Some time ago, I wrote about how I see romance in fantasy both from reader and writer point of view, as well as some general thoughts about romance in relation to ending of the story. Today, I’m venturing into slightly more dangerous waters: intimacy in fantasy.
Warning: potentially sensitive content will be mentioned in this post.
For the purpose of this post, ‘intimacy’ means a scene that goes past kissing but does not contain coitus in any form, even off-screen. With that cleared up, let’s dive into some of the aspects.
I’ve said that in one of the linked posts: for some characters, especially those that are romantics, getting to intimacies or outright sex can be a strong positive memory, something they’ll remember forever and can possibly use in the dark moment, to remind them that there’s something – and someone – worth fighting for. Of course, it can be used in the opposite way – a character that is a rape victim will have a strong negative memory. One way or the another, it’s a potential for further character development that should not be passed on – and I’ll appreciate it as a reader.
One of the biggest problems that can cause an outcry among some readers is feeling that the only reason for the scene (at any level of detail) is to show such a scene. To avoid such accusations (if you care for them), that means a relationship of the characters is progressing in a way that makes the scene feel natural. This is especially the case in fantasy (and space travel Sci-Fi), where various supernatural creatures exist. They give a chance for something different yet still need to be relatable.
When it comes to fantasy (and this could possibly apply to space travel Sci-Fi as well), an important factor is the setting and racial/cultural habits. Warrior cultures will probably lean towards a direct approach – for those, twenty-minute foreplay won’t make sense. Male-female equality (or lack of it) will affect how intimacies are approached in such a society. The social status of involved characters is a factor as well – heir of a noble will likely have a different approach than a farmer’s child. If all of this is not kept in mind, the scene might feel inconsistent instead of being an organic part of the story – and thus be another factor for a lower rating or worse review.
Level of detail
When it comes to outright sex, this is probably the hardest part. I’ll touch this topic more some other day from a writer’s point of view. Let’s now just say that there are several levels of detail at which such a scene can be done, depending on how the fade-out is timed. The least explicit scenes might have the fade out very early, at the beginning of the foreplay – and let most of it to the reader’s imagination. The downside is that it’ll not show anything about the characters and might even have a worse effect than not showing it at all.
The “wolf eats, goat lives” variant is to fade out after foreplay. This way, the reader can see the emotions in the early stage where they might be the strongest. As said above, the potential of intimacy in fantasy is to make the characters more relatable and show their emotional development, not to show what weird kinks they might have. There are different genres for that.
The most explicit variant is then to go all out and show a full-scale sex scene which, too, can have several levels of detail. This variant bears the most danger (to the point of deeming a story unsuitable for younger readers) and could spark the question on how much of it was actually needed to get the point across. After all, I’d presume that those really interested in these scenes will read erotica, not fantasy.
A way to approach this might be writing a version that fades out sooner but having a full-length scene available elsewhere – such as an archive of deleted scenes on the author’s website.
Factors for deciding
Apart from story-based factors, there is one more aspect to keep in mind: target audience. A story written for teen readers could face some issues (maybe even legal ones) if it included a fully fleshed sex scene. Of course, there’s no warranty they’ll be followed (as if I cared when I was 10 that GTA2 was 18+ game) but that’s a different topic.
Hence, I believe the author should do his or her best to make sure the buyers know what they might be getting into. Give warning if there’s potentially off-putting content in a book. As a reader, I know I’d not like to be forced to put a book away because I am disgusted by something 10% in, despite all other aspects of the story being good. I am sure the author would not like that either.
The last point, following the abovementioned: different target audiences have different preferences. Gender, age, and personality – all of that matters. If a book warns me about something I would not like, I’ll not buy it – but that also means I’ll not post a 1-star review, ranting about how disgusting it was – and thus possibly deter more readers.
Anyway, I’ll wrap it up here. I’ll return to this topic sooner or later from a writer’s point of view. For now, I’ll welcome your comments on this matter. Is there something where you disagree with me? Do you know a book that had a very good or very bad approach to intimacy/sex? Do you love or hate reading those scenes? Feel free to share your opinion.