(Do I have your attention now, class?)

I’ve been thinking about sex lately. My current villain’s sex, to be precise, what kind and how much to describe.

Sex is a tricky thing for a writer. And I’m just talking about what’s on the page, so stop your sniggering, you in the back. Because it’s so loaded with emotional and physical baggage, because the actions being talked about are so intensely personal yet universal, it’s nearly impossible to avoid clichés. One of the best sex scenes in recent fiction is the core event in Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT, a lovingly described coitus interruptus that reverberates through the lives of every character there, and even that scene flirts with clichés as a means of avoiding them.

For various reasons, I’m often labeled as a cozy writer, whose books you can give to granny or your adolescent daughter without worry. And it’s true, the Russell books, because they are written as if by an old woman looking back at her life—what’s more, a dignified, faintly supercilious, and very proud old woman—she doesn’t go into details about her sex life. She has it, you can read that in what she doesn’t say about her reactions to having her hair brushed by her husband, but it’s all between the lines, yearn though readers will that the narrator will go past hair-brushing and playing-with-fingertips into the juicy stuff.

Similarly, the Martinelli stories. Kate is presented, from the beginning, as an intensely, almost phobically private individual. And because her sex would be of the lesbian variety, and because I’m not writing those books for an exclusively lesbian audience, I kept them, um, less detailed than I might have had she been straight.

Of the standalones, in FOLLY and KEEPING WATCH the protagonists are a little busy with other things (sanity and rescuing children, respectively) to do much rolling in the hay. There’s one fairly explicit scene in DARKER PLACE, at a place where the character needs the intensity of the sex act to complete the transformation of going undercover (the theme of the book is alchemical transformation, and the alchemists knew all about sex-as-metaphor for their work.)

And now TOUCHSTONE. Six main characters, four men and two women, and they’re a lusty lot. Plus, the mid-Twenties were as liberated a time as the Sixties, for similar reasons—freedom of movement (the motorcar as a tool for liberation—there’s a PhD topic for you), a war in the background, mind-altering substances (the martini vs marijuana/LSD), a surge of women’s lib, readily available birth control (the rubber in the Twenties, the pill in the Sixties).

And that’s to say nothing of the music, you know what that kind of music will do to the urges of young people.

So here I have a noble American who’s been around several blocks; a wounded Englishman (“Touchstone”) who is still in love with his ex-fiancee (whom he left so as not to tie her to his problems); the ex-fiancee who is now attached to a radical politician; the wounded Englishman’s sister, the only virgin in sight; the radical politician (and you can imagine how demure he is); and the villain.

With all those pheromones flitting about, is it possible that the villain doesn’t have a sex life? And being the villain, wouldn’t his sex life be, well, villainous? He’s sure not the sort to have a gentle hand-holding relationship with the vicar’s daughter, nor is he the kind for a wife and kids. He’s kinky through and through, and the only question is, how much of that kink do I put on the page?

So you can see why I’ve been thinking about sex.

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  1. Dragonpaws on October 31, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Y’know, I get it that in book world, villains have to have villainous sex. And villainous hair, villainous word choices and villainous friends. I get that, I do. Nothing better than a truly over-the-top villain, even if in real life Mr. Baddie might be a fan of the missionary-in-the-dark-I-love-you-honey more than anything else. But I do want to ask… why does the “villainous sex” have to be kinky? Why can’t he just be deeply screwed up in the head? I guess, as a kinky person, I find it a bit frustrating than whenever anybody wants to say “Ooh, this person is a villain!” through their sexual choices, they go the “kink,” bondage, whipping, what-have-you route. At least if they want the villain to remain at least partially on this side of the pale, otherwise he’s just a rapist or something else nonconsensual. But then even the non-con elements involve… bondage and whipping and elements of standard kinkiness, just with the element of consent very obviously taken out.

    I could, of course, just be misinterpreting your use of “kink” here, in which case I apologize. I just wish that authors (and filmmakers, and so on, etc) would stop linking kinky sex to being a bad guy with no respect for other people, or something. One can have deeply villainous vanilla sex, and one can be lovingly tied up. And honestly (though this may be a function of me being kinky) I get more creeped out by “regular” sex being done in a villainous way than by kinky sex that’s supposed to be “evil.”

  2. Jessarakitty on October 31, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    Is there room in the book’s world for a longstanding tryst with an older, unsuspected lover/victim of the villain? A great place for a conflicted, proud fringe member of the Bloomsbury group, who got into the situation defiantly and now finds him/herself tangled up in some really abhorrent situation…

  3. Elisa on October 31, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    There’s quite a bit of sex to be had that doesn’t involve bondage/SM that can be very damaging without being rape. I think the type of villanious sex depends on how he (assumtion, there) is a villain. If he’s cruel, it’s cruel, if he uses people, he uses them for sex and lets them know. The sex has to come out of how he’s bent. And it might extend the expression of his particular evil. You might find it harder to get out of his way and let him have his way of expressing himself. A writer’s challenge to truly think bad. Nihilism and Existentialism were blossoming. Great fun for writing that kind of bad guy.

  4. wildoakvirginia on October 31, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Betrayal…very nasty after sex. Had a situation while writing and turned to an erotic web site to get a different point of view about a topic that had surfaced in the writing excersize. Ok, let my friends read my passage and the look of wonder that they had after reading was priceless! Ha!

  5. Anonymous on October 31, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    Perhaps your villain could comment to someone about some op-ed or letter in a newspaper deploring these wild kids — could create some tension with the comment by being — what’s the word — capable of being taken in two (or more) ways.

  6. Anonymous on October 31, 2006 at 7:27 pm

    Fifteen minutes later, or so, and I finally come up with the word I was searching for in the previous post: ambiguous.

    Getting old is no fun. And speaking of old, does anyone else find it hard to read those twisted letters one has to enter to post anonymously?

  7. Anonymous on October 31, 2006 at 8:09 pm

    Re: “vanilla” sex and the potential for expressing nasty. I have read some well-known writers of “trashy romance novels”, and a few of them have managed to convey, even in a fairly conventional sex scene, that the ‘villain’ was using the sex as a means to manipulate/degrade the hero or heroine. I’m thinking of a particular scene where the heroine has been kidnapped and is repeatedly raped and seduced/tricked into enjoying it, simply as a means of driving a wedge between her and her husband and establishing the kidnapper’s dominance. Of course the kidnapping adds the ‘kink’, but the seduction part is what might be important; the despoiling of a normal relationship.

  8. Liz on October 31, 2006 at 11:47 pm

    I’m afraid I must agree with Dragonpaws here. Why does the villain have to have villainous sex? It’s such a cheap cliche, and the juxtaposition between public action and private sexuality is more interesting than any bedroom moustache twirling. So to speak.

  9. L. Crampton, LAc on November 1, 2006 at 3:40 am

    I suppose it depends (as has been said or implied by others here) what you want to communicate about your villain. Is he deeply complicated in his villainy, such that he might startlingly have a tender side in physical expression, or a through-and-through bounder in all realms?

  10. mrs_vanblundht on November 1, 2006 at 4:11 am

    When writing I have found that sex can really add or subtract from a story. Kinky sex even more so.

    I guess I would ask what it adds to the character. Would a kinky sex scene tell the reader something new about your villain? Would it do more than reinforce ideas you have already planted about the character? Is reinforcement needed?

    As for villains having villainous sex, I would find it more interesting if it’s not physically villainous but mentally. He thinks it is but who ever he is with doesn’t see that until the end if at all.

  11. Gerlinde on November 1, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    I can think of only one answer: “Less is more.”

  12. Roxanne on November 1, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    Is “Gerlinde” a real name? It’s very pretty.

    I love Ms. King’s sense of humor. Her opening lines brought a much-needed smile to my face first thing this morning.

    Without knowing the details and history of this villain-person, it is difficult to consider the details of his/her sex life. Is this character an antisocial personality or a psychopath? What went into the making of this villain character in his/her youth? What scars and still-open wounds are marring this person’s life? And how are those wounds expressed?

    I don’t know that a villain must have “villainous sex.” My dictionary defines villain as “a wicked or evil person or a fictional or dramatic character typically at odds with the hero.” Perhaps the villain need be no more “villainous” than performing an apathetic sexual act with various partners for whom he shows no reciprocity or respect. Also, often emotional and/or verbal abuse is much more damaging–and much more difficult to prove in a court of law (no visible marks). Or maybe it is possible–even in the free 1920s–that the villain, due to his/her “emotional and physical baggage,” is impotent or frigid/sexually unresponsive. As Elisa stated, the “sex has to come out of how he’s bent.” (Did Elisa intend that pun?) I can imagine that a truly villainous person would see/use sex as an act of overpowering, control, and domination, not as a means or intimacy or love.

  13. Karen on November 1, 2006 at 2:07 pm

    A question for the American psyche – why do the two posting with the most comments include sex and manual vs. automatic transmission in cars? hmm . . .

    about “villainous” sex – assuming the sex is not gratuitous, which I can’t think it would be in one of your books, then it is there to further the plot or the characterizations. Depending on the personality of your villain, would he be more likely to find sex a distastful exercise, a way to manipulate someone, or a way to gratify his own pleasure? The psychological ramifications of the sexual act(s) for the characters involved are far more important than the actual details of the act itself. As for his “kink,” whether or not some act is kinky seems to be in the mind of the beholder, as demostrated by dragonpaws’ rather impassioned response. Since that is so, it may make more sense to leave the physical kink up to the reader, with you supplying the psychological kink so to speak.

  14. Pat Mathews on November 1, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    On another list we were discussing the fact that “showing a villain is bad because he (insert vile sexual tendencies here) is a tiresome cliche. Only if his sexual villainy is unalterably related to his villainy in real life (i.e. he kills to cover up the fact that he’s sleeping with his daughter’s little friends) is it plausible. Mercedes Lackey is a specialist in the “baddie… therefore a sexual sadist” or the other way around.

    Lois McMaster Bujold has a remark after her heroine has encountered a very nasty sexual sadist and won free. Her husband comments that there are worse crimes done in cold blood by totally respectable people in green silk rooms … in this case he means the Emperor & his spymaster.

    How about making him a decent, respectable family man, perhaps a vegetarian and animal lover … never mind. That’s far afield from the milieu you suggested.

    And. oh, yes, the Roaring 20s was quite parallel to what Heinlein called “The Crazy Years” (1964-68, so labeled back in the mid-40s) that Spider Robinson has famously complained have had a 40 year run!@

    However, this is, as always, my $0.02

  15. 2maple on November 1, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    I’m thinking along the same lines as Karen. It’s really about the “why” something’s happening and the resulting byplay, rather than the “what”.

    In paintings or photographs, suggestion is far more powerful than graphic depiction because it triggers imagination… I think it would be far more interesting creating contrast using shadows and highlights with words letting the mind create the illusion and emotion, rather than reading bald narrative. It leaves the reader the choice of how far they are comfortable going in their imaginings rather than risk being turned off by being forced to see too clear an image.

  16. Jan on November 1, 2006 at 7:27 pm

    I like your “almost sex” scenes…in BA for instance, the scene after Mary’s 18th party where she thinks she hears Holmes outside her bedroom door. Part of me wanted her to fling open the door and “have at it”, but then we both know that could never happen that way.

    In “Monstrous Regiment” Mary’s thoughts after Holmes emerges from the murky water and kisses her…yes..I found those words positively erotic….so L, you can do those very sexy things.

    (as they say..LOL)…I look forward to it!!!..but then I look forward to all your books..

    Go for it!

  17. Roxanne on November 1, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    2Maple makes a good point about suggestion enabling the reader’s imagination to embellish within their own comfort level.

    And, Jan, thank you for reminding me of that ending scene in Monstrous Regiment. That is my all-time favorite love/romantic scene. Ms. King, I love the way you parenthetically intersperse Russell’s thoughts within the action. I still get a chill each time I read it. Jan is right on when she writes that those words are “positively erotic.” You are an artist.

  18. Woodstock on November 1, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    I also agree with 2maple’s comments the “why” and the events which flow from it are more important than “what.” I’m reminded of Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” in which the baddie seduces a woman he meets in a restaurant (if I recall, as a means to gaining a safe place to spend the night. As they embrace she feels “the arrogance of his prick” (you can see for yourself this phrase made an impression on me). I don’t recall very much other detailed description of the night they spent together. He kills her in the morning by breaking her neck. But that one brief phrase conveyed his amorality, the hint that the sex would be fairly aggressive and not very tender, and also her foolish decision to submit to his invitation. The way the scene was written told the reader quite a bit about the character in a very few words. I recall that much more vividly than countless other books in the meantime with more vivid descriptions. Now, with tongue firmly in cheek – there’s an assignment for you – write like Frederick Forsyth!

    I’ll be looking forward to the book with anticipation and pleasure.

  19. riobonito on November 2, 2006 at 3:14 am

    I agree with the ‘less is more’ theory. The richness of your writings create such a mood and atmosphere, without going to the kind of detail, that other authors are having to strive for. I for one think of the scene where Mary and Holmes are swimming apart, but together. It evoked everything, but said little. Brilliant!

  20. Roxanne on November 2, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    Quickly–before I have to go teach my 8:30am class…



  21. Antigonos on November 2, 2006 at 1:44 pm

    The minute you mentioned “villain” and “villainous sex” my mind turned to one of the sexiest moments by a villain that I can remember. In “I, Claudius”, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus (with curls!) is “making love” and whispering to the willing recepient of his intentions just exactly what he would like to do to her. He’s not doing it, he’s being perfectly normal, but he gets off on his fantasies (we presume they are fantasies, but maybe they aren’t), and so does she. The villain in Touchstone could be perfectly normal in action but have a REALLY unpleasant fantasy life…which we hear about as his partner thinks how loving he’s being…

    Just an idea…

  22. bluestockingsrs on November 3, 2006 at 1:57 am

    Ok, I am going to go out on limb here and ask why can’t you write explicit (or near) lesbian sex scenes because non-lesbians are reading your books? I mean, I am a lesbian and I manage to get through straight sex scenes without becoming too nauseated- shouldn’t straight people be able to manage this as well?

    I love that scene at the end in “Monstrous” as well but my love for it is marred by the conversation between Mary and Veronica about how lesbian sex must be “dead boring”. Having had sampled both varieties I can emphatically say which is dead boring and which is toe tingling amazing. (Tho’ I recognize this is an opinion being expressed in the book, so whatever, I keep reading.)

    And I agree vanilla sex is a better choice if your villain is going to be creepy and villanious when having sex.

  23. Anonymous on November 8, 2006 at 3:03 am

    In the film “Your Friends and Neighbors” there is a creepy character who is pathetic because he admits that he likes sex with himself best and prefers masturbation and phone sex to sex with his wife. Even when he and his wife do have sex, he talks himself through it as though she is not really taking part. She says to him, “You’re muttering again.” He claims that “No on can get me off like I can.” If your villain is isolated and freaky in that way, perhaps his sex life can be chronically masturbatory which has the benefit of being both vanilla-in-action and mainly about what is happening between his ears instead of between his legs. It doesn’t even have to be particularly sexualized, which is even creepier. And no one has to be subjected to his creepiness or raped or even his villainous sexual advances.
    Villains often like it their way best.

  24. Alyse on November 9, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    I agree “less is more”. I don’t like a lot of sex in my reading material. The scene while understandably ‘necessary’ for the character in DARKER PLACE, was more than I like. I like the subtle tension between Russell and Holmes.

    As for the nessicity of describing the villian’s sex life, often ‘baddies’ have enough horrifying stuff to creep a person out. Jonas, the villian in DARKER PLACE was one of the creepiest villians, and the only mentions of his sexuality were the unsisterly acts he required of his ‘moon woman’. He was plenty nasty!

  25. Anonymous on November 10, 2006 at 8:09 pm

    well yes actually a mainstream writer has to be careful, I should imagine, exposing lesbian sexuality, let alone sex to the light of day or their publishers won’t publish…so narrow is our window of acceptability.

    me, I’m just hoping to have the same civil rights as the rest of my (hetrosexual) American friends one fine day.

    Having said that, had to get it off my breasts, villians are the more fascinating when not purely villianous…I love the way Hannibal Lector finally wins quite sweetly the love of the female FBI agent out to put him away for ever.
    I forget her name…Clarise is it?


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