A lot like fight scenes (which I’ve touched on before), I’ve avoided writing sex in the past. There’s something a little awkward for me about writing it, though I don’t have a problem reading it save for the occasional blush.
That being said, we’re writing characters with thoughts and feelings, and some of those are bound to be sexual in one way or another for some character at some point. So let’s talk about sex, baby.
Does Sex Have a Place in Fantasy?
This is a silly question, in my opinion. Anything can have a place in your work as long as you can justify your choices. If we write characters that have magic powers, desires for power, dragons, royal courts, why not sex? Sex is one of those common elements of the human experience, meaning people are moved (in one way or another) by works that address sex. Unless you are writing a world where sex is almost unheard of or you have characters that are strictly asexual, then sex exists in your world in some way, and it’s up to you how to address it.
The better question is: “Does sex have a place in my fantasy work?” and that is a question you’ll have to answer as the writer. Which brings us to:
Know Your Work, Know Your Audience
If you’re writing children’s stories, sex is in all likelihood off the table. If your work focuses more on heroism, slaying the dragons, or fast paced action, sex might be out of place. Again, that’s up to your discretion. Based on what you’re wanting to write, there are going to be different levels of sex (including the deed, sexual thoughts, observations in the story, etc.).
So know what you want to write. If a sex scene feels weird or out of place, then don’t include it in the final. If it works, it works.
The other thing you have to factor in is the audience. What do you want that audience to get from your work?
People Have Different Reactions to Sex
The above being said, different people (within your target audience) are going to have a wide range of opinions on sex scenes. Some people find A Song of Ice and Fire gratuitous. Some people love erotica. Some people like reading love scenes, while others skim over them.
None of these are wrong and the best way to get an idea of what your audience thinks is to have multiple readers critiquing you. If they all say “I don’t like this sex scene. It doesn’t fit.” then you have a good idea. If people say all sorts of different things ranging from praise to awkwardness, then that’s more personal preference.
Don’t let yourself be discouraged by this. Write what you feel needs to be written, above all. Now to the good stuff.
Sex, like anything, can be written in so many different ways that the options are limitless. You can be as explicit as you want, or you can create illusions to sex. You can have characters talk about their experiences, without ever showing a single sex scene.
Writing sex is daunting. It can make a great story turn to cringe really fast, which is why it’s great that there are so many ways to do it. If writing explicit sex scenes isn’t working for you, try something else. Make sure it fits your style of writing. If you’re writing exclusively in purple prose or flowery language, than your sex scene can have it. If you’re writing in more modern terms, discussing your characters’ “large sceptre” or “budding rose” is going to sound odd.
What is the Sex Scene’s Purpose?
Every scene should move the plot forward or develop character (or both). If you’re just throwing it in there to spice things up, then you should rethink it. Think just as hard about what the point of the scene is as you would with any other scene in your story.
Does this scene move the plot forward? Do the characters learn something? Does the audience learn something about the characters or the world?
Sex is a powerful tool in this regard. Is this a seduction scene to gain someone’s trust? Is this an important event for the character(s)? Is there any “sexposition” going on? Are the characters in love or not?
As with anything, use it if fits. If it doesn’t reconsider and/or rewrite.
Lose the Focus on Virginity
I see this a lot and fantasy, and it bores me. Virginity=Good for a lot of writers and promiscuous characters (regardless of gender or sexuality) are bad.
You can write a character losing their virginity, of course. But lose the whole “This character’s purity is attached to their virginity and is a sacred prize” thing. Maybe in your world characters believe that, but you the author probably shouldn’t be making such a grand statement. In fact, you can turn this on its head. Maybe the character doesn’t feel any less good because he/she had sex. Maybe they enjoyed the sex, but now have conflicting feelings about it due to society’s view on it. That’s an interesting conflict. Maybe your character believes their virginity was important, but in fact is of little consequence.
Avoid the Play-By-Play
I find it interesting how a lot of writing very physical scenes have similar “rules”. Writing war and violence/fight scenes get boring or awkward when we get a play-by-play, choreographed scene of the characters’ actions, and the same seems to go for sex.
“They hugged. Then the kissed. Then they made their way to the bed. Then he undid her dress, then she took off his pants.” and so and so on. It reads weird, it feels boring. It becomes mechanical.
This, sort of like fight scenes, is where incorporating more sensory information is awesome, and also more “poetic” language can fit really well.
What about smell? What about the tactile? Pleasure, discomfort? Beating hearts? Sweating? All those things that matter less when a character is just walking around mean more when you’re writing intimacy.
Sex is a very intimate and emotional experience, so focus on that. Focus on the feelings the characters have about the situation. Are they excited, nervous, happy, relieved, etc.?
There’s also no shame in fading to black. If two characters go into a secluded room, lit with candles, after a make-out session we’re going to know what happened next. There’s nothing wrong with being brief, picking up the next morning, or even just a sentence or two about it.
In that same vein:
Less Can be More
Unless you are writing erotica, the less is more policy is your friend. Unless you have a reason, you don’t have to be super explicit. In movies, sex scenes aren’t usually very long (save for porn), nor do they show everything.
Write the attraction, the desire, the lust, or what have you. You don’t have to write the ugly part of bumping uglies, so to speak.
Sex Isn’t Always Awesome
Even folks in the most happy, committed relationships will tell you (depending on how close you are with them) that sex isn’t mind-blowingly amazing and flawless all the time.
Sex can be messy, silly, awkward, uncomfortable, and hilarious. Sometimes your body won’t cooperate, someone will fart or make a weird noise, or something sitting on the headboard will fall on your head.
No matter how hot your characters are and no matter how in love or lust they are with each other, their sex doesn’t have to be perfect because sex itself often isn’t.
In The Witcher series, the protagonist has sex with his love interest on top of a full size stuffed unicorn. At one point, they broke it while having sex on it and they both laughed about it. The protagonist was more or less in love with the woman, and they were both extremely attracted to each other, and still sex was sometimes hilarious for them.
If it works, don’t make your characters’ sex lives perfect. They don’t necessarily transform into Greek sex gods the instant they start making the beast with two backs. Maybe they’re downright bad at it. Make it awkward, make it funny, make it disappointing (for the characters, not the reader).
Sex Isn’t the Goal
Unless you’re writing erotica or a character whose goal is to have sex with a particular character (or a lot of them), then sex isn’t just a goal.
I’ve seen tons of fantasy where a character finally has sex with the love interest and everything is great afterwards and all I can think is “achievement gained. Had sex with love interest”.
Sex can be a part of your characters’ lives. It can be something they like to do and have with each other, but make their goals better. If your protagonist is busy trying to save the world, then why would sex be on the same level with that goal?
Keep the Characters in Mind
I have a hard time believing a character inexperienced with sex just knows what to do and makes their partner have the time of his/her life. Their personalities and desires don’t go out the window for their Perfect Night Together.
A character who works as a prostitute is going to approach sex differently than someone who has sex exclusively in monogamous relationships. A promiscuous person with lots of partners is going to approach it differently than a character who believes that sex is only for reproduction. None are necessarily better than the other. The point is to keep how characters approach sex in mind when writing them.
The parties involved are going to have different tastes and desires. One character might like taking charge, or maybe both do. Maybe one act gets one character all hot and bothered, but does nothing for the other one.
Just because they’re in love, doesn’t mean everything is a perfect match in the bedroom.
There Needs to be Conflict
A sex scene is still a scene first and foremost. All scenes need to have some kind of conflict. I’m not talking about non-consensual sex (I would categorize that under violence), but more nuanced conflict.
Maybe one character is in love, while the other doesn’t feel that strongly about them. Maybe they have very little time to do the deed before they get caught. Maybe this is a scandalous affair that they need to keep hidden to avoid the consequences. Maybe they are under a lot of pressure to produce an heir to the throne. Maybe it’s a completely internal conflict.
The possibilities are endless, and again this goes back to the “Sex isn’t perfect” principle.
A sex scene out of nowhere with characters who didn’t seem to have any chemistry or fondness for each other can be jarring.
This is obvious maybe, but I’ve read a lot of books where two characters didn’t really know anything about each other, and suddenly they’re sheathing the sword like they’ve been in love for years.
Your characters don’t have to objectify each other to see each other in a sexual way. Establishing the attraction whether it’s physical, emotional, or both is important. Remember, unless this is erotica, the reader isn’t always expecting a sex scene.
Too often I’ve read stories where this sexual tension is built up, the deed is done, and it’s never really brought up again in the rest of the story. Everyone moves on just as it was before. I have to ask, what was the point then?
I’m not saying it has to be a transformative, epiphany experience, but it should do something for the characters and have some kind of impact.
Is this is a secret affair? Do the characters finally realize their love? Does one character cheat on another partner in doing the act? Does it complicate the characters’ feelings or the plot at large? Do the characters reminisce on it when they’re apart?
The scene needs a purpose and it’s purpose shouldn’t be forgotten when we turn the page to the next chapter.
Prostitution and Sex Work
Fantasy has turned recently and people are favoring darker fantasy, which is great. Often times this means, more prostitution and sex work.
I have no issue with this. However there are a few things that often happen which grind my gears:
- Prostitutes are always sneaky, evil, temptresses with no morals.
- One prostitute is wise, well spoken, and has a heart of gold.
- At least one prostitute is forced into this position and needs to be saved by another character (usually male) and goes on her own redemption quest.
None of these are necessarily bad on their own, it’s the combinations and the black and white of the situation that bothers me. Dark fantasy thrives on the morally gray: no one being entirely good or bad. Especially, they aren’t good or bad just given their occupation.
You can have these three and execute it well, and it of course depends on the character’s perspective and how he/she sees the world. If he/she was taught prostitutes are all bad, then of course he/she is going to believe it unless/until they are proven wrong.
The trick is the writer can’t impose his/her view of this on the world they created. The characters need to make these decisions themselves or else it becomes stale.
The sex workers in your writing aren’t just their jobs. They’re people and it’s important to remember that. Just like your peasant isn’t just some uneducated plebeian, your princess isn’t just waiting around in a tower for her man, the knight isn’t just there to swing swords and take names, sex workers aren’t just there for people to judge and make sweeping statements about.
Your characters can view them in a certain way, yes, but you shouldn’t forget that all characters need to be more actualized than that.
- Write what you are comfortable with and as much as you are comfortable with.
- Consider your audience and genre, figure out if the sex scene fits.
- Make the sex have a larger impact on the story at large.
Sex is an element in society that has had an impact on all of us (many of us got here by that route after all). How you want to portray sex in your plot, characters, and your world is entirely up to you and will guide how you write the scene.
Write a love scene. Give as little or as much detail as you want. Gauge what works for you and what you are comfortable with. Here are some things to consider:
- Do these characters have romantic feelings for each other? Is this encounter purely physical?
- Which character initiated? Why?
- How do they feel about it afterwards?
- What are the circumstances?
- What impact does it have on the characters?
- Does being explicit suit your style or do prefer a more “fade to black” approach?
- What is the cultural view(s) for these characters?
- How do your characters approach sex and intimacy?