Yesterday I decided to vent a bit about bad erotica, and that vent created a bit of a stir for a three-day-old blog. Having established why so much erotica sucks, I promised to offer my thoughts on how not to suck.
Therein though lies a problem, because tastes in erotica vary so widely. It’s impossible for me to offer much one-size-fits-all advice. All I can really do is explain how to write erotica that I think doesn’t suck. There aren’t a lot of objective standards here, for obvious reasons.
This is also much too big a subject for one blog post, so tonight I’m going to focus on one problem in particular.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you had at your disposal two (or more) fully animatronic, anatomically correct robots. You can make them fit whatever your personal preferences may be, and dress them (or not) according to your personal fetishes.
Now, let’s imagine them having sex, or doing whatever it is turns your crank at the moment. Would you find this arousing?
My guess is that, unless you have a Real Doll fetish (and apologies to those of you who do—I’m not passing judgement here), the answer would be no.
They’re just robots. They’re fake. You’re watching a mindless conglomeration of metal and silicone, not flesh.
Why does that matter? It’s because sexual arousal caused by things we see is directly connected to our ability to empathize with what’s going on, to imagine ourselves as part of the experience or to recall similar experiences of our own. Without that connection, we’re left cold.
This is one of the biggest problems I see with poorly written erotica. The characters are no better than robots. They’re shallow, soulless stereotypes. Some people can deal with this, or just don’t care, but for me, I have a very difficult time getting into a story unless I can envision the characters as real people. No matter how extreme they may be, a good writer can give them enough touches of reality to let me connect with them.
Effective characterization is a skill that good writers have to master, and it starts with being a good observer of people. And here I mean real people, not, for example, people you’ve only read about in other erotica. That’s one of the rationales behind my warning in the first post about how being an avid reader is not enough to make you a good writer. Because if you get too far into the genre, you can start seeing those frequent stereotypes as living, realistic people when they’re anything but.
The ironic thing is, though, that creating believable characters is really not that difficult. Mostly it’s envisioning the sort of person you need for the narrative, and then giving them some details you’ve observed in other people. Take the way your college roommate liked to talk, and add in a background element from one of your neighbors, plus a cool hairstyle you saw on some girl in the mall. Is there someone you once met who had a personality quirk that’s stuck in your head ever since? Try adding it in here and see what you get.
Doesn’t quite seem to work? Replace one element, or tweak it a bit. Keep playing with it until you’ve got someone you can envision as a three-dimensional person, someone you’d recognize if you ran into them at the grocery store.
Obviously, the process isn’t quite this easy or straightforward—often you want to just let your characters create themselves as you write—but you should get the basic idea. Not building your characters like this and just inventing everything from whole cloth (because it’s easier or you have a stubborn fantasy that wants out) usually means you end up with a story filled with synthetic people.
“But,” you protest, “I just want my characters to fuck.” Fine, let them fuck. But you can make them real with as little as a few sentences (or, if you’re really good, only a few words). The key to this is not forcing things as if they were robots. Don’t envision the action and make them dance; envision the characters and let them do and say what seems natural. Don’t rush it. Just let it happen. Think of them as people, not sex-bots. What would they do?
Now, having said all this, I want to stress one important point. The problem with weak erotica is less the absence of characterization than it is incompetent characterization. It’s actually quite possible to write an effective piece of erotica with no characterization whatsoever. The unidentified characters are there, and immediately begin fucking. While making this work takes some care, it can be done, and done very well.
Where so many authors go wrong is trotting out the same tired characters they’ve read 100 times before because it’s what they’re used to, or slapping together something that bears no resemblance to live human being because they’re too impatient to get to the sex.
That’s what sucks, and I want it to stop.