History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 February 2009

Just what is sexy?

Pam’s last post got me thinking about what I find sexy (or exciting, or intriguing, or moving) as a writer, as a reader, as a woman. And further, about how I use my own predilections in my books without the book becoming a display of TMI (as has been the accusation for a certain paranormal writer), or worse IMO, ending up with a book with limited appeal (the equivalent of the magazine Bears in the gay community, which has a limited and very specific target audience).

On occasion I stumble across a book which, for whatever reason, turns me off, though I can tell that the author is describing something that she finds attractive. And it always leaves me shaking my head in wonder. Some details are entirely unnecessary, and by using them, you can lose readers, so why do it?

Years ago I heard an author give a workshop about designing/describing heroes and her advice is something that really rang true for me: Give just enough details that the reader can fill in the blanks to make the hero her own. The specific example she used, copious amounts of chest hair, rang especially true for me (TMI WARNING: I would never, under any circumstances, be a subscriber of the afore mentioned Bears magazine). She pointed out that by spending precious time lovingly describing the hero’s hirsute chest, you risk readers who find said expanse of chest pelt repulsive laying aside your book and never picking it back up (and worse, never buying another book by you, for fear for further paeans to something that she finds decidedly unsexy). I know that there are authors I avoid because of these sorts of issues, and I’m sure you all have them too.

To further complicate the issue, those of us who write historicals are also often working against what was considered attractive at the time (mustaches anyone?), or what was simply the predominant look (Prince Valiant bowl cut, mmmm, sexy), or aspects of fashion that simply don’t work for the women of today (wigs = toupee, don’t they, just admit it). Throw in a general lack of sanitation, fashion that may or may not float your readers boat (all that velvet and lace in the 18th century doesn’t work for a lot of people, though it clearly does for me, LOL). Some of this you can work around by simply glossing over it. Some of it gets done away with by having characters with unusual habits (there’s a lot of bathing in Medieval Romancelandia). And some stuff just gets made up entirely to better conform to modern tastes (here I’m thinking of a recent discussion on one of my loops of sexy silk nightgowns and sheets in Regency romances).

It’s such a balancing act. Is it any wonder that the occasional reader finds herself falling from the highwire of our creation? As a reader, does it bother you when the hero is “over described” or are you able to skim past it and keep your mental image of the hero as you’ve created him? As a writer, do you worry as much as I do about this stuff, or am I truly alone in the crazy, deep end of the pond?


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Okay, Kalen, was that photo of John Malkovich in Les Liaisons Dangereuses? UNSEXY. Horrible! Reptilian! Why? Well, apart from the fact that I have never found him physically attractive (Give me Sean Connery, Sean Bean, George Clooney, Errol Flynn), he was so miscast as Valmont that I screamed at the screen every time he appeared. His portrayal was altogether too contemporary, and too sleazy for me to care one shred about what happened to Valmont. And, maybe it's because it's my other career, but when a performer is so miscast in a role, or simply an inferior actor or actress (I could name a raft of them who keep getting jobs in period films), I find it difficult to find the sexiness in them.

So, who works for me in this context? All the leading men (Rickman, Wise, and Grant) in the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee adaptation of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, for starters.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

In my own writing I have run the gamut from sending pictures of the hero/heroine to the art department to completely forgetting to describe them.

As a reader I prefer a very general description of body type to physical detail.

Back to work!

9:37 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree with Mary, I much prefer a general description of body type to physical detail. That way I can use my imagination more. When I'm writing, I try to limit physical description to action.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Re Amanda's comment about not being able to find certain actors sexy -- Jude Law, who I'd always found awfully nice to look at, took a huge downward erotic nosedive in my viewing eyes after "I HEART Huckabee's," where Naomi Watts acted circles around him. I wouldn't have thought it would matter -- and perhaps it doesn't always (Keanu Reeves remains hot no matter how flat his screen affect, or perhaps because of it.)

But as for the risks repelling a reader -- especially since pretty much everything I write that I want my readers to find sexy is, in fact, something I think is sexy -- yeah, I used to wonder how a shy person such as myself could bear to put the words down on paper, thereby announcing to the world that, "I think this sort of extreme or even bent activity is hot."

But I don't worry anymore. In fact, when I met the erotic writer Violet Blue, she said to me, "I feel that I know you," and all I could do was laugh and say, "you do."

5:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I didn't put Malkovich's picture on the blog so much because I find him attractive, but because the clothing in that film is extreme in its use of lace and powder and silk, and yet the men are still manly. Sorry to have ruffled your dovecot (though it kind of proves my point about over description, LOL).

6:01 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great topic and post, Kalen, and I don't think you're at all alone in thinking about these things. I like specific physical descriptions--as with descriptions of clothing and houses, I think they're more effective when doled out in bits and pieces (when another character might realistically notice them), but I like to have a sense that the author has a vivid image of the characters. It doesn't tend to bother me if the hero doesn't seem to look like a guy I'd be attracted to in real life. However, a hero who is described as (or more important acts) remotely stupid or narrow-minded instantly loses attractiveness points with me. Conversely, I'll fall in love with a hero who displays intellectual brilliance and razor sharp wit (Dorothy Dunnett's heroes all have both these qualities, though they look very different).

5:18 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

I like my heroes witty and attuned to the heroine not (necessarily) with heart-pounding lust but in small ways--attention to her as a female and attention to who she is as a person.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

My theory of romance is that what a reader wants to be attracted to is a quality of animation, of aliveness and movement, of ongoing exchange of knowledge and power between a pair of lovers -- and the development of such over time. The specifics matter less than the quality of engagement -- but there must be some specifics, because there must be an illusion of space, a stage, an arena, for the action.

As for wit, it has such importance in romance, imo, because for so much of history, wit was power for women who couldn't own property and had no formal civil rights. Or so the English literary tradition (and probably others as well) would have it.

11:51 AM  

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