This week, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:
As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?
As always, nrlymrtl asks questions that go down to the center of the earth; and also as usual, my keyboard runneth over. After driling down into the question of how a woman can write man’s sexual experience with any sort of confidence, I’m looking at the issue from a broader perspective: how can we as writers write anybody‘s sexual experience, and what can we do with it from a storytelling point of view?
I don’t write erotica, and I suspect much of what I’ll say here does not apply in that venue. As a writer I don’t shy away from intimate sexual detail, but I’m not writing to arouse: when I follow characters past the bedroom door, it’s because what will happen there advances the story, develops character, or–hopefully–both.
First of all, what is sex good for in terms of building story? First, and maybe most importantly, conflict. As writers we know conflict is the engine that drives stories and scenes: internal conflict, external conflict; there are dozens of different types. The writer who takes time to think about it can find endless sources of conflict in a character’s sexual impulses and actions, starting from conflict between what he desires and what he thinks he should desire and spanning the distance to a character whose sexual desires puts him in conflict with society itself.
In The Shadow of the Sun, Ellion’s sexual impulses create sticky situations for a variety of reasons: his philandering has been the cause of a high percentage of the duels he’s fought and his attendant reputation as a man prone to slice others up; in the Tanaan lands, he brings his cultural assumptions about the loose morality of Tanaan women along with him and must constantly talk himself out of his culturally-entrained assumption that any woman who gives him any notice whatsoever is actually coming on to him, whether or not it’s true; he maps his culture’s near-mythologicization of the sexual charms of Tanaan women onto Letitia, rapidly muddling the person who simply needs protection with his culturally-etnrained sexual fantasies. Which, of course, generates further conflict between Ellion, Letitia’s father, and Letitia’s intended consort: not least because she’s got her own reasons for responding in kind.
Another source of conflict that arises from sex: there are well-documented biochemical changes that take place in people who have sex together: biochemical processes that create emotional bonds. A character who might not otherwise have allowed himself to become fully embroiled in a conflict can’t help but respond when his lover is involved. Once they’ve made love, he’s all in, even if his mind knows it’s stupid. Even, sometimes, if their sexual reltionship is over.
Sexual encounters are also a terrific way of revealing character: it is during those periods when humans are at their most open and vulnerable. The private time after sex is likely to be a time when people are fully honest, or as honest as they ever get. And how a character thinks about a sexual partner and about the act itself arise from whatever other emotional baggage they’re bringing along.
A character of a romantic bent, which oddly enough my philandering Ellion is, filters his perceptions far differently from a person of shallower thinking. When I write sexual encounters through his lens, what he sees and thinks arises naturally from how he sees and responds to his partner: a brief dalliance with someone he has just met shifts from a conversation between professionals (in this case, he has just met a female bard, and their meeting begins as shop-talk) to a nearly clinical comparison of the experience to what the stories he’s heard had led him to expect: there’s no emotional involvement to speak of.
But a later sexual encounter, with someone he has developed real romantic feelings for, is almost entirely about the emotions: even his perceptions of her beauty and of the sex act itself are filtered through intense emotion. One of my early readers said, after reading that scene (and no, I’m not telling you who his partner there is: that would constitute a spoiler) that she finally felt she understood Ellion. Because in the course of opening himself up in that encounter, he finally let the reader in far enough for her to understand all the little mysteries he carries around.
What comes hard? nrlymrtl asks. For me, what’s hard is writing sex without throwing the reader out of the moment. There’s no time when it’s more important for the writer to disappear into the cracks of a scene: every word must connect the reader intimately with the character. I work intensely to choose words and images that reflect how the character would experience what’s happening: to stay true to his voice rather than allowing embarrassment to make me reach for euphemisms or a desire to titillate make me reach for detail that doesn’t serve the story. I have to pretend no one but me will ever read the scene, and concentrate on getting it right–and then just move on to the next, to the conflicts whose stakes I have strived to raise while the characters involved forgot to notice the longer-term meaning of what they were doing.
In general, I write sex scenes like I write fight scenes: at their best, I believe, neither is about the physical stuff, but rather about what it means to the characters involved. It’s important to write believable, so as not to distract the reader from the important work we’re doing in these scenes; but if I’ve done my job correctly, at the end of such a scene you know a little more about the character than you did before–and he’s a little deeper in trouble.