As a reader, it is hard to know what, exactly, you are getting when you purchase a novel or story billed as “erotica.” I have seen everything from soft porn (“He did this. She did that.”) to fully satisfying plots and characters who happen to have a lot of sex.
Personally, I read novels to get to know the characters. Reading about sex itself…well, it gets old unless I get invested in the characters: what drives them, what’s at stake, and what they desire (if all they desire is sex, their character has no depth and to me, that’s soft porn).
I recently read two book that make me think about that character development issue in erotica.
Seems everyone has heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, so I’ll start there. I enjoyed Shades, but not for the sex. Considering the BDSM angle, I expected the sex to be hot. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but it just wasn’t. And certain phrases (“It was a heady combination” for example) were overused so that eventually they didn’t have much impact.
But from the standpoint of character development – did the character change because of the events of the book? – Shades delivers.
The character of Christian Grey is fascinating, and not just because he has a kinky side. His need for control and power… the hints of his childhood… all great stuff. My only complaint: he’s relentlessly good at everything he does. If we use my evaluation of “did he change through the course of the story?” the answer is a resounding YES (“Another first, Ms. Steele”).
Anastasia (sometimes accused of being too “simple”) is young and naïve at the start. But she’s got a quick mind and quick wit that makes her easy to like. Does she change? Certainly – especially at the very end. I don’t want to give it away, but eventually Anastasia finds the courage to make a difficult decision. I found myself admiring her and cheering her on.
Now for Ruined Hearts by Natasha Perry, which also has a BDSM angle. Melissa escapes her life as a concubine and is determined never to submit to a man again. But right away her righteous indignation lands her in a compromising situation with Ethan Trent, who (naturally) has an immediate desire to spank her.
These two characters come together, and the sex IS hot (there’s one scene when the tables are turned and she is the dominant, and another involving cherries…). Then the evil antagonist (Melissa’s former “owner”) shows up. Melissa betrays Ethan’s trust and, in typical male-pride fashion, he tosses her out. She moves forward with her own business plans (with the help of his mother, which was a great subplot related to his childhood). But when the evil ex-master kidnaps her, Ethan (and his mother) come to her rescue.
You’d think that’s where the story ends. Certain erotica readers will probably think it should have ended there. But I – being the type that likes to see how a character transforms because of their experiences/situations – enjoyed the rest of the story (which I won’t give away here). The sex wasn’t as hot, but the character changes got me.
In sum, it I think it depends on what you value more in your reading (or what you’re in the mood for): just plain sex, or a deeper plot and characterization.