As I often do, I was puttering around Something Awful earlier. And as I often find, there was a subject that struck my interest.
Sex in fantasy.
A vast number of people seem to consider this a bad thing.
This subject caught my attention pretty rapidly, owing to what I’m working on at the moment. Not that I’m in the midst of a throttling sex epic (or sexpic), mind you, but as I continue to grow as a writer, I discover that the more important developments in a story happen between people, in relationships, in stares that linger too long and the heat of breath upon bare skin.
And I wondered why I’ve come to this conclusion and more people haven’t?
I wondered why, exactly, it was that sex in fantasy was such a subject worthy of such scorn. People like sex, don’t they? Vast swaths of books are sold that heavily involve the subject. Sex is realistic, isn’t it? Aren’t we always looking for ways to enhance our realism in fantasy? Sex is important to human development, isn’t it? And at the core of every book beats something human.
And as I wondered why, I realized that there are probably a few reasons. I’d like to address them here.
Sex is Gross
The complaint I most often hear about this subject is that it’s just “there.” It has no purpose in the story, no real reason for it to happen, no relevance to the plot. This always makes me think of a scene in which someone is screaming: “It’s no use, Barbara! The bomb is sextivated! The only way to disarm it is for us to engage in rousing coitus right now or the entire world is DOOMED!”
That’s silly, of course. I tend to see most peoples’ points when they bring this up. Sex oftentimes feels shoehorned in by the author, as though the author sat at his or her desk and went: “…and there we are. ‘The end.’ Oh, snap, I forgot to add in a romantic subplot. Hang on, let me go fix that. Aaaaand…done.”
That’s not too far from the truth. Frequently, it’s more like: “Oh, snap, I forgot to add in emotional development. Hang on, let me throw in a sex scene” or “oh, snap, I forgot to titillate someone. Hang on, let me throw in some kinky bondage.”
Here’s a protip for writers: if you ever feel you need a sex scene, you probably do not need a sex scene. It tends to just happen between characters, like most good writing, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.
And here’s a point for readers: Sometimes, indeed, sex does just happen. Sometimes it is meaningless. But in books, it frequently isn’t.
Quite often, sex is the raising of the emotional stakes between two characters, the evolution of their relationship from one stage to the next. It’s every bit as important to the plot, just less spelled out and more…naked.
Feelings are Gross
Sometimes, people just don’t want to see the physical act. That’s fine. A lot of people don’t like violence, either. It’s good when those people can skip that aspect of it, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
A lot of people, I think, associate sex with that most horrible threat to genre fiction: emotion. Relationships instead of swords?! Kissing instead of stabbing?! In my fantasy? I don’t think so!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to paint the entirety of fantasy readership as a bunch of underdeveloped children terrified of mushy stuff. But it’s been a genre standard for awhile that things like combat, worldbuilding and discussing economics have been expected to make up the lion’s share of the book.
But that’s the problem of desensitization. I’m certainly not going to say that action isn’t effective (I did write a scene in which a dragonman stomps a man’s crotch into pulp, after all), but if, indeed, so much of the book is action then the relationships and emotional content, by virtue of being less in quality, must have the greater importance and the stronger impact. This is simply how good plotting works.
And likewise, humans work fairly simply, too: we love action, we love fight scenes, but we have a hard time investing in it. Relationships, though, are something we invest in. They are something we feel ourselves drawn into because we can relate to heartbreak much more than we can relate to broken bones. This is why we can look at an explosion and barely register it in an action movie and find ourselves obsessed with the meaning of two people holding hands.
Authors are Gross
If you read closely enough, you can tell the exact point in the prose where the author started touching themselves.
This is harder to defend against because, for the life of me, I can’t easily disagree with.
The truth is, across all genres, every work of fiction, a lot of us authors are accused with the wholly-accurate charge of writing some really, really, reeeeeally creepy sex scenes.
Sometimes, it comes across as weird self-gratification in which our superman self-inserts fuck a dozen supermodel elf queens in quick succession. Sometimes, it’s wildly descriptive phrases done with a butcher shop’s thesaurus in which m’lord’s meat was taken idly between arachnid-cool fingertips and slid tantalizingly between m’lady’s pair of hams. And sometimes, it’s morally vile, such as when someone tries to make a rape scene titillating.
No doubt, we authors have a long way to go when it comes to this.
The thing is, though, we’re never going to know what’s going right or wrong if we don’t experiment, if we don’t try and sometimes fail, if we don’t give it our best shot and see what really didn’t work and what some people somewhere just didn’t like.
Also, sex is really fun to write. So bear with us a little. We’ll get it right one of these days.
Conclusions are Gross
I could bring up economics. I could say that the success of weirdness like Fifty Shades of Grey justifies writing sex as a sound business decision and that more people enjoy reading it than don’t.
I could bring up social change. I could say that we have an obligation to push the genre forward and, if it is indeed mired in conservative thought, to push it and the fanbase out of that.
I could bring up realism. I could say that characters do get messy, do make relationships that aren’t clean, do sometimes have sex just for the heck of it, do make mistakes with each other.
These are all less than ideal reasons, in my opinion, to write sex.
I write sex because it’s important. It’s important to the characters and, thus, important to the story. If it were not important, I probably wouldn’t do it.
And that, my friends, is your anticlimax