Let’s talk about sex.
A few months ago, I attended a reading and signing in town by Patrick Rothfuss. During the reading he was asked a question about the reactions he got from his decision to have his main character, Kvothe, indulge in several acts of a carnal nature in The Wise Man’s Fear.
He mentioned that a lot of readers sort of got up in arms about the issue and that he was baffled to understand why.
During the course of the novel, Kvothe kills around thirty to forty people, some of them in some pretty heinous ways using sympathy. Also during the course of the novel, he…”romps” a few times with a a fairy sex goddess, a tavern wench and two ninjas.
One of these events garnered Rothfuss a lot of hatemail from outraged readers who stated that on no uncertain terms would they be caught dead buying his books ever again. The other event passed by without a single word of protest.
Can you guess which was which?
I found this story a little disturbing. Having read the book (as I’m sure many of us have?), I’d have to say that any sex that was present in the book was of the ‘fade out’ variety. It’s the sort of scene where if it was in a movie, you would see a man and woman coming together to kiss and maybe start to unbutton a shirt before fading out to black and then scene would fade back in with the two of them naked in bed (with the covers pulled up demurely).
Contrasted against that, you have some fairly descriptive depictions of violence. There’s a fair bit of blood spilled, torturous wounds inflicted and even the desecration of dead bodies to achieve an end.
And of these two, the first one is the more disturbing one? PG-rated sex between two consensual adults (don’t forget the consenting fairy sex goddess) is MORE disturbing than murder, torture and the desecration of the dead?
This isn’t even taking into account the implied off screen rape of two minors. Yeah, you read that correctly. And you know what? Of all of the events of the novel, THAT was the bit that made me a little uncomfortable. The sex didn’t bother me and the violence didn’t make me bat an eye but the whole suggested rape thing got me a tad squeamish.
But according to him, nobody wrote him any hatemail because of the rape.
No, what really gets certain people’s blood boiling is that the main character has had sex a few times.
I think there’s something strange to be said for a culture that tends to find a hazy depiction of sex more disturbing than explicit violence and gore or implied rape.
Stepping off of my soapbox for a moment, I want to take a look at the question lurking beneath the rhetoric: What is the purpose of sex in a story?
Given the relationship between sex and death, it probably wouldn’t surprise you guys to know that I feel the same way about characters having sex as I do about characters dying.
I think that by and large, many people shy away from the idea of their characters dying and having sex just because. It might be out of a sense of trying to protect the image of the character you’ve created or it might be because you’re not sure you’ll handle it well. Despite those very valid worries though, I say if the situation calls for it, give it a shot.
Just like killing off main characters, I’m most definitely NOT advocating that you throw some sex in there just because you feel you should. That just leads to a whole host of awkward moments that will probably have your reader glossing and skimming past.
But there are cases where a bit of sex feels perfectly natural to include. Our characters are just as human as we are…well, you know, unless they’re like…not.
Even if we don’t engage in the act directly, thoughts of a sexual nature cross our minds probably at least once or twice a day, even if it’s nothing more than seeing an attractive stranger walking past on the street and reacting to it. Considering also that many of our characters spend an inordinate amount of time in high stress situations with all of that extra adrenaline and heightened emotions all around…well, I’m just saying that I don’t think a few stray sexual thoughts or impulses would be unwarranted.
Many readers relate best to characters that they can see a bit of themselves in and a character that’s 100% pristine and pure of thought and deed no matter what the situation feels as fake as a villain who has a handlebar mustache and ties virgins to train tracks just because he can (see the difference between Elene and Viridiana in The Night Angel).
In closing, to be clear, I’m not saying that there HAS to be sex. All I’m saying is that if your characters grow and develop relationships that might lead to sex, be open to the idea that including it might help strengthen your characters and make them seem more real instead of dismissing it out of hand to keep the story and characters ‘clean.’