I am still trying to improve the quality of what I read. And I am still trying to delay starting on my inevitable 18th novel. (And still, the only one so far that’s published is my self-pub e-book, Princess of Ghosts. 99 cents on Amazon! All profits go to buying me coffee! Well, it’s Fair Trade coffee.)
So my question today is:
How far should the sex go?
Or, how NSFW should you be, or how NSFTweens should you be, in your novel writing?
This is brought on by an interaction I had with a “close Facebook friend,” a woman I know and love in a sibling-like way, who lives on the other side of the continent from me. (The continent happens to be North America.) The interaction resulted from my continuing efforts to get other people to read my stuff, and those of you in the amateur novelist community will know what that’s like. I respect this woman’s taste and intelligence and I would be very complimented if she or her husband, whom I also know and love like a sibling, would deign to actually read one of my stories all the way through.
In particular, the discussion centered on my story Ryel and Arkmar in Dream World: The First Six Pieces, which is up on WordPress. The exchange amounted to me suggesting it as a possible future read, and her saying she had actually tried but that by the end of Chapter 3, she “just wanted to punch Ryel in the face.” It was an unusual sentiment from this particular reader, and I didn’t get it at first: Ryel is not a shrinking violet, nor is she someone things happen to without her doing something back. She’s a grown-up, independent strong female character. She’s not exploited by men; if anything, she does the exploiting. Mostly, she’s just an Elf of Mirkwood who didn’t fit in, and who is now basically a thief for hire in Lovecraft’s Dream World.
But then it occurred to me how it all fit together. Ryel is my most sexually explicit novel. (There are no thrusting buttocks, much less descriptions of intimate anatomy, but there’s no doubt these characters are grown-ups with grown-up attitudes toward lovemaking.) My friend, for a former hippie, is rather conservative about sexuality: she’s one to post updated, better-clothed female superheroes, and a promoter of rejected Disney princesses. I have no quarrel with these things. I think Disney princesses can be a force for good, but also for conformity and gender stereotype and bad body image; I find it kind of horrible that male superheroes are literally dressed from neck to ankle (in many cases, from scalp to heel), while female superheroes wear, in many cases, odd little outfits that suggest the boudoir more than the fray. (See here: Starfire? Seriously??) And my friend has often posted about the bizarre armor that female D&D characters and the like are often depicted in. The guys wear helmets and plate armor and chain mail leggings and spiked bracelets and the chicks run around with big swords and… well, spiked bracelets, and pretty much anything else seems to be optional. (Red Sonja seems to occupy a significant place in both these last two. Bikinis on the battlefield? I ask you! Anyway, it’s a pity she’s not a Disney princess or she could exemplify all three.)
But all of these issues seem way off the path. I mean: seriously? The fight for women’s rights involves important battles over Disney princesses, Marvel superheroes and dungeons and dragons characters? (This, from people who disdain Walmart, which uses its own employees as catalog models, in all their array of sizes, shapes and colors?) Meanwhile, let me defend Ryel the Wood Elf just a teensy bit: she’s fully clothed most of the time: “Ryel, usually all bundled up with leather and wood elf green and brown, not a hint of cleavage, not that she had anything to make a cleavage with.” She has no superpowers, no powers at all except for what wood-elves should have: she talks to animals and can aim really straight. Shes not defined by her boyfriend. She has a well-paying job.
Part of Ryel’s personality is that she’s a bit of a slut. But so are most of the guys she likes, and none of them has a claim on her. She’s no sex object; she just likes sex. Is there anything wrong with that?
And this is my question. I think we all answer it different ways. I typically limit myself (on the page) to kissing, and the occasional after-lovemaking scene. I don’t think my readers (both of them! ha ha) read my stuff to be interrupted every fifteen pages by a fully-developed, fully-described sex orgy complete with thrusting shafts and heaving thighs. On the other hand, sex matters in real life. Real people have sex. So real characters should have sex.
And while Ryel may play the field, my other characters don’t: Jacky C is a serial monogamist (and limits herself to kisses, as far as on-page intimacy goes); Countess Vivian is in a strictly monogamous relationship (with two whole after-sex lying-in-bed-talking scenes, with the sheets pulled up); Clay goes through three girlfriends with whom he definitely goes all the way, but none of that is actually described besides kissing; Sophie and Princess Alice don’t have sex at all. They’re too young.
Do characters have to have sex lives? I think, if you’re trying to assure your story is relateable, your characters should have the sex lives that people like them would expect to have. How much should you depict of that? My answer is: basically none, beyond the Hollywood rom-com level of the kiss that represents the sex.
What do you think?
It’s worth noting what other writers have done with this:
- Tolkien: People plead troth to one another and occasionally kiss. There is no going back from this level of intimacy.
- Rowling: There are at least three memorable kisses in the last three books, and again, the kiss stands for all else. (But she’s writing for teenagers here.)
- Stephen King: Yeah. In the third Dark Tower book, Suzannah has to get raped by a demon. Or something: I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in that scene, but it ain’t hand-holding. Similar things happen throughout King, but only when he thinks the plot demands it.
- Pratchett: Well, the hero falls in love. Even the kisses are pretty perfunctory.
- Lovecraft, Asimov: Don’t even bother looking.
- Maggie Furey, since I’ve brought her up before: there’s an actual sex scene (I think it’s in the second book, but I’m not sure and I’m not going to go back and look, because most of the Aurian novels sucked).
- Robert Silverberg: It could get pretty real, although I never remember thinking that his female characters were terribly realistic.
- Norman Spinrad: You can’t really tackle this topic without reading The Void Captain’s Tale. So go read that and get back to me.
- Chandler & Hammett: It was the 1930s and 1940s. But Sam Spade and Bridget O’Shaughnessy definitely sleep together; Marlowe sleeps over with his girlfriend in The Long Goodbye; sex is not described in detail, there’s nothing you could get aroused by, but the reader is not in doubt that normal people are having normal sex lives.
So should the reader…?
(a) Know that the characters have sex lives
(b) Know the characters are having sex
(c) Know in detail what this amounts to
That’s my question, and I’m interested in how you as a writer and a reader answer it. My friend probably thinks there’s a right answer, but I don’t, except for me personally as a writer.
More on this later. I count myself a feminist, whether other feminists would do so or not; I’d like to examine how a character’s sex life might underline, or undermine, her strength and independence.