Last time I blogged here at WriteSEX, I had a number of lovely responses. Kate T asked if I’d blog about euphemisms, and that will be my next blog, for sure. But right now I thought I’d dive into Vague’s question, which Vague boiled down to, “what is your priority when writing: plot, character, or sex?”
My first instinct when I saw this question was to answer that, in terms of mainstream publishing, the author’s priority must be plot and character over sex. And yet, even as I typed that response, I thought about a number of characters (published as urban fantasy) for whom sex and character and sex and plot are so entirely inextricable as to complicate such a knee-jerk response.
A second problem with my initial response is that it sounds a bit like the Hollywood actress who insists she will only show her ladybits in order to “enhance a character.” On the one hand, this excuse is just that: an excuse. As such, it suggests that sex and sexuality deserve, or necessitate, an excuse. It implies we need to apologize for or defend our naked bodies. On the other hand, this excuse also implies that there’s a universal scale for determining “character” and its “enhancement.” I respect Halle Berry as an actress, but after all the fuss she made over showing her tchochkees, Swordfish didn’t strike me as the most impressive of vehicles.
Another problem with my initial response is that it cuts out my own role as the author of my characters. As a literary academic, I mostly agree with New Criticism’s Reader Response theory, which states that all we have, as readers, is the text in front of us. We should never attempt to “read” a text in terms of what we know about its author’s biography.
As an author, however, I know damned well that I made a lot of choices that boil down to what I wanted to write about. And I wanted to write about sex. I like to read about sex, I like to have sex, I like to talk about sex, and I think that my whole hedonistic philosophy about the importance of healthy, healthful sex in our lives helps define who I am, as a person. I like to think of myself as a short, zaftig D. H. Lawrence of urban fantasy, but without the obsessive need to use the word “loins.” Or “inchoate.” Or “inchoate loins.”
Anyway, my point is that I–Me! Nicole Peeler! That author you’re not supposed to notice!–wanted Jane to have healthy sex, and by that I mean sex that was unapologetic and frolicsome, but also safe and completely consensual. Jane thinks about her health–both physical and emotional–before she indulges, but when she does indulge, she’s unrepentant. After all, she’s a woman grown who knows what she wants.
And that’s what we do, as authors. We make choices. But these choices then have to make sense, which means we have to make them make sense. Jane lives in a tiny community in Maine. Why would she end up such a sexual savante? That question was easily answered by her mom’s behavior–sex is in her blood; the pursuit of sex has been her example. It also helped me flesh out Jason’s grandparents. I made them two louche ex-hippies who would be comfortable educating Jane and Jason in healthy sexuality. I also upped the ante with Jason’s character. Without spoiling anything, she has a sort of idealized “Blue Lagoon” upbringing with her childhood best friend and sweetheart. Because of their similar circumstances, they mature together physically, intellectually, emotionally and sexually, and their sexual lives together are as inextricable as their friendship and their maturation process.
To put it another way, I, as the author, had to think through the choices I made and make them seem like inevitabilities rather than personal preferences. I wanted readers to see Jane as being the way Jane is because she’s Jane, not because Nicole Peeler enjoys proselytizing about sex. Jane had to live, and breathe, and appear to make her own choices on the page. So, yes, sex was one of the “ingredients” that went into making Jane True and Tempest Rising. But my job, as the author, was then to balance the rest of the recipe so it worked, as a whole.
So was my choice and its execution effective? It was certainly a risk: some people don’t like reading sex in their UF (and have told me so) and others don’t like reading non-Romance sex. In other words, they don’t like that Jane is attracted to Ryu but not “in love” with Ryu (and have told me so). While I’m sad these readers don’t see joy in Jane’s sexuality, I do not control people’s preferences, so these critiques are easy for me to dismiss. Not least because of probably one of the best series of comments I’ve received on Jane, from a reader in Alaska. I was very happy to hear from this reader how she’d enjoyed Tempest Rising. But when she told me how she gave my book to her sixteen-year-old daughter because she thought Jane’s sexuality set a good example for young women, I was floored. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I totally burst into tears.
In conclusion, it will be your choice whether you write sex and how you make that sex natural to your plot and character. Authors are puppeteers. If we decide we want our puppet to bow, we must figure out how to move our fingers in order to make him do so. Unlike puppeteers, however, we have to do so without revealing the strings that attach us to our creations. Our choices must be “invisible,” camouflaged by layers of character, plot, tone, syntax, setting, and all of the other elements that make mere choices into entire worlds. The choice to use sex must be considered, and it will have repercussions for your writing and for your audience. But what a layer of complexity sex brings: so much nuance, action, subconscious and conscious desires, a wellspring of fantasy to tap into, and a kind of tension that can’t be matched, I don’t think, in any other type of interaction or expression.
So why not sex up our dossiers? I’m glad that I did. And I think Jane is glad, too.