Sex in writing

There’s no getting away from the fact that sex sells books and all sorts of other things (including laundry detergent and breakfast cereal). But if you intend to use it in your writing it has to be a turning point in your novel, you can’t have your characters heading off to the bedroom with no reason at all as that can get boring very quickly.

I normally sprinkle various forms of sexual conduct across my stories as it can establish an extremely emotional scene and charged set of actions by my characters.  Read any good book where sexual need or tension builds steadily as the story progresses and it will usually culminate in an intense act of love that you can easily empathise with.  But on the other side of the coin, sex needn’t always be joyful in your writing and this can be just as powerful a plot device as an expression of love, such as:

  • A forced or arranged marriage.
  • Rape.
  • Where there is an ulterior motive, such as trying to get more political power or to manipulate someone through sex.
  • Prostitution.
  • Torture.
  • Intimidation.

Now, these are all absolutely horrible reasons for sex but many fantasy stories are set in a more primitive or medieval time and if you read up about sexual conduct in the past, you’ll find that these kinds of things happened much more often than they do today – usually because of a lack of protection.  Just think of the Viking invasion, or bandits marauding the countryside, or nobles taking what they wanted because they could, or enforced slavery.  The way society was structured and the cultural norms of the past were significantly different than they are today; religious leaders and feudal overlords were extremely powerful and acted in ways that we would think barbaric, but at the time they would have considered it their right.  Writing such acts into your work can ignite emotions in your readers that will keep them turning each page, as these devices can provide your characters with the motivation for performing or avoiding the sexual act in the first place, or for avenging it afterwards, or for making something extraordinary happen that drives your plot forward.

And because you’re writing fantasy, sex can have amazing repercussions for a character (such as new powers, visions, portals opening to other worlds) or the most normal thing could happen (such as conceiving a child, falling in love or feeling used).  But this is fantasy, so even the normal can be turned into something unusual:

  • Demon babies tearing their way out of the womb.
  • Gods using humans as their play things.
  • Spirits stealing your soul at climax.

I’m sure you get the drift.  However it often amazes me how prudish even famous fantasy writers can be when describing the act of sex even though there is an enormous amount of really graphic violence going on elsewhere in their novel.  It’s perfectly understandable if you are writing for a younger audience to tone it down, but you can be a little more descriptive if you’re aiming at an adult audience.  I’m not necessarily talking about writing down all the ins and outs of sex, as I’ve read fantasy where the descriptions of sex are over the top and it detracts from the story, but if your characters just give each other a few alluring side-glances the morning after it does tend to leave you feeling a bit let down.  Often the most powerful descriptions of sex are those that explain how the characters feel, both physically and mentally, during the build-up of the sex scene and immediately after.  Readers want to know that the characters are using all of their senses during the experience, and possibly other magical senses or abilities that your fantasy world has to offer.

But regardless of how graphically you write it, sex (whether it is for love or the polar opposite) still has to be a change device in your story, as that will be the expectation of your readers.  The act itself has to make the earth move (so to speak) in more than one way or the reader will be left wondering why you bothered.  Something significant has to shift, or some revelation happen, so that your characters are pushed in a different direction from where they started.   One author who has used sex both successfully and unsuccessfully in her books is Jean M Auel.  In Clan of the Cave Bear and  The Mammoth Hunters she used sex and its outcomes for significant plot turns throughout the story, but in the other books in the Earth’s Children series it just seems to be used as an excuse for some titillation or to add a few extra pages – nothing happens afterwards, the characters just dust themselves off and get on with their day.  It tends to leave you feeling a bit deflated as you expect something to happen, but it doesn’t.

Some great examples of sex and sexual behaviour as a plot device can be found in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, where it has been used in a broad variety of ways, and just about every incident marks a plot change or advancement – such as the naked embarrassment of the dwarf on his wedding night and the evil queen’s incestuous passion for her brother.  Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy also has some brilliant examples, where sex is used as the motivation behind characters doing things they normally wouldn’t.  And another is Philipa Gregory who wouldn’t normally be classified as a fantasy writer, but she does inject elements of fantasy into her books intertwined with sex, such as The White Queen where some beautifully crafted witchery entices a king to the main character’s door.

Just to complicate this blog post, you don’t always need an act of sex in your book to build up the emotions you’re looking for.  Just look at the works of Jane Austin or Emily Bronte.  There is an extraordinary amount of sexual tension in their novels which just keeps building and building.  But they used this very skilfully to push their characters through various shifts in the plot.

Writing about sex can be as challenging as writing a battle scene.  There are strategies and tactics, winners and losers, hurt and betrayal, love and hate – but there is always an outcome.

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