The connections—and the differences—between lust and love are an ancient puzzle. In some ways, sexual desire is the exact opposite of emotional attraction, especially when considered from a writer’s viewpoint. Desire leads to sex, which is a sensual experience involving sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Emotional attraction can be expressed in words and actions, but the thing itself is intangible. Love can be faked much more easily than physical arousal.

Novel-length erotic narratives tend to become boring if they are just lists of couplings with no plot arc. Even if all the major characters are enjoying sex with each other, something has to change. The most logical development is that some of the characters become more to each other than casual playmates. They learn each other’s personal histories and take an interest in each other’s current problems, including those that have no direct connection with sex. They are privileged to learn each other’s secrets, and this knowledge increases their sense of connection.

Writers of erotic romances can create intrigue and suspense by the same means that have worked for centuries in non-erotic romances. A misunderstanding can set a developing relationship back and make the major characters miserable until a crucial conversation and an epiphany resolve the problem. There can be rivals on both sides, and the reader can be shown how the rivals threaten the primary relationship, and why the rivals would not be suitable partners for the major characters. One lover’s devotion to the other can be tested by circumstances. Each major character can ask the other: would you risk death for me?

Like most readers, I like happy endings (even if they are just happy-for-now), especially if they aren’t overly predictable. Happy endings in a work of fiction raise the question of whether they can be arranged in real life. How do we navigate sexual attraction vs. Emotional attraction? When should we declare our feelings, even to someone who doesn’t seem to be available, and when should we leave well enough alone?

Speaking for myself, sexual desire has been a very unreliable indicator of whether I could live happily with a particular person of any gender, age, physical appearance, or social class. The “opposites attract” trope which works in romance stories seems more likely to result in a nasty breakup in the real world when the two participants discover that they also have clashing expectations. I’ve mentioned here before that the credibility gap between cisgendered men and cisgendered women still seems to be as wide as ever, despite improvements in the status of women over the past fifty years, and the huge quantity of words that have been written on gendered experience. Why do so many men still seem surprised that women resent doing the lion’s share of cooking and cleaning when they also have demanding paid jobs? Why do some women still believe whatever their divorced boyfriends say about their ex-wives?

My spouse Mirtha and I recently discussed our past relationships which didn’t last long. She told me that before her first marriage, she often got bored with the young men she dated. I couldn’t remember ever feeling bored with another person. I definitely remember feeling dismayed when I learned something that shattered my illusions: the boy I was dating in high school thought college professors like my father were all evil Communists who belonged in prison, or the man who had already spent a night with me was married with children. Or the woman I had met in the local “gay” bar had a drinking problem which impaired her ability to think clearly about anything else. What had I seen in any of these people? I had seen them through a haze of sexual attraction, and I had assumed that anyone that appealing on the outside must have good inner qualities too. Anything else was unimaginable until the truth came out.

Stories about human interaction are almost guaranteed to be more satisfying than many real-life experiences because stories have shape, they rise to a climax, and they reach closure of some kind. Miraculously, characters who look attractive are usually revealed to have inner depth and surprising talents. Even the villains tend to be shrewd. Delectable bodies are usually the outward representation of interesting personalities. This is a major reason why all of us here like to read fiction, and most of us like to write it.

Should realism be included in a plot about sexual or emotional attraction? Some degree of plausibility seems needed to persuade a reader to willingly enter into a fictional universe. On the other hand, readers (and writers) looking for escape from the disappointments of the real world don’t want to be confronted by them in a work that promises a better deal. Comments welcome.