Sunday, May 13, 2007

Smoking Characters

I don't have any Mothers' Day thoughts for alien romances. Of course, aliens ought to have high days and holidays that they celebrate. Whether they have special days to honor various family members would depend on their social structure.

Would a society that is organized like a group of Bonobo, or like Emperor Penguins, or like a pride of lions --or a harem of hens-- celebrate Mothers' Day?

So, I think I'll default to the other burningly topical issue this weekend. Smoking!

In FORCED MATE, the alien hero --Crown Prince Tarrant-Arragon-- has his first reflective moment alone with the disreputable human mercenary who has been hired to be his driver and tour guide.

Grievous is a smoker. Tarrant-Arragon is not. You wouldn't expect someone who lives in a closed environment like a spaceship to indulge in the recreational slow burning of plant matter.

However, Tarrant-Arragon has seen movies. He knows what a cigarette is. He also understands machismo and one-upmanship. When a subordinate and a lesser being offers him a cigarette along with a critique of his romantic prowess, he is not going to wimp out.


"I'd say we've frightened her, Sir."

"I cannot imagine how, or why. I told her I wanted to mate."

"Yup. That might have done it." The Earthling tapped two cigarettes out of a battered paper packet. "Want one, Sir?"

Tarrant-Arragon accepted it, and watched Grievous to see whether it mattered which end of the cigarette went into his mouth.

(advice about Tarrant-Arragon's vocabulary and use of English follows)

"Ah, well, I dare say you've had more young ladies than I've had cups of tea, Sir. But does this one know your ways, Sir? Eh? Or does she think like one of us Earthlings?"

Tarrant-Arragon didn't reply. He blew a perfect smoke ring, and watched its wavering ascent.

"Oh, splendid, Sir! Where did you learn to do that?" Apparently, Grievous thought flattery was expected.

Tarrant-Arragon grinned. "I've watched Earthling movies off your satellites, mostly for pointers on your courting customs. I find this smoking somewhat intoxicating. Will it adversely affect my breath for kissing?"

"It might, Sir. I shouldn't let that worry you. A girl will put up with all sorts of ill treatment if she knows she's going to marry a prince."

"No doubt," Tarrant-Arragon said, savaging the cigarette under his heel.

"Oh, that's right!" Grievous slapped his forehead. "You don't intend to inform her of her great good fortune, do you, Sir? It's going to be romantic, like Beauty And The Beast. Next thing we know, you'll be wanting her to love you for your sweet nature and kind heart."


If blowing smoke rings is a measure of a smoker's excellence, Tarrant-Arragon manages to prove himself superior to Grievous, before he finds a plausible and macho reason to extinguish the cigarette.

I think this is my only "smoking" scene in my books. Just as movie actors of a certain generation liked to smoke because smoking provided a compact activity, so authors need some kind of "business" for their characters to engage in while they are delivering dialogue.

It's not always easy. Characters cannot constantly be drinking, or having sex (though those are favorite activities when something really important needs to be said). Eating presents logistical problems in a romance, alien or otherwise. You don't want people talking with their mouths full. Having a bath works within reason, but other bathroom activities may be frowned upon. Exercising is a good one, or sewing, card-playing, or staring into space (through a Bridge window).

What do you like your alien romance characters to be doing while they have a heart-to-heart?

Happy Mothers' Day!


  1. I often like characters to discuss important matters while in a car on the way to dealing with the next practical problem on their "to do" list. Talking over dinner isn't bad, either; they can converse BETWEEN bites. An excellent device would be to have them converse while working on some kind of manual-labor project, although I haven't used that much. I have seen writing instruction that sternly warns the writer not to put characters in a car or in front of a cup of coffee for this purpose. Why not? Sure, it can be overdone and become cliched, but in judicious amounts, it's true to real life, since those are the kinds of situations in which much of our conversation occurs. In the car, in particular, you have a "captive audience." (I found family trips an ordeal because Mamma would turn off the radio and talk nonstop, and her talking consisted entirely of griping and scolding.) That said, the "cup of coffee" setting can certainly be overdone. I once did a first edit on a novel in which not only did every important conversation take place over coffee, the characters did exactly the same hand motions described in EXACTLY the same words in each scene. RE smoking, I read the other day that the MPAA is going to start considering smoking as well as sex, violence, and language in the rating of films. Their heart is in the right place, but there's a difference between gratuitous glamorization of smoking and the use of it as appropriate to character and setting -- which they seem to recognize, thank goodness. They don't plan to "mark down" a movie for including characters who smoke in a historical setting in which it was a common practice. (I remember when women pushed shopping carts around supermarkets with lit cigarettes in hand. Yuck.)

  2. First of all, I refuse to have anything to do with a universe in which mommies are not revered. Happy Mother's Day!

    Second, I think whatever else is going on ought to enhance the characters involved in the heart-to-heart talk. For example, I wouldn't have an engineer sitting down to his coffee. I'd have him sitting on the floor fixing some complicated component of the hyperspace engine with a 2-liter container of hot coffee within reach.

  3. Anonymous2:07 PM EDT

    Hmm. That's a toughie. I haven't done too many of those scenes. There's one done over food prep, but that one's without aliens. I do have an alien who receives ritual grooming on a regular basis. That would be a good setting, I think. After dinner lounging, perhaps?

  4. Oh, David,

    A ritual grooming would be a spectacular time for a heart-to-heart, especially for embarrassing intimate subjects while "She" is doing "His" back or his butt!

    When you say grooming, are you thinking hairdressing? Mane-trimming? Or nit-picking? Or pedicure?

    My smoking scene was where the side-kick performs a Greek chorus function of commenting on the hero's behavior... and indeed, the hero could well open up to his body servant or spa attendant to throw out trial balloons that he would never dare mention to his new love-interest.