Thursday, December 7, 2017

Natural and Fun: Writers on Sex and Sexuality in Fiction


Okay, gang, we're going to get a little steamy for this week's Writers Roundtable. Let's talk about sex --and not just sex but also sexual characters, or, in other words, characters who have a sex life and inhabit your stories. How do you address it? Where do you draw the line? All right... enough teasing, let's get to the action. 

People are sexual creatures in real life, with a variety of modifiers from hetero- to homo- to a- to poly-. So, as a writer, how do you portray that aspect of characterization in your stories?

Danielle Procter Piper: In my sci-fi series, I have characters that run the gamut aside from pedophiles and necrophiliacs...although in the story I'm getting ready to publish my randiest character--a guy who refuses to be labeled because he does what suits him at the moment, engages in spontaneous intercourse with an alien species...with a fresh corpse involved, although I'm not going to reveal in what way (you'll have to read the story to find out). For the most part, I like to incorporate what's going on with myself at any given moment into my characters to add realism. If one of them suddenly gags and explains, "Backwash," odds are I have just experienced it myself while writing. My characters hiccup, they burp and fart, they lose their train of thought, they get each other's names wrong just like the rest of us. My female characters menstruate, my males experience wet dreams, they may wake up feeling aroused and masturbate--often without forethought from me. I allow moments to happen just as they do in real life. I've even had characters trying to get over colds for no other reason related to the story than the fact that people catch colds. My basic story ideas are loose, and the characters live and breathe and flow around them, so sex does occur. people may call it gratuitous, and to that I say, "You're welcome."

Gordon Dymowski: Part of this is actively cultivating relationships/friendships with queer, poly- and other forms of sexuality. That helps me write more rounded, full-blooded characters with nuance. (Plus, it helps me avoid cliches and create a more diverse range of characters). I also try to discuss the implications/experiences of those characters (great example - look at how Jonathan Kellerman writes Milo Sturgis, a queer cop in Los Angeles).

Bobby Nash: Sex is part of life so it stands to reason that sex is a part of my characters lives as well. That doesn't mean I expose their sex life. As with all writing, step one is get to know your character. That includes knowing if your character is straight, gay, poly, etc. Even though it is not the focus of the story, knowing the character helps define the character's response to questions and situations. As a writer, I want to be as true to the characters as I can.

Bill Craig: I try to not go into too much detail, especially when readers imaginations can make it better for them.

Hilaire Barch: I usually imply sexuality with dialogue and body language, but only if it matters to the story. (Does a character flirt? W/whom? Etc).

Nicholas Ahlhelm: I don't like to hide romantic relationships. I think it's an important part of genre fiction. It's not a feature in every story I've ever written, but I think it's essential to treat human beings like human beings, complete with different backgrounds and choices. Characters come in multiple races, genders, and histories I don't want to shy away from, and the same goes for sexual orientation. I really hate to use terminology however, so I usually let the character's attractions speak for themselves in the story.

John Linwood Grant: I can't say it crops up too often, but not because it bothers me writing about it. It's rarely integral to my tales, and so detailed descriptions would fall into the same category as describing every step of making a meal or going to the toilet - they're also both crucial aspects of life, but if they don't make the story move on or impart something important to the reader, why dwell?

Lucy Blue: Ooh, I may be the wrong writer to ask about this. Because I think the single biggest flaw in alternative worlds writing, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all their progeny, is the prissy, puritanical, and/or barely-pubescent way these stories handle sexuality and sexual relationships. Writers who can describe the live evisceration of Brownie scouts or the rising of a tentacled moon over a distant planet suddenly turn completely terrified and tone deaf when faced with even the suggestion of physical attraction between their characters. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, no sex, bad sex, or cartoon sex is so much the norm that most of us who write criticism about these genres dismiss any grown-up, straightforward portrayal of relationships within the story as romance -- the literal kiss of death. And I don't see why this has to be. What are we afraid of? People thrown together in high tension situations make connections; if it makes sense for the characters and there's room in the story, why not? If the relationship isn't the focus of the story, I won't put in a lengthy, explicit sex scene. But I won't half-ass or avoid it either.

Anna Grace Carpenter: With all the sex! Hah. Kidding (sort of). But I always like writing about relationships so I tend to show all of them as much as possible within the framework of the story. I find the more personal the characterization, the more real the story feels. And few things are as personal as who we love and how we express that as humans.

Susan H. Roddey: It depends on the situation in the story. Sex is a natural part of than life (I mean come on...procreation and all), but not all instances require the reader to be under the sheets. If your market is raw erotica, then by all means...let the reader smell it. It's a natural part of life so I don't draw unnecessary attention to it unless it becomes an integral part of the story. People are who they are, and sex doesn't define them.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of actually writing characters engaging, ahem, each other -- keep it subtle and just imply it happens, cut away to rain or fireworks like in 1940s movies, or go full coverage for a play by play? Or does it change from story to story? How do you determine where to draw the line, if at all?

Nicholas Ahlhelm: It depends quite a bit on what market I'm writing for and what characters I'm writing in the story. If I'm writing a superhero story I'm trying to make suitable for most readers, the sex is implied. If I'm writing an urban fantasy novel where one character is an actual succubus, it's anything but implied. Most of my works fall somewhere in between in that spectrum, but it's completely project based for me.

Kristi Morgan: I think it depends a lot on who your targeted audience is. With YA you have to be careful to just hint and leave it up to the imagination for the most part. But I don't think its something that needs to be ignored. Prude doesn't work.

Bobby Nash: For the most part, I show very little active sex in my novels because sex is not the main focus of the story. I will show characters at the beginning and/or the end of sex and let the reader's imagination fill in the blanks, which I've discovered works well and makes the scenes more steamy to the reader because he or she is bringing in their own sexuality to the story. Now, if I were writing a story where sex was the point or a big plot point, I might be inclined to show more. I play it by ear and show what is right for the story.

James P. Nettles III: Depends on the target audience -- and the genre, but most of mine is off-screen. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell the fight scenes from the love scenes- slipping everywhere, the clash of bodies, exotic tools for the job.


Susan H. Roddey: Most of the sex I write is less explicit and meant to help develop characters emotionally. Giving two characters that intimate connection builds a bond between them. In most cases, it also gives them a weakness. If they're emotionally invested, the reader is better able to relate. Sometimes my writing does tend toward the erotic, but only when the situation calls for it, and I choose those situations VERY carefully.

Frank Fradella: I'm a "pan over to the fireplace" kind of guy unless I'm specifically writing erotica.

Anna Grace Carpenter: It depends on the overall tone of the story. My general (and personal) rule is that if the violence is graphic, the sex is explicit/detailed. If the other “adult” aspects of a story (violence, language) are more subdued so are the physical interactions. But sometimes sex is such an integral part of the character arcs that I might spend more time on it. (In addition to being a mostly universal human experience, there is a metaphorical quality about it in fiction that is hard to pass up – especially with characters who are strong, silent types.)

Ellie Raine: For me, I go on a case-by-case basis, as far as "where to draw the line" and "How to address it". I did a story for a Hookerpunk anthology about Succubi, and sex in that, I felt, was better served by adding the steamy details. Though, in my fantasy series, I don't usually show the scenes themselves up front. Usually for those, I make it more romantic and describe the foreplay and amp up the emotions involved, then classily end right at the moment of contact. I'll probably have a different approach with the next story as well, but for some stories, I don't think sex is even necessary to make it a dynamic work. It really just depends on each story individually.

Derrick Ferguson: Like so much else in my writing, I just tend to go with my gut when it comes to writing about sex. I'm not as good at describing sex as I am describing action so when I do have sex scenes I tend to keep them brief and to the point. In my Dillon stories and novels, I give the reader just enough to know that my boy is ready to get it on and then I cut away to the billowing curtains and the fireplace. In my "Madness of Frankenstein" novel and my current "Diamondback" serial running on my Patreon page, the sex scenes are a bit more graphic, nasty and brutal. But that's because I'm writing about nasty, brutal people and the nasty, brutal sex just seemed to fit.

Gordon Dymowski: I tend to focus on the feelings/emotions rather than the mechanics. Having written two relatively steamy scenes (for AKA THE SINNER - COVER OF NIGHT, "Crossing McCausland" for TALL PULP and "Out There In the Night" for LES VAMPS), I find that it's much easier for me to write implicit than explicit sex. (Plus, it allows the reader to create the scene mentally - if they see a softcore-Cinemax-film-at-2:00-am-with-soft-jazz in their heads, that's cool; if they see hardcore pornography, that's cool as well).

Neen Edwards: Just my opinion as both a writer and a reader: I'm not big on stories revolving around sex. I'm okay with the writer insinuating something is about to happen and go on to the next scene or a brief description of what's going on. A good example of what I'm okay with would be work by Sherrilyn Kenyon. As much as I like Laurel K. Hamilton, I actually stopped reading her books because her plots seem to be revolved around sex. As a writer, I'll go where the story takes me. My characters have a mind of their own.

Bill Craig: It really depends on the book. A writer friend told me that the best love scenes got him aroused while writing...

B.C. Bell: I try to show the character's sexual attraction before and after the sex, and through dialogue, but much like a forties director I tend to focus the camera on the wall during the real event. The danger of a sexless character is that they aren't real, and the reader knows that. One reason Conan and Tarzan have a long shelf-life is that they liked women when other characters didn't. P.S. One of the first pulp stories I ever read climaxed (pardon the pun) with the hero touching a breast. Upon growing up I found that to be extremely silly.

Hilaire Barch: I range from implied, fade to black, to the whole detailed play by play. The genre and target audience often are considered on exactly how much I show. In addition, do I WANT the sex to be front and center or simply something that happens.

Ian Totten: It all depends on the story and characters. For some (such as my trilogy) one of the main characters is very sensual by nature and I only have to touch on the subject. Others, it needs to be more in-depth. I have one with teens where they do it as a way to bond to each other. Being that they're teens I have to attempt keeping it "clean" and go into their emotions during the act rather than explicit action. For someone like a serial killer, there's no emotion on their part and it is written fairly black and white with atmosphere and actions. One I'm working on now, because of the subject matter, will be mostly implied.

Allan Kemp: I wrote a lot of explicit sex scenes in my early stories, but then after I got it out of my system (no pun intended) I scaled it back to where I only do sex scenes if they move the story forward. And sex can move the plot forward just as a fight scene or a chase scene. I also like when sex is implied rather than a detailed tab A into slot B explanation. The stuff people imagine will always be wilder than what I write on the page.

Danielle Procter Piper: How graphic I get with sexual encounters depends on the story. In a short humorous horror story I wrote for a collection, the scene is so brief and sanitized I've had readers tell me it's too bad the two main characters didn't have sex... but they did! Not graphic enough! My sci-fi is famous for its graphic sex, violence, and language, so skirting it almost feels like a let-down, but I'll merely imply it if a well-developed, graphic scene would detract too much from the storyline. How characters react to each other in a sexual moment can tell the reader more about who they are. It definitely adds depth. I have a goody-two-shoes type who seems to get swept up in moments once in a great while, but who also exhibits his playful/naughty side, always paired with compassion for his lover. I have a hard-hitting, world-weary bruiser with an exceptional soft side due to the fact he is also telepathic and can feel what his partner feels--so doing everything his partner desires as they think it heightens the experience for him, doubling his own pleasure while marking him one hell of a lover. Then there's the guy who screws anything that isn't nailed down without consent...the character my readers tell me they love to hate. He's just... Mr. Experiment, push everything to its limits, no holds barred... but draws the line at minors. Their sexual identities are as unique as they are, and if the scene calls for some graphic content, I'm going to drag my readers in deep.

John Bruening: Working on the second novel in a series that will probably span five books altogether. So far, it's been nothing more than the suggestion of a mutual attraction between two co-workers. The relationship is going to progress, but exactly how far and in what way is hard to say at the moment. Whatever happens, I'm fairly certain that what generally happens behind closed doors in real life will remain behind closed doors in the stories. (Hey, we're talking about the 1930s and '40s. People were pretty private and discreet about such things in those days.)

Let's talk about the dangers of writing or not writing sex in contemporary novels. What are the potential pitfalls when you turn up the steam and write erotically? What about the other side... what are the risks if you choose to write about a world where sex is practically nonexistent or ignored? Does a happy medium alleviate those risks (from both sides) or not?

Anna Grace Carpenter: One of the first short stories I sold (a contemporary piece of flash fiction) focused on the moments right before a married couple gets down for some “make-up” sex. And although I didn't use any “naughty words” nearly half the comments on the story referred to it as porn. (There may have been a finger in someone's mouth, but… well. It was a story about reuniting.) Anyway. Right then I knew there was always going to be a risk in portraying a relationship realistically. And I also knew that story wouldn't carry the same weight if I had been more subtle. So, for me, it's always a question of “How real do I want to be?” And then, “Am I willing to lose readers over this scene or plot point?”

Gordon Dymowski: I don't worry about writing sex scenes in my stories because most of the time, my stories don't involve sex. Dealing with different sexual orientation, however, is a different matter...and one that I'm still trying to master.

Danielle Procter Piper: The only "danger" I've encountered with writing sex scenes is running into people who like to throw around the phrase "gratuitous sex". Let me let you in on a little secret... some of the most upstanding, beloved, Bible-thumping people you've ever met are likely into some of the weirdest, wildest, freakiest stuff you've ever heard of, but it's often no more than a fondness for particular types of pornography, and is not something they want getting out about them. Call my sex scenes gratuitous and I'll smirk, wondering just how much you really loved them. I suppose another drawback is over-exciting myself. Is that a drawback? I think it just smokes the scene up further. The reverse, writing stories sans sex, is readers coming up to me winking and smirking to tell me which characters they think should hook up. "Oh, I know it's not that kind of a story, but if you could, you know, maybe a little -- "sentence ends in a giggle fit. I think this is exactly why so much fan-fiction seems to involve characters hooking up even if the pairing seems unlikely in its original form. We all like to fantasize. We like to find the character most like ourselves and pair them with the characters we're most sexually attracted to. My fantasy novel is sex-free. It contains flirting and characters teasing each other about liking each other but goes no further. I wanted to write it as a children's book with themes kids encounter without getting too involved in them. To my dismay, younger audiences seem to prefer my sci-fi.

Nicholas Ahlhelm: I think in contemporary fiction it's very strange to pretend it does not. Some of the most popular books on the market today are either erotica or have heavy erotic elements. Sex should at least be a reality. I'm not saying it's essential to every work obviously, just as romance is not. But trying to write in a way where they're ignored completely feels more like science fiction than any story grounded in reality. The question of how detailed to get I think again should be based on the audience in the writer's head or even the writer as his own audience. I do think there are limits based on genre. I think most urban fantasy readers would be pissed if you cut away before anything happens for example. So the happy medium probably must be based on what you're writing rather than a nebulous point for all or most fiction.

Bill Craig: Donald Hamilton was a master getting it started, cutting away and coming back to the damage done to clothing during the throws of passion. Robert Parker, on the other hand, sometimes when over the top is describing Spenser's athletic sexcapades. It depends on both the writer, the book and the characters involved.

Susan H. Roddey: Society seems to be both more open to and more wary of sex. A happy medium is a good place to start, but how I begin will define the audience you collect. You can't please everyone, so I personally don't try. At this point, most people who read my romance know what they're in for going into it.

Hilaire Barch: I've read books w/o sex -- plenty of them. I've written a story or two w/o sex or romance. The stories weren't served by it. Now, larger tales, at least in my opinion, seem to ask for at least an element of attraction or romance even if no sex ever happens. If we look at our world, most living creatures spend an awfully large chunk of time pursuing mating of some sort. So, the more time, so to speak, we spend with characters, the more I as a reader or author, expect a natural response from the character -- i.e experiencing attraction or desire.

I don't worry about whether someone will have apoplexy over my characters getting it on the elevator ( a real scene I wrote LOL), or if the genders or races or sexualities expressed are the norm. That said, there will ALWAYS be people who don't like it, and as a writer, you have to understand that you can't take that sort of criticism personally.

Bobby Nash: There is always a danger of scaring off a potential reader by writing something they find rude or offensive. When my first novel, EVIL WAYS came out, I was terrified that my mother would read it. There's a scene where the killer does something a bit, well let's just call it pervy and inappropriate. I was really worried about my mom reading that. After she read it, she did comment on the scene, but not how I had expected. She said it made perfect sense for the character to have done that and thought I should have done a little bit more with it to amp up his creepiness factor. The lesson is, never underestimate your audience. Tell the best story you can and see what happens.


How can giving your characters a sex life improve your ability to create more authentic characters and tell stories about them? Or is that not necessary for your work?

Bobby Nash: Sex is a part of life. If I want my characters to be alive, then that is part of it. In what I write, it is rarely the focus, but there are times when I feel the need to focus in on it. On those occasions, I let the characters lead me where we need to go and do what's best for the story.

Bill Craig: Unless it propels the story forward, it is not a necessary plot device. However, in my first Mitch Cooper mystery, there is a lot of chemistry between Cooper and the lady he is trying to find and rescue and they discuss his theories on cosmic sex at the end, leading the reader to figure out exactly what the theories were...

Hilaire Barch: The more characters interact in a realistic, human way, the closer to them we feel. Does Jill like Mr. Tall Dark and boring, or the homely but fascinating inventor? Who Jill picks tells us about her. How she treats a paramour gives us more information. Yes, the same can be done w/o sex or romance, but it's fun built-in conflict (Because what two lovers agree on everything all the time forever and always?)

Anna Grace Carpenter: People interacting with each other drives the majority of what I write. When they do it naked the focus on who they are comes into even sharper detail. Do they make jokes? Are they super-serious? Do they cuddle afterward to try and make the connection and the moment last? Or is it really just a momentary distraction? And a sex life is not the only way to reveal these insights, so for some stories, it's not necessary, but it can be very revealing (and not just because the butt cheeks and body hair are all out in the open on the page). So for me, it tends to add that final polish to the character and helps me ground them in a common experience even if the way they behave is not the way my readers do.

Danielle Procter Piper: As I mentioned, how characters behave during sexual encounters adds another layer of depth to them, making them seem more real, therefore easier to relate to. Sex is actually integral to my sci-fi series, but it wouldn't work in my fantasy story because it's simply not a necessary aspect. I have to bring the realism out of my fantasy characters by putting them in other situations where weakness and vulnerability are pitted against cruelty and strength. The closest thing to sex in that story are encounters with a vampire, and those scenes are meant to remind us of moments when we were manipulated by someone more sophisticated into doing things we weren't yet ready for as juveniles.

Gordon Dymowski: Understanding my character's sexuality helps me create better, more well-rounded characters....but sometimes, leaving intimate moments on the cutting-room floor means a better story. Portraying sex in fiction is like portraying violence - if it fits and makes sense, great, but I don't feel the need to force it in order to sell the sizzle over the steak.

Nicholas Ahlhelm: It completely depends on how much I want to flesh out a character. A lead should probably at least have some reference to it in a full-length novel that features any romantic entanglements. It can be used to develop relationships, mindsets or pretty much other character traits. For me, it's another tool in the character development toolbox.