February 23, 2013

Three-letter Word

A couple hours, a local coffee shop, and a bunch of writers... A potentially volatile combination that, for some of us, is simply the occasional weekend afternoon. 

I am the only romance writer in my writing group, and yet one of our primary topics of conversation today was—you guessed it—sex.  

"Why do those women just throw themselves at the male character?" "Do I need to add sex to my [young adult] novel?" "What's the difference between erotica and romance?" These questions and more were raised. The fact is, when working with characters who have been through puberty, physical intimacy, in one way or another, must be addressed.

In a young adult novel with teenagers, this could mean anything from having a character worried about not being ready for sex, or shyly experiencing the first kiss (or first time holding hands, etc.), to showing disdain for the very idea of teenage (or premarital) sex or PDA. It does not necessarily mean the characters have sex on the page or even implied sex, but the topic has to be addressed, even if only to be shelved in a one-liner. The plot or subplot or minor theme of your story doesn't have to be sex, but it cannot be wholly ignored either. 

Even in novels with characters who would never have sex with each other, the topic needs to be acknowledged. The example I used with my writing group was as follows:  
In a novel where 100 [coincidentally heterosexual and all male] army soldiers invade the planet Zefron, at some point, at least one of those men will miss his girlfriend (or wife) or female company in general. The book can have absolutely nothing to do with romantic relationships or physical intimacy, but the topic is an ingrained part of life that would come up in a character's thoughts, or in idle conversation, or when one of them gets a letter (yep! interplanetary mail!) informing him someone's pregnant.  
Of course, in romance novels, many expect to see sex described in steamy detail on the page—and many romance authors fulfill that expectation. There is a sub-genre called "Christian* romance" in which characters are expected not to have premarital sex and explicit sex scenes aren't allowed, but generally speaking sex is a part of romance novels, not because what we really want to do is write erotica or verbalize sexual fantasies on a page, but because physical intimacy is an intrinsic and critical part of romantic relationships.  

Can characters fall in love without having sex? Of course! Stories about people in a relationship kept apart by distance, social customs, or religious convictions can be incredibly passionate and romantic, and those characters can be desperately in love with each other without having had sex (or in some cases without having even touched). At the same time, what separates our platonic, loving relationships from romantic ones is still that primal, physical desire. Maybe your innocent heroine in a historical novel isn't thinking about her prince charming's physical endowment, but she will be thinking about his broad shoulders, or his deft hands, or the curl of his smiling lips—and even if prince charming has no experience, he'll still be thinking about the swell of her breasts or the sway of her hips.  

Incredible tension can be built before sex ever has a chance to happen (or reoccur). When that tension will be broken depends on the specific relationship of the two characters, but that sexual component must exist between a romantically involved pair headed toward "happily ever after." 

* I am not a fan of the term "Christian romance" because it implies that the only reason someone wouldn't have premarital sex is because of Christian religious convictions. Not only is Christianity not the only religion to prohibit premarital sex, but religious convictions in general are also not the sole reason for making that decision. 

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