Of course, who’s on top isn’t the only way to illustrate character through your sex scenes. It’s just one of the most obvious, one of the easiest to use. And honestly, it’s one of very few “writer’s tricks” that work, that are there for a real reason, and never become cliché. Somebody has to be on top, after all—at least some of the time, heh heh—so you have a distinct advantage there.
I don’t only mean who’s on top in the literal physical sense, either. I mean who initiates, who takes charge? Who’s doing the seducing, who’s making the other work for it, who wants who more? (Yes, I know that second “who” should be “whom”. I just don’t care.)
I don’t think I’ve made any real secret of my preference for dominant men in romance, and those men do tend to be in the driver’s seat, so to speak—at least on the surface. But while it’s easy to look at the man making all the moves and see him as the one in charge, to me it’s a lot subtler than that; he’s the one brave enough to put himself out there; he’s the one taking the risk and admitting he has, if not feelings, physical desires, yes. But the woman is in charge. She’s the one who says yes or no.
But it’s for just that reason that when the woman takes charge it can really deepen the relationship, the conflict, and the story.
For me, the moment when the woman takes charge, even if it’s as simple as being on top, is the moment the relationship makes a subtle change. In Blood Will Tell Cecelia walked directly into a planned seduction; she was prey, plain and simple, for Julian—a man who knew how to seduce and was used to being in control. But when, two days later, she takes the initiative, it’s a signal, and she means it to be. She’s going to be an active partner in this budding relationship; she’s going to show him what she’s made of. And by doing that she moves herself even further out of the “position” Julian originally placed her in.
Likewise, Aleeza in Demon’s Triad is the active seducer with her first partner, Dorand. Not so with Ferrin, who is much more of a sexual threat to her. He’s the seducer from the start; it isn’t until she realizes she has deep feelings for him that she becomes aggressive—Dorand is more immediately trustworthy, so Aleeza doesn’t feel the emotional vulnerability with him she feels with Ferrin.
As I said back in the “Do you need a sex scene post”, everyone in the world who has sex does it in a slightly different way. Obviously not the direct physical act, but everything around it. A lot of this will be covered in foreplay in a couple of weeks, and a lot of it involves dialogue which we’ll do on Friday. But the way your characters touch, when they look at each other and what they look at, what they’re thinking, what they like—it’s all different for everyone.
Here’s an easy example. Do your characters look at each other? Do they look into each others’s eyes? They don’t have to; honestly, they shouldn’t always, because that can be just as hackneyed and boring as any other stereotypically “romantic” moment. But for a character who hides? A character who doesn’t reveal a lot about themselves? The moment when s/he finally locks gazes with their partner can be a big moment. You don’t have to emphasize it in any particular way, you don’t have to make it a Big Moment. But the reader will see it, and sense it, because we’ve all felt the difference it makes when we really look at our partners. (Did you know that young babies are awakened and stimulated by direct eye contact? The best way to rouse a sleepy baby is to look directly into its eyes. Really. Think about that for a minute, and how you can use it.)
What might be the response of someone who’s always in control to having that control stripped from them in bed? What might be the response of someone who is always the submissive partner suddenly being the dominant one? Would s/he be scared, tentative? Triumphant? What about a woman who's always been very open about her needs in bed? How would she react to a man who clearly expected to be in the driver's seat?
What about a couple who laughs a lot, whose main form of communication is joking? What happens when they stop laughing? What are their favorite parts of each others’s bodies, and how much attention do they pay to those parts (and I mean things like the small of her back, the curve of a shoulder, a scar on a chest, not the obvious)?
How about a woman who is self-conscious about her body? Wouldn’t she be a little more apt to try and hide bits of it or to avoid certain positions? Does the hero know or sense her feelings and go out of his way to reinforce them? Perhaps the hero is the self-conscious one. What does the heroine do?
Why is the one in control the one in control? Did the other person willingly give up control, or did they never take it? How does that coincide with what we already know about them, or does it?
In As the Lady Wishes, Anna J. Evans and I created Lila, a woman who’d been abused by her husband and had finally escaped from him and his iron rule. One of the first things she did was buy herself a vibrator—because her husband had found her normal needs and desires repugnant. The vibrator (and the junk food in her cabinets) was a symbol of independence to Lila, and a way to show she was going to live for herself for once.
But when Arthur, an ancient Druid who’d been imprisoned in a painting for thousands of years and forced to grant wishes when set free, seduces her (thus fulfilling her wish), Lila still insists he get some pleasure from the act as well. This not only sets Lila up as someone who is still a caring and giving person despite her horrific past, but gives Arthur a reason to see her as more than Yet Another Master. For me, despite the fact that this scene takes place twenty pages into the book (and we’ve already set up Lila’s personality and past), the moment when she refuses to allow Arthur to have anything less than his own pleasure (yes, we’re talking blowjobs here, folks) is the moment when Lila really becomes a fully rounded character, strong and even more likeable than she was before (and I really liked Lila.) After everything she’d been through, after Arthur informs her he’s there specifically for her pleasure, she still refuses to be solely The Taker.
My heroes—most romance or romantic heroes, really—tend to be pretty masterful when it comes to the old sexing. They know what they’re doing, and they do it well. But to a man, they don’t orgasm until the heroine has done so at least once. Why? Because they’re not selfish in bed, and because they get pleasure from giving it to their partners. To me this is a huge character point. A man can be as selfish, snide, or tricky as he wants to be in life—let’s take Greyson Dante as an example, as he never does anything without first figuring out what's in it for him—but it would be absolutely unthinkable to him to ignore Megan’s needs in bed. More than that, he offers to wear a condom even though he knows and has explained how it’s unnecessary. To me that was an important moment, and not just because that bit of dialogue enabled me to dispense with the stupid condoms (which I loathe writing, by the way. There is nothing sexy about condoms and all the damn she-put-the-condom-on-with-her-teeth scenes in the world will never convince me that there is.) It showed Megan, and more importantly the reader, several things: how very much he wanted Megan, how he understood she might not trust or believe him and accepted it, how he was willing to put himself out to set her mind at ease, the mere fact that he brought it up at all. What does this say about his character?
What does it say about a man’s character if he isn’t concerned about such things, and is it always that he’s selfish? It might not be; maybe he was with a woman who told him not to bother. Maybe he was with a woman who faked it, and so is doing what he’s always been told is mind-shatteringly faboo but leaves the heroine cold. How can you twist a situation like that and show the readers something really, deeply important about the character, not just that he’s selfish and/or doesn’t care?
The great thing about sex scenes is, they enable you to literally and figuratively strip your characters bare and see what happens. You get to examine them at their most open level, their most unconscious waking level. When we have sex we’re not thinking as much; what we do is instinctive. It’s a golden opportunity to give the reader some real insight into the character themselves, if they’re selfish or giving, bored or carried away by passion, scared or triumphant or desperate or cold.
Your character’s sex scenes should be a barometer of who and where they are; it’s themselves at their most basic.
Here’s a little assignment: again, look at some of your sex scenes. Do you see the characters as individuals in them? What do their actions tell you about themselves—not the relationship, but them themselves? Do they meet problems and fears head-on, and so make love the same way—boldly, and without looking back? Or are they more tentative, nervous? How does this reinforce their character development throughout the story?
Write a paragraph of tell about one character having sex. Like, “Jack has a very naturalistic approach to sex, and isn’t ashamed of it. He loves women and everything about them. To him sex is like an amusement park ride. He’s very open about his needs and rarely lets them be ignored. He doesn’t ignore his partner either, and he doesn’t understand people who are shy in bed.”
How would that character have sex? He’d probably take the heroine’s hand and show her what to do. He’d probably try a lot of different things with her, and depending on what sort of woman she is, would be either thrilled with her openness or confused or even frustrated with her reticence. Maybe he would work to thaw her out a bit? Maybe he would go too far, or maybe not? Surely he’d watch her pretty closely to gauge her reactions, right?
Now read one of your scenes, or a scene from a book, or whatever, and write a paragraph of tell about those characters. What did the sex scene teach you about them?