Sex scenes can be a bit of a sticky subject; they don’t fit into every story, but they have a purpose outside of simple titillation. This post looks into how they can be used to aid in character development. Sex is a very intimate act, and it has potential to show the reader another, less public side of the characters at hand. It could be used to hint at a secret or perhaps even strengthen a prominent character trait. Of course, sex scenes can also be used as turning points for the characters in their personal development arcs. We’ll break it down into a few questions to help us understand just how sex scenes can be used to help with character development.
Who initiated the intimacy?
Who initiated the sex scene says quite a lot and, of course, falls back on other context cues as well. The way that they initiated is quite telling; was it rushed and desperate or cool and calculating? Did they do it in an intimate, quiet setting, or a far more busy one where a rival may see and hear? Initiating could be construed as an act of dominance, and in some dynamics would be exactly that. They’re the ones who are taking control of the situation and deciding that then is a good time for sex. Of course, the other person can argue and turn away, but they’re still put in the defensive position and must react to the initiator, rather than being the one to lead, themselves.
It may not be dominance, though; instead, it could be a sign of need and lust. Perhaps they have stronger feelings about the other person and they are initiating because they have a strong need to perform those acts at that moment in time. It could be that they need comfort and release from a stressful surrounding situation, or it could be that they are using the intimacy as leverage against someone else. Maybe they’re initiating not out of desire or need for the act or the other person, but instead because they can hold it over someone else’s head and bring about a reaction from another character, another step in the plot.
This gives us some insight into the characters’ attitudes towards sex, the situation around them, and the other person/people involved in the act. It could be used to show their weakness for the other character, or perhaps how they crumble under stress. On a darker note, it could also be used to demonstrate their willingness to harm others in their quest to take down another character, or how they view people as nothing more than pawns in a larger game. There are a lot of options here. If they’re not the initiator, then perhaps they’re nervous about sharing intimacy with another person; maybe there’s some fear there about letting go. Perhaps it’s more that they’re the one playing the game and they’re manipulating the initiator. Or, it could be something as innocent and nice as that they were waiting for the other person to make the move so they knew they were ready, that they had no desire to rush them despite their lust.
How is the intimacy displayed?
I shared a sex scene from Feathered Touch, the upcoming sequel to my first book, Wyrd Calling, and in that scene there was a lot of biting, clawing, and bloodshed. That displayed the main character’s predatory nature and sadistic side. It was also used to show the other character’s masochistic and submissive side. These were very clear actions and markers of those personality traits. The intimacy can, of course, be gentler, slower, and more tender. That shows a completely different character type. That could be used to show a softer character, one with less aggression and more of a need to tease or please the other partner. Perhaps they are concerned about bringing harm to the other, or they merely need a break from the darkness around them.
The way that the characters go about the intimacy can be used to say a lot about them. For example, are they selfish? Do they focus only on themselves and their pleasure, or do they consider their partner? Do they take the time to explore their partner, or is it very much a means to an end? Is it soft, gentle, and slow? Or more aggressive and lust fuelled?
Don’t forget to add in whether they strip down completely and can see and feel each other’s body or not. That openness can be used to say a lot about the characters, how they view themselves and each other. A character that takes the time to explore and worship the other character is quite a different thing to one who skims over them and gets straight to the point while looking into space thinking about something else. Just as a character who playfully refuses to take their socks off is very different to one who hitches up their skirt and won’t allow any more contact than is absolutely necessary. These little details add a lot to the emotion of the scene and the characters themselves.
All of those points will say a lot about the characters at hand, not just how they go about showing intimacy and the act, but how they receive it too. I have one character who refuses to allow her partners to touch her until she has warmed to them and feels some trust. That is partly due to her dominant nature, her controlling the partner and the situation, and partly because she has trust issues. Her pleasure comes from the control, from the partner begging and writhing, knowing that she did that and she has the power to take it away in the blink of an eye.
What happens when it’s all over?
Do they brush themselves off and walk away as though nothing happened? That could be good for an emotionally distant character or a situation where it was just a release and nothing more. How does the partner react to that? Are they heartbroken? Or are they just glad to have them leave and thus enjoy their own bed without obstruction or intrusion? This could turn into an entire game, depending on the characters at hand. Character A could brush themselves off and not say a word while getting dressed, hoping to elicit a reaction from character B. B knows the game, and rather than reaching out to touch A and ask them to stay, they stretch out and make as though to go to sleep. That puts the move back onto A. Of course, they might not realise it’s a game, or even care that it is and reach out to beg to bring them back. How character A reacts to that, again, says a lot about them. Do they take sadistic pleasure in ignoring them? Perhaps they think them pathetic and shrug them off? Or maybe, they just need to feel loved and wanted, and take it as an excuse to do what they really wanted: Cuddle up to Character A.
Instead, they could cuddle up close together and enjoy the intimacy of being close, their bodies pressed close together enjoying the continuation of relaxation and pleasure. Maybe they’re not ready to face the real world again, and they lose themselves in each other for as long as possible. This would be a sign of an emotionally available character, someone who is open to caring for someone else and enjoys their company and presence. It could be used as the start of something much more.
Are their reactions to the act equal?
If one of the characters reacts by shutting down and pretending it never happened, does the other feel the same, or were they hoping for something very different? That, again, says a lot about the relationship, dynamic, and characters. It can also be used to further advance the plot. It could be as simple as one of the characters being incredibly self-centered and not having enough awareness of the other character to understand why they’re walking away disappointed and unsatisfied. They could try and keep them close, to continue the intimacy and not grasp why the partner is upset. That shows a lot about them, their difficulty in understanding others and truly caring about them. How the partner reacts also shows a lot. Do they calmly, politely try to explain? Do they curl their lip and leave without a word? How does it affect them in the hours and days to follow?
It could be that one partner overstepped a line and the other partner needs time to deal with that. How does A deal with the line being overstepped? Do they then explain to B how they feel about it and how it was overstepped? Do they shut down? How does B deal with having overstepped said line? Do they try to comfort A? Do they brush them off and say they’re being stupid? Again, this can be used to give a lot of insight into the characters.
While I do have a lot of experience with BDSM, and it is becoming quite popular in a wide variety of genres, the notes relating to that would be a series of posts unto themselves. I might touch on it in the future, but not here and now.
In summary, sex scenes are no different to dramatic and action scenes, in that they have a huge deal of scope to say a lot about the characters within that scene. They can also be used to further the plot. It isn’t just a case of something steamy; it has a lot more psychological depth to it. How the characters go about not only the act, but the build up to it and the ‘after’ moments says a lot about them and can help your readers gain greater understanding about them. If your story is one that would work well with sex scenes, then make the most of them and use them. Don’t think of them as merely smut; use them as tools the same way that dramatic scenes, action scenes, and major plots points are.