Considering the Sex Lives of Your Characters
By Claire Rudy Foster
Thinking about submitting a story with sex in it? Let’s start with the basics.
Imagine that you are lying on a wide, white bed, made with Egyptian cotton sheets, all alone, splayed across the bedding that matches the sand on the beach below your window. The Mediterranean is a shade of blue that only exists in medieval illuminations, and so closely mirrors the color of the sky that the two, except for a thin black line that delineates the horizon, are indistinguishable. A salty breeze caresses the curtains and your skin with the same lazy affection. You are a character in this fantasy, and you can have anything you desire; good writing provides the next thing, whether it is a slice of cool melon, or the beautiful pair of hands that deliver it to your thirsty mouth.
Writing about sex means both acknowledging a plot’s full sensory potential, as well as giving the reader space to daydream his way into the story. This is why the best sex writing offers just enough detail to set the scene, and enough blank places for the reader’s imagination. Even the most graphic, explicit sex scenes do this. There is always something omitted, whether it’s the exact texture of the leather cuffs or the color of the beloved’s eyelashes. Good sex scenes will help your short story stand out in the slush pile—and can make the difference between publication and a “no thanks” email.
In writing, it's easy to ignore sex, sexuality, sexual violence—or glamorize it. The real work is dignifying it without sensationalism. Good writing treats sex like any other part of the landscape, any other aspect of a character. Because, after all, isn’t it?
Consider this. Summer, that queer, sultry season, is a period of sensations. The air, oppressively warm, is close as a lover’s breath. We’re trapped in our bodies, aware of our fleshiness. We sweat. Our bodies crowd one another on the metro, scents mingling. Sex is everywhere, too, and as impossible to ignore as the heat.
When I write, I am as aware of sex as I am when I walk down the street, feeling strangers’ eyes on me. I feel the sexual charge in my social interactions, from catcalls to casual offers of a drink, a ride, a lick of ice cream. Ignoring it is not an option; denying it diminishes me and makes me feel like I’m living in two dimensions. After all, I am a sexual being as much as I am anything else. And what is life without sex? Lady Chatterley’s Lover, without its core affair, is a brutal story about D.H. Lawrence’s other favorite two topics: class privilege and Britain’s industrial revolution. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or any other novel by John Fowles, dwindles to a shadow of itself. Anais Nin’s work becomes a series of costume changes. There is no Bible without the begats.
Allowing sex to take its proper place in a story adds the third dimension, a dimension of flesh, and sets the reader’s animal self twitching. Even the deliberate omission of sex begs the question: where did it go? Who are these comic characters, gleefully reassuring one another of their button-eyed innocence? It is possible to leave sexuality as an implicit force in the text, but suppressing it entirely does a disservice to both the reader and the story.
That doesn’t mean that every story is a romance, any more than every story has to be about a hero’s journey. It does mean that a smart writer, who is invested in her story and who cares about pleasing her reader, will do some hard thinking about her characters’ sex lives. Once sex is on the story’s stage, it needs to be treated with respect. Orientation, preference, expression, gender—they add depth to a character because they connote humanity. Sex is the secret door into a character. I don't have to open that door, but it's there. If I deny that part of a character, I deny myself the challenge of writing truthfully; it becomes a cartoon. And the reader loses out.
Also, don’t worry about screwing up. Writer Peter Rock told me once, “Never write about good sex; only the bad kind.” Generically good sex belongs to the romance and erotica genres, with their sweeping vistas, swarthy lovers, no bodice left unripped, the whole banana.
In literary fiction, it’s a little different. Good sex is highly individual, and dependent on the people partaking in it. “It was good,” sure, but what does that mean? If you’ve ever screamed with laughter with a friend over a bad date story, you know that our failures, especially the intimate ones, are much more interesting than our successes. Idiosyncrasies, fetishes, surprises, and even the darker side of sex, which includes rape, incest, obsession, and assault, share the range of human potential. David Foster Wallace’s collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a perfect example of this. Good sex is a myth, in a way. Writing about sex, we find new ways to express character in surprising, illuminating ways.
A sex scene can be highly satisfying even if very little is divulged. Consider this passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, when Dick Diver falls hard for Nicole, the psychiatric patient who will eventually become his wife.
He felt the young lips, her body sighing in relief against the arm growing stronger to hold her. There were now no more plans than if Dick had arbitrarily made some indissoluble mixture, with atoms joined and inseparable; you could throw it all out but never again could they fit back into the atomic scale. As he held her and tasted her, and as she curved in further and further toward him, with her own lips, new to herself, drowned and engulfed in love, yet solaced and triumphant, he was thankful to have an existence at all, if only as a reflection in her wet eyes.
“My God,” he gasped. “You’re fun to kiss.”
That hardworking paragraph describes a powerful dynamic between these two characters, who spend the rest of the novel splitting apart and trying to shove themselves back together. A kiss is just a kiss, but in good writing it’s more than that. It’s a private world, momentarily exposed, and as luscious as the secrets shared between lovers before sleep.
Sex in writing can do a lot of heavy lifting. It represents risk, and can carry codes buried deep in characters’ relationships—submitting a story with sex scene to a literary magazine can be risky, but the payoff is significant if it’s well done. Sex is a mode of communication, on the page as in life. Its function is more than just titillation. It also reveals the writer’s abilities to juggle plot, character, voice, tone, and perspective—and in the hands of a good writer, these things should come together effortlessly.
Smart writing takes sex into account. Instead of hiding behind its sensible sandals and utility shorts, this story slips into its favorite summer dress and sashays down the avenue, shoulders naked to the sun, smile brighter than a slash of lipstick, feeling the eyes on it, saying look at me look at me look.
Claire Rudy Foster's critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney's, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies, and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.