Thursday, April 2, 2015

New Guest Post - Astrid Ohletz (Ylva Publishing) "When Sex is a Main Character"


When Sex is a Main Character

You’ve almost certainly read them before—those hot-but-forgettable erotic stories where the characters are faceless, the plots are pretty trite, and the lust is all that matters. It can make for nice quickie fantasy material, but too often, people who try to write erotica forget an essential storytelling truth along the way:

Well-developed characters are sexy.

What makes Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet’s sex scenes so steamy, for example, isn’t just the sex itself, but knowing the characters having sex—Nan, a shy, na├»ve oyster girl from a small town in Victorian England awakening to her lesbian sexuality and Kitty, a cross-dressing dancehall performer who has wooed Nan away to live with her. 

In Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, characters Therese Belivet and Carol Aird’s sex scenes in a hotel room are achingly sensual, in part, because by the time they have sex, Highsmith has told us all about this aspiring set designer and this elegant but unhappy housewife, and we know how hard they have fought for consummation of their desire.

For our guest blog installment here this week, we at Ylva decided to quiz some of our best erotica writers about their craft—what they think makes a story erotic and how they make their erotica characters come alive.

We asked writers from two of our erotica anthologies—the Lambda Award-nominated All You Can Eat, a collection of short stories we published in 2014, and Don’t Be Shy, an upcoming two-part erotica collection we’re publishing in May (Volume One) and August (Volume Two).

Jove Belle, author of Uncommon Romance and The Job, wrote the erotic short story “Vanilla Extract” for All You Can Eat. She believes that sex scenes are an opportunity to paint a complex portrait of the characters. What a woman chooses to do, or not to do, during sex is incredibly telling, she says.

“It's probably the most intimate version of the truth that a reader ever gets of that character. If the character is properly developed, her likes and dislikes will guide the writing and the experiences,” Belle says. “And, as a character grows and changes, how she approaches sex grows and changes right along with her.”

R.G. Emanuelle, author of Twice Bitten, is one of editors of All You Can Eat, and also contributed the story “Smorgasbord”. Sex scenes hint at the deepest parts of the characters’ mind, and often the most vulnerable, she says. “What a character wants to do during sex can expose the different layers of a character’s life—her history and how she has been affected by it.”

Harper Bliss, author of the erotic series French Kissing, and the novels A Higher Education and The Honeymoon, will publish a story this summer in our upcoming erotica anthology, Don’t Be Shy. “…Erotic scenes, in particular, are an excellent opportunity to display the dynamics of a relationship, the deeper desires of a character, and, most importantly, their flair for the dramatic,” Bliss says.

So what makes for good characterization in an erotica story?

“The same as for any character in any story: they should be well-rounded and non-stereotypical,” says Bliss.

“I think the main characters have to be likeable,” adds Emanuelle. “I mean, have you ever pictured a person you disliked having sex? Not pleasant, is it? Makes you want to wash your brain out with soap.”

All three writers concede the point that erotica is a special brand of storytelling, where sometimes the sex is hottest between strangers in anonymous encounters and they will never really get to know each other.

“Sometimes sex is just sex. Period,” says Belle. “That doesn't mean it's not fun and necessary and totally awesome. Falling in love is something completely different and it can change the way two characters relate to each other sexually, but it's not needed for sex to be hot.”

Yet, even though characters don’t necessarily need to have a deep emotional connection, “It can be more satisfying if they do,” says Bliss.

“I do think that an emotional connection creates depth,” agrees Emanuelle. “Depth isn’t always necessary in erotica, so it depends on the kind of story you’re writing and the publication you’re writing it for. [But] I prefer the emotional connection, at least on some level.”

Even when it’s more difficult to portray an emotional connection—such as in a short story when two characters meet for the first time—the ‘lust at first glance’ should generate some emotional heat for the sex to be rewarding, advises Bliss.

“After all,” she says, “real emotion is what will make the story connect with the reader.”

Astrid Ohletz


  1. Great post, Astrid.

    In my opinion, the best erotica is unpredictable, surprising. Hence there will often be some aspect of the characters' personalities or situations that make sex unlikely, or difficult. Even in a short story, one needs a conflict or an obstacle to surmount. That could be anything from a character's shyness to sexual guilt to mixed signals. The satisfaction that results from overcoming those barriers is more than just sexual.

  2. There are so many good writers of erotica out there who do give us complex characters and intriguing stories that I get massively frustrated every time I see a review along the lines of, "I don't read erotica. Erotica is trash. But THIS book is different! At last, an erotica book [or often an LGBTQ book] worth reading!"

    "At last"? Where have they been? I can point folks to the good publishers, definitely including Ylva, but I don't know how much good it does. It doesn't help that the "100 top sellers" lists for erotica categories on Amazon are nearly filled with cheap, short, lowest-common-denominator works.

    Oh oh, there I go making uninformed assumptions myself. I do know some good authors who sell their short stories and novellas, etc., only in e-book form and on Amazon. And, as i've been told by a few who've self-published stories that I'd rejected for anthologies (not because they weren't good enough, but just didn't fit the final shape of the book), they make much more like this than I could have paid them.

    Okay. Rant over. Keep up the great work, Astrid.