Sex and Character Development

When two people are naked together, they learn a lot. I think sexual intimacy leads to some of the most deep insights between two or more people, though we are often unable to put those bits of knowledge into words, or even unable to even recognize that we have learned something. Maybe it gets distilled to, “He really knows what to do with his tongue,” or, “She gives incredible hand jobs,” but in reality, we’re learning more than what we can boil down to a simple phrase.

Yet, that kind of depth in a character seems so often lost in books and television. Why? You know we’re all thinking it, fantasizing about the kind of sex characters have off-screen–we even ship relationships before they begin and fantasize about what might be. I know I wondered what Rick and Lanie would be doing if they ever got together on Castle.

Occasionally we get glimpses of sexual behavior: clothes might be strewn about the house, indicating a feral passion between two lovers, someone might have more intensity than the other, in the scene preceding the “fade to black” indication of intercourse, indicating perhaps a hesitance to go through with it. However, the two episodes of Sex and the City that I remember watching had some revealing things about the characters–in bed frustrations and things a person would do to make it more bearable, etc. And I was impressed with Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That kind of sexual behavior is more telling than someone might realize.

Lisbeth, for instance, is a very complicated character, being (spoiler) raped and coerced into sex for money, but instead of retreating from sexuality, she attacks it. She pursues it, and you can see how dominant she is in the sex scenes with Daniel Craig, who appears surprised at her behavior–unsure of himself.

What does that tell you about the character? Is Lisbeth reacting to being raped, acting it out during voluntary sexual encounters as if to prove to herself that she is in control of her life? Or is it an indication of her healing process? Is she seeking out a relationship with Mikael in order to conceal the damaged parts of her psyche? Perhaps it is both, and that she wasn’t initially interested in Mikael outside of her sexual needs, but found herself engaging on a more stable, mature level as their relationship developed.

I found myself wondering about Buffy’s sex life in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. We got glimpses of that as well, but there are some pretty interesting questions to ask if you think about it. Buffy has super strength. Her first sexual partner is a vampire with super strength–they’re essentially on equal footing in terms of restraint and sexual intensity. But what about Riley? He’s just a regular human and Buffy is super strong. Does she spend the entire time trying not to hurt him? What if she gets lost in the moment and scratches his back so hard that he like, I dunno, dies from blood loss?

And does Buffy want to be in charge in bed? She can get anything she wants that is obtainable through raw strength. She picks up an I-beam like it’s made of foam (which, yeah, it was, being a TV show, but work with me here) and she could probably bench press Riley through the roof. So if she wants to be on top, nothing is stopping her from taking the most  desireable position. Nothing is stopping her from saying no if she’s uncomfortable or hesitant. She’s unstoppable. How would that affect Riley’s sexual behavior? Would he be trepidatious? Cautious? Would he be rough, knowing that he can’t actually hurt Buffy? He could sit there and spank the hell out of her (if she wanted it) until he was exhausted, and… what? Would he be emasculated by that? Riley is kind of a military man’s man: he might have some preconceived notions about what sex is about, and Buffy probably defies most of them.

Or! Maybe Buffy has trouble relating to the world because of her strength. Maybe she wants to be taken care of, told what to do, held down–whatever you can think of–during sex. We don’t know because we couldn’t see those details on a television series, but those are the kinds of things that we wonder about, or at least, we picture our own idealized versions of these relationships in our heads while curious.

Wouldn’t we have a better feel for characters in stories if we could see these intimate dynamics? What if we came to know and love this no-nonsense, hard-hitting car salesman and all of his wacky misadventures–only to find out that he is extremely self-conscious about his erectile dysfunction. We mock that kind of thing most of the time in comedies, but it’s a serious problem for a lot of men who have self-esteem issues as a result. And knowing he has erectile dysfunction is only one facet of a complex problem. Does this character have premature ejaculation as well? Is he able to maintain an erection for a few minutes and then spontaneously loses it? Does he get an erection early in the morning when he wakes up? Is the erectile difficulty a biological, circulatory disorder or a pre-existing self-esteem problem? If it’s the latter, we have a whole new avenue of character discovery to explore. What caused that self-esteem problem? Was he mocked by a high school crush? Did a rumor spread about his penis size? Did he have a respected religious leader scold him over his impure thoughts?

The interconnectedness becomes even more dense when we discover the details. Is he a no-nonsense, hard-hitting car salesman BECAUSE he is overcompensating for his sex life? Are they unrelated? If so, what drove him to be so tough with business and why can’t he apply that mindset to sex? Or is he applying that mindset to sex already and is baffled that it’s not improving anything?

I could go on and on, and it seems that I have. Apologies. I’m thinking about this because I’m working on a new novel that is tightly based on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. The original had quite a bit of implied sex. In fact, one of the sex scenes is pretty hot and heavy, despite being as implicit as possible (It was written around 1920, after all). But there is no detail at all. One of Kafka’s writing traits, at least in The Castle, is that he doesn’t give a lot of detail, doesn’t reveal what characters are thinking. Deception, and the doubts surrounding broken trust, are important themes, however, and so in my retelling, I’m interested in the minute details of the sex.

So much can be foreshadowed by a look or touch during sex that I feel needs to be said. But I don’t want this story to be passed off as some kind of thoughtless erotica. The sex scenes aren’t there only to feed my need for porn. They aren’t there to put everyone in a hormonal frenzy, but they will be hot and juicy, and that makes me doubt that people will take my attempt on classic literature seriously.

Cause when was the last time you read erotica and spent some time wondering about your place in the world? When did you read erotica and ponder the questions, “Am I really a free agent? Or am I a product of determinism? Am I ruled by a faceless bureaucracy?”

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