Could someone please get a fire extinguisher and have it standing by, please? Because this is one of those topics that, thrown before the wrong crowd, can have torches lit before the title has even finished appearing on screen.
Which, obviously, is not the goal of Being a Better Writer … but torch-lighting is the goal of others online, so there’s still a chance. Hopefully the comments on this one don’t devolve—or worse, dive—into a flame war.
Because, if I’m honest, this is a topic that I think needs to be discussed more among writers, if only to keep them from falling into what is, quite frankly, a bit of a trap-like pit that can drag multiple aspects of their story down if tackled poorly. And … let’s be fair here, a lot of works handle this poorly. Which is why I chose to write on this topic in the first place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, here. So let’s back up and start where these things ought to start—the beginning—and get some context out of the way. Such as “What do I mean when I say this post is about sex appeal and character description?”
Well, let’s approach it this way: Have you ever read a book where a character that is the “token hot character” (or sexually appealing) comes onto the scene, and you can actually predict the prose the author uses to describe them? Prose made up of phrases like “she had curves in all the right places?” or “his rock-hard muscles glistened like they’d been oiled?”
Uh-huh. Or worse. If you’re well-read enough, odds are you’ve read something like this. A passage about how tightly a female character’s breasts pushed against her shirt. A paragraph about how broad a man’s shoulders were, or something about the sizable bulge below the waist.
Yeah, those are things I’ve run across before. And sadly, some of you readers probably have as well. And, well … they’re garbage. Serious junk. Bland, flat, bottom-of-the-barrel prose.
But that admission leaves us with a conundrum. Because if they are that bad (which they are), then why do so many authors continue to use them? What are they trying to accomplish? If it’s bland and poor, why does it keep cropping up?
Well, if you ask me, it’s because they don’t know any other method of conveying sex appeal, and they’ve reached a point in their story where they want to use it to make the protagonist more approachable and human to the reader.
Maybe they’re writing an action-thriller that has a bit of romance thrown in. Or a mystery novel where they want to give their protagonist a bit more depth. Or perhaps they just want to throw in a bit of steamy writing for the viewership that will attract.
Point being, they want their character to express something that most day-to-day folks can sympathize with: An attraction to a romantic partner. After all, this is both an understandable and relatable thing, which in turn makes the character more “real” to the reader. Who among us haven’t seen someone that caught our eye? Not many. So when we’re building characters in a story, a romantic attraction of some kind is a very simple way to introduce another element of character that the audience can relate to. The problem starts when they reach this point and realize that they don’t know how to do this.
Now here I want to pause and take a quick break to tackle one issue that might crop up. That issue is this: There is nothing wrong with having your character be attracted to someone. Nothing at all. It’s a good way to make a character more relatable, as I said above. The problem with this is that many writers trying to pull this off get ham-handed, or worse, have no idea what their character is attracted to! Or would be attracted to.
See, this is where things start to take a sideways turn. Because if an author has never put much thought into what would attract said character, they tend fall back on a default. A set of Hollywood, off-the-shelf values to explain why protagonist X is attracted to character Y. They fall back on what they know from other books. and from film. So, when their fingers are done moving we have … curves in all the right places, oiled muscles gleaming, white, perfect teeth, etc, etc, etc.
In other words, generic sex-appeal condensed into a paragraph. The same stuff most are bombarded with every day in ads, news, and entertainment.
Now, some of you might be asking “Well, why is this bad? After all, that stuff is everywhere because it sells! Isn’t that what we want?”
Well, you’re right, it is everywhere because it sells. It’s also everywhere because it’s generic. It’s like … a distilled version of sex appeal, mass-marketed and mass-produced. Great for trying to target as many people as possible … but terrible for targeting singular individuals. And many writers don’t realize or even think about this.
Okay, that’s not fair. Some do. After all, some are going for straight reader appeal rather than character appeal with their stories, and so their romantic interests are going to straight-up be that generic, broad appeal of sexual characteristics marketing has deemed the most successful.
But if we’re not writing stories like that, what are we supposed to do when when we reach a point where we want a character’s sex appeal and attractiveness to be a focus? When a character finds themselves attracted to another character?
Simple. Don’t go generic.
Okay, so it’s not so simple. But what we need to do is remember that our character, as we’re writing them, should be as living character, with their own interests, wants, and desires. They’re not a generic everyman (or woman), even if your story started at that point. They’re an individual with their own interests and goals. And yes, this includes romantic ones, and what they find attractive in a partner.
Look, despite what Hollywood and legions of poorly-written protagonist attractions would have us believe, in the real world, people find all manner of different physical and non-physical features attractive. Some are not interested at all in “curves in all the right places” but instead find themselves drawn to those who offer kindness to those in need during times of hardship. Some aren’t interested in a set of rock-hard, oiled abs but instead in a worked, leathery set of hands.
This list is almost endless. Some people are attracted to those that are taller than them. Others like a certain kind of laugh. Some like having someone they know will always have their back. Others stubborn determination. A legion of possibilities for attraction and what makes one character “attractive” or “sexy” to another.
And we need to be aware of this when we write. When we move to introduce a potential love interest or romantic partner for our character, we shouldn’t be falling back on the generic, Hollywood boiler-plate of what’s “attractive.” If that “standard” had any truth to it at all, the majority of the world would remain single forever. Also shallowly fixated on rote-physical appearances.
Instead, we need to think about our character. Where they’re from, what they’re like, and who that would make them attracted to. Are they going to be attracted to someone who’s tough and solid? Or shy and quiet? Someone buxom? Rippling with muscle? Or maybe they find both of those extremes to be, well, too extreme and prefer someone more down to Earth?
All of those things I just listed, save buxom? Different from the “curves in all the right places” model so many writers forge ahead with. And even then, buxom is at least a different descriptor (and can be combined with a load of other descriptions as well to gain much more context) than “curves.” And there are many, many more things your character could find appealing.
That said, there’s no reason to limit ourselves to straight sex appeal either, and that’s where we enter another bit on this topic. Most of the time, when we run into the aforementioned “curves in all the right places” style of writing, there’s another facet to how it’s written that makes it poor: It’s an infodump.
No, really, it is. Most of the time you run into this “Wow, character the protagonist is attracted to” event you know immediately what you’re in for: A paragraph (or a couple) describing their physical appearance—well, certain aspects of it anyway—after or during which the character affirms that they like this … and then that’s it. It doesn’t come up again. It’s just “Boom: here’s the character’s physical looks” and the audience is expected to take this as all the evidence needed for the basis of any romantic relationship or entanglement that comes out of it. Occasionally, some aspect of it might be mentioned again, but for the most part? It’s given once, well dumped, and then never discussed afterwards.
Look, that’s just poor writing. And while there is a basis for it—after all, most have had their attention grabbed for a moment by someone that is just plain attractive—that isn’t the end all that a lot of stories seem to pain it as. Actual relationships and attractions tend to be more nuanced and build up over time. There’s still that initial thing that attracts, but its added onto by other aspects of character. Things that aren’t physical but mental, or emotional. There are small, subtle things that knowing someone for a period of time teaches individuals about one another.
Which, in the context of the story you write means that you should not be infodumping a bunch of traits in one place and then calling it good. You should be building them up slowly—even if the romantic aspect of your story is a light one, as you can still do this with a light touch. A line here, a line there, just something that one character really admires about another, does far more to build up a character’s attractiveness to the protagonist than a simple infodump.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce a character with a quick summary of their looks. But it does mean that you can go deeper as a story moves on. For example, if you were to have one character find another character’s beard attractive, you could start with the simple “his beard was eye-catching” but then later expand on that with a detail that expands on that, like the protagonist likes how clean-cut and carefully groomed said beard is. A small clarification like that strengthens the initial impression and adds more the both the character making the observation, and the one observed.
So, don’t be generic, and remember that our character will have their own interests and attractions based on who they are, not on some Hollywood boilerplate. And don’t infodump, build up. Let an attraction develop and grow like anything else. Let it deepen! Grow! Add to it!
Now, that’s not all I wanted to talk about today, though that does add a pretty good summary to what we’ve discussed so far. Because I wanted to discuss this from one other angle we haven’t tackled yet, but that’s right in the title of the post: sex appeal.
Easy, you can put down the torches. Hopefully.
Look, with all that we’ve discussed above, it should be obvious that there are things that a character might find sexually appealing—physical and otherwise, again—and that these things are going to come up in a story. Sometimes because a character knows about them and uses them or something, or other times just unintentionally using them as well. But if you have a character attracted to another, the issue of sex appeal is going to come up.
But here’s the thing: You can choose how this is presented. You can simply state it, or show that the protagonist is attracted (or repulsed, depending on the character) by it. Or, you can do what quite a few stories do and try to use it to appeal to the reader, not the character.
Titillation, in other words. For the reader, not the character. This is the kind of thing that gets blasted by social groups, and you know what? I’m not going to disagree with them. Not for the same reasons, but … come on. The moment you slip into this approach, your characters fall to the wayside. And for some specific genres of fiction, sure, that works. But for the most part? The moment you pull away from your characters and to the reader, your focus is gone. It’s a bit like breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly.
Besides, the appeal of a character sexually mattering to the reader is nowhere near as important as the sexual appeal of a character to another character. That’s the focus that matters when bringing up attraction, description, etc. Not the reader. And with that, you don’t even need to be “specific” if you don’t want to. Showing a character’s reaction to another character can be just as powerful as trying to explain one’s sex appeal.
Right, I’m calling that good and bringing it back around: While the sex appeal may be there, the focus shouldn’t be on convincing the reader of it by telling them what it is, but by having the characters in question acknowledge it. We’re not trying to convince the reader that said character is the sexiest thing alive and that they should be attracted to them, we’re trying to convince the reader that said character is sexy to another character. Big difference.
Okay, so, recap time. Don’t be generic with what makes a character attractive. Recall that our stories are through the lens of a protagonist, and that if they find someone attractive, it won’t necessarily be due to the “standard” stereotype of interest that places like Hollywood push. You characters should have their own things that they find appealing outside of the standard.
You don’t have to dump these all on the reader at once, either. You can reveal them to the protagonist and the audience alike slowly, bit by bit. And you don’t have to drum up or orient the sex appeal so that the audience is just as attracted to a character as the protagonist is, either. Who says they need to be attracted? As long as they can see and understand that the characters are attracted to one another, the job is done. The audience has had conveyed what they needed to know.
Got it? Good. Now get to it and write some awesome characters falling for one another. Or something.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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