Growing up, most of the fantasy novels I read didn’t have sex scenes. Perhaps they had a little romance, maybe some kissing, but nothing I would classify as a proper sex scene, or even an illusion to a sex scene. A few, of course, did have scenes that were a little raunchy… but I remember finding those awkward and out of place.
It wasn’t until I got older, and started reading a wider variety of fantasy – not just YA and epic fantasy but also paranormal romance and adult fantasy – that I found myself encountering more ‘adult’ content. And it wasn’t until I made a foray into fantasy romance, with books like Anne Bishop’s Daughter of the Blood and Nalini Singh’s Slave to Sensation, that I found novels that put the romance, and the sex, centre-stage.
Whether because of my age or the new sub-genres, when I discovered these books, the sexual content didn’t feel awkward… in fact, I felt sure these novels would have been blander and less effective without those elements. I also began to find novels that glossed over the sex mildly irritating (Twilight being a case in point).
Still, because of the kind of novels I grew up reading, in my mind sex scenes and fantasy novels still seem like an odd match… like something outside the norm. And that leaves me in a strange position… because I’m writing an epic fantasy romance. And, surprise surprise, it’s going to have characters lusting after one another. It’s going to have at least one sex scene.
While I know this is non-negotiable – that without these things the story just won’t work – well, I am still kind of nervous about it. Not about the writing so much, as about the response it might get if I send it out into the world. I find myself remembering the awkward sex scenes I’ve read in the past, and the friends who’ve told me that they flat-out don’t read fantasy books with sex in them, and I wonder if I’m dooming my story before I’ve even finished it.
So, from my own reading experiences, I’ve decided to try and pinpoint when sex scenes work in fantasy novels… and when they don’t:
The Quality of the Writing
I know that even now, as an adult, I can read a book with a sex scene and cringe. If it’s badly written and the romance is clunky… well, it’s just embarrassing all round. The Bad Sex Awards seem to thrive every year with fresh new examples of these kinds of scenes, even if they’re not often from fantasy fiction novels. It seems to me the scenes that end up on this list are ones where the writer has gotten too explicit and weird in their descriptions, or has tried to be too poetic and vague, or has simply engaged some terrible mentally-scarring metaphors (some of the excerpts actually made me wrinkle my nose… presumably not the response most writers want their sex scenes to illicit).
The Gender of the Author
Some have toyed with the idea that the gender of the writer might have an influence on whether the sex is well-written (with the suggestion being that women are better at writing about sex than men)… and while I can say a lot of the awkward scenes I’ve read have been written by men, I can’t say I’ve read widely enough to make any claims myself. It could simply be that more women write fantasy and paranormal romance, and those sub-genres are more naturally suited to sexual content.
We can probably all agree sex scenes would feel out of place in children’s fantasy, and could feel out of place in some types of YA fantasy. However, I know there are some kinds of ‘adult’ fantasy stories where I would never, ever, want a sex scene included. I wouldn’t want to read about Samwise Gamgee’s intimate experiences with Rose. I wouldn’t want to see any explicit sex scenes slipped into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, or Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (though I would have appreciated a little more romance at some points in the latter).
It seems to me that in certain types of fantasy (particularly epic fantasy and comedic fantasy), overly intimate scenes can feel out of place. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I’d say it comes down to three things: tone, characters and focus.
If a book is written in formal or archaic tone, features characters that are not sexually aware or appealing, and is focussed primarily on heroic deeds and epic adventures rather than sexual tension and romance, and then suddenly springs an explicit love scene on the reader… well, it will jar with all of these elements. The scene will feel out of place.
It’s for this reason that I think other sub genres, such as paranormal romance, fantasy romance, dark fantasy and gothic fantasy, can more naturally include sex scenes. These sub-genres tend to dispel the illusion of the ‘pure’ lust-free fantasy world, where noble elves and warriors share only poetry and chaste kisses with their lovers. That’s not to say other sub-genres can’t have sex scenes… it’s just that these are the ones that seem to naturally lend themselves to such things.
Most of the time, I believe a sex scene – particularly an explicit one – is only going to work in a fantasy novel if there is romance involved – i.e. characters that are in love with or attracted to each other (of course, I’m talking about consensual sex scenes here). Perhaps a grimdark or gothic fantasy can get away with some spontaneous relations between characters that only just met, or care little for each other. On the whole, however, I think romance needs to be involved. I’d also argue that romance needs to be convincing, and a key focus of the story… otherwise any intimacy will feel awkward, unconvincing, or simply gratuitous and unprecedented.
The Devil in the Detail
When a book does include a sex scene, there are obviously varying degrees of detail that the author can choose to employ. They can range from very explicit, long, descriptive scenes, through to more vague suggestive vignettes, or simply “fade to black” teases that leave everything up to the imagination. As to which degree of detail works… well, again, it all depends on the tone and expectations the book has set up. I once read a sex-focussed fantasy romance novel brimming with lusting characters and gender power struggles, but when the main characters finally got together it was pretty much a fade to black. Needless to say, this puzzled me greatly. I’ve also read novels that got unexpectedly explicit very quickly, leaving me feeling a little like I’d sat down to watch a Disney film and accidentally ended up on the adult channel. So again, it’s about whether it fits with the story and how skilfully it’s dealt with.
All of That Aside…
Some readers simply dislike sex in their fiction. I know friends and fellow fantasy-readers who I’d put in this category. One says sex scenes make her blush… she likes the romance, but anything more and it gets too awkward. Another friend was thrilled when I first told him I was writing fantasy fiction, but then had to double-check that I wasn’t writing “those adult fantasy books with all the sex in them”. At the time, I was writing a pretty harmless YA novel so I could give him my assurances… now, well, not so much.
I guess what it comes down to is this: you’ll never be able to please all readers. Some will be turned off by more explicit scenes, some will be turned off by the absence of them (if they are perceived to be necessary). As a reader, I fall more into the latter category… and as such, I would say the only thing a writer can work with here is what they feel comfortable writing, and what expectations they set up. If the tone, focus, characters, sub-genre and/or content of a novel indicates early on whether or not it’s likely to get explicit, well, at least we won’t feel surprised when a raunchy scene comes along, or disappointed when one is very obviously avoided.
Some other interesting articles on this topic:
- https://curiosityquills.com/limyaael/sex-in-fantasy-novels/ (about sex-related clichés in fantasy novels)
8 thoughts on “Sex Scenes in Fantasy Novels: When Do They Work?”
Excellent post. I think sex scenes are like anything in a book — they have to fit with the whole or they do feel out of place and gratuitous. Like the author had some beta reader tell them to “sex it up” because that’s what the market demands. It’s a persuasive argument, and all writers want to increase our chances of success by giving the market what it demands. However, to me, it’s more important to listen to your muse and trust your own judgment about what is necessary to the story, not the marketplace.
Thanks! Yes I think it really is about fitting in with the whole story, and writing what you feel comfortable writing. Including a sex scene because someone told you to is probably one of the worst reasons to include one (though I’ve heard that in some kinds of straight romances – i.e. not fantasy ones – you’d have readers pretty angry if you didn’t include one… the genre expectations are simply too strong).
Hi, Nicola, and thanks for the link to my post on this same subject. As you can tell from that post, I’ve got the same concerns you do about including sex scenes in fantasy novels. The approach I’m taking is to go ahead and write the story with whatever sex scenes I think are appropriate, as explicit or as tame as I feel they should be. Later I’ll review them to see if they work. But I don’t want to censor a sex scene just for the sake of censoring it, just as I don’t want to write a gratuitous sex scene for the sake of having a gratuitous sex scene.
I agree with you about telling readers up front what to expect with regards to the inclusion of sex scenes in your book and how explicit the scenes are. I might lose some readers that way, but at least those readers shouldn’t be leaving bad reviews for the book.
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Hi Michael, was good to see someone else had the same concerns as me! I’m taking the exact same approach as you with my writing. I’m just going to write the scenes however I want to, as explicit or as tame as I feel like, then let it sit for a while and come back later to see if they work, and if they fit with the book as a whole. I also feel like I shouldn’t censor things just out of a vague fear that I’ll offend someone or turn them off. Again, you might lose some readers, but at least you’re writing the story the way you wanted to write it.
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A sex scene, like any other, should advance the action and be consistent with the characters involved. Just tossing in a few breathless descriptions doesn’t contribute to the development of the story.
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I agree with everything you’ve laid out here, and would like to add another angle for consideration: the point of the scene. If all that is important for the story is that the characters have achieved physical intimacy, then anything more than a skip-over or fade-to-black probably risks seeming gratuitous. But oftentimes, the HOW of the intimacy really matters. Is it tender and gentle and soul-cracking? Is it gigglesome and adventurous and deepens the trust and bond between the characters? Is it become perfunctory or habitual as the characters start to take each other for granted? Or is it (as memorably depicted in some Joe Abercrombie sex scenes) just a physical act – quite a messy, occasionally selfish or uncomfortable one at that – that really doesn’t impact on the emotional intimacy of the characters at all? (Some effective sex scenes only crank the character dynamic tension higher.)
I think the purpose of the scene really helps in choosing tone and word details that help the scene hang together as a genuine scene, not just a potentially awkward or overwrought interlude.
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Awesome article, to which I can relate to since I found it googling “sex in heroic fantasy”! I’m writing a fantasy like novel and your article plus the various comments are going to help me in my thinking phase.
For me, telling a sex moment is more about sticking to the reality of life. I like naturalism literature because it describes the world like it is.
And sex is a natural part of it.
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Thanks! I’m glad the article and comments are helpful. And yes, I guess it is often about just representing a natural part of life – particularly if you are aiming for naturalism or writing a more realistic style of fantasy.
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