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Why Do Our Characters Have Sex? - Mo's Journal
January 25th, 2007
04:39 pm

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Why Do Our Characters Have Sex?
Cross posted to writing_sex

The discussion on subversion in slash led a lot of places for me - both places on livejournal and places in my head :-). One place it led is thinking about motivation for sex. Here are some of my ideas on the subject. I'd love to hear others' thoughts, as well.

I'm a firm believer in treating sex in fiction like we treat all other human activities.


A sex scene should be in the story because it serves a function in the story. Sex is great for a lot of purposes:

* it can reveal something about character

* it can reveal something about how two (or more) characters relate to one another

* it can advance the plot

* it can explore themes

* it can add verisimilitude to the characters' lives by showing them doing something our readers all do and can relate to

* in counterpoint to above, it can be presented in a way that feels alien and distant from our readers' experiences, and signals something about the characters that way

* it can have an emotional effect on the reader (not to mention a physical one).

So, those are some of my motivations as an author for hooking my characters up. But what are their motivations? I think that's something an author ought to think through very carefully before writing the sex scene. I think exploring what's going on in the characters' heads in the characters' beds :-) is a whole lot of what makes sexually explicit fiction (be it slash or something else) interesting. And it doesn't necessarily happen in an expository way, with the author telling you their thoughts. In fact, I think it works better if it's not so direct. Sometimes you glean thoughts from actions or from words (I love dialogue in sex scenes). Sometiems motivation becomes clear from behavior before or after sex. Sometimes it's just implied. In all cases you've got to know why they're doing it - even better than your characters know their own motivations - before you can write it.

A lot of people seem to divide sex into two categories: fucking and making love. The former is just being done to meet the biological urge, the latter as an expression of love. I don't think it works that way in real life, and I don't represent sex that way in my fiction.

I think people's motivations and reasons for sex are so much more complex than a simple dichotomy would suggest. I think that's true even for a one-night stand or a brief encounter in the backroom of a bar. Even in a casual sexual encounter, choices are being made: the choice of partner, the choice to have a partner rather than just self-pleasure, choice of sex acts engaged in and not, and how you do it for any given act.

There are reasons behind those choices, even if the people engaging in the acts can't articulate them and/or don't fully understand their own motivations. We as authors can make interesting fiction out of exploring and engaging with the complexity of motivation implicit in even the most uninvolved, casual sex.

Similarly, in a loving, long term relationship, people have sex for lots of reasons, which differ from time to time. Some of their motivations they may not be aware of. Let's look at an example. You can have a situation where a couple is having sex and Partner A is:

* trying to exert dominance at home, since he feels like he's been stepped on at work

* wants to relax after a hard day

* trying to find something to do with his lust for the next door neighbor and displacing that on partner B

* trying to get over his lust for the next door neighbor and focussing on Partner B to do that

* worrying about money, since his job seems shaky and wanting distraction from that worry

* wanting to talk to Partner B about his bad day and thinking sex will loosen him up enough to do so


Meanwhile, Partner B:

* is kind of uneasy about the way Partner A is talking about and looking at the next door neighbor
and feeling reassured that he wants sex because that means all that next door neighbor stuff was probably just imagined

* wants to go on an expensive vacation in a couple of months and thinks Partner A might balk at the
spending, but if they have sex first he'll be more compliant

* has been suffering from insomnia lately and finds sex in the evening makes for a better sleep

* has a big presentation tomorrow and absolutely needs to get a good night's sleep tonight, because
there's just so much you can do with caffeine and adrenaline

So, all of that is going on at the same time and a lot of it is not even at the conscious level. And, yes, they love each other but the sex they have has so many more dimensions than just "making love" or "fucking". I actually think sex is rarely, if ever, solely an expression of love. There are lots of things we do for others solely for love, but generally when someone has sex - even with a partner s/he's in love with - there's an expectation of personal gratification, too.

I am not suggesting that the author explain everything I put into the bullets above, and certainly not suggesting s/he explain it during the sex scene. But I do think the author ought to know a lot more than s/he discloses about characters, and sex is no exception. If I were writing the scenario above, some of that information might be given to the reader in scenes previous to the sex scene (e.g. you might see what happened to Partner A at work or have been privy to Partner B's thoughts seeing A flirting with the next door neighbor). Some of it might be revealed after the sex scene (B might broach the vacation topic in the post-coital glow and get an earful of A's money worries). Some of it might be implicit in the scene itself, and some of it may never be revealed. I maintain, though, that knowing all of that will inform the sex scene and grant it a verisimilitude that "they're in love" or "they're just doing this to get off" can't.

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From:artaxastra
Date:January 25th, 2007 10:18 pm (UTC)
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I think you make some good points here. People's motives are rarely transparent, and there's a lot you can do to show those motives rather than tell by the variations in how people treat one another, how they interact in bed, and what they want at that particular moment.
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 12:13 am (UTC)
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And there's so much potential in those variations! That's, for me, what makes writing and reading sex scenes more interesting and compelling than a lot of other kinds of interactions.
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From:executrix
Date:January 25th, 2007 10:20 pm (UTC)
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In an adventure-based canon, the characters spend a lot of time on stakeouts or just generally hanging around waiting and for a lot of the time they're simultaneously bored and scared, and sex is one way to pass the time reassuringly.
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 12:14 am (UTC)
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Except, of course, that there's the danger that while they are distracted by sex something happened at the stakeout that they should have been attending to. I play with that possibility to (I hope) humorous effect in Commencement.
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From:opera142
Date:January 25th, 2007 11:01 pm (UTC)
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I try to write sex as extension of character and canon. Nature and nuture, I guess. I feature rough-housing and dirty talk because it goes with the wrestling and mouthing-off present in canon.
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 12:17 am (UTC)
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Yes, it's important to keep people in character in bed. OTOH, people do things in a sexual context that they don't do in others, often. So someone who doesn't swear in their work life (not wrestlers) might well talk dirty in bed, someone who's very dominant in most situations might be submissive during sex, etc. Part of what sex can do for us as authors is round out the character, show a side of him that most people just don't see.
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From:eveningblue
Date:January 25th, 2007 11:18 pm (UTC)
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This is a really interesting post. It gives me a lot to think about.

I think that in the three fandoms I've read extensively in (S&H, Highlander and Pros) there is such a strong OTP feeling about the two characters being slashed that the sex is almost always written as an inevitable expression of love. Not always, but almost always. Maybe this is part of why I prefer established-relationship stories, because the sex is less of the "oh my god I can't believe you feel this way I feel this way too let's make love" variety, and is more likely to say something more about the characters and their relationship than about pure romantic inevitability.

Part of why I so much enjoy your Scott/Logan stories is that there is less of that feeling of inevitability--with them and with Adam and Jean-Paul--there is always the chance that this thing Won't Work Out. And not for any huge romantic reason but simply because they're incompatible. It's obvious from your writing that you've thought about all these issues.

It's weird (to me) that I am so attracted to these OTP shows because I basically agree with what xtricks said in his journal about how so much slash is just romance written with one butch man and one feminized man, and I don't really like it. Maybe I'd be better off finding an ensemble type of canon source (like X-Men). But on the other hand I really am a romantic sucker for the whole OTP/soulmate thing.

Oy, I rambled. Sorry!
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 12:27 am (UTC)
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Don't be sorry - it was interesting rambling. I do think it's possible for two people to conceive of themselves as soulmates without falling into the traps xtricks talks about so well in his journal.

Another post you might want to read is here . It's a spinoff from xtrick's post and makes very good points. It also prompted a lot of my thinking for this post.

Something else I'd like to cover - but I think I need to think more about it before I do - is how gender differences in expectations and views of "romance" figure into this. There was an essay I wish I could find again that someone pointed me to months ago, that was a slash writer basically responding to gay male objections to slash. She talked about what she got out of a kind of slash that feminizes men and also objectifies men's bodies, as well as the romantic aspects of it. She was presenting this as a woman's view and basically saying that men don't have to like it, won't like it, aren't expected to like it, but it's ours.

Only it's the kind of slash I hate, and I felt like yelling "Ain't I a Woman?" when I read it. I do want my sex to be realistic, and I don't think that means I value male aesthetic more than female literary aesthetic. If anything, I think that a lot of "romantic" slash is not so much feminine in its imagination as heterosexual.

Anyway, I do actually have more complex thoughts than that about the essay, and about the whole concept of a romantic male/male erotic stories written by and for women, but I think I need to both find that essay and reread it and think some more about that.
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From:eveningblue
Date:January 26th, 2007 01:12 am (UTC)
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Was it possibly by Ann Somerville (logophilos)? I think I've seen her write about similar issues.

If anything, I think that a lot of "romantic" slash is not so much feminine in its imagination as heterosexual.

Maybe that's true, but that's probably because a lot of women who write it are writing from their own (het) experiences and (het) fantasies, and are writing it for other (het) women.
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 02:59 am (UTC)
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It was called something like "This is not the slash you're looking for". I don't know who wrote it, but I really would like to find it again...
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From:executrix
Date:January 26th, 2007 12:45 am (UTC)
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Replying to lemurgrrrl: your post made me think of a slash dynamic that I really like (although of course it's not the only possible one!): Guy Who Wants to Be There/Guy Who Doesn't Want to Be There. Sex is always going to be more important to the guy who doesn't want to be there than to the one who's always all about the mission.
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From:talktooloose
Date:January 27th, 2007 04:14 am (UTC)
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Random ramble in response.

One of the most powerful things about Mo's Scott/Logan pairing is Scott's acceptance that Logan will probably never settle down and commit to a traditional relationship. Scott's acceptance of the relationship AS IT IS is one of the reasons it is strong and enduring. Would that we all had the strength to accept our relationships as they were rather than judge by how well they follow pre-written societal patterns.
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From:mofic
Date:January 27th, 2007 01:30 pm (UTC)
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Scott comes to that acceptance with a lot of struggle and a lot of pain - for both of them. I think it's a rare individual who can easily reject those patterns.
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 03:00 am (UTC)
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PWP bores me, too, but so does "romantic sex." And I think they bore me in the same way - they don't represent the complexity of human experience and human emotions that sex really can illustrate in fiction.
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From:realpestilence
Date:January 26th, 2007 02:20 am (UTC)
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If I read enough sex scenes, it all starts to blur into miscellaneous parts. What makes the difference between "yeah, sure, move it along..." and "oh, now, *that* was good!" is *why* they're having it.

I agree with your comments about how the author should know more about the characters than they necessarily reveal. My friend Jenna, who betas for me, always pushes me to justify why something happens, even in a drabble...I might never use the info, but I do know it, which affects the piece I'm writing.



Pesti
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 03:01 am (UTC)
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Good for your friend Jenna - and good for you for letting yourself be pushed like that.
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From:raynbow_flyer
Date:January 26th, 2007 07:40 pm (UTC)

where to start?

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if i were to read one of your stories/series where do you recommend i start?
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From:mofic
Date:January 26th, 2007 08:03 pm (UTC)

Re: where to start?

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If you've seen the first X-Men movie, a good place to start is I Know What You Are. It's a pretty short story series and it's set during the movie, in the scenes we don't see. I'm not sure how accessible it is if you haven't seen the movie, although I know some have read the stories without prior experience of the movie.

Another possibility is a standalone story called What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been . It is set in movieverse, and involves Logan (one of the main characters in the movie - the guy in the icon) and an OC, but I think it doesn't depend on knowing what happened in the movie. Or you can start with Character Bios which would likely make all the stories more accessible for a movieverse novice.
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From:talktooloose
Date:January 27th, 2007 04:26 am (UTC)
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***Warning: Contains spoilers for Mo's war on mutants storyline of a couple of years ago.***

When I write, I always feel like I'm weaving the whole from strands and that each strand must support the others. Action must illuminate character; the arc of a relationship must dovetail with and help create the action crises. So every element I choose becomes part of the tapestry.

Sex is (in addition to be pleasantly tiltillating) one of the most useful conjunctions in writing. It allows us to see characters at their most emotional. It allows characters to reveal parts of themselves they otherwise hide. It allows emotions to come to the surface that can trigger big decisions and lead to action. It can underscore the importance of an action. The sexual arcs of Bobby, John, Kitty and others in my current novel are all tied to political and personal events that are also pushing the action forward. Climaxes and climaxes go together for maximum impact.

An example of this from Mo's fic is Scott and Logan fucking in the woods as they lead a group to the Saskatchewan shelter during the war. The scene has a lot of levels. First of all, it is observed the night before possible battle by another character and becomes part of the resolution of an arc around Scott being accepted as a gay teacher. It shows how people's love burns hottest when it is threatened. It brings sharp contrast to the characters of Scott the Leader and Scott the Sexual Bottom. Because it occurs during a time of war, it shows what that the characters are fighting for their right to love and live.
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From:mofic
Date:January 27th, 2007 01:10 pm (UTC)
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When I write, I always feel like I'm weaving the whole from strands and that each strand must support the others. Action must illuminate character; the arc of a relationship must dovetail with and help create the action crises. So every element I choose becomes part of the tapestry.

Very well said, and I like the illustrative examples from both your fiction and mine. Of course - speaking of pleasantly titillating - you're in part foreshadowing stuff you haven't published yet in yours. ::stamps foot impatiently::

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