Thursday, March 18, 2010

What is sexiness?

by Cara McKenna

Quick, compulsory self-pimp: Shivaree, my second erotic novella, came out last weekend from Ellora's Cave. It's cheaper than a glass of wine in a restaurant and it's full of dirty m/f/m sex, with all possible combinations of f/m and m/m and m/f thereof. If you dig ménage where the fellas get it on, you can check it out here:

Now on to the real topic of this post: sexiness. What is it? And how do we write it? Since it's an integral part of our jobs as Naughty Author Chicks to attach this elusive and squirrely quality to our characters, I want to explore what it is and how to convince the reader your hero's got it.

There are few things worse than picking up or [cough cough, legally] downloading a new erotica or romance title only to find the experience of reading it a complete turn-off. That's like shelling out for a meal that makes you nauseous. But everyone finds different things sexy, so how can we possibly imbue a male lead with a sexiness that won't alienate a huge chunk of our readers?

Hell if I know. But I'll try and fumble my way to an answer over the course of this post.

Obvious things first, sexiness is many things, a hot mess of factors: physical attractiveness, virility, power, compatible pheromones, charisma, mad bedroom skillz…a zillion personal preferences as unique as the people who might care to list them. For the purposes of this post, I'm boiling sexiness down into three components: looks, charm, and actions. We'll never agree on any of these things, but let's examine them anyhow. We'll start with the physical.

I posed the "What is sexiness?" question on Twitter and my buddy Charlotte Stein proclaimed, "Sexiness is giant black eyebrows." I countered by suggesting her only requirement for sexiness is Be Zachary Quinto. She did not deny the allegation.

But not every hero can be Zachary Quinto. Not every hero can be Josh Holloway or Tyson Beckford or MacGyver or your long-lost high school crush. Even if he was, for every woman whose panties caught fire at the mere thought, there'd be another five or ten or a thousand flaring their nostrils like somebody cut one on page 4 of your precious literary masterpiece.

One solution to the problem of alienating readers is to omit details. Folks like room to fill in a character's features in a way that appeals to them. I do, anyhow—I can't tell you how many romances I've recast to star Jude Law [I know he makes Dalton's skin crawl, so I'm including a pic just to gross her out]. I also can't tell you how many unpublished romance contest entries I've judged in which the painful over-description of every damn detail of the hero's face got on my everloving nerves. Not only is it unlikely the heroine is carefully inventorying each of these things as she gazes upon him for the first time (and she always gazes), if there's too much detail you rob your reader of the fun of creating their own mental composite. Of course, take this too far in the other direction and the reader will feel like they're following the Adventures of Captain No-Face.

I say to aspiring writers: give us the hero basics. Hair and eye color, hair style, skin tone, build [but don't go on for a paragraph about his sinewy ripplings, thank you] a quick overview of the clothes [say "jeans", please, not your specific favorite brand and style and wash of jeans, lest you risk dating yourself] and a couple things that make him unique: a squint, stubble, scars, tattoos, a deep voice, an accent, a certain breed of smile, a manful scent, a way of walking, etc. Special details that work overtime by speaking to his personality. But don't go nuts—you're not a photographer, you're a writer. It's not your job to produce a spitting image. It's your job to lure the reader seamlessly into the story, and that means not bonking them senseless with flowery details. If I'm meeting your hero for the first time, I don't care about his proudly jutting cheekbones, I promise you. I can fill those in myself and make your hero into one I'll swoon over, even if it deviates from your perfect vision. I'm sure you'll do the same if you read one of my smutty books. Whatever gets your bloomers in a bunch is cool with me.

At the end of the day, we authors have to write what turns us on as individuals. If we don't, no reader's going feel the heat in our words. I asked my fellow Naughty Author Chicks to weigh in on what is and is not sexy. Stephanie Adkins said, "I don't like it when men have soft and smooth hands. I want them rough and callused. I want to feel a man's hands on my body." Similarly, Savannah Stuart said she's turned off by "guys who get pedicures and manicures. I was at the nail salon getting a pedicure and there were three men there with me. And we were the only customers. I want a man's man who's not afraid to look under the hood of a car or build me something with his bare hands." Michelle Polaris said, "I'm willing to be flexible, although I do like smooth chests, tattoos, piercings (you imagine where) and sometimes sexy glasses for that intellectual look. But I can go for most every look. I'm not a big muscled hulk of a guy fan, but on the right guy I'll be on board." Dalton Diaz said that as features go, she's drawn to "vivid blue or green eyes, dark hair, and a fine chest and biceps. Not overblown, mind you, but fiiiiiine." I'd toss in a pair of tired-looking eyes and an inability to shave regularly. And as individuals, that's what we'll likely write, dissenters be damned, because first and foremost, we need to be attracted to our heroes so that our heroines will be, too. If we're wise, we'll mention our favorite details but not ask them to stand in as shorthand for "undeniable sex appeal". Again, keep the details to a minimum; nobody shares your exact vision of manly perfection, so leave some room for reader modifications.

Brief aside here. Even though I was going to just cherry-pick the relevant comments my fellow Chicks so graciously offered, Naima Simone sent me nothin' but pure gold, so I'm going to air her hysterical ode to Vin Diesel its entirety:

"Physically, I luvs me some Vin Diesel. But let's look at Vin. If you dissect him feature by feature he is not the most attractive man out there. But put it together. The skin, the dark eyes, that beautiful BEAUTIFUL smile, the body (wide shoulders, lean, slim waist and gorgeous rock hard thighs)…but most of all…good God his VOICE. It's deep, dark, sexy—makes you think of rough, naughty things done in the dark that you fantasize about in the light of day. Hee-hee! And the way he moves? Oh. Like a dark, sexy panther…oooohhhh *shiver*"

Right, thank you, Naima…oh but wait, there's more!

"You know what's a turn off for me? Sweat suits on a man! Eeww! It just comes across sweaty and unkempt—and not in a good way. It says you don't care enough to pick out something neat but just throw on something that didn't require any thought at all. But don't get me wrong, I like sweat pants that hang low on a man that shows Deangelo hip action after he's just drawn them up his naked thighs to get me some juice because I'm parched from all that hot sex!! Oh Lawd! Let me stop!!"

Sing it, sister. Now go find yourself a cold shower, please.

Now on to charm, a.k.a. charisma or It. Charm is tough. I've read many a book where I'm told by the author that the hero is charming and charismatic, but I don't really see it in the narrative. Ditto movies where a lousy actor is charged with being intriguing and charismatic, but he simply isn't. I think some celebs just have It—Alan Rickman does, and I'll argue with you all night long on the topic. Johnny Depp usually does [no comment re: the new Alice], as do Daniel Craig, Jack Nicholson, Gene Kelly, Justin Timberlake… Some people just have It, and It can be damn sexy, even if their physical package isn't meeting all our usual standards. Charisma is like that elusive love serum that makes us fall in spite of everything wrong with the object our of affection. Charisma is a squirt gun that shoots insta-fatuation goo at unsuspecting innocents. It's not a universal appeal, but people tend to agree on whether a person's charming more easily than they will about whether he's plain old good-looking. "It" is pure magic, something largely intangible about the way a person moves and speaks and radiates.

Charisma can also be linked to talent [see again: Gene Kelly—and why not? He's so damn easy to look at]. There is something absolutely mesmerizing about watching someone doing what they love, and doing it mind-blowingly well. As always, this fact was driven home for me during the recent Olympic Games. I don't care much about sports, but I couldn't take my eyes off the men and women competing, I was so knocked out by their abilities and their drive.

Confidence is another major component of the It factor. Few things are more magnetic than the calm that oozes out of person who's completely at home in their own skin. Michelle said, "I think it's a sense of purposeness and centerdness in a man that turns me on and makes me think he's sexy. Like he knows who he is in the world and is not ashamed. There's an intensity about being genuinely yourself." Conversely, few things are as cringe-worthy as watching someone with no self-worth put themselves down, whether you can sympathize or not. Ditto general jackassery. Bravado will never take the place of actual confidence. Dalton said, "An instant turn-off is if a guy is full of himself, or a poseur. Looks fade, and what you're left with is personality. Make it a keeper." Similarly, Stephanie offered, "There's nothing that annoys me more than just all-out rude behavior or a man who thinks he's 'all that'. I don't give men like that a second look, even if they're drop-dead gorgeous."

But if you want your hero to have It, how do you get that across? All the well-written quips in the universe won't convince a movie viewer a character's charming if the actor doesn't have It. It's not something we can read like "he had blue eyes" then simply take at face value. Charm is a tall order and it requires evidence to back it up. Charm is communicated through a plethora of tiny cues: body language, facial nuances, energy…pheromones, for God's sake. How are you supposed to convey pheromones on paper?

My best advice for someone trying to convey a character's charisma through writing is to focus not on the hero's having it, but on the POV character's feeling it. Cause and effect can work wonders. The hero can murmur clever somethings in his Scottish brogue all day long, but if we don't feel the heroine shiver, feel her cheeks heat when the two make uncertain eye contact, experience our own throats contracting alongside hers as we wonder what she'll say in response, there's something missing [exception for any Scotsmen reading: you can haz Savannah and Dalton any old time you like, charm be damned]. I'm going to suggest that charisma isn't something that simply comes out of a person, but that it's something that is done to us as the person on the receiving end. Treat it like a sense, like a touch or a flavor, and focus on the POV character's physical reactions. That gives charm tangible believability.

Lastly, onward to the trait I think we as writers have the most control over: actions. You can't argue with actions. Unlike the attractiveness of irises-blue-as-a-tropical-sea or Quinto's giant black eyebrows or Depp's charisma, if a dude runs into a burning house and saves a baby or a puppy or his grandfather's war medals, we're probably going to cream our shorts. Unless you've got an evilness fetish, acts of bravery and worthy self-endangerment are pretty safe bets for getting ye olde lady-juices oozing. What a man does is the most concrete tool for convincing a reader he's a keeper and deserves to have his altruistic brains fucked out just as soon as his third-degree burns scab over.

That said, make sure he's not an idiot. If he's got children, don't make him run into that inferno to save the goldfish—burning up and leaving the kids fatherless isn't worth a guppy. If there are firemen on the scene and he's not one of them, don't send him in there. He could get in the way and make the pros' jobs way harder, and boneheadedness isn't a turn-on.

Let me amend that. Boneheadedness brought on by mind-warping love for the heroine can sometimes be sexy. I don't usually have a qualm with a man getting too-easily provoked and drawn into a fist fight over the heroine. And if he's got a black eye by the end of it? My thighs are a-tremblin'. Just don't overdo it and wander into gender-reversed TSTL territory.

Swoon-worthy actions don't have to be that dramatic, either—no grand romantic gestures required. We'll swoon for most anything that shows that the hero is putting someone else's needs above his own desires, that he values their wishes as much as his own. I get weak-kneed when I'm having a shitty day and my husband runs an errand for me so I won't have to face the stress of driving. He doesn't like braving the Thunderdome of Massachusetts's highways any more than I do, and that's why the favor's so damn dreamy. Kindness is sexy, so is passion [shown through more than just "a vague intensity burning behind his sapphire gaze", please], a sense of humor, a solid work ethic, etc.

And of course, actions can turn us off like nothing else, too. Cruelty is generally a mood-killer—outside of orchestrated BDSM play, perhaps—as are emotional manipulation, unprovoked rudeness, cowardice, laziness, bigotry, irresponsibility, and a plain old lack of common sense. With the exception of that last one (few readers will ever forgive or forget if an author weaseled money out of them for a book rife with illogical character actions) many initial negative behaviors can be redeemed, and showing a hero's growth can give him an extra dimension and regain some appeal you may have sacrificed in the name of maturation. That said, don't push it. Don't make him a hard-drinking, womanizing, devil-worshipping, servant-abusing Duke in pages 1 through 398 then expect us to orgasm when he professes his love in the closing paragraphs. Sorry, no dice. Once a dick-bag, always a dick-bag, even if his mother never hugged him, and tacking honor on like a false mustache isn't going to trick us. Especially not Dalton, who's turned off by men with facial hair.

So predictably, this post is too long. Also predictably, I don't have an end-all definition for "sexiness" or a surefire set of DOs and DON'Ts for convincing the reader your boy's got it. But I'm going to sum up with Naima's exquisitely articulate stab at defining sexiness, as it incorporates all the things I've been discussing:

"It's an aura, a confidence. It's a man who, even silent in the midst of a crowded room, draws your eye and attention just because of his presence. Without words he declares, I know I'm a man. A real man. One who can take care of himself, his woman—emotionally, physically, sexually and financially. It's that something that a woman knows she is secure and cared for with him."

And so, in closing, um…uh…

Quick!! Look at this picture of feminist Hugh Jackman holding a rescued puppy!!!

Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in the comments.


Wynter Daniels said...

I've read books with so called redeemed heroes that really aren't - they're dickheads revisited. I love a great redeemed hero, but the art of doing it isn't universal among authors.

Debra Glass said...

What Naima said. :-)

And I so totally agree with Zachary Quinto. He's sexy. I sent a pic of him along with my last cover request and if they didn't put him on the cover, they put his twin on it!

Fabulous post!

KC Burn said...

Congrats on the new release. And this is a great post. You've hit a lot of salient points. But I gotta say, one of the sexiest traits in men, for me, is intelligence. One shining example - Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. Am I in the minority? I adore him. And, in general, I think intelligence, like actions, is a trait that's one of the easiest to capture on the page.

Christine d'Abo said...

I know there were words in this post after that picture of Vin Diesel...I know there were...

It really is the whole package of a man that attracts me (and I assume it's the same from their perspective). I find myself attracted to actors who other people might question. It comes down to their personality on and off screen. A sense of humor and charm are key for me. Jeffery Dean Morgan anyone???

Cara McKenna said...

Fair point, KC—not sure how I managed to omit intelligence! Perhaps I just assumed no one would be considering writing a dim-wit hero…or perhaps because it doesn't fit into any of those three categories I examined—looks, charm, actions. I also largely omitted earning power and good health. Then again, imagine how long that post would've been if I'd covered everything…shudder.

Anonymous said...

Great post Cara!
I love a hot guy with down-to-earth humility. I guess that's why Hugh Jackman gets me every time - and his charitable spirit =)
Mel Teshco

Michelle Polaris said...

Great post, Cara. Congratulations on the new release. You got me in the mood for reading a romance, go figure, with all your talk of sexiness. I'm pretty lucky that my husband fits most of these categories. How soon until he comes home? (LOL)

Cara McKenna said...

Christine—I had to Google Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He clearly can't operate a razor, so he definitely has my vote.

Charlotte Stein aka The Mighty Viper said...

Hee hee! Every man should always be Zachary Quinto.

But failing that, all the stuff you've talked about will do. I think charm and not too much of a jerky alpha goes a long way.

Dalton Diaz said...

Hey now, I never said Jude Law makes my skin crawl, just that I don't see the mega attraction. He doesn't do it for me.
There's always going to be something physically attractive to someone, just as there are people who don't find Bradd Pitt attractive, even prior to weird facial hair. Johnny Depp and Hugh Jackman - now that's a different story. There's something wrong with people who don't find them attractive!

Cara McKenna said...

Dalton—ah, my mistake. Guess I'll just have to find a different way to gross you out.

Stephanie Adkins said...

Brad Pitt and Jude Law don't do much for me either. (I have an ex who could be Brad's twin, and he was a major ASS, so that kind of ruined all things Pitt-related for me). I have to agree about the sweatsuit comment though. Those turn me off too. LOL Great post, Cara! :)

Jina Bacarr said...

Wonderful post about sexy heroes--but to digress for a moment and talk about sexy heroines: a woman is sexier wearing a nightie, stockings, garters and high heels than nothing at all. It's all about leaving something to the imagination.

That's what we writers do: we provide just enough description to tease the reader about the hero's sexiness than let her imagination do the rest. It's part craft and part creativity, and always a challenge to do it right.

Ashlyn Chase said...

You had me at Hugh Jackman.


Cara McKenna said...

Just tell me the puppy enhanced the experience, Ash—I'd hate to think all my Photoshoppery was for naught.

Elizabeth Delisi said...

What an awesome post, Cara! Good points. The only thing sexier than Tom Selleck was Tom Selleck holding that baby in Three Men and a Baby...or Scott Bakula with his beagle Porthos on Star Trek: Enterprise. And I totally agree about Gene Kelly. His dancing was so effortless, and so darned sexy.


Cara McKenna said...

Thanks, Elizabeth!

Coincidentally, I watched a movie last night called The Shepherd, in which Jean-Claude Van Damme carried a bunny around with him. Muscles + fluffy cuddly thing = win.

Naima Simone said...

I'm late but I couldn't NOT comment!! Awesome post Cara!! As usual! And the picture of Vin?? Icing on top of the pec...I mean cake. Cake.

I had to watch Casablanca for a workshop I was taking...yes, my very first time seeing it. And when I first looked at Humphrey Bogart I was like, what's the big deal? Wasn't he this hearthrob back in the day? But the more I watched the movie, I saw why. He just became sexier and sexier. Between the "I don't care" attitude and the obvious yearning he had for Ingrid Bergman, he had me. Boy did he have me! I loved his wounded heart, and yet, he was willing to sacrifice for this woman who he loved--even though she was married to another man. The man had it all--charisma, charm, wit, courage...Now he was sexy!!

Cara McKenna said...

Oh, Naima—your wisdom was the glisteny muscly icing on my beefcake. Thanks a ton for your hiiilarious input.