There are many different types of attraction but in this article we’re going stick with sexual attraction, of which there are many famous instances of it being downright wrong, and by wrong I mean disturbing. We addressed some of this in an article on Describing Women where the language used is often inappropriate. Another common mistake is focusing on sexual attraction being purely abs and chiselled jaws, at which point I know some people will assume I’m taking a dig at romance fiction. It’s true there’s a lot of romance fiction that features abs and chiselled jaws but this doesn’t automatically mean their depiction of attraction is bad. Good romance fiction is very good at layering attraction, bad romance fiction isn’t, but this applies to any genre. Just because someone isn’t writing romance doesn’t mean they’re writing something good or better.
If we want to know about writing attraction romance is often a good place to look, as I said a well written romance layers attraction because a romance novel can rise or die by believable attraction. When we layer attraction we aren’t simply depicting a character who ‘looks good’ therefore is ‘attractive’. It’s also important to note that what constitutes ‘looking good’ varies from character to character, just like real people. Ergo we can’t just give a character a six pack or a slim and assume a reader will believe there’s an attraction between them. Attraction is built as much on what a character does and who they are as what they look like.
Do they bring their love interest their favourite coffee without being asked? Are they kind to people? Do they have a habit their love interest finds sweet even if others don’t? Not ever element of sexual attraction has to be sexual and not every point has to be sexualised. If they bring their love interest a cup of coffee just how they like it the love interest doesn’t have to go ‘phwoar, they’re a bit of alright’, a smile and thank you can do too. Perhaps they smile and say thank you then there’s an extra moment of ‘that’s sweet of them’ or there doesn’t have to be. A moment of consideration can signal to the reader ‘this character is a good egg, root for this character’ if we build up these moments we can build up the attraction without emphasising it.
If we’re considering physical attraction it can be anything, even small details. Perhaps they get dimples when they smile, or their hair will never stay tidy, or they have a habit of rolling up their sleeves. Sometimes these small details can be more effective than assuming we can build attraction just by mentioning a six pack because these details are relatable. Very few people have six packs, many more have little details they love about their partner. These small details also help because it applies one character is paying attention to another character which, in turn, implies interest. We can build this up as well, they notice these details and begin to associate them with feelings or behaviour. For instance, this character gets a little frown line when they’re thinking or troubled, or they straighten their cuffs when they’re uncomfortable. Here we build the sense of one character’s interest in another, their knowledge of them, and a sense of possible attraction without having to be overtly sexual.
Language is important too we don’t want our character to be internally ‘negging’ the person they’re supposed to be attracted to. ‘Negging’ is trying to lower someone’s self-esteem by being negative about their appearance, whether overtly or implied. At it’s most basic it would be something like implying they’d be more attractive if they did something else, the classic example would be the woman who’s considered unattractive until she takes off her glasses and is suddenly stunning. This relates to some of the old clichés such as ‘they were forty but had the body of someone twenty years younger’ implying they’re attractive because they look younger and youth is therefore portrayed as more attractive. It also implies everyone of twenty has the same kind of body and this is attractive and everyone of forty has a different kind of body which is considered unattractive, neither of which is true. (For more on this try Describing Women)
Overall the way to write convincing attraction is to try and write convincing characters. They don’t have to be perfect but we don’t have to belittle their imperfections either.