Sexual Chemistry

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Sexual Chemistry and the Romance Novel: You've Either Got it or You Don't

You can fake a cold

You can fake surprise

You can even fake an orgasm

But the one thing you can't fake -- in real life or in fiction - is sexual chemistry.

It is my firm belief that sexual chemistry between two characters either exists or it doesn't and, if it doesn't, it can't be bought, manufactured, or faked.

Sexual chemistry is a combination of many things. It's witty dialogue. It's clever bits of business between a man and a woman. It's circumstance and opportunity but whatever it is, if it isn't based on good characterization, then it isn't anything at all.

Sexual chemistry is the first and most important ingredient in a good romance novel. Whether the book is a sweet contemporary or a fiery historical, that indefinable charge of electricity between hero and heroine must be there and good characterization is how it happens.

Let's say you have ten great hero types all vying for space on your computer screen and ten equally great heroines demanding your attention. You know everything there is to know about each and everyone of these characters - where they were born, where they went to school, what they like to eat for dinner and drink on a Saturday night when they're all alone. Each one is a three-dimensional, fully-textured human being in search of someone to love - and there's a story to go with that search.

In real life there might be an unlimited number of possible combinations that work. But the hard truth of the matter is that in fiction, your hero and heroine are a match made in heaven, a one of a kind pairing, and you must make your reader believe that finding each other -- and each other alone -- is their inescapable destiny.

There are are times you'll feel like you're playing musical chairs until you find the right pairing but if you don't get this part of the equation right, I guarantee nothing else you do will work.

Sexual chemistry can exist without love in real life, but in a romance novel, sexual chemistry is the path that leads the hero and heroine to true and abiding commitment.

Sexual chemistry is the initial attraction, the element that pushes a hero and heroine together.

Sexual tension is the element that keeps them yearning toward each other...from a distance.

Sexual tension in the romance is a fine blend of hope and uncertainty.

Fear of rejection causes uncertainty in the hero and heroine but that very uncertainty also enhances desire. It's a fact of human existence that we do not want that which is easily acquired.

The harem fantasy is a popular one with men but the truth of the matter is that even if a man is faced with a smorgasbord of brides on a nightly basis, there will be one he prefers above all others.

All things in this world are not equal - especially not deep romantic attachments.

In her non-fiction book, The Anatomy of Love, Helen E. Fisher speaks about a novel titled The Family written by PoChin, which dealt with life in a Chinese household during the 1930s. Arranged marriages were the norm. Love usually led to tragedy. Centuries of tradition demanded that infatuation and love be suppressed. Says Fisher: "Today, however, the Chinese have begun to shed their custom of arranged marriages. More and more are buying romance novels, playing sentimental tunes, dating, divorcing partners they never loved, and choosing spouses for themselves. They call their new convention free love. Taboos, myths, rituals, myriad cultural inventions coax the young around the world into arranged marriages. Yet where these marriages can be dissolved, people regularly divorce and remarry mates they choose themselves. To court, to fall in love, to form a pair bond is human nature."

Now I believe in equal pay for equal work, the smashing of glass ceilings, and that everyone should be able to work without fear of sexual harassment. But there's one truth about the male/female relationship that is unavoidable: whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, the sexual pull between a man and a woman is always there. Married, monogamous, or postmenopausal, the urge to merge is in our blood and only centuries of civilization and cultural morality keep it in check.

Consider this bit of business from the movie When Harry Met Sally. Sally and Harry have just met and are driving together to New York City. Although Harry is dating Sally's friend, he's just put the moves on Sally. She, of course, is incensed because she thought they could be friends.

HARRY : You realize of course that we could never be friends. What I'm saying - and this is not a come on in any way, shape or form - is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

[Sally protests, telling Harry that she has many male friends. She asks him if he believes platonic friendships between men and women are possible]

HARRY: No, I'm saying they all want to have sex with you. Because no man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.

SALLY: What if they don't want to have sex with you?

HARRY: Doesn't matter, because the sex thing is already out there, and that is the end of the story.

Luckily, for us as romance writers, that is the beginning of the story. Sexual tension, this acute awareness of sexual possibilities, is the electricity that gives life to the plot, that imbues every word, every action with layers of texture and emotion that would otherwise be missing.

Shakespeare knew it. The Taming of the Shrew was an example of opposites attract -- the groundwork for Tracy and Hepburn and all the other stars of romantic comedy.

Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers who easily translated - some four centuries later - into Maria and Tony in West Side Story. Forbidden love carries with it a potent chemistry that you can't find anywhere else.

Sexual tension and requited love in fiction are like oil and water. The tension might be crackling like an electrical storm but the moment our hero and heroine climb into bed and do the deed, that crackling sexual tension is dissipated in the time it takes him to say, "Was it good for you?"

If sexual tension = attraction + obstacles then attraction + consummation = Big Trouble.

One answer might be to keep them out of bed.

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had it down to a science. Sparkling dialogue became a witty and intelligent form of foreplay.

Remember Charles Dickens's brilliant words on writing the ultimate page turner? Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them wait. The same holds true for the romance novel. Delay the ultimate love scene as long as possible. Make your reader want it to happen almost as much as your hero and heroine want it and when it's over send your hero and heroine back to their respective corners alone and get that tension building up again.

The equation then becomes attraction + consummation + denial = Page-Turning Sexual Tension.

There's a reason we have certain conventions and well-loved plot devices in romance. Every genre has them and here's why: they always deliver the goods. Castaways on a deserted island. Reluctant lovers snowbound in a cabin. Forbidden love. The Capulet/Montague family feuds. The bad boy and the good girl. And my personal favorite, lovers from the wrong side of the tracks. For me, that phrase is enough to get my imagination racing. Just think Lady Chatterley's Lover and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Sexual tension in the romance novel is a walk on the wild side with the promise of happily-ever-after waiting at the end of the book.

In fiction and in life, it doesn't get much better than that.

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