Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Violence and sex

I'm (was) almost ten thousand words into my writing exercise (when I started this entry), and it's starting to come back to me: the vocabulary, the longer sentence structures, the first person voice. The way it sprawls -- just a writing exercise, I thought. Just to get settled. Ten thousand words later and now we can finally start the battle that we all came here for. Sheesh.

And the graphic details. My MC, Kate, is a doctor's apprentice and she does not flinch from graphic details. She's working in the infirmary of a small kingdom's army with medieval technology tempered by some magic. It's not going to be pretty. Blood and guts and amputations and arrow extractions. Impalements. Horse bites. Bits of chainmail caught in the wound. Burns from flaming oil. Broken bones from falling off horses.

As a result of Kate's graphic detail as a doctor, the graphic details of her personal life would seem to be... required to maintain voice, wouldn't they? Cooking and cleaning and doing laundry. Gathering medicinal herbs. Sewing. Kissing and petting and hands under her skirts and... ?

In my science fiction, the level of graphic detail was much lower. There were fewer sharp objects to get disemboweled with, after all. And I had no problem shutting the bedroom door at a reasonable moment. In the years since I walked away from Kate and her fantasy epic, I settled into this set of assumptions when it comes to bedroom activities (wherever they may occur):
  • My readers care about the characters, therefore my readers want the characters to have good sexual experiences.
  • It's possible that the readers and I agree on what constitutes a good sexual experience, but it's more likely that we at least partly disagree.
  • Therefore, I should let my readers supply their own definition of what my characters did when they had a good sexual experience because the readers will enjoy that more. 
  • The exception being the deliberately erotic cutting-room-floor scenes that I write for personal entertainment. 
I've read a lot of discussion about whether graphic sexual scenes are useful for character development, dramatic development, or essentially anything other than titillation. As near as I can tell, the answer is (as with many things): sure it could be, but it often isn't.

For the record, I do believe that sexuality is a valid aspect of a character's development. Not so much the laundry list of tricks the character knows, his/her cup size/package size etc., but their level of consideration for their partner, their ability to read responses (or not), the hang-ups and baggage they bring to bed.

Getting back to Kate, she is challenging me to be far more graphic than I have been since I switched to science fiction. And while describing gore in detail can be difficult, there is something to be said for knowing that she's there to help and heal.

Describing erotic adventures can be just as difficult, honestly. Not because I'm embarrassed to talk about them, but because they are so intensely character-driven. That and you have to keep track of all the arms and legs and clothes and furniture -- it's really just as bad as tracking all the swords and bodies in a fight. But avoiding her sexual experiences would short-change an important part of her story. There are important consequences.

Which is more challenging for you: graphic violence or graphic sexuality? Do you avoid them? Why?


Bluestocking said...

I think sex scenes are harder, since the fallout is worse than a battle scene gone wrong. A bad battle scene leaves readers feeling underwelmed at best, confused at worst. Bad love scenes can make readers through the book across the room. Word choice can also be a deal breaker. Euphemisms for a man's member abound in romances, but at least in a fight a sword is a sword is a sowrd.

AveryMarsh said...

Personally, I find sex scenes harder. In my sci-fi, there aren't any (yet), but there's plenty of violence. Maybe too much. Blood and gore is not something I've ever shied away from. But describing romance on any level has always been a challenge.

I agree with Bluestocking that if done poorly, it's such a turn off. If I have to add any in the future, I still can't decide whether I want to risk flubbing it versus fading to black for all but maybe one scene.

Adam Collings said...

I'm a pretty conservative guy so I "keep the bedroom door shut" in my writing. My characters do have legitimate sexual feelings, but the personal rule that I go by, when dealing with this aspect of my character's lives and development, is 'don't write to titilate or arouse'.

I guess I'd be willing to be a bit more daring on the violence side of things, but again it all comes down to serving the story. I wouldn't go too graphic "just for the sake of it". As I think about it, most of the action scenes I write tend to me much more sanitised than what you'd experience in fantasy. A space battle is by definition much less gory than hacking at someone with a sword.

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