Are we Dead Yet?

by | May 13, 2012 | General | 15 comments

I’ve been fortunate to have played host on my blog to a very interesting discussion on the rise in popularity of ‘cipher’ characters – protagonists who are blank slates. The most topical one at the moment is Anastasia – the female main character in Fifty Shades of Grey. She is, by no means, the only one.  Increasingly, I’m coming across characters, in both erotica and in erotic romance, who have no goals, no aspirations, no talents, no agency. This is especially true when it comes to sexually submissive characters.

It goes against everything I was taught as a writer, and against all the most celebrated literary characters who are held up as exemplars of brilliant characterization.  And yet these novels are wildly popular. Too popular to simply discount as literary flukes. Too well-liked to attribute their popularity to a readership lacking in discernment.

I think it behooves us as writers to examine how it became not only acceptable, but desirable to deliver up protagonists with no personality, no agency.  And then to examine what has happened in our culture to support or encourage this change. Finally, I think we are required to consider the ramifications of this shift.

As interactive media evolved, it allowed for a very different kind of relationship between the story and the consumer.  There were always role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, but the rise of the computer game enabled the creation of story-space that required the immersion and active participation of the player.  The once maligned 2nd Person POV became a necessary narrative device for interactive gaming.  Writing games necessitated the author to, in essence, make a hole in the storyworld where the player could insert themselves, and allow enough flexibility of plot to make the player feel like he or she had invested enough agency to care about the outcome of the story/game.

Post-modernism greatly influenced many aspects of creative content creation.  There was a thorough democratization of the validity and worth of opinion and experience. Expertise, craftsmanship, authority of the subject were rejected in favour of the lived experience of the common man/woman.  Entertainment types like reality TV have become very popular, valorizing the experience of the everyman – and turning it into spectacle. It also is very cheaply produced entertainment. It doesn’t require a lot of the creative expertise of earlier forms – actors, writers, set designers, etc.

From a literary theory perspective, the rise of new ways of understanding the author’s role in the narrative exchange between the text and the reader forced us to examine where meaning-making lies. And in the latter half of the 20th century, it was generally agreed that the reader played a much greater part in the reader-text-writer relationship than previously acknowledged. Readers internalize the written text and then, essentially, re-write it into their own experience.  This allows novels to have the intensely personal impact that they have on us.

This has influenced writing enormously. Writers began to accept their roles as proposers of fictionality rather than transferrers of truths, and attempted to write increasingly more ‘open’ texts, in which the reader was left to formulate conclusions themselves.  It no longer matters what the novel meant to the writer as he or she wrote it. Now all that matters is what it means to the reader through the filter of their interpretation.

So, in a way, it’s not all that surprising that startlingly vapid characters like Anastasia, are as popular as they are.  As one commenter on my blog said: “I like to immerse myself into what I’m reading and imbue characters with my own thoughts and ideas.” And what better way to do this than to provide the reader with an essentially empty vessel? As another commenter wrote: “…she will be easy to step into as an identity character because so little of her is really fleshed out.”

 It occurs to me that this is a reflection of a greater sociological polarization.  Not only does it seem we are, as a factionalized society, unwilling to listen to an opposing argument or consider that any part of it might be valid, but now we can no longer even tolerate the fictional portrayal of characters who cannot be easily made into ourselves.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that there are deeply feminist implications in the rise in popularity of female characters who have no goals or aims or aspirations other than to be a compliment to the male protagonist in the story, but I don’t really want to get into that discussion.

The desire for empty vessels into which we can insert ourselves literarily has broader implications that go beyond gender.  At its heart, this relates to a society in which individuals have no interest in the experiences of others.  It is not enough to sympathize with or be co-travelers on a character’s fictional journey. We have to have space made for us to be in the starring role.  And I have to wonder whether this is a fundamental product of a consumer culture in which the customer’s voice is, ostensibly, the only one that matters. Have we had our consumer egos pandered to with such intensity, that we cannot tolerate the other, the alien, the different?  If it is not our story, is it unconsumable to us now?

I think Barthes was simply a little premature. The ‘Death of the Author’ did not occur when we relinquished the role of meaning making to readers. But when writers can no longer write rich, complex, evolved main characters and are compelled, if they want to be popular, to write empty vessels instead, then it really is the death of the author.

It is fairly easy to program a computer to spit out a sequence of fictional events. And certainly, most of the scenarios we create in fiction are not all that new.  The thing that afforded writers creative space was to write interesting characters who transgressed through those familiar landscapes in new and interesting ways. Now, it seems, we are not required to do that either.

Are we dead, yet?

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, RG,

    I really don't think that the "empty character" syndrome is as pervasive as you suggest. The philosophical influences you've identified undoubtedly have encouraged some authors to create characters that leave more room for reader interpretation. However, I honestly think the shallow or non-existent characterization one sees in FSOG reflects the author's lack of skill and experience. Certainly, I suspect she's even less familiar with the tenets of post-modernism than I am!

    I read plenty of contemporary fiction with rich, complex heroines – Katnis from THE HUNGER GAMES, to choose a best selling example. So the question is not so much "why are authors currently creating fiction where the heroines are blank slates" as "why do we have several outstanding examples of fiction like this that has become wildly popular".

    Is it because the heroines are empty vessels? Or in spite of this flaw?

    On your Goodreads blog, I advanced one theory, but I'm not at all sure.

    I look forward to reading other comments.

  2. Alessia Brio

    Very thought-provoking post. Until 50 Shades proved me wrong, I had categorized the "empty vessel" protagonist's popularity as a side effect of the egocentricity of teens & tweens — particular female adolescents, about whom the world revolves. When the adult equivalent of Twilight's Bella gained such wild popularity, I had to rethink that theory.

    There's also a disturbing prevalence of "reality" programming, and I believe the two are intricately related. It seems to originate from the same sort of selfishness. Not a miserly selfishness, but as a means of asserting one's meaning. My *thumps chest* experiences matter. In this corporate-controlled society, my SELF matters. My problems are real. Sharing my personal struggles validates me in some twisted fashion.

    We are bombarded with messages about our insignificance, and the forms of entertainment we choose to consume are reflective of our desire to negate those messages.

    As authors, we've all heard the saying: "There's no such thing as bad publicity." For a populace being herded into social castes by financial overlords, the equivalent is: "There is no such thing as negative attention."

    Sorry, I've rambled.

    Good post! 🙂

  3. Jess Schira

    For the past few years, I've been trying to understand why I've been disillusioned with erotica, but I couldn't put my finger on why. You've hit the nail on the head, it's the one dimensional characters.

    I think this problem has to causes, to begin with I have a hunch more and more authors have taken the indy route. I think most indy authors do a really nice job of turning out beautifully polished pieces, others either don't bother to have their manuscripts read prior publishing, or they don't look for readers who will offer genuine opinions of the work and point out flaws, such as weak characters.

    The other issue I think some erotica authors have run into is that they've become so focused on sex, and putting their characters in as many unique sexual situations as possible, that they fail to look into things like character development and plot.

  4. Remittance Girl

    Hi Lisabet,

    Well, you and DL King share the same opinion. It's certainly not the first time someone accused me of crying wolf and I'd loved to be proved wrong that this is a trend. I guess we will find out in the next few years.

    Hello Alessia,

    Yes, I do believe that it is partially a reaction to people feeling powerless in the face of massive systems that treat them like sheep. But in truth, power has always treated the common man as insignificant. And in the past, it was literature that railed against that and insisted on our significance by writing significant characters. Now, my feeling is that there are several reasons for this allure of the empty vessel. Partly so that readers can fit themselves into the character, no matter who they are. The other is a darker one – a sort of banal malaise. A yearning to relieve the pressure of significance. But that's another post.

    Hi Jess,

    I could say I'm disillusioned with erotica, but actually, I'm disillusioned with a lot of fiction, period. Personally, I think it is the demise of the literary editor. There are fewer around now, and those that still exist are not only unaffordable to indie-published authors, but are no longer even provided by the large publishers.

    These days I look at newly published sci-fi books that do double duty as doorstops and KNOW that 30% of it would have been excised by any decent editor.

    On the positive note, the rise in ebooks allows for the publication of novellas and long short stories: formats which – for the last 20 years – most publishers wouldn't touch. Every story has its optimal length. We no longer have to pad for the sake of publication. Only for the sake of extra bucks.

  5. Ashley R Lister

    It's a sad reflection on culture when anodyne characters are flavour of the month.

    I do worry that this is what our dumbed-down society craves – emotional content that can be expressed as effortlessly as pressing a LIKE button.

    Fantastic – and thought-provoking post.


  6. Nikki Magennis

    What fascinating ideas. A very interesting and provocative article and great comments too.

    (I'm not a spambot. I realise that comment sounds like one. Perhaps those anonymous messages could be considered the ultimate empty vessel dialogue.)

    Do you mean something to do with the huge emphasis on individualism, RG? I have wondered before if the reality tv, rise of celebs, etc was a reaction to our increasingly secular, individual focussed world. Without god to tell us what to do, we seem to become increasingly solipsist. (I'm not religious).

    I think you may be right, about the empty vessel idea and post modernism (though I'm not up on literary theory). The idea of writing a strong, perhaps unreliable character's POV could seem slightly blasphemous in terms of post modernist ideas. Increasingly aware of her inescapable subjectivity, the author tries to erase herself from the text. Maybe it's more to do with attempts to immerse a reader in the story, though?

    'Show don't tell' seems to bump up against strong characters in a way – it's all about veracity, or attempted veracity, and there's less space for playfulness, which I think maybe needs a bit of exposition in order to move things around.

    Am I making any sense at all? Apologies if not, I tend to need to write these thoughts out to try to make sense of them.

    Anyway, great read.

  7. helgaleena

    I have been in the habit of characterizing any story submitted to our press as 'erotic romance' rather than erotica if the characters are compelling.

    There is a tendency for some who write erotica to think of it as mere 'porn' with not other object than reader titilation. There lies loss of the literary. I for one stand firm against such a tendency.

  8. cj-lemire

    An interesting and thought provoking post. One in which I found myself reacting to and wanting to comment on the side issues, rather than your main point.

    I have to admit, when I encounter a sexually submissive character without goals, aspirations, or agency of her own—it's almost always a 'her'—my first thought is that this author has no experience with BDSM, and didn't bother to research the lifestyle in any depth. Some of the strongest people I know are sexual submissives—what they do for kicks is not for the faint of heart—and doormats make lousy submissives in fiction just as much as they do in real life.

    That said, I suppose a case could be made that O was the original sexually submissive cipher character. Although from a storytelling perspective L'Histoire d'O is kind of a mess all around.

    I also have to disagree with what helgaleena said. Erotic romance is not just erotica with compelling characters or strong plotting, it's a different genre entirely. Erotic romance has a specific type of plot, a love story, and the requisite HEA/HFN ending. It is, or at least it ought to be, possible to tell a story of a compelling character on a sexual journey, with strong storytelling, regardless of whether that character is in love. Such a story would be properly classified as erotica, and not as erotic romance.

  9. Steve Isaak

    For me, it's this basic, whether it's fiction, poetry, erotica/erotic romance/whatever the f**k you label it: Write the best story you can, with the best characters you can, every time you sit down to write. And allow for a little playfulness in the mix, but make sure that playfulness that ties into the story or adds a further/intriguing wrinkle to the proceedings or characters. . . focus, but not so much you lose your sense of spontaneity.

    Not every story or poem we write will be our best, but we can at least raise the bar on what's worth reading – and any publisher worth our time will (hopefully) appreciate that.

    As one of my writer friends said in a recent article, "Cream rises."

  10. Steve Isaak

    And thanks for writing/posting this excellent article!

  11. Remittance Girl

    Hello Nikki,

    I think it has everything to do with the immersion of the reader. The question is… why did we seem to have no problem immersing ourselves in novels containing very strong, unique characters before, and now find this harder?

    I'm not sure that the 'show, don't tell' rule has much to do with it. 50 shades is chock a block full of diegetic writing.

    "Without god to tell us what to do, we seem to become increasingly solipsist"

    That's an interesting idea. Nietzsche would argue that the exact opposite is true. But I do have to wonder if everyone was altogether ready for the death of god. Determining one's own purpose in life (rather than having it dictated to you) requires energy, imagination, self-direction and self-discipline.

    You're making lots of sense. You've brought up a lot of very deep questions. None of which I have an answer to 😛

    Hi Helgaleena,

    Well that pretty much ensures that I will never submit to your press. Not because I don't write incredibly complex characters, but because I never write a happy ending. I'm sure I won't be missed.

    Meanwhile, 50 shades of Grey is most definitely an erotic romance, if you take the series as a whole.

    Hello Steve,
    Bravo, that's spirit raising stuff! Thank you. We all needed that. Well, I did, anyway.

  12. Jean Roberta

    Intriguing article, RG. What I've noticed is a polarization of female characters: the vapid heroine of "romance" vs. the kick-ass babe of the Xenaverse, spec-fic and some novels with a YA following including the Harry Potter series (why is Hermione not more central?) & The Hunger Games.
    Maybe heterosexual romance (incl. erotic romance) is an inherently conservative genre in which females with agency are hard to fit into a traditional narrative. (This would be esp. true for historical romances set in eras when women actually didn't have "human" rights.) Of course, there could be other factors involved, including the rise of inexperienced writers via the Internet.

  13. Harper Eliot (formerly Lady Grinning Soul)

    "Have we had our consumer egos pandered to with such intensity, that we cannot tolerate the other, the alien, the different?"

    I think this is a really good point but it seems to me that there is another side to it as well. Since the turn of the century, the advancements in psychology and psychotherapy and their hold over people is really quite significant. This interest in human beings has become an obsession with self. Every day I see people advising or commenting on the idea of "finding yourself" and others then taking this to mean deep self-analysis and exploration. But it's become so focused that we are no longer encouraged to learn about ourselves in the context of this world, nor even as a body of people. It's become something very person and very self-absorbed…

    Therefore this obsession and interest in self is not only coming inwards from consumerism but also outwards from an apparent desire for "self-knowledge". How are we supposed to sympathise with those 'other' to us when we're so busy trying to find ourselves?

    Really interesting article. Thank you.

  14. Garceus

    Hi RG!

    I haven't read 50 Shades yet, I had a chance to check out an ebook version and didn't get very far in it. I was just drawn away by other things and had to hand it back in. I'm going to assume though that I will agree with what you say of it until I have a chance to read it.

    I'm not sure if we have arrived yet at the age of empty characters, there have always been empty characters, but I think we could arrive at that age soon. Today's culture in America reminds me a great deal of Ray Bradbury's "Fahreinheit 451" with its emphasis on shallow entertainment (and shallow characters) as a distraction from from larger problems. If we haven't arrived yet at an age of empty characters I can easily believe we're headed there. I'm thinking of social media like Facebook where people have hundreds of Friends, but don;t actually know anybody. I think people in general are becoming lonlier even as social media takes off. This may be reflected in future literature in as much as the coming generation doesn't read books that much but gets its stories from electronic media instead, especially video games.

    I'm especially struck by the neccessity of falsehood in news media persona such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox and Friends and such. The persona has become the brand itself so that you have this person on TV and god knows what they really believe, they have to give opinions that are only in accord with the brand of the media they inhabit while keeping their personalities off stage. Like June with her notebooks, right? Fantasy me or real me?

    This was a thought provoking post.



  15. Gripper

    On the question of empty characters, I tend to agree that erotica is now written primarily with the object of getting to the money shot, or vinegar stroke as I once called it, as quickly and with as many well-hung men/voluptuous women/dripping vampires/phallic monsters/rotting undead (delete as required) as possible. The depictions of casual, unprotected sex with strangers in a crowded bus/rocketing train/turbulent aircraft/cramped toilet/dank graveyard (delete as required)are simply vacuous and empty couplings between strange characters who rarely know the name of the other party. I am not in the least bit aroused or titillated by any of the recent, shady, 'best seller' erotica on offer at the moment.
    I have written a book, It's Been a Pleasure, with well developed characters who are normal, average and in no way strange. The sex they share is consensual, loving, erotic and takes, in one case, twenty pages from the first touch to the grand finale. In no way is it comparable to the type of 'sex' on offer in the great majority of books available right now.
    I'm not suggesting it is a better book, simply that it is a rather more satisfying read than most. But then I would say that, wouldn't I?

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