The way I see it, if character arc is something you're shooting for, you have to strip your character down and leave them excruciatingly vulnerable at least once. You can, of course, do that by lobbing cruelties at them. Or you can hook them up.
Now, I don't mind a bit of gore in a book, but I way prefer sex. Writing sex is funner than writing violence, and reading it certainly is.
So my Q&A for this week's topic goes as follows:
Sex in your novels...
1. When do you use it?
When I need the character to be vulnerable, to trust, or to protag (*).
2. How graphic do you get?
It sort of depends on the audience. I've written sweet, euphemistic sex, a smooch and a closed door, balls-deep wildthing sex, and a 12,000-word bondage menage. Each was appropriate for the publisher's line or anthology or market. I build the characters around the required heat level. For instance, I wrote two short stories for Circlet Press(**) anthologies, and those shorts use all the words and body parts. (Man, were they fun.) Wanted & Wired got some extra skin time in revisions, to lean it further into the romance market. So, how graphic do I get, in general? About as graphic as readers can stand.
3. How does it change your character?
Um... a lot? I mean, to be readable, it sort of has to. Nobody wants to read an ending and then a tacked-on gratuitous bang. We want all the bangs to be part of the story, either building or breaking a character or a relationship. So, I guess the characters change by being either built or broken.
Finally, if you've read all the way through my advice-giving and authority-pretending, you deserve a cookie. How about a free read cookie? Here's a link to my very explicit but also romantic epic fantasy quest erotica story, "Orin's Strand." It's only 8k words. You have time.
* Having your character make decisions, have agency, and be proactive (i.e., "protagging") is crucial in a story. Books about people reacting to everything aren't fun. So if you write sex to get your character vulnerable, you must deal with consent. If you're creating vulnerability through cruelty, sex without consent is an option. And it's a gross one, and I don't want to read that book. If you're creating vulnerability through trust, bring on the sex and the enthusiastic consent. If you click that link for my free read, you'll get a better idea of what I mean by protagging through sex.
** Circlet Press is a speculative fiction erotica publisher run by the amazing Cecilia Tan. Circlet was supportive of LGBTQ stories before the rest of the world caught on, and publishing with them has been a lovely experience. You don't need an agent to submit there, so if you're just starting out and looking to make contacts and hone your skills--not necessarily to make a lot of money--I recommend looking into them. If you're searching for some top-quality erotica to read, they're also a fantastic source.