I once had a discussion with a romance author who raised an interesting question, and I’m here to address it today.
The topic, Sex!
Yes, let’s get steamy for a minute, and talk about our most private of fantasies!
(Had you going though, didn’t I?)
Let’s be more specific.
…Sexuality in Fantasy novels.
There are a healthy many books out there which deal with the topic of sexual fantasy. We call them erotica and romance novels.
50 Shades, anyone?
There are also many urban and dark fantasies, which orbit heavily around young love, romance, and the oft-expressed or implied sexual fantasy of ultimately making love to a higher (or deader) being than our mortal human selves.
But we noticed in our talk, a peculiar occurrence, or more accurately; lack of occurrence in traditional classical high-fantasy epics.
We plied each other with the question, why? Why is sex NOT more prevalent in high fantasy epics, and why are most traditionalist fantasy authors seemingly somewhat shy of the topic altogether?
After all, it’s fantasy! It all is!
Most often, when I see a potential sex scene (which, frankly, I’m hoping does occur for the characters because while I’m reading them I’m on their side, and hell yeah I want them to get together, if the author is doing his or her job making me like them); the authors hold back, and we end up with the whole “camera pans to curtains” or “fade to black, end scene” type of mechanisms which simply imply sex occurs in that moment.
There are any number of reasons why authors may write this way, but I’m here to offer the reasons for why I might choose to write this way, or not.
Case in point would be my debut, E.L.F. – White Leaves.
Now, I’m not saying sex even occurs in this story. I’m not saying it won’t in the future volumes, or if it does, whether or not it will be omitted, implied, or detailed (or if that detail will be graphic).
I’m simply saying sexuality is a matter of importance in fantasy.
After all, again, it’s fantasy! Anything can and will happen! And the ultimate fantasy often is the juiciest of them all. Moreover, love is often a powerful theme in many epic fantasies, and sex is a part of love, is it not? Not always, but much of the time it’s there; a splinter waiting to be plucked.
For me, there are several reasons why I would or would not implement depiction of a sex scene in a fantasy novel.
Firstly, most obviously, there is the power of sex and how well it sells. People love sex. We just do. It’s part of our genetic existence. Procreate, perpetuate the species, survive, leave a legacy… and have fun doing it!?
That’s a pretty strong reason to use sex and not to gloss over it like so much filler.
Adversely, though, there is a high degree of imagination at work within a reader. There is a transfer taking place, and a connection being made. If you omit the sexual acts that take place, you’re allowing the reader’s imagination to do that work for you. They may love or hate your for that.
So let’s move on.
Secondly, into that notion of connection (between yourself as an author and your reader).
Perhaps many authors who use implied sex are simply uncomfortable with sharing that aspect of themselves with their readers. Many in this day and age yet believe that sex is sacred. I happen to agree with that paradigm. Sex is valuable to the soul and emotions, the body and the mind. It is important in any relationship on that level of loving nature.
So, perhaps with sex being sacred to us we refuse to connect with just anyone on that level. Our fantasy is limited by our devotion to its utmost value. And if we only imply sexuality, it is a place for you, the reader, to explore your own and learn something about yourself instead of experiencing ours. We’re then creating a boundary between us, if you think about it. But in doing so, we’re giving you more of yourself.
Beyond this, there is also the notion with many high fantasies that sex is not very important to the plot. Many fantasies of higher-minded intellectual motive and connection on any number of topics and matters important to the author’s messages, tend to imply sex rather than wield it. I feel this is because they’re simply telling a story that ultimately has something very important to say.
There’s more important things in life than sex, the author is telling you. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Utilizing sex in this sort of story will only detract from its message and cheapen its importance, despite the fact that mr. and mrs. protagonist simply must have sex in order to complicate the story in just the right way.
Now, E.L.F. does wield some sexuality, but it’s in very subtle ways. Why is this?
And what’s stopping me from opening that can and giving readers that tasty morsel?
I’d like to think it’s a combination of the reasons above.
E.L.F. is very much a story of morals, as any fairytale should be. Sex might only detract from what it’s meant to tell you about our world. But also, sex, invaluable to my person, is not something I’m going to share with just anyone. It is… special to me. I was raised old fashioned in a lot of ways, so I maintain that sense of heart.
However, there is yet another dimension to take into consideration.
And that is sex as an integral plot device, as briefly mentioned just above.
Mr. and Mrs. Protagonist must have it! Why? Because they’re living breathing characters thrown into the mix together and the stars align in just such a way as to let their baser animal desires or higher sentimental selves freely express their connection to one another. It is here that I’ve noticed more classical high fantasies will actually go forth to ‘divide and conquer’ as they say, and actually detail their sexual encounters.
While the question still prevails, whether or not to use a more explicit sexual fantasy scene, I’ve noticed that some authors who might not otherwise be prone to such scenes will go for it if it happens to be a device to complicate what’s at stake for the characters, or the scenario requires such things as consummation of love, or a deflowering must take place, or perhaps if there are consequences for doing so.
I believe this is due to some need to validate the use of such scenes. That is to say, so the author can feel comfortable with such a scene being used in their book at all without feeling as though they’ve crossed some sort of taboo line. I say this because for some reason, the reason I’m even writing this article, there seems to be this strange taboo about wielding more detailed sex scenes in fantasy, and I’m still not sure why.
Maybe I’m just not well read enough to have seen it enough times to realize it’s quite a bit more common than this article would suggest. Or maybe it’s that traditional genre fantasy is just meant for a wide range of ages and its better to just keep it PG rated.
I just feel like there’s more to it than such simple answers. There are just so many things to take into consideration.
For example, yet another aspect of sexuality in fantasy; general sexual tension between characters. This use of sex is quite common and dynamic. I see it frequently enough to realize the authors are wise to the phenomenon that omits detailed sexual acts from a fantasy story, and they’re actively exploiting the fact that a sexy supporting character, female(who probably wears far too little armor for right battle) is totally crushing on the resident male hero, or vice versa. These authors, I think, are cruising a fine line intentionally; giving us the thrill that comes along with sexual conquests in all their forms without actually giving us anything except our own imaginations.
To illustrate; sexual tension clearly exists between Shan and Deh from “E.L.F.”, but it’s also atypical, in that it appears to be decidedly one-sided (at least for now with book one, White Leaves).
Will it result in future books in the E.L.F. series as consummation of their love? Will it be graphic or glossed over and implied? Or will it simply never happen; as within real life, where many times we can experience connections that never go anywhere and never happen for one reason or another.
I won’t intentionally pull any punches in writing, so I’m not afraid to write such a scene. But I won’t also blatantly bludgeon you over the head with sexuality in any of my works without first considering how it best helps the story. I can honestly answer those questions with -“I simply have no idea.” But that’s the beauty of it. It all unfolds according to what’s right for the story and what feels natural.
Either way, implied or graphic, I don’t think high fantasy should have to exclude sex to be taken seriously. Sex is natural, for one. But its also ultimately fantasy-oriented in a great many ways, so it should belong. Just realize it’s use affects your target market.
I’d say, embrace sexuality, write honestly what you’re seeing play out between your characters. Consider the mood and setting and all that it means for your characters, then write it. Only you can know how it fits naturally, and to what level it should be taken.
Just don’t wield it brazenly where it ought not go.
M.P. Ness – Born in the Midwest, I share my birthday with Leonardo Da Vinci, and seem to share a bit of that creative monster’s spirit.
I paint, draw, write, sculpt, and more.
I’m extremely prolific when I don’t have life and day-jobs tying me down.
I published my debut novel, E.L.F. vol. 1, White Leaves, July 1st, 2013, and hope to release the sequel, Blighted Leaves, sometime early/mid 2014
White Leaves is currently available at all major online retailers in both print-paperback and eBook forms.
I do my own cover-art, book-trailers, formatting, and marketing.
It’s tough, but a thoroughly engaging ride.
I’ve also done logo, cover art, and animations for local Seattle area musicians, other musicians elsewhere, luthiers, videographers, authors, and retailers.