Sex in fantasy novels.
Quote of the Day:
"Although humans tend to view sex as mainly a fun recreational activity sometimes resulting in death, in nature it is a far more serious matter." -Dave Barry.
1) There's too much emphasis on virginity. This is usually female, as a holdover from the days (still in fashion in historical romance novels) when the heroine's virginity was all-important. However, there's no reason that male virginity shouldn't be just as important. Why not have a race of male mages who will lose the favor of their god if they stop being celibate? It would make just as much sense as having a priestess who loses the favor of her goddess if she has sex with a man.
Supposedly, it's different in novels where the heroine comes into power after she has sex for the first time. I think it's just the obverse side of the same coin. What's so important about the first time someone has sex? It's unlikely to be perfect, except in the aforementioned historical romance novels. It's unlikely to be exceptional, in fact, unless one partner has already had some experience. Where the emphasis is the power ritual, I think it's likely to be less romantic than just some village maiden and her lover stealing off into the bracken. "Yes, and now lie down on top of me, and that will trigger the goddess to pay attention...all right, first penetration, that'll mean I have the power to talk to animals..."
Not very romantic, if you ask me. But then, I never understood the overemphasis on virginity in the first place, so I'm probably not the best person to ask.
2) Prostitutes are either all dirty and nasty, or have hearts of gold. There never seems to be a trace of what non-stereotypical women they might have been before they became prostitutes. It's not that they grow worn from the work they do, since such soul-destroying work would take its toll on anyone, but that they all get worn in the exact same way. They all talk the same way, have the same attitude towards their customers, have the same attitude towards their children, have the same Tragic Story (usually with rape or drunkenness in there somewhere), and on and on to the point where when two prostitute characters appear in a story, I groan, because I know I won't be able to keep them straight.
The rarer ones, the Hearts of Gold, have retained their humanity in the face of all this. They love their children, they understand their customers, and they are kind to animals. They have Tragic Stories about why they were forced into prostitution, but they're never their own faults. And they rarely have sex.
I think it's perfectly possible to write prostitute characters who don't fit either of those stereotypes, particularly if their whole lives aren't consumed by it. Do some research into Victorian prostitution, for example, which provides a lot of the stereotypes, and you'll find that some women didn't stay "working girls" their whole lives, or even the whole year. Some sold their bodies in winter, when heat and money was scarce, and returned to their ordinary employments in the spring. Others spent a portion of their lives as prostitutes and a portion of their lives doing something else. And depending on class, a woman who was a man's mistress might be viewed very differently. The middle class saw her as a fallen woman, but in a poor village where there was little money for food, let alone luxuries, becoming a mistress meant good food, nice clothes, and ribbons and money for family members.
3) Marriage tends to be very traditional. There are few innovative marriage practices in fantasy novels, and I’m not talking about where the participants get married or what (or who) they eat during the feast. Authors can dress up the wedding in new trappings, but without a new heart and soul as well, it doesn’t feel truly alien. And in most cases outside historical fantasy, the wedding ritual is meant to be alien, meant to make us feel like we’re in another world. Yet the heart is still religious, the premises of modern marriage (especially complete monogamy and the couple cooperating in raising the children) are still in place, and the “marry for love and have it be perfect” idea is alive and well.
Why not let marriage in your novels have a different purpose? Perhaps it could have a civil as well as a religious component; modern marriages do. Or perhaps, given the setup of your society, it doesn’t make sense for a couple to raise the children in a nuclear family. Perhaps they have children only with each other but freely have sex outside that. It’s not the usual course, but for a lot of fantasy societies which have apparently “free love” attitudes towards sex, it would make more sense than having a family values marriage.
Marriage is one of the places in fantasy where modern Western/First World ideals get dumped the hardest, and that shows especially in the expectation that people should only marry for love and never for any other reason, and that of course the marriage will be perfect and last forever. Why? If you have a medieval society where a young noblewoman has been trained all her life in the knowledge that she will marry for political advantage and to have nice things and children, why have her moan about marrying for love? If it’s a society where no particular stigma is attached to having multiple sexual partners, why is a stigma attached to multiple spouses? Remarriage seems to exist in fantasy solely to produce evil stepparents, another puzzling attitude.
4) Bad people are almost always bad at sex. The sole exception I can think of here are those bad guys (more often girls) who go in specifically to seduce someone, and often end up falling in love instead, thus “proving” they’re not really bad. Otherwise, the correlation of “pretty and good in bed= good” and “ugly and bad in bed= bad” is laughably high.
This is another common convention in romance novels, along with the virginity. Of course the dead lover was evil, because he was completely incompetent in bed and never managed to give the heroine an orgasm! And of course the new hero will come sweeping into her life, melt her spine (and her brain along with it, a lot of the time), and prove himself a wonderful person in spite of initial doubt!
This is a place where I want to slam the genre boundaries tight and forbid any borrowing. Romance novelists do some things fantasy novelists could stand to learn, but not this. Fantasy already has enough problems with completely tension-free, suspense-free romances. We know the hero and heroine won’t have serious miscommunication, will have wonderful sex, and are both beautiful until the end of time. Any hint of dysfunction is to provide dramatic tension—it usually doesn’t work—and never hints at serious problems. If the heroine or hero do have significant others whom they can’t get along with, they will abandon them and strike out on their own until they can find someone new to love. It’s predictable and very, very tiring.
Just once, have an awkward hero, or an impotent one. Have a heroine who wouldn’t know how to pleasure her partner if she’d read a dozen sex manuals. Don’t make everyone you like the most sexy and gorgeous character alive, and everyone you don’t like an orc in bed. (Or perhaps that comparison is inaccurate. Who knows what orcs really do in bed, given that no one ever takes the chance to find out?)
5) Watch your language in sex scenes. Not in the way that you might imagine. This advice could probably apply across genre boundaries. Writing outrageously purple sex scenes is the way to make your audience laugh, not pay attention. Likewise, writing it in a slangy and modern style when the rest of the book is dream-like is the way to make your audience look around the room and wonder where their narrator went.
In general, adapt your language to the tone you want to achieve and the story around it. If it has been written in a dreamy style, that purple language might not be out of place (although it’s still worth keeping an eye on, because there’s purple and then there’s ultraviolet). If it’s more modern, you can get away with more slang terms. If your characters are tense and impatient, then the description will be more spare. And, above all, if you mean the sex scene to be pivotal, either the scene or the buildup to it, if you intend to have it take place offstage, has to be strong. I’ve lost count of the fantasy novels I’ve read where two characters have sex out of the blue, and declare they love each other equally out of the blue. The buildup for each one can certainly be different (see point 6), but there should still be buildup. If it’s a completely sudden scene, between two people who don’t know each other very well, then the denouement should take the place of the buildup. I would anticipate awkwardness, bewilderment, possibly anger or fear, rather than perfect lovey-dovey happiness.
There’s also no shame in doing a complete fade-to-black. It’s what I have to do, since I don’t think I do sex scenes well, and it’s better than writing description that could tear apart the ozone layer.
6) Make realistic the sex = love bit, or don’t use it. Fantasy novelists often seem caught in a circle of reasoning: “If they have sex, they’re in love, and if they’re in love, they have sex.” Not only does this cut out a lot of relationships, like platonic love affairs and more casual romantic ones, but it’s hard for many authors to build up a realistic relationship. They use sex to substitute instead, so that rather than falling for each other because of complementary personalities, shared danger, common ground, and so on, the princess and knight tumble headlong into each other’s beds, have sex for one night, and declare their love the next morning.
Very, very lazy. I also wonder how happy that couple will be a year down the road, since a lot of fantasy novels seem to be about sudden love affairs that will fray apart in a few months’ time. The book just happens to conveniently end before we see that time frame.
It’s also completely possible to have characters who are in love but don’t have sex (for whatever reason), or to have characters who like lust and have sex with a lot of people, but don’t fall in love with everyone they have a good time with. If you go either route, though, don’t rely on one special night of passion as the means of redemption and reconciliation. Those stories of lust-driven people, usually men, who “see the light” and after that marry their one special person, usually a virginal woman, don’t work for a good reason: sex doesn’t change someone’s personality like that. Love can, but when the characters have nothing but physical attraction and some bickering in their pasts, why should a reader believe they’re in love?
Hm. It was meant to be a death rant, too, but I didn’t get to that. It’ll probably be tomorrow.