“I like the way he leans.” – Angela Chase, My So-Called Life
I’ve always hated being asked why I like someone. Crushes turn us into stalkers who notice the strangest things about the objects of our desires. In high school, I fell for a boy because I liked the way he held his guitar. I didn’t care about his music itself, mind you. My lust didn’t blind me to the fact that his Smashing Pumpkin covers were hopelessly mediocre. But there was something about the angle of the guitar slung across his body that just did me in.
I never mentioned this to my friends, of course. Nothing makes me more self-conscious than revealing the odd details about someone that make my heart race. And yet, somehow, I grew up to do that for a living. I write science fiction with a ton of romance, so part of my job is creating compelling love interests. But how do you design a crush-worthy character? Do you endow them with the qualities that you find sexy? And what happens if you accidentally reveal an embarrassing proclivity? What if you think you’ve written Four from Divergent, but you’ve really written Percy Weasley?
A few years ago, I was working on a YA novel I’ve since abandoned. Yet while I could never get the plot quite right, I was sure I’d invented the sexiest character of all time: an infamous smuggler who turns out be as kind as he is rakish. We first meet him sauntering through a crowded bar where he “walked with a careless, almost dangerous confidence, like a shark might move if it had legs instead of fins.”
LIKE A SHARK MIGHT MOVE IF IT HAD LEGS INSTEAD OF FINS.
Thankfully, my brilliant editor cut that line from the first draft without reservations, but who knows what might’ve ended up in the final book. That’s why, when reviewing my final edits for Light Years, I was dismayed to see that this description, “He wore a dark suit that made his tall, slim body look even taller and slimmer than usual,” hadn’t quite hit the mark. My editor wanted me to make it “sexier.” But what did that mean?! Because what I find sexy clearly isn’t what other people find sexy.
First, I tried describing the character’s butt. You can imagine how well that went. Then I played around with having his “low slung” suit pants cling “alluringly” to his hips. But that’s not really how suits work. . . and “alluringly” has to be the least sexy word in the English language. Eventually, I settled on this: “He wore a dark suit that fit his tall, slim body more closely than his uniform — the narrow jacket showed off his trim stomach, and the black trousers made his legs look even longer than usual.”
But while I struggled to articulate what, exactly, makes black tie sexy (it transforms all men into James Bond, okay?!) I had no trouble writing about a different character, Zafir — a handsome counterintelligence officer with a penchant for sarcasm. Just my type! (Take note, Bumble . . .) My self-consciousness slipped away whenever I wrote about Zafir. I shamelessly added a swimming scene so my protagonist had the opportunity to note “the tautness of [Zafir’s] muscles” and “the relaxed expression on his face, a far cry from the intense stare that made so many cadets cower.” Because, ultimately, I think that’s what transforms curiosity into a crush for me. That moment when you see a crack in the façade, a glimpse of vulnerability. A flash of tenderness in the face of a celebrated counterintelligence officer who just happens to swim a zillion laps every day. (Swimmer muscles . . . amirite?) The way a high school musician with greasy hair and ill-fitting jeans can run his fingers along his guitar strings and make you melt.
Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Because when we first meet Zafir, we see him “leaning back against his desk with his legs stretched out. His pose was relaxed, but there was something about him that suggested coiled power.” Maybe, like Angela Chase said of Jordan Catalano, I just like the way he leans.