a terrible Twilight fanfiction, but it also sold over 125 million copies. For all its faults, there was something in it that middle-aged women couldn’t get enough of: that feeling of being desired. But there’s a problem here, because traditional novels are passive by nature, and interactive novels are active (you make choices). It turns out this problem is really just an opportunity in disguise.
The key here is in your romantic characters. Have them have real passions for the protagonist, and to initiate a relationship if the player is reluctant. Then the player can decide to refuse, escalate or whatever your dramatic choices may be. The important part is that all the risk and shame is gone.
Allowing the player to be perverted goes far deeper than you might think. I work under the assumption that all people are perverted, just in varying degrees they’ll admit to. There is a stigma about being perverted that will come out as resistance from your audience. I know because I’ve faced it myself!
When Samurai of Hyuga Book 1 was released, many players weren’t comfortable with the ‘Perverted’ stat. I was tempted to remove it, but I’m glad I didn’t, because it being on that stat screen was important. It didn’t just tell players what to expect, but that there was no shame in it either.
That’s called validation.