27 Jun How To Write Erotica: Creating A Convincing Character – Part II
DESCRIBING YOUR CHARACTERS
He was a Red Sox fan.
I narrowed my eyes at him with a half-serious malevolence. He hadn’t seen
me yet. At that moment, he turned my way, and his face lit up when his eyes
met mine. Then they dropped slightly to my jacket.
I was wearing my Yankees pullover, and his expression immediately shifted
to one of surprise – and then to a challenging gaze similar to mine. We were
both aware, I was sure, that our respective teams would be facing off that
very night with the first of a three-game series against each other in New
York. Still standing a good twenty yards away from him, I lifted my head
and I looked him up and down. Then I stared hard at him, holding back a
smile. Even as I felt the heat rising in me, I tossed my head and turned on
my heel. I felt him watching my ass as I walked haughtily back in the
direction from which I had come.
A Red Sox fan. Unbelievable.
My team had better win tonight, I told myself.
Emerald, ‘Who’s on Top?’
In this passage Emerald shows us two characters about to go into direct conflict. They support opposing teams that are about to face one another in an important game. The conflict is inevitable. Corey is wearing a cap with a red letter B on the brim: the logo of the Boston Red Sox. Paige is wearing a pullover emblazoned with the design of the New York Yankees. We know nothing about the individuals except that they’re both committed sports fans and whatever relationship had been blossoming between them is now about to be tested by this conflict.
There are four ways to describe a character.
Each of these elements contributes to the reader’s understanding of the character’s personality. The way each of these is presented will depend on point of view, relevance to the story and how the author wants the character to be seen.
Appearance refers to a character’s clothes, her or his facial expressions, body language, and their reaction to situations and other characters. Each of these areas says something about the character being described. Speech is also distinctive to each character. What is said, and how it is said, can speak volumes about the person saying those words. Actions show how a character responds to a situation and can sometimes tell the reader more than dialogue or a sentence detailing the motives for a character’s deeds.
Having access to a character’s thoughts can give us an insight into the reasoning behind a specific choice of appearance, speech or action: giving the reader a better understanding of the personality involved. Any of these in isolation can create an interesting character. Combined,
these modes of description can bring life to the characters we create.
Opposite me by the massive Renaissance fireplace sat Venus; she was not a
casual woman of the half-world, who under this pseudonym wages war
against the enemy sex, like Mademoiselle Cleopatra, but the real, true
goddess of love.
She sat in an armchair and had kindled a crackling fire, whose reflection
ran in red flames over her pale face with its white eyes, and from time to
time over her feet when she sought to warm them.
Her head was wonderful in spite of the dead stony eyes; it was all I could
see of her. She had wrapped her marble-like body in a huge fur, and rolled
herself up trembling like a cat.
Sacher-Masoch, L., ‘Venus in Furs’
In this description we see Sacher-Masoch’s description of Venus. This is an unusual piece of writing in that the woman being described would defy what is conventionally thought of as being attractive.
- Venus is shown to have a pale face with white eyes.
- Her head possesses dead stony eyes and her body is marble-like.
- The only warmth in the character is that being reflected from the fire where she sits.
Ordinarily we would say that this style of description slows down the pace of a narrative. However, these paragraphs give us an insight into the way Venus is being appraised and the mindset of the man admiring her. Her attributes of being cold and marble-like are seen, by the narrator, as desirable traits. This tells us as much about his fetishes as they say about Venus’s physical appearance.
Appearance is possibly the most obvious method of describing a character. Physical description gives us an idea of what a person looks like. Brunette, redhead, blonde? Tall, broad, fat or thin? Flat-chested, buxom, athletic or willowy? These are essential details that need to be conveyed so the reader has a fuller understanding of the characters in your fiction. But how does a writer convey these details without slowing down the pace of the story?
The following example is from a more contemporary erotic short story.
The Director of Finance. Stone. Mr Stone. Clever Bobby. Whatever.
Well, he’s a tall man, and imposing. Not fat exactly but no Greek god either.
Just an average-looking, middle-aged, slightly greying, five o’clock
shadowy (he says he has Italian ancestry), suit-wearing local government
Theoretically he’s the sort of bloke you wouldn’t look twice at in a crowd,
especially if there was plenty of younger talent around. But in practice well,
he makes my knees disintegrate and this yearning, gnawing sensation start
up somewhere around where I think my heart is.
I’m just about to topple over when, thank Christ, he says, ‘Take a seat,
Da Costa, P., Entertaining Mr Stone
In this passage Da Costa’s narrator is clearly enamoured of Mr Stone. We get descriptions of him that show that his appearance is average.
- He wears a suit.
- He has a five o’clock shadow.
- He’s not fat exactly, which means he’s probably not thin exactly either.
He’s a man whom the reader can see as being remarkable only because he’s unremarkable. And, despite this unremarkable appearance, he’s an obvious focus for the narrator’s desire.
Describing characters can be a two-way process. The more the narrator tells us about a character, the more we get to understand her and her desires. In this passage, notice how Maria says she gets a yearning, gnawing sensation around the place where she thinks her heart is. Aside from having effectively described Bobby Stone, doesn’t this final note suggest Maria is a character who is trying to resist the idea of being in love?
Looking at her, his thoughts veered from professional to personal. Tall and
slim, she wore a tight, red dress, clinging to every lush curve and perfectly
matching her bright stiletto fuck-me pumps. No longer tied up with the scarf
matching her outfit, her black hair cascaded around her shoulders like the
spread of a raven’s wings.
Quinn, D., Flesh and the Devil
This example shows a male protagonist admiring a female sex worker he has employed for the evening. Again, with this being erotic fiction, the description is sexualised.
- The red dress clings to every lush curve.
- Her footwear is described as fuck-me pumps.
- . . . black hair cascaded around her shoulders like the spread of a raven’s wings.
Readers come to erotic fiction for sexual stimulation and Quinn is providing the readers with what they want. But we should also notice here how much action is going on in this simple piece of description. The red dress is clinging to every lush curve. The red dress is matching her pumps. Her black hair has cascaded around her shoulders. Aware that the pace of the story is essential for maintaining reader interest, Quinn does not keep the description static.
She describes the woman as tall and slim, and the style of the dress is simply referred to as tight. The pace of the narrative doesn’t slow while
Quinn explains the details of the hemline, any appliqué work on the décolletage, or the double-stitching at the sides of the concealed zipper at the back. Here Quinn is showing us only those details the central character observes: all the details that the reader needs to know to get sufficient description of this character’s appearance before moving on to the important aspects of the story’s events.
It’s worth noting here that appearance needs to be consistent. When creating a character it’s advisable to make detailed notes about their appearance so that future descriptions remain consistent. Hair and eye-colour are notorious features that can change due to an author’s lapse in concentration. Body shape needs to be decided early on and maintained consistently throughout the story.
Looking good naked
In erotic fiction it’s imperative for the author to know his or her characters on the most intimate level. What does each character look like naked?
- How big are her breasts?
- Is she happy with the shape and size?
- Does she wish they were bigger? Smaller?
- Is s/he comfortable being naked?
- Is he oversized or undersized?
- How does each character deal with pubic hair?
- Is it an unmaintained clump of curls?
- Is it shaved neatly into a heart shape?
- Or does s/he frequently visit a salon for a full Brazilian as well as anal bleaching?
Be aware of how each character looks naked, and understand how comfortable they are with their personal nudity. Knowing these details and
keeping them consistent through your story will create believable characters for your erotic fiction.
There’s a common myth associated with erotic fiction that every character needs to be attractive. To some degree this is true. The central characters in all fiction need to be perceived as attractive for readers to have an interest in their story. But physical attractiveness is not the whole story.
Physical attractiveness is subjective. For every person drawn to the muscular physique of a bodybuilder, there is someone equally repulsed by
that body type. For everyone drawn to the androgynous appeal of a supermodel, there is someone else complaining about the lack of curves in a size zero. Arguably, attractiveness is more about personality than appearance and we shall look at that aspect in the following sections.
‘You’re wanking over my comic,’ she screeched, lashing out at him. ‘You
‘I’m not hurting it.’ He crossed his arms in front of his face to ward her off.
‘You’re the one who buys this stuff. I don’t suppose you get it just to admire
the artistry. And it certainly isn’t for the story.’
Ellis, M., Dark Designs
This is the opening exchange between the male and female leads in Madelynne Elis’s novel, Dark Designs. Notice how…
- Both characters are comfortable using taboo language.
- They easily intellectualise sex and sexuality without making the exchange sound contrived or gratuitous.
- Their animosity is laying the seeds of conflict for a romantic relationship.
There is a full chapter on dialogue later in the book. However, for this section, it’s essential to understand the importance of speech and how what is said can define a character.
The characters here, even if they weren’t discussing Yaoi comic books, would be instantly identifiable as being young and British. They…
- Use the modern swear words of young British characters.
- Show their dislike for each other with easily expressed contempt.
- Speak quickly without seeming to think if their words are too harsh.
It’s effective dialogue that introduces the characters and their relationship as they first meet. If any of your characters had to interact like these two, would they use exactly the same words, or would their lines need rephrasing?
Consider any of the characters you’ve been creating and answer the following questions:
- How does you character say hello?
Hi! Howdy! Bonjour! Good morning!
The level of formality used in any greeting will always differ depending on who a character is addressing. Think about the different personalities suggested by two characters when one says, ‘Good morrow,’ and the other replies with, ‘Wassup?’ Between them they’ve only exchanged three words, yet already we know a lot about both speakers.
- Does your character use a chat-up line?
- What’s a nice guy/girl like you doing in a place like this?
- If I could rearrange the alphabet I’d put U and I next to each other.
- Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?
- Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?
Each one of these could be perceived as a cheesy line that should only be appropriate for a cheesy character. But each one could also be delivered with irony in a role-playing session between partners with an established sexual connection. Chat-up lines are only ever icebreakers and they can carry negative associations. Do your characters avoid them? Do your characters use them effectively? Or do some of your characters dismiss them for fear of being perceived as shallow?
The danger with chat-up lines is that they can come across as clichés. More importantly, for anyone writing erotica, a chat-up line should not be used as an infallible talisman for luring a partner into their clutches. The myth of the surefire chat-up line is a teenage fable that has no place in contemporary erotic fiction.
- Which rude words do your characters use?
- Does he look at her breasts and think of them as: tits, boobies or melons?
- Does she refer to a penis as his thing? His wing-wang? Or his lovetruncheon?
- Do your characters refer to sex acts as shagging, bonking, or doing the nasty?
None of these options suggests great levels of sexual maturity but few characters (fictional or otherwise) use biological definitions all the time.
Moreover, it can be seen that a female character who refers to her own genitals as ‘my personal pleasure palace’ has a different attitude towards sex from a character who uses the phrase ‘my dirty bits’. Similarly, a male character who refers to a penis as his ‘thingy’ has a different opinion of sex from the man who talks about his ‘beefy broadsword’.
In erotic fiction the writer will need to know each character’s sexual vocabulary. It’s prudent to consider any specific labels a character uses for genitalia, intercourse, the opposite sex and unconventional sexual practices.
Every word a character says is going to reveal more about them than the content of what is being said. Always make sure each character’s speech is appropriate for their personality and the situation in which they are involved.
One day, about the middle of November, I was with my brother François,
two years younger than I, in my father’s room, watching him attentively as
he was working at optics. A large lump of crystal, round and cut into facets,
attracted my attention. I took it up, and having brought it near my eyes I
was delighted to see that it multiplied objects. The wish to possess myself of
it at once got hold of me, and seeing myself unobserved I took my
opportunity and hid it in my pocket.
A few minutes after this my father looked about for his crystal, and unable
to find it, he concluded that one of us must have taken it. My brother
asserted that he had not touched it, and I, although guilty, said the same;
but my father, satisfied that he could not be mistaken, threatened to search
us and to thrash the one who had told him a story. I pretended to look for
the crystal in every corner of the room, and, watching my opportunity I
slyly slipped it in the pocket of my brother’s jacket. At first I was sorry for
what I had done, for I might as well have feigned to find the crystal
somewhere about the room; but the evil deed was past recall. My father,
seeing that we were looking in vain, lost patience, searched us, found the
unlucky ball of crystal in the pocket of the innocent boy, and inflicted upon
him the promised thrashing.
Casanova, J., The Memoirs of Casanova
Actions speak louder than words. In this passage from Casanova’s memoirs, we get a glimpse of the main character’s entire personality from his actions. He…
- Explains his desire for an object that is multifaceted and pretty.
- Shows us his fear of consequences and repercussions.
- Shows us that he has a duplicitous nature.
Even for anyone unfamiliar with Casanova’s work, and only aware of his reputation as a promiscuous libertine, this passage gives us a glimpse of the man that this boy is destined to become. This is a perfect illustration of the adage that writers should ‘show not tell.’ We are shown what Casanova is like through his actions, not simply told he is capable of unconscionable behaviour.
Actions are an incredibly useful way of presenting a character to a reader. Combined with descriptions of appearance, thought and speech they can help writers to create full, rounded and credible characters.
It’s her music, the plaintive strains of Light my Fire. The curtains glide
open and the spotlight falls on her as she sways her way to the front of the
audience. She looks dignified in a long black feathered evening gown that
makes a little sound as she walks. It shimmies its way right down to her
calves. Her breasts and hips move in unison, two halves of a perfect whole.
Her hair is fashionably raven, swept back in a glossy parting over her face
to fall in perfect waves down to her shoulders. It’s worn as if it was a
diamond necklace. There’s something doll-like about her glamour, her
cheeks un-rouged. The paleness only accentuates her perfectly made-up
eyes, the stained red lips. Every ounce of her speaks desire. When she
moves, it’s controlled. If she was kissed, surely it wouldn’t dent her lip-line.
Fi-EEERRR! She turns away from the audience. A coy flick of her hair and
her gown drops. From somewhere to the left there is a murmur of approval.
Perks, M., ‘The Performing Breasts’
In this story from Marcelle Perks, we’re presented with a character who works as a burlesque dancer. Consequently Perks takes full advantage of this role and shows us the character in the act of dancing. In some ways this description is only telling us about Lydia’s appearance. We get to see what she’s wearing, what her make-up looks like and the doll like aspect of her features. But throughout the piece Lydia is dancing:
- She shimmies.
- She sways.
- Her breasts and hips move in perfect unison.
All of these actions show the dancer dancing. With the final two sentences from this passage, when Lydia drops her gown, we can almost sympathise with the murmur of approval she hears from the audience.
Lori stared at the total in her electronic shopping cart and winced –
$323.79. Who knew sexual experimentation was so darned expensive? She
debated which of the various items she could delete. The nipple clamps? No
. . . Kent had mentioned those on several occasions.
What about the swimsuit-style body wear made of black feathers? It was
pretty expensive. And it might make her look like a black Donald Duck. But
no . . . she had a hankering to see Kent’s face when she stroked him with her
She sighed. There really wasn’t a single thing on the list that she was
willing to part with. She moved the cursor over the PLACE ORDER button,
closed her eyes, and clicked.
Scott, E., Naughty Housewives
Depending on the viewpoint used, thought can bring a character to life in a more convincing way than any other medium. In this example we see Lori’s thoughts as she makes an online purchase.
- We can see her debating whether or not to keep certain items.
- We can understand how she validates each decision.
- We’re given a huge insight into the sort of person she is and the relationship she shares with Kent.
When watching films and TV shows we can see and hear what characters are doing and how they are interacting. We can see their actions and appearance and we can hear their dialogue. However, with the exception of narrated off-screen dialogue and monologues, we have no access to what’s going on inside the character’s mind. Written fiction, novels and short stories, are able to give us an insight into what a character is thinking. This allows for a greater intimacy between the reader and the characters and a better understanding of their personality.
Consider the following passage:
I’d been counting off the days, and boy, had they ever dragged. But I
figured that if I could get to the end of the first week, I could maybe make it
to week two.
I just had to prove I could last through my one-month contract. Biting the
bullet and taking an office job had been the absolute pits in the first place,
but I couldn’t drift from college course to college course any longer. The
time had come to quell my rebellious streak, tame my multicoloured mop,
take out my nose ring and don an acceptably smart outfit. What a crime, I
thought to myself, when I’d packed away my usual, much more alternative
wardrobe, and headed for the temp agency.
Walker, S., ‘TGIF’
In this example we have immediate access to the first-person narrator’s thoughts.
- We understand that the days have been dragging in her new job.
- She is a former college student and rebel.
- She is trying to come to terms with the minutiae of office life.
- There is also a subtext here where we understand that this change has been made through necessity rather than on a whim.
I couldn’t drift from college course to college course any longer. The time had come to quell my rebellious streak . . .
Walker never says why this character needs to make such sweeping changes in her life because these details aren’t important to the story.
- Have the character’s parents thrown her out of the house, or threatened
her with eviction if she doesn’t find a job?
It’s a possibility but, even if that was the case, it would be unnecessary
information for the purposes of this short story.
- Has the character grown tired of the feckless existence of being a
It’s another possibility but, again, the presentation of this information
would detract from the intentions of Walker’s narrative.
Thoughts are best treated as unspoken dialogue. Psychologists are still unsure as to whether or not we think in words and sentences or images and concepts. Rather than trying to express thought exactly as it occurs in the human mind, readers will more easily be able to understand a text where thoughts are shown as unsaid words.
Because Walker’s story is about how the central character deals with the changes of moving from the status of college student to office worker, it’s enough for us to know she is resolved to make that change. We can be entertained by the way she goes on to marry the two concepts of being a rebel and being an office worker as the story develops.
This all could have been conveyed through other means but no alternative would have been quite as effective. If there had been a scene where we saw this character washing the colour out of her hair and removing her nose ring before applying for the job, we might have seen what she was doing. But the pace would have slowed considerably. If Walker had begun the narrative with dialogue, where the central character was explaining her current predicament to someone, it would have meant the introduction of a redundant character. Instead, because this story opens with the character’s thoughts being laid bare to the reader, we enter the story knowing that she has an overwhelming desire to make this new job work.
Well-crafted, identifiable and sympathetic characters will bring your fiction to life. Once the reader is able to understand and empathise with your characters they will be committed to the story being told and eager to find out more.
- Characters are the most important aspect of fiction.
- Names are as important in fiction as they are in real life.
- Develop your characters with care.
Characters in fiction are driven by desires.
- Give your characters desires with which readers can sympathise:
- this causes empathy.
- Give your characters desires that are not easily satisfied:
- this causes conflict.
Keep detailed notes about your characters and remain consistent to these details throughout your narrative. Describe characters through:
- physical appearance;
Keep in mind the adage of ‘Show: don’t tell.’ Trust the reader to see and understand how and why the character has reacted in a specific way.