One of the most common questions I get, as a male writer, is “How do you write female characters?” Sometimes it’s asked as a compliment, by someone who thinks I write very believable female characters. Other times it’s asked with the implication that I don’t know what I’m doing and that my characters aren’t realistic. And sometimes it’s another writer who wants to write their own characters more effectively even if they’re a different gender.
My usual answer is that I focus on writing each character as an individual, rather than as a representation of their gender (or for that matter, their race, religion, or sexual orientation). If I tried to write a character to be what I think is a realistic, acceptable portrayal of a Caucasian/Italian teenage lesbian woman, I’d end up with a walking stereotype. But if I write Gabby Palladino, she is an individual, and if there are aspects of her that don’t fit with someone’s expectations, well, that’s life. Not everyone fits within the norm.
Which got me to thinking about how different a lot of my characters are when it comes to where they “fit” when it comes to masculinity/femininity, sexuality, their gender portrayal, and so on. And I realized that each of my main female leads is completely different, so much so that the question “How do you write female characters?” becomes completely irrelevant.
During the course of Manifestation and its upcoming sequel Contamination, there are five main female characters who get significant “screen time”: Gabby Palladino, Tock Zipporah, Dr. Patricia Caldwell, Maelyssa Southeby, and Minori Tsujino. And looking at them, I find it impossible to pin down a single common trait that all five share that could be used to define what makes them female.
Gabby is a feminine, shy, gentle person. She’s a lesbian. She wears feminine-style clothes, skirts, and so on. And she has conservative attitudes towards sex.
Tock is much more masculine, plus she’s a loudmouth and someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone. She’s bisexual. She dresses in practical clothes, jeans, flannel shirts. And she views sex as no big deal; if it feels good, do it.
Dr. Caldwell is classy and professional. She wears business-style clothes, but opts for skirt-suits rather than pants-suits to add a touch of femininity. She has no time for romance because she is a career-minded woman.
Mae is a punk rock skater girl. She wears cut-off denim, heavy metal t-shirts, dark makeup, and lots of (stolen) jewelry. She’s straight, but she hasn’t ever dated and she doesn’t really know much about sex.
Minori is a highly religious, spiritual, pure person. She dresses in conservative, simple, modest clothes. She’s asexual. She believes premarital sex is a sin.
These characters have almost nothing in common. Their personal styles, the way they portray their gender, their views towards sex and relationships, all of it is unique to each individual. And I didn’t make them like this on purpose. Each character simply developed with their own unique traits.
So maybe next time someone asks me, “How do you write female characters?” I should ask them, “Which kind of female characters?” Because no two are alike. Just like no two real people are quite alike. I don’t know what traits people are looking for in a “female character” that they think will define whether that character is believable or not. Or what it is that they think makes me, as a male, incapable of writing a female. Because it doesn’t matter if I write characters who fit into people’s normal perceptions of masculine or feminine traits. What matters is whether people like Gabby, Tock, and the others for who they are. None of them are defined by their gender. And I hope readers will look at them all with an open mind.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
I’m not a sports person, and I went into reading this novel knowing nothing about tennis beyond the basics: they hit the ball back and forth until someone misses and for some reason the score goes up by 15 at a time. For someone who knows more about tennis than me, there’s a lot of detailed descriptions of the various matches throughout the book, talking about backhands and deuces and sets and all the strategy and mind games that go into being a winner. I was a bit lost through those parts, but I really enjoyed the other parts of the book: the parts about this character’s life, his dreams, his psychology, and the friends and women he met along the way.
In between the tennis matches there’s sex, drama, battles with family, bruised egos, paparazzi scandals, and even a few life-or-death situations. The book follows Jaxie Skinner from age 3 to 38, through his early relationships and young tennis career, then into his comeback both as a returning tennis star and as a man who is finally figuring out what he really wants in life. He looks at people in a way that adds some new insight into their lives, and the analysis of people’s desires and motivations is what I found the most interesting. Even during the tennis matches, I was more interested in reading about how some players would get psyched out and succumb to anger, impatience, immaturity, or overconfidence. In most of the matches, I felt like these personality faults were what really led to someone’s defeat, more than anything about the actual hitting of the ball and whether you played close to the net or far back from it.
There were a few sections here and there that seemed underdeveloped and overdramatized, specifically when dealing with a couple of Jaxie’s relationships. On two separate occasions he gets involved with girls that are bad news, and he ends up getting in some serious trouble (once with a girl’s jealous ex, the other time with a woman’s husband when he discovered her affair with Jaxie). Since these relationships weren’t developed enough to really give me a strong investment in them, the resulting volatile endings seemed a bit over the top. By comparison, the two more well-developed relationships (one with a Russian tennis star, the other with a college girl when Jaxie is in his 30’s) were more integral and memorable. In the end, I felt like the book would have been stronger if it had only focused on the two more meaningful and important relationships, and if it had skipped over the two less important, glossed-over relationships. Four relationships (early teens, late teens, 20’s, and 30’s) is realistic enough when looking at this long of a stretch of someone’s life, but I think it was more than the narrative could support.
That said, the rest of the book was interesting and kept me involved right up until the end. The couple of slow spots didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment. And the fact that I don’t like tennis at all didn’t make me like the book any less. I read the book for the character development, not for the sports, and I enjoyed what I got out of it.
Cheating is a common trope in romance stories. It can add a lot of tension and conflict to a story, leaving the reader uncertain whether the couple will pull through and mend their relationship or if they’ll end up breaking up and being unable to forgive each other.
It’s easy to say, speaking very generally, that “cheating is wrong.” I doubt there’s many people that would promote cheating on your partner in real life. If you’ve been cheated on, it hurts like hell, and many people who’ve cheated on someone else end up wracked with guilt over it. Alternatively, infidelity could be rationalized by saying that the relationship was already broken due to other problems. If someone’s partner is abusive, uncaring, or for whatever reason doesn’t deserve them, then one might not care if they get cheated on because “they deserved it.” Though you could also argue that it’s best to end the relationship before getting involved with someone new. Oftentimes, relationship problems lead to people cheating because they’ve already begun pulling away from their partner even if the relationship isn’t over yet. As Jess said in When Harry Met Sally, “Marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.”
But when it comes to writing a novel, there can be a wide variety of ways to express infidelity. I’d like to explore four different angles: the Main Character as the cheater, the MC as the victim, cheating as a mistake, and cheating as the right choice.
The Main Character Cheated
In most romance novels I’ve read, the story is usually told in first person from the main character’s perspective (usually a woman; I haven’t yet found a romance novel told primarily from a male lead’s point of view). The basic formula of a romance novel is: they meet, there’s chemistry and attraction, the relationship grows more serious, then there’s some kind of crisis (which leads the reader to fear the relationship won’t work out), and at the end the crisis is either resolved or it leads to everything falling apart. The ending of a romance is almost always either “they live happily ever after” or “they broke up but learned valuable life lessons as a result.”
(Note: This formula is based on my personal reading experience, but if you’ve read any books that greatly deviate from it, I’d love to hear about them.)
The “crisis” that leads to the relationship either ending or surviving can come in a variety of ways. I’ve read novels recently where the crisis could be anything from a lie being revealed, to a betrayal, to an ex-girlfriend coming back into the picture and causing conflict, and so on. The main character cheating is, by this formula, just another source of conflict.
So what leads the MC to cheat? Well, as an example from a friend’s book I once read, it could be because the MC actually isn’t happy in the relationship and they’re subconsciously sabotaging it. In one novel I read, the MC cheated on her fiance with the fiance’s brother, then tried to cover it up, only to have the lid blown off the lie at the wedding. The relationship was torn apart, and the affair with the brother couldn’t last either. In the long run, the MC broke things off with both the fiance and the brother, and ended up making some major changes and starting her life over. While as a reader I was disappointed in the MC’s decisions, in the long run, I could see that she’d learned some valuable things and she was ready to move on. The ending left me with the hope that her next relationship would be more successful, because she’d learned not to “fake” being happy with a man she didn’t truly love.
Now, it’s possible a story could involve the MC cheating without suffering any consequences. It would all depend on how it was portrayed. But I think, as a reader, it’s important for me to see consequences occurring and lessons being learned. Because if the MC never even feels a twinge of guilt, I would just see them as immoral, and I’d likely lose sympathy. But if the MC changes their life afterwards, the cheating can be seen as a mistake that they overcame. If a writer wanted to show the other side, where it wasn’t even treated as a mistake, it would be important to show the MC’s perspective and help the reader understand why they don’t regret it. It would be necessary in order to keep the reader rooting for the MC.
The Main Character is the Victim
Alternatively, the MC might be the one who’s been cheated on. In this case, it’s more likely that the cheating will be painted as simply wrong. It puts the MC’s partner in the role of the villain, hurting the MC and ruining the relationship. The MC might break the relationship off and move on, finally leaving behind someone who didn’t deserve them. Or the MC might find it in their heart to forgive their partner after the partner works to make things right.
The difference here, regardless of whether the relationship is salvaged or ruined, is that the MC wasn’t the one who made a decision that led to the conflict. If the MC chose to cheat, they face consequences they must address based on their own actions. If their partner cheated, it’s more like a catalyst coming from an outside source. It could serve as a “wake up call,” letting the MC see their partner for who they really are. Or alternatively, if the MC was mistreating their partner and driving them away, then the MC might come to realize something about themselves. There could be introspection as they consider how they neglected their partner or in some other way allowed their partner to slip away. How this is addressed–whether the MC is seen as the wrongdoer or their partner is–will depend a lot on the MC’s perspective. For example, the MC might come to say, “I’ve been mistreating them, no wonder they sought out someone else,” or they might say, “Nothing I did makes me deserve this, they had no right to hurt me.”
The focus here, of course, is still on what the MC gets out of it, and what they decide in the end. They can choose to forgive their partner, or choose to end it all. What decision they will make will be the question that will keep the reader hooked.
Cheating as a Mistake
I already touched on this a bit in the above sections, but I’d like to go into more detail. Cheating might be seen as a mistake the MC (or their partner) made, and a sign that the character isn’t perfect. Everyone succumbs to temptation now and then, and there have been stories about seduction and weakness going all the way back to biblical tales and ancient Greek myths. Such affairs can have disastrous consequences, such as when Helen of Troy ran off with Paris, leading to the Trojan War (note: while the 2004 film depicts this as a voluntary affair, other versions of this story say that Helen was kidnapped).
There are several different ways to address the “cheating as a mistake” trope. One can be to make the affair lead to consequences, as in the example of Troy, above. Or the victim of the affair might resort to violence or murder, killing either the cheater, the person they cheated with, or both. There could also be less severe consequences, such as a divorce, a broken family, or public scandal if the characters are celebrities and the affair is revealed by the media.
In each of these cases, the consequences of the affair will be far-reaching, and will likely affect the rest of the plot. Though it’s also possible for the consequences to be more internal to the MC. Say, for example, the MC simply struggles with their own actions for the rest of the plot. An example of this is the movie Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise going down a path of dangerous choices because he’s angry with his wife over an almost-affair (the wife confessed that she was tempted to cheat once, but never did). Early in the film, Cruise comes close to sleeping with a prostitute, presumably because he feels betrayed by his wife and he is driven to drastic actions. He stops just short of going through with it when his wife calls his cell phone while he’s at the prostitute’s apartment. Later, he finds out that the prostitute just found out she is HIV-positive, so Cruise barely escaped the serious consequences he would have been faced with if he had slept with her. His actions for the remainder of the movie still continue down a dangerous path, until he finally gets caught in the end.
Cheating as the Right Choice
I started this post saying that it would be hard to consider cheating as the right thing to do, but there are some examples in media that address it this way. One of the most famous is The Notebook. During the main flashback scenes that show the MC’s past, she has a short-lived love affair with a man named Noah, only to have the relationship end, partly due to interference from her parents. Years later, the characters reunite, only by that time, the MC is engaged to another man. It’s clear that the MC doesn’t truly love her fiance, and she ends up cheating on him with Noah, rekindling the romance they ended years ago. The fiance even offers to forgive her if she’ll stay with him, but in the long run, she leaves him for Noah.
Stories like this depict cheating as “the right choice” because the MC ends up with the person she truly loves and is meant to be with. It is still a struggle, and such stories usually involve a moment of indecision where the MC has to choose between their current partner and the person they’re having an affair with. Sometimes, they choose to leave and go with their true love. Other times, like in the classic movie Casablanca, the affair has to end because the characters know it can’t go on. This is the meaning behind Bogart’s most famous line in that film, “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” This is Bogart’s way of telling her that she needs to stay with her husband and not be swept away by the fantasy of a passionate romance that will never work.
In any case, infidelity is a complex issue in many stories, and there are a lot of different ways to address it. Because not every relationship is guaranteed a happily ever after.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
First off, I’d like to open this blog post by saying that this is not a post about prostitution. Though from an economic standpoint, the principles I’ll be discussing can technically be applied to the sex industry, so prostitution will probably come up at some point.
What I’d like to discuss is the economic considerations that relate to sex in your novels. No, this doesn’t just mean that “sex sells” and writing a novel with lots of sex in it will make you money. While erotica can be a bestselling category, the economics of book sales aren’t what I’m talking about. Instead, I’m talking about how sex can be understood by using economic theory to analyze human behavior, and how this can relate to the actions your characters take in your novel.
One of the basics of economic theory states that businesses are in the market to maximize their profits, and consumers are in the market to maximize their happiness. There are a lot of complicated variables that get factored in to those basics (and you’d need an economics major, not a writer, to go into full detail about them), but the general idea is pretty simple. A business will make a decision based on the bottom line. A consumer will make a decision based on their own personal needs and desires.
To use a simple example of how this works in practice, consider a company that is thinking of raising its prices. The company knows that by raising their prices, they will lose some customers. But if the remaining customers are willing to pay the higher price, they’ll still do it. If too many customers leave, it won’t be worth it. How many customers leave depends on whether they think they will be more satisfied with a different product, perhaps for a lower price. For example, let’s say you have 100 customers a day paying $10 for your product, earning you $1000. If you raise the price to $11 and lose five customers, you still have 95 customers and you earn $1045. If you lose ten customers, on the other hand, you only have 90 left and you make $990. A company will choose the option that leads to the most money, or else change their prices back if it turns out to be a mistake.
So what the hell does this have to do with sex in your novels? Well, economic theory can also be used to describe individual human behavior. Before we get to the sexy parts, take an example of how economics can explain theft. Have you ever wondered why newspaper vending machines aren’t built like soda machines? When you buy a newspaper, you can open the machine and, if you wanted, take as many papers out as you like. You can clean the whole machine out. But what would be the benefit? As a consumer, you’re trying to maximize your happiness. Reading the same day’s news a second time won’t make you any happier, and you’ll never make a worthwhile amount of money trying to sell those papers to people in the street. Cleaning out a soda machine, however, can increase your happiness more, since you can save the extra sodas for later. That’s why soda machines only drop one soda out at a time, instead of letting you open the door and help yourself.
So, why do people decide to have sex? Well, because it makes them happy, of course. And like the newspaper, people might get tired of the same old news every day, but they’ll always be interested in something new and exciting.
On a basic level, this can explain why characters in your novel might decide to cheat on their spouse. They’re tired of the same old thing and want something new. But the economy of sex is a bit more complex than that, and if you’re planning on writing an affair into your story, there are some other variables to consider.
One is risk versus reward. For a company like the one mentioned above, the risk is losing money (if you lose too many customers and your profits drop) and the reward is earning more money (if you only lose a few customers and profits increase). For consumers, the risk is usually the possibility that you’ve wasted your money on an inferior product, while the reward is the happiness that product brings you.
What is the risk versus reward in having an affair? Well, the reward, of course, is sex. Though that reward can be greater if you’re with someone you desire greatly or have strong romantic feelings toward. So the reward might be higher, say, for someone cheating on his wife with a woman he’s fallen in love with, and lower for someone cheating on his wife with a prostitute (see, I told you prostitutes would probably come up). The risk, however, might be lower with the prostitute (who isn’t likely to tell the man’s wife), but be much higher with another woman (especially if she’s a friend of the wife). So the cheating man in this case might need to weigh the risk of getting caught against how much he desires the woman. If the risk of getting caught (and ruining his marriage, losing his family, and being publicly humiliated) are too great, he might decide to break off the affair.
Another variable to consider is supply and demand. Generally, if supply of a product is high, it’s seen as less valuable, but if supply is low, the value increases. Demand is the opposite–if demand is high, the value increases, but if demand is low, the value decreases.
To continue with the example of the cheating spouse in a novel, if the supply of sex is low (in other words, his wife hasn’t been sleeping with him as much as he wants), then he will be more likely to cheat in order to get what he wants. If the demand is high (because he has a lot of desires) he’ll also be more likely to cheat. But if the demand is low (because he has a low sex drive) and the supply is high (because his wife frequently sleeps with him) then cheating isn’t as likely.
Let’s apply all of these theories to a specific novel and see how they work out. I recently read The Bridges of Madison County, and while I didn’t consider it a well-written book, it serves as a good example here. In the book, the character Francesca Johnson cheats on her husband and has a short, four-day affair with a traveling photographer, Robert Kincaid. I’d like to break down the variables of their affair based on the economy of sex as I’ve described above.
Does the affair increase Francesca’s happiness? Absolutely. The risk of getting caught is low, because Francesca’s family is out of town and she lives on an isolated road. As long as she is careful, she’s able to avoid much chance of her neighbors finding out there’s another man at her house. The reward is high (Robert gives her multiple orgasms for the first time in her life). The demand is also high, since she has an uncontrollable desire for Robert and falls madly in love with him. And the previous supply was low, since it’s mentioned in the book that Francesca’s husband is rarely interested in sex anymore. All of the variables are in place to make Francesca’s decision to cheat make perfect sense, from an economic point of view.
Next let’s consider the ending of the book. Francesca wants to run away with Robert, and almost does so. But in the end, she decides against it. Why? Supply, demand, risk, and reward can explain this as well. The supply would obviously be high if she runs off with him, but the demand isn’t high enough for her to leave her home and her family. The reward would be great since she loves Robert and knows he could make her happy, but the risk would be too high. She’d lose her husband, her children, her home, her friends, everything. In the end, those risks outweigh the reward of being with Robert.
There are a lot of other ways the economy of sex can influence your characters’ decisions. The risks of sex can include things like STDs, pregnancy, the chance of emotional rejection by a partner, or the chance of public disdain if your friends or family disapprove. The rewards can include not just the physical pleasure, but also the emotional bonding and fulfillment.
Supply and demand can be seen in more than just the terms of “Does the character want sex?” and “Can the character get sex?” Let’s say your character has two men in her life, one of whom is eager to be with her, the other is resistant. The supply could be high with the first man, but the demand higher with the second. Or if you consider a character who is saving themselves for marriage, the supply might be low while the demand is very high. This can lead to greater temptation and greater risk that the character will decide to take the risk in order to get what they want, even if they might regret it later.
There’s lots of other variables that can be added into these, but this is a pretty good starting point. If you’re writing a novel that includes sex, you might want to consider some of the questions raised here. What does the character risk? What is the reward? How do supply and demand influence their decisions? It might give you a new perspective on how to understand your character and what they do.
Let me rephrase that, since that wording could be interpreted as a couple of hardback copies of your favorite novels flipping each other’s pages under the covers (pun intended).
Lots of books depict scenes that involve sex. The depictions can be either graphic or subdued, described in every erotic detail or done in an artistic fashion. But since I’ve discussed those differences before, I have a different perspective today with regard to literary sex. The idea of sex from a religious, moral, and philosophical view.
I’ve read articles before that discuss things like “slut-shaming,” which is negativity and insults directed at people (most likely women) who embrace their sexuality instead of conforming to a more conservative view on sex. In other words, people will trash-talk women who have an active sex life and treat them as if they’re doing something wrong. Usually, these articles point out the contrast between men and women, since a man that has an active sex life is seen as successful–a Don Juan, a “player,” and someone envied by other men. I’m not going to get into detail about the various views on these issues, since there are plenty of better-informed individuals out there with more expertise on the psychology behind it all (this article is a good example that provides detailed definitions with academic references). Instead, I’d like to examine these ideas about sexuality in relation to characters in novels.
Characters are portrayed differently in many novels (and other forms of media) when it comes to their sexuality. I’m not talking about the descriptions of the physical act itself. Instead, I’m talking about what sex means to the characters and by extension to the reader. A few examples of how sex is portrayed include:
Sex as a Goal – Some stories involve characters trying to seduce others, where having sex is considered the main driving force behind the character. One example of this would be the first American Pie movie, where the four main characters are intent on losing their virginity before they graduate high school. Throughout the film, sex is portrayed in a variety of ways (one couple is in a serious relationship, another is falling in love for the first time, one boy is seduced by an older woman, and another has a one-night stand with a girl who was gone when he woke up in the morning). While each of these situations has an emotionally and thematically different meaning, the overall message is that the boys in the film are “victorious” when they lose their virginity. This is consistent with what I mentioned above about sex often being viewed as something acceptable for men to pursue, and one might argue that female characters in the same roles would be viewed in a more negative light because of society’s preconceptions.
Sex as Emotional Bonding – In many romance stories, there is a long-running “will they/won’t they” tension as the two main characters develop their relationship. In these types of stories, the characters may not end up having sex until well into the story, after they’ve struggled through the early stages of the relationship, faced a near-breakup and overcome it, and then finally confessed their undying love for each other. Certain societal views would generally consider this a more “moral” type of sex, since it’s sex as an expression of deep emotional connections. Also, “make up sex” can be portrayed in some stories as a type of emotional bonding, showing that the characters are reunited after a conflict.
Sex as an Immoral Act – A more negative portrayal and the one most closely associated with the idea of “slut-shaming” mentioned above, sex as an immoral act can take a variety of forms. Sometimes it involves one character in a relationship cheating on the other, showing that they aren’t committed to the relationship (though it’s worth nothing that in somestories, the cheating is celebrated because it involves finding one’s true love (with someone other than the character’s current spouse or partner)). Another example could include one character “stealing” another’s love interest by seducing them, when they had no interest in the person other than taking them away from the main character. Or one character might lead the other on with the idea that they’re going to end up in a committed relationship but instead it only ends up being a one-night stand. This last example can lead to the “innocent” character being heartbroken when they realize that the other person just used them for sex.
Sex as a Release – Sometimes, characters have sex just because they need to release the tension. This can lead to further conflict if one character thought there was a deeper meaning when the other thought it was just a one-time thing. Other times it can be a situation where both characters have no expectations of each other and they simply decide to enjoy the experience, then move on.
There are plenty of other possible ways sex can be portrayed, but even among these examples we have a broad spectrum of potential moral views. Sex can be seen as a victory, a manipulation, an expression of love and affection, or just a quick romp. Depending on an individual’s moral stance, some of these types of sex might be seen as “right” or “wrong.” For example, people who believe that sex should be saved for marriage (or at least, for a committed relationship) might view any one-night stand as an immoral act, while others would simply view it as two consenting adults embracing their sexuality. It’s worth noting, however, that not all one-night stands are created equal; if one character wanted a serious relationship and the other just wanted a good time, then someone’s feelings will end up being hurt when they feel like they were seduced and used.
So what does all this have to do with your novels? Well, if your characters ever end up having sex, it’s possible you’ll end up being faced with the question about what that “means” and what message you’re trying to send. Many readers will believe that your characters’ actions are sending a message about what is or isn’t acceptable. For example, some people argue that most media depictions cast a negative light on any woman who has casual sex and a positive light on any woman who only has sex within a relationship, thus reinforcing a certain moral perspective. A good example of this is the Iron Man movie franchise. In the first two films, Tony Stark’s various one-night stands depict Tony as a glamorous playboy and the women he sleeps with as trashy. Pepper Potts engages in a lot of “slut-shaming” in the way she treats these women:
Pepper: [after Stark’s one night stand with Christine] I have your clothes here; they’ve been dry cleaned and pressed. And there’s a car waiting for you outside that will take you anywhere you’d like to go.
Christine: You must be the famous Pepper Potts.
Pepper: Indeed I am.
Christine: After all these years, Tony still has you picking up the dry cleaning.
Pepper: I do anything and everything Mr. Stark requires. Including occasionally taking out the trash. Will that be all?
Yet while Pepper implies that this girl is “trash,” and makes similar insults to other women throughout the films, Pepper herself is viewed differently when she ends up involved with Tony at the end of the second film. When Pepper and Tony get together, it is portrayed as a declaration of their love for each other and the desire they’ve been hiding from each other for years. No one shames Pepper for this in the way she shamed other women who got involved with Tony. The message here could be interpreted as saying that a committed relationship is good and casual sex is bad.
This is the sort of thing I think it’s important to be aware of when writing a novel. Even if it isn’t intentional, you could end up giving off a similar message (or at least, your readers might interpret a message that you don’t think is there). If you hold the stance that certain kinds of sex are good and others are bad, you might be okay with adding such messages to your novels. If you don’t want your work to be interpreted that way, however, you should give careful thought to how your characters are being depicted.
To give an example from my own writing, I have a few sexually active characters in the series I’m working on. The two primary main characters of the series are Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, and both of their sex lives are seen (to some extent or another) in the course of the books. Both of them, as individuals, have very different views on sex. The differences in their views can be seen in this excerpt from one of the early chapters of Manifestation:
“I’m looking for Frankie,” Gabby said.
Gabby looked her over with a slight frown, and Tock pulled the sheet up tighter over herself. Gabby blushed and looked away, then asked, “Are you . . . are you his girlfriend?”
Tock snorted, denying the notion despite her reaction to the girl’s presence. “Nah,” she replied. “We’s jus’ shaggin’.” She decided to keep telling herself that. “What the fuck’s it to ya?” She didn’t much like the way the girl was acting as if Tock were the one who needed to explain her presence here.
“He’s my brother,” the girl said. Ahh, Tock thought. So that’s it. The strange looks the girl was giving her suddenly made sense. So did the apparent look of hurt and disappointment when she’d learned that Tock was just the girl her brother was fucking.
This scene is Gabby and Tock’s first meeting, and their conflicting views on sex are clearly seen. When Gabby finds a strange girl in her brother’s bed, her first assumption is that Frankie and Tock must be in a serious, committed relationship. In Gabby’s innocent worldview (a worldview influenced by her religious upbringing), she believes that sex should be saved for someone you love. In Tock’s view, there’s nothing wrong with just having a good time.
Is either Gabby or Tock “right” or “wrong”? No. In my opinion, both views can be valid, as long as the views aren’t forced on another person. I think it’s possible to have two characters with two contradictory views on sex and have both of them be perfectly right in their individual opinions. Just like I believe that if someone thinks sex should wait until after marriage, that’s perfectly fine, because that’s what that person believes for themselves. The only time I see it becoming an issue is when one character tries to force their views on another. For example, if Gabby had started insulting Tock in this scene (engaging in “slut-shaming”), then that would show Gabby trying to force her views on Tock. She doesn’t do that, however, even if she disagrees with Tock’s views.
Would Iron Man have been different if Pepper Potts never shamed any of Tony’s girlfriends? The message in those films is clearly one that holds Pepper as being “better” than the other girls. How would that depiction be changed if the shaming scenes had been deleted?
I’m not sure I have an answer to that question, just like I’m not sure if my own characters’ depictions are giving the message I want them to give. My goal is to express Gabby and Tock’s different and conflicting views, without holding one set of views above the other. In my opinion, both are equally valid. But I do worry that people will misconstrue Tock’s sexuality and think that I am sending a message from a certain moral stance.
How do you handle sex and morality in your writing? Do you struggle with the right way to manage these depictions?
I was uncertain what to write about today, so as is my wont, I went to Twitter. One of the Megans I follow (Twitter is a breeding ground for Megans) suggested “How to Write a Sex Scene Using Goats as a Metaphor.”
She failed to clarify whether she meant “How to Write a Sex Scene That Uses Goats as a Metaphor (for sex)” or “Use Goats as a Metaphor for ‘How To Write a Sex Scene.'” I’m choosing to interpret it as the latter; that is to say, goats will be my metaphor for how to write, not for sex. Though I expect there will be some gray areas.
So how do you write a sex scene? It’s an area many writers find uncomfortable. I’m going to speak frankly, however, so if the previous paragraph about you goats and sex didn’t scare you off, be warned that adult content is coming (pun intended).
First, allow me to precursor this by saying I’m not an erotica writer. I have written my fair share of smut, however, which can be found on certain corners of the internet if you know where to look. I’ll be sharing a sample of it below, so if you’re not shy, you can read it and judge for yourself whether I write it well enough to be giving advice on the subject.
The first thing I’ll suggest is the same thing every experienced writer will tell you about writing anything: you need to read a lot. You have to write what you know, and in the case of sex scenes, “what you know” doesn’t necessarily have to be based on your own real life experiences. It can be based on what you’ve read. By reading more erotica, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and that’s the best way to learn how to write it yourself. I also suggest reading a wide variety, both the good and the bad. Read sex scenes like a goat in a junkyard: don’t discriminate, and chew on everything you can find. Sure, you might chip a tooth on a dull piece of tin or some tough rubber, but you’ll learn something in the process. After all, what better way to learn what NOT to do in your writing, than to read some bad erotica and learn from its mistakes (I’m looking at you, 50 shades of Grey)?
I’ve read more than my fair share, and based on what I’ve read, I’m going to lay out a few general categories:
1. The Ram – These smut stories rush right into the dirty parts without any style or grace. The result is usually poor writing, and is likely to be more pornography than erotica. The difference between porn and erotica is that one is art, and the other you just jack off to. Compare, for example, (NSFW) this versus this. One is artistic, meant to provoke emotion. The other is for milking your goat cheese. One of the key differences is good taste, but there’s more to it than that. I’ll explain in more detail about the “good taste” side, but what you should realize about the Ram is that its focus is just on the physical and the instant gratification.
I’d like to analyze these two photos from a purely artistic perspective. The first one, despite not being particularly crude as nudes go, is still a provocative pose. It’s designed to draw the viewer’s attention to the obvious female body parts. The model’s pose is simultaneously submissive and seductive, and from the spread legs, the arching of the back, and the expression on the face, it’s easy to imagine this model in a sexual context. I could probably find plenty of even more sexual examples on Google. Is this photo artistic? Yes. It’s clearly professionally done, and not just some snapshot someone took of their girlfriend. But it’s also clearly a shot designed to entice men in the way all porn does (and if you have any doubt, you can check the other NSFW shots from the same website, which get even more sexual).
Now, let’s consider the second photo. I found it among several others in a set that all strike me as being much more artistic. In these, the model isn’t the sole central focus of the shot. The backgrounds and lighting are as important in these shots as the model, whereas in the previous shot, the background was plain, non-distracting white. The model on the first image is even on a white table; this is clearly a deliberate choice to make sure nothing distracts you from the nude girl.
Take another look, and think about where your eye first enters the photos. Look at this one compared to this one. Where is your eye drawn? In the first one, the eye is most likely immediately drawn right to the breasts, and then down to the crotch. This isn’t accidental; the model’s pose creates a line of motion that draws the eye in that direction. Even the angles of the first model’s legs are all designed to be lines leading to a central point, the point the viewer is presumed to be interested in. (For a wonderful explanation of how object placement in a photograph can lead the viewer’s eye, I recommend this article). But with the girl in the barn, the eye is drawn first to her face, then along her back towards her feet. Nothing about that shot makes the woman’s breasts a central focus or signifier. Yes, she’s still a beautiful naked girl. But her pose isn’t seductive or sexual.
This is the difference between the Ram, which shoves the sex in your face, and a more artistic approach, where the sensuality is more part of the background. You can use a similar approach in your writing. Focus on the entire image, not just on the naughty bits.
2. The Sheep – The sheep is soft, docile, and easily guided by a firm hand. This is your relationship with a tantalized reader, who waits with wide eyes for you to take them on an erotic journey. Don’t scare them off. An average reader isn’t coming to your book to get rammed, and they (hopefully) keep their pants on the entire time they’re reading your book. Your goal isn’t to get your reader to seek their orgasm. Your goal is to capture their attention and keep them emotionally invested in your story.
In his book, “Stein On Writing,” Sol Stein says that the key to suspense is to give your character a goal, something they desire, then keep them from achieving that goal as long as possible. In erotica, the goal is the culmination of the character’s sexual desires, and the character should be forced to wait as long as possible to get what they want. If the reader is in tune with the character, they will be just as eager as the character to see it finally happen. In the romance novel my friend Carey wrote, the protagonist doesn’t get to taste her “forbidden fruit” until one of the final chapters. The result is a reader who is on edge the entire book, waiting to see if it will happen.
Even within the single sex scene itself, a skillful writer won’t ram right into business. There should be flirtation. There should be foreplay. There should be a LOT of “show, don’t tell” emotions. How long you wait to get to the “good stuff” depends on your writing style. It could be paragraphs, it could be pages. But if you grab the goat by the horns in the second sentence, you’re doing it wrong. Let the emotions and tension build for awhile before the climax (both in the story structure and in the bed).
3. The Pompeii – If you google “erotic goat,” this pops up. Click the link, and read the accompanying article. I assure you, it’s intellectual, not revolting (though it certainly might weird you out).
The reason I shared that article is because it raises an interesting, and I would say important aspect of eroticism in art. Our mythology is filled with examples of eroticism that aren’t limited to humans, and if you’re a sci fi or fantasy writer, this is an area you might find yourself delving into. The important thing to remember in cases like this is that this isn’t bestiality and it isn’t perversion. It’s history and myth. It’s also something you might want to use in your writing, if you do it right.
Piers Anthony is a fantasy writer who delves into this sort of thing, and does it in good taste. In his world, “Xanth,” there exist magic love springs that enchant any creatures that drink from them. After taking a drink, creatures are compelled to mate with the next creature they meet, and the magic ensures that the coupling can and will result in a child. Different species accidentally stumbling across love springs is how the world came to have species like centaurs (half human, half horse), harpies (half human, half vulture), and satyrs (half human, half goat). Though Piers Anthony never shows us a human and a goat mating in erotic detail, the results of the mating are there.
If you’re a fantasy writer, you may want to write human/dragon mating, or something similar. You can play it for laughs, the way Piers Anthony does, or you can address it with seriousness. Consider more than the physical questions of “will it fit?” Think about the cross-cultural differences between the two species. Think about how difficult the mating ritual might be between a mammal and an egg-laying reptile. Think about whether a dragon would have the human emotions associated with “making love,” or if they would view the act differently. Fantasy writer Elizabeth Haydon depicted a dragon in her novel, “Rhapsody,” as viewing his mate as a shiny piece of treasure to be guarded as part of his hoard.
All of these elements and more can become important parts of your story. They can be used to build up to the eventual sex scene, which instead of just being two people bumping uglies, will instead be a triumph over cross-species cultural barriers and all of the conflict that comes with them.
4. The Domestic Goat, Capra aegagrus hircus – Goats can be domesticated, like cattle, and kept as pets or livestock. This is like functional, bland sex; you might milk the goat every day, but that doesn’t mean the goat enjoys it. If a reader feels like reading your sex scenes is a chore, you might be better off skipping the milking and going straight to the breakfast table. There’s nothing wrong with the “fade to black, cut” method of writing sex scenes. It’s probably the kind I use the most often. Does your story need the sex, or are you just putting it there because sex sells? I only write a full erotic scene if there are strong emotions involved, and I’m trying to show the characters reaching a new level of their relationship or achieving an emotional bond. If it’s not important to the story, then you’re just going through the motions of the daily chore.
All of the above examples talk about the purpose of sex in a story, and how to sculpt a scene. “But Jason,” you ask, “when do we get to the naughty fun parts?” Well, as I said earlier, you need to tease your audience and make them wait to build suspense. But I suppose I can’t write a “How To Write a Sex Scene” post without discussing the language itself.
First, I’m going to share some examples of different ways to write descriptions in a sex scene. One will be an example of my own work. I don’t by any means think my own work serves as the highest artistic examples of erotic writing, but I do believe it’s appropriate that if I’m going to write about sex, I should have the courage to share my own writing.
Once again, everything that follows is NSFW.
First, let’s look at an example of bad writing; The Ram, in full force. Here is a short excerpt of a story on Literotica.com:
“I have driven to meet you at your house. After chatting online for awhile we were anxious to meet each other. It’s a hot summer’s day, so I told you to be in shorts, no boxers. It is a long drive but finally I arrive and knock on the door. You open it only to be pushed back inside by me. Seeing as you want an aggressive girl, there is no time for small talk.
The door slams shut and I drop to my knees right there at the door. You are not expecting to get moving so quickly. I look up to see a mixture of amazement and curiosity on your face as I start to unzip your shorts.
You open your mouth but I don’t give you time to say anything. I shove your soft cock into my mouth. I suck and lick it, making it grow and come to life in my mouth. Finally it is fully erect, gagging me as it touches the back of my throat.”
Now, I’d like to analyze this story, not as a work of porn, but the way I’d critique any piece of writing. Let’s review it from a professional angle. We open with no introduction to who these characters are, just that they have been “chatting online.” There is no description of their appearance, their occupations, or anything. The action starts in the first paragraph with the “aggressive girl” pushing her way in; this story tells us from the start what we should expect from it. Then, second paragraph, the girl is already on her knees. By the third paragraph, we have some extremely graphic language and a scene straight out of a cheap porno.
If this sort of scene appeared in a novel, would you keep reading? I wouldn’t. There’s no emotion. There’s no reason to care who these characters are. This story is about fucking, plain and simple. The entire story is 768 words, and there isn’t a single paragraph in it that isn’t about the raw, physical act of sex.
Now, if you want to write porn, you could use this style. But I think most of the people reading my blog want to write books and stories. That’s certainly what I want. So, how do you write a sensual, erotic scene in a novel, without it turning into trash like this?
Let’s take a look at something more emotional. The following excerpt is from my WIP novel, “Manifestation.” It contains minor spoilers from the novel, so be warned:
“Hours later, Tock awoke in Frankie’s bed. She glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand, and realized it was four in the morning. She hadn’t intended to fall asleep there, but after a rather energetic night of fun and experimentation, she had passed out in Frankie’s arms. Part of her wanted to get up and go back to her room, but his arms felt quite nice around her. Something else also felt quite nice pressed up against her from behind, filling her with an urge that she couldn’t deny. She lay there for awhile and contemplated the most sensible thing to do. She knew that leaving, and letting the boy wake up alone, would be a better way to get the message through to him what it was really all about. She wasn’t prepared to do the relationship thing; her life was simply too much of a mess.
She stared at the clock as the digital display ticked away another minute. What would Frankie Palladino think if he knew he was in bed with a murderer? Would that change his tune? She couldn’t ever admit such things to him, of course, but she still needed to make him understand that she wasn’t the ‘girlfriend’ type.
But then, his body felt so warm and nice pressed up behind her . . .
I’ll spell it out fer ‘im in the mornin’, she thought. She rolled over to face him and slipped her arms around him, then kissed him urgently. He moaned in his sleep as she pulled him on top of her and his body responded on instinct before he was even fully awake. Her gentle but none-too-subtle hands sought the source of her urges and soon woke him fully. The response she felt under her hand made it clear he was more than ready for another round.
She spread her legs for him and pulled him in close, wrapping her arms around him and tracing her fingernails down his back. She gasped as he entered her, and forgot all thoughts of whether they were in a relationship or just fucking. She just became focused on the sensations pulsing through her body. Frankie was strong, and his athletic body was warm and firm against hers. He made her moan, and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, clinging to him as she let him have his way with her. Part of her just wished he wouldn’t be so tender and gentle about it . . . that just made the situation all the more complicated . . .”
See the difference? First, it’s a little more than twice the length of the clip of the porno story, but you can follow the link to Literotica to read that whole story (all 768 words of it) and you won’t see what you see in my excerpt of “Manifestation.” Let’s analyze it bit by bit.
First, the opening paragraph of the “Manifestation” excerpt sets the scene. This particular scene comes after a short mid-chapter scene break, so what you see above, with Tock waking up, is the “beginning” of this scene, for all intents and purposes. That first paragraph names both characters, and it sets an image of the setting around them: a dark bedroom in the middle of the night, a digital clock counting away the minutes, and the fact that this is Frankie’s room (in the college dorms). These visual details aren’t much, but they’re certainly setting the scene better than “I knock on the door, you open it.”
Now, my first paragraph still sets an erotic tone, as Tock observes the feeling of Frankie pressed up behind her. I never name a body part, but you know which part is pressing against her. It’s subtle (more so, at least, than the other story). But it sets the stage for what comes next. More importantly, though, there’s emotion here. You can see a sense of conflict. She has doubts, and isn’t sure how to express them. That makes the lovemaking that follows all the more meaningful.
Let’s take a closer look at the actual vocabulary, shall we? Both stories reach a point where the penis enters an orifice, to use the boring technical terms. Let’s compare those specific moments in each story.
“I move down from your face, to your stomach, turning around to face you, so you can see my tits bounce as I press your cock into my ass. I take some of your pre cum and rub it on my tits, sucking the cum off in front of you.”
“She spread her legs for him and pulled him in close, wrapping her arms around him and tracing her fingernails down his back. She gasped as he entered her, and forgot all thoughts of whether they were in a relationship or just fucking. She just became focused on the sensations pulsing through her body.”
I’d like to set aside the crudity of the Ram’s language and focus on the actual imagery and emotions (or lack thereof). In the Ram’s story, we see “bouncing tits,” a “cock,” “pre cum,” and lots of rubbing and sucking. The images are all sexual. The only emotion we see is lust. As for the words themselves, these are all classic “porn words.” People who write stories just for the sake of getting off tend to focus on these kinds of words, thinking that the crudity is what a sex scene is all about.
The “Manifestation” clip, on the other hand, focuses on entirely different body parts and images. “She spread her legs,” “wrapping her arms around him.” We see “her fingernails down his back.” Even when the sex itself starts, it’s not “he shoved his cock into her pussy.” Instead it’s “She gasped as he entered her.” It’s still sensual and erotic, but it’s not crude. The focus isn’t on the physical anatomy. It’s on the emotions.
Compare these two scenes to the earlier photographs. As before, one is focused on breasts and sexual things. The other is focused on emotion and artistry.
That, in my humble opinion, is the key difference between porn and art. Art moves your heart, while porn just moves your genitals.
Focus on the characters. Focus on their emotions. The sex is just the background. The story is more important. As yourself what purpose a sexual scene serves in your story. The “Manifestation” scene above is meant to show Tock’s inner turmoil, the conflict she feels between her desire for Frankie (desire that is both physical and emotional) and her doubts and fears. The closing lines, “Part of her just wished he wouldn’t be so tender and gentle about it . . . that just made the situation all the more complicated . . .” are the real reason that scene exists. If I weren’t trying to show those emotions, I’d have cut straight to the following morning. This scene exists to show the reader that conflict. The fact that Tock’s emotions and confusion are being shown during a sex scene has little to do with the sex, and everything to do with the story.
In closing, I hope you’ve read and appreciated this post in the mature, professional way I’ve tried to approach it. I love me some naughty bits, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place to approach things from a serious angle.