As writers, we’re constantly aware of the need to make our characters feel like real living people. We want to hear them breathing on the page. So avoiding stereotypical cardboard cut-out characterisation is a must. That isn’t made very easy by the fact that certain genres – and genre readers – will have very clear unwritten formulas for the main characters. You can try to avoid these all you want but the truth is, if you’re writing commercial fiction you need to give readers a little of what they want. Without making your characters seem two dimensional. Not easy, huh?
Within the romance genre, or any storyline that has romantic interaction between the main characters, you’re going to come up against the alpha male hero – who often has a troubled past that can only be redeemed by the love of a good woman – and his counterpart, the feisty independent heroine who secretly yearns for the love of a good strong man. Even in a less conventional LGBT romance where the characters aren’t the usual male-female pairing, or a sci-fi story where they may not even be human, you will still find variations on these blueprints. One character will have definite alpha hero traits which the other will suitably swoon over – while of course, remaining feisty and independent.
As writers we may roll our eyes at this, but the fact is that readers have certain expectations of particular genres that we would be wise to fulfil. After all, as a reader of erotic romance when I curl up with a new book I fully expect my alpha male to strut onto the page, ruggedly handsome and with testosterone oozing from every pore. This guy doesn’t just show up in romances either, but is a regular feature of thrillers, crime novels and action adventure stories, and not just those written by women either; check out Lee Child’s series of novels featuring Jack Reacher.
Having said this, I’m not advising you to take your interesting and unconventional characters and turn them into Ken and Barbie. You know your story, you know your characters – especially if you’ve followed the advice in this chapter – and you know what fits and what doesn’t. It’s just always a good idea to be aware of these things as they provide you with a platform from which to work. Even if your story turns conventional tropes on their heads, you need to know what they are in the first place. There’s also a very good reason why these character traits work so well in a romantic and/or sexual scenario. They’re sexy. The dynamic interplay between opposites, male and female, yin and yang, submissive and dominant, make for sizzling sexual tension that if used effectively can really ramp up the tension in your story and propel it forward. Think about your characters and how their coming together creates this interplay, and how this is going to affect their behaviour in the bedroom, and subsequently out of it. Perhaps the quiet, reclusive mystery detective finds his manly side unleashed by uninhibited sex with a female suspect, which then leads to him developing greater confidence in himself and his abilities and helping to solve the case? Or you can turn the stereotypes on their head by, for example, having a typical alpha hero reveal his secret love of being dominated in BDSM scenes with the quiet librarian who has a secret identity as a professional dominatrix. What really matters is that your erotic scenes reveal that dynamic interplay between your characters that put the ‘sex’ in sexual tension.
Another reason to be aware of stereotypical expectations is that if you’re not, you could find they creep into your writing without your meaning them to, simply because, regardless of our own sexual tastes or even those of our characters, the typical male/female dominant/submissive mix is the natural default scenario for most of us, thanks to cultural conditioning and, dare I say it, evolutionary impulses. As a result your otherwise complicated and well-rounded characters could turn into Fred and Wilma Flintstone as soon as they reach the bedroom with no reason or bearing on the story. This won’t arouse your readers, it will just baffle them. If you want your characters to show very different sides of themselves when in between the sheets, you need to make this clear that this is what you’re doing (but do remember to show rather than tell).
A popular theme in much recent erotica and erotic romance is that of the submissive female, again partly due to the success of the Fifty Shades trilogy and BDSM erotica in general. There’s nothing wrong with this – my own book ‘Wicked Games’ explores this theme – and it’s a popular sexual fantasy but please, don’t make your heroine ‘too stupid to live’. However submissive and willing she may be sexually, please don’t make her a drip or have a victim complex when she puts her clothes back on. Although characters of this nature can feature in stories of various genres – particularly slasher stories, where they usually get killed pretty early on – they are rarely the main protagonist, simply because the reader will likely be thoroughly annoyed by them. Two obvious examples are Ana from Fifty Shades who, even though she is an attractive woman in her twenties living in New York is still a virgin – who has never even masturbated – and yet signs a contract allowing Mr Grey to dominate her in every area of her life; and Bella from Twilight who comes across as a complete drip until Edward finally turns her into a vampire. If you do want your female character to, at least initially, be a bit of a wet blanket or ridiculously sexually naïve then at least give the reader some background as to why they are this way, and have them face their issues as we move through the story. We can all relate to characters that have weaknesses and insecurities and are even a bit foolish at times, but if your reader is shouting ‘you idiot!’ at your heroine as they are reading then it’s not a good sign. Of course there are plenty of male characters who can inspire this reaction too, but the current trend seems to all too often leave us with female protagonists who have all of the backbone of a limp lettuce. Readers want characters they can empathise with, but also aspire to be.
Ultimately, your erotic scenes should reveal things about the characters, ramp up tension between them and have an impact on their motivations within the story. And be sexy…..
Extract from ‘Passionate Plots, a Guide to Writing Erotic Stories and Scenes’ published March 2014 by Compass Books.