So You Want To: Write A Good Yaoi
As you are no doubt very highly aware, there is no shortage of yaoi out there. Some of it is good, and some of it... well, not so much. This will hopefully help you avoid pitfalls and write better yaoi, whether you're writing Fanfiction or playing around with your own original characters. Please note that this article contains NSFW content. Nor is it a guide on "how to write porn" - the sections relating to explicit scenes are here for educational purposes only, and if you're looking for A Date with Rosie Palms, you'd do just as well reading an anatomy book or sex education text. Which is what, by the way, that section is mostly from.
The CharactersBarring a three- or more- way relationship, there are two main characters in traditional BL/yaoi: the Seme and the Uke.
- The Seme — the pitcher. Frequently has a more dominant personality in general. He is usually taller and more masculine-looking.
- The Uke — the catcher. He's usually shorter, and usually more of a Bishounen or even an outright Dude Looks Like a Lady.
Beware Of Homophobic And Transphobic StereotypesThis is VERY important. While you may think BL or Slash Fic is a straight women's only space, it isn't. There are people of all orientations and genders (or lack thereof) which read and write BL / Slash Fic, both as original media creations and fanfiction and roleplaying. Also, getting off on guys doing it does not make you immune to having homophobic attitudes or an instant ally, any more than the stereotypical straight males drooling over Les Yay are always and forever feminists and supporters of women's rights and lesbian rights. So here's a few pitfalls to look out for, both in actual writing and in interaction with other fans.
- The seme/top is the boy, the bottom/uke is the girl: This one's addressed in depth above, but along with all its other problems, it's a homophobic stereotype and manages to be both misogynist and misandrist.
- All Gays Are Promiscuous: Some gay or bisexual men are promiscuous, and the media often exaggerates this. Others are not, and there are even some who are demisexual (e.g. only interested in one person and monogamous toward them) and asexual but romantic toward the same gender. Some gay or bisexual men hold to moral codes that prohibit promiscuous sex (yes, it's possible for someone to, say, be both gay or bisexual and believe that cheating on their partner is wrong), and some are afraid of sexually transmitted infections. This trope can be played without the stereotypical implications simply by making it clear that it's just that character who is promiscuous, by setting the scene as one where promiscuous people would be, or similar, but having someone ravenously crave sex with every man that he sees is the homophobic stereotype.
- Double Standard: Rape, Male on Male: Gay and bisexual men's penises are not magnetically drawn to any rectum in the vicinity, nor do they desire to have any objects around painfully or nonconsensually shoved up their asses no matter what. In fact, nonconsensual penetration is rape no matter what the gender or orientation is, as is being forced against one's will to penetrate something or someone. Nonconsensual or even sudden, unprepared-for penetration is also not enjoyable even for the most masochistic and can injure.
- No Bisexuals: Bisexual men exist. You're writing a stereotype if you suddenly have a character who did show romantic and sexual feelings for women suddenly be 100 percent gay - just write him as bi.
- While this isn't a trope, no trans people is also a homophobic (suggesting no transgender person can be gay or bisexual) and transphobic (for invisibility and prejudice reasons) stereotype, unfortunately one imposed by some yaoi archives and such that don't want depictions of vaginas on their archives for example. If you're open to the idea as an original fiction writer or writing fic for one of the sadly few fandoms that do have canon transmale characters, consider writing a transgender man. And no, that does not mean you have to play up his "femininity" or anything and smash the audience over the head with an anvil - just depicting something like a chest surgery or hysterectomy scar will do, or if you want more drama, a character explaining no, those needles aren't heroin but his hormone replacement therapy.
- Depicting all gay or bisexual men as either Camp Gay or Straight Gay / Armored Closet Gay: Yes, these stereotypes do exist in Real Life, and some people play to them, and there's nothing wrong with having characters who are mostly like them. That said, if you set up the idea that everyone has to be "one or the other," it feeds the unfortunate implication that gay or bisexual men can't be anything else - or worse, in the case of trying to avert Camp Gay by making everyone Straight Gay, can backfire hardcore into heteronormativity and misogyny by suggesting femininity/feminine men are bad and/or an embarrassment to "normal" gay men. Having your characters have a mixture of attitudes and traits helps here, as does making sure that if you choose to play to these stereotypes, your work isn't a Broken Aesop calling out one or the other as "bad" or "wrong."
- "How dare you tell me how to write this!": Blowing up at constructive criticism from actual LGBTQ people is one of the worst mistakes a straight slash writer can make. If, say, a gay man comments saying your characters had Anatomically Impossible Sex, the proper response is to politely explain that the story is fantasy and the sex was intended to be so (if it was intentional), or to remove and/or research and rewrite while thanking the commenter - and maybe even asking him what the issue was - if you just didn't know how to write sex between two men. The proper response is almost always not "GET OUT OF MY SPACE."
- "I hate yaoi fangirls who want to be boys." This is a sentiment often expressed by some ignorant people that somehow believe reading yaoi or slash makes someone transgender. (It doesn't.) While some yaoi fangirls who post stuff pretending to be men/saying they wish they were male are confused girls or in need of education as to not internalizing misogyny, the yaoi/slash community is often one of the first stops (especially post The Turn Of The Millennium) actual younger transmen make in their self-discovery, and hate helps no one. If you really have issues with "girls wanting to be boys," address misogyny and inequality that might make people hate their own femininity and provide direction to proper counseling resources that can help people figure out where they are, but don't hate or especially group shame people for looking androgynous or identifying/posing as men or saying they wish they had penises or whatever.
Porn Is Not NecessaryDon't shoehorn it just for the sake of having it. Sure, you want to see hot Ho Yay action, but if it doesn't make sense with the plotline, you're not doing any favors by jamming one in anyway. Some of the best works out there focus on the relationship and the plotline more than sex. In fact, creating a plot-driven work or universe will often get you more readers and more repeat, loyal readers than writing one-shot Porn Without Plot will - many of the more successful works in the genre are known for their (often albeit wangsty and melodramatic on occasion) plots. In writing a plot-heavy work, you're actually asking your readers to keep coming back for more, which will often develop a very loyal audience - note how the Soap Opera genre produced some extreme Long Runners and maintained a huge fandom for quite a long time (and there are even still devoted fans, even with the decline of the genre, with its fans often instead looking for dramatic works of fiction online). You can see where that can potentially go, with people following your story for its drama, its twists and turns that have nothing or little to do with the sex, its characterization, just as they would once tune into a TV show every day...) If you can't write sex (too embarrassed, afraid of it falling into the wrong hands, not enough experience, trouble transposing the sex act into words, what have you) there's no need to feel embarrassed. You can use a Sexy Discretion Shot; merely imply that your characters had sex. Sex is not the be-all and end-all of Boys Love. Or Girls Love. Or het, for that matter. In fact, most readers would rather you fade to black or focus on someone/something else than suffer through badly written IKEA Erotica. There's also readers that read at work or have other reasons not to want a nonstop parade of graphic sex. If you're creating an original work or original universe, also, if you ever do wish to have it adapted for mainstream access (e.g. becoming The Film of the Book, published by major publishers), you need to have some degree of plot and be okay with making sure the sex is there for a reason, unless you're just looking to be published as porn or self-publish. Finally, if you want a page on this site for your work at some point, it has to not be Porn Without Plot, because such works are prohibited per the site rules. If you're still bound and determined after all that, please consult another article of the So You Want To namespace. Anatomically Impossible Sex, or something else in which you can entirely dispense with realism and sanity like Crack Fic (sorry!), if you're writing in a setting involving humans where realism is expected, it's probably a good idea to know a little bit about it and what should not ever enter it. While a detailed lesson on the anatomy of the anus and rectum is probably a bit Too Much Information for here, here's a few pointers on it that a lot of yaoi fic writers get wrong.
- Not a self-lubricating organ. See above in the section on lubes.
- Neither the anus nor the rectum has a hymen. As should be blindingly obvious to anyone who's had a bowel movement in their life. (For the record, a broken hymen isn't even a reliable virginity test anyway, as the vaginal hymen can be nonexistent or barely existent and broken or torn easily. And an anal hymen is Artistic License – Biology in the extreme.)
- The Ass Shove as it is typically shown is the worst way to cause injury and damage with penetration. Usually, unless the penetrating object is really small and thin (and even then sometimes), there is a ring of muscle called the "sphincter" that generally works to allow the holding of feces for a short time. In regard to penetration, forcing past the sphincter can damage or hurt it, rendering someone incontinent at worst or very sore and angry with the idea at best. This is why a receptive partner needs to be relaxed and comfortable with being penetrated and why the insertive partner needs to help the receptive partner relax and stretch the muscle into an "open" rather than "closed" state. Obviously this is something that can be glossed over if you as a writer find it TMI, but said preparation can actually be one of the sexiest parts of a yaoi or slash story because the anal entrance and sphincter has the most sensitive nerve endings of the entire region, so you can use your imagination there as to why this could be a lot better to depict than just "shoving it in."
- The prostate (which only cisgendered males have) is usually in the same spot give or take an inch or two. The "find the prostate" thing is often overdone in yaoi and slash fic - if someone has had sex with one man, he won't likely take too long to find the prostate in another. Also, the prostate is almost always close enough to the "entry point" that most men won't need a partner with a Gag Penis to "hit" it, and it depends on the man: some like it being bumped, others like steady pressure, and others find it being messed with just weird instead of pleasurable.
- Things can "get lost," unlike in the vagina. It's almost impossible to lose something in an average vagina (though it has happened on occasion) because the entrance of the cervix serves as a barrier. The anus has no such barrier, so anything that gets shoved too far in is usually staying and being brought up through the bowel via peristalsis until passed / until getting stuck (small objects) or becoming immovably (without help) lodged deep in the bowel (larger objects). The results are not usually good and end up in the emergency room. Anything used for anorectal insertions should have a flared base (meaning something that works as a "stop") and/or another safe means of being pulled out of the body. This is actually important to depict, if your story involves toy use, as a result of Viewers Are Morons.
- The tissues of the anus and rectum are a thin mucus membrane that are easily pierced. This means sharp (swords), rough/splintery (tree branch, table leg, etc), or similar stuff (caustic chemicals, jagged plastics, glass jars) doesn't go there in any kind of realistic setting as a consensual act, as it can kill. It also means guns and bullets aren't good sex toys because an accident = a gutshot.
- Finally, BLOOD IS NOT LUBE nor is it the sign of a good rough kinky sex session. In Real Life blood is a very bad sign that means STOP RIGHT NOW, because something is torn or perforated and proceeding further could cause even worse damage. If your character's (hell, if your OWN) anus is bleeding for any reason penetration-related or not other than a bumped hemorrhoid or a too-long fingernail at the entrance, that is when a trip to the nearest emergency room is required, and if the bleeding is profuse, a call to Emergency Services may even be.
We're Not 18 AnymoreIf you tend more toward Bara Genre / Yaoi fusion or write slash (and/or you're over 25 or so yourself or you just found a work with older characters interesting or like an old band or whatever), you may end up writing characters that are over 30-35. There's a few special considerations to keep in mind, again, only if you're trying for realism or in a realism-dependent genre.
- Men over 35 have longer "refractory periods." This means that your story of a couple in their mid 40s having multiple climaxes will likely lead to anyone who knows better laughing at it - especially since cisgendered men can't have multiple climaxes like women (and some transmen that retain the ability, though there's some research that testosterone causes refractory climax as opposed to ongoing, so many transmen are just as "I'm done now" as cis men), the closest thing they can have is short refractory periods, meaning someone who is 18 might be able to get hard again in 10 minutes. This increases with age - so, using the mid 40s example, it may take 2 or 3 hours at best before trying again without benefit of Viagra or similar drugs.
- Speaking of Viagra and all the other ED pills, they are and aren't miracle drugs. If the issue is blood flow or even psychological to some extent, they are miracle drugs because they facilitate blood flow for an erection, allowing, say, a late 40s man to feel like he has the reproductive system of an 18 year old, to become aroused faster and more easily, and to in some cases have a shorter refractory period again or combat the effects of alcohol or MDMA. That said, they don't address truly deep-seated psychological issues or make one attracted to people he isn't, nor capable of having sex all night long, and they're useless if the problem isn't blood flow related - a paraplegic, for example, won't have any more effect from Viagra than he would from thinking sexy thoughts and hoping for the best.
- Viagra and its related pill ED drugs were introduced to the market around 1996-1998. Anything set in The '80s or early in The '90s (or before) cannot include them, unless you are deliberately creating an Anachronism Stew or writing time travelers or the like. An injectable (into the penis itself) drug did exist in the early nineties (and is still used in some cases among porn stars and the very-not-squeamish about injections into that region), but before that, anyone who had "issues" there was fairly limited with what he could do about it.
Historical note on HIV/AIDS
- Anyone living in The New Tens is fortunate to live in an era where HIV is treatable, survivable, and may even be nearing curable, and if properly treated with the medications available in the First World, will not develop into AIDS (though the medications are themselves no picnic for side effects - while they are far better than having AIDS and spreading HIV far more easily, they aren't a cost-free, side-effect free thing that you can just pop one of a day and be done with.) Unfortunately, when HIV first appeared in the world and began to spread, it was a literal death sentence for 99 percent of people who got it before antiretroviral therapy became available and useful, because it would inexorably develop into AIDS - Acquired Immuno Deficiency / Immune Deficiency Syndrome - which killed not by itself, but by making patients' immune systems so absolutely useless that a case of pneumonia, a cancer previously controlled by the immune system, anything, could become an overwhelming infection that led to disability and death. Until the end of The '90s, getting HIV was literally deadly serious, and that is why so many safer-sex efforts existed and still do exist even though it's a chronic disease (in the first world at least) rather than a deadly one as it was then. It could be (and is) spread by any exchange of seminal fluid or pre-ejaculate, blood, or vaginal fluid between an infected person and someone who was not (until that exposure) infected.
Avoid Cliches Like The PlagueVictim Falling For Rapist: OK, you know how it goes: BIG, HULKING Seme rapes sweet, innocent, virginal, little Uke, uke falls in love with seme anyway. No. It's been done to death, and let's not even get into all the Unfortunate Implications. Yes, the very terms Seme and Uke connote a power dynamic. And, yes, Japan is big on the rape fantasy genre. But that doesn't mean you have to Follow the Leader and do it too. For some fans, the Uke is an Audience Surrogate. In a World where "good girls don't," the female reader may be trying to wash her hands of the situation by saying, "Oh, it wasn't me with [Insert Bishounen of Choice Here], it was [Insert Uke's Name Here]". And even if it was, it's not like that person "wanted it." (Of course, for other fangirls it's the fantasy of having the helpless little uke at your mercy, but the result comes out about the same for the reader.) Having sexual desires and urges does not make you a bad person, or a slut, or undesirable, or dirty, or anything else, no matter whether or not you have a Y chromosome. It means you're human. Since Most Writers Are Human (and by extension most readers, too), there should be no need to polish that halo. Some of the hottest yaoi erotica involves an uke who desires sex — and lets the seme know that. It also involves a seme who treats his uke like a lover and not a victim. Furthermore, using rape to titillate is not only cliche, but also frequently causes Fetish Retardant — and that's not even mentioning the trigger factor for those who have actually had this crime happen to them. You don't want to alienate your readers. The Sexual Harassment and Rape Tropes in general: For many readers, they are Fetish Retardant and No Yay, as well as potentially intensely triggering. They are also incredibly overdone in yaoi and slash fiction, to the point that a list of works that don't glorify rape or sexual assault in some way are enough to fill two or three pages, those that don't feature rape itself anywhere within them are unique enough to fit on one page, and the ones among those that don't feature "milder" sexual harassment or Questionable Consent at any point are even fewer. Avoiding, averting, and subverting (or at least deconstructing) these tropes will make your work stand out as unique and original and not cliched. If your story requires these tropes for some reason, at least do the research - read everything you can find that is an actual story of a victim, resources for victims, etcetera. If you want to write rape, at least go into it with the same preparation you would if you were going to volunteer on the phones at your local rape crisis center (and maybe even consider doing just that first, too.). If you're writing Questionable Consent or sexual harassment/assault that doesn't reach the level of forcible, intentional rape, keep in mind people can be traumatized by that as well, and that it is on the same "spectrum" as rape, so while it may require somewhat less care, it's still something that can make the "dog-like persistent seme" be seen as a Stalker with a Crush instead, for example, or make that scene of lovers waking each other up with sex have an uncomfortable and unfortunate subtext unless you wrote them agreeing to do it the night before first.
- Rape as Backstory: Deserves a dishonorable mention for just how damn common it is in yaoi/slash. Not only are there many other ways to give someone an angsty, tragic backstory that too often go unexplored because rape is seen as a quick shortcut to angst (even the Doomed Hometown is less cliche at this point), but there are several other issues with it if it is not written well. The first and most obvious being that poorly written, it can trivialize rape and actual victims of rape. It can also give credence to the All Gays Are Pedophiles, All Men Are Rapists, Depraved Bisexual, and Rape and Switch (which gets its own entry below) tropes - all absolutely horrific stereotypes that Real Life gay and bisexual men have faced for a long time (and still have to confront in much of the world). Finally, using rape for an angsty backstory overlooks that trauma from rape is very individualized - some people may indeed become suicidal and Self-Harm, while on the other end of the spectrum, there are a "lucky" few victims that aren't severely traumatized and actually do just want to "move on with their lives" - and nothing can predict in advance where someone will fall. If you absolutely must use rape as backstory (e.g. you're writing a fanfic about a character that experienced it), again do your research, and don't use it as a reason for wimpification or as a reason for the character "becoming gay."
- Rape and Switch: A severely discredited trope that still depressingly appears in some m/m fiction. Being raped does not make someone gay or bisexual, and that's all that needs to be said there. (In fact, being raped may well make someone take much, much longer to accept themselves as gay or bisexual, out of fear of the trauma being repeated, out of associating their orientation as somehow to blame or with the specific act that triggers them, and/or out of being convinced, sometimes due to a Bad Samaritan Heteronormative Crusader, that being gay or bisexual equates to being a rapist.)
- Victim falls for rapist, as mentioned above.
- Uke owes Seme a debt and has to pay back via sex (whether one-time or being a Sex Slave)
- Uke and Seme are straight, dammit! Except for that sex with each other thing that just keeps happening!
- Seme rescues Uke from something or other, Coitus Ensues
- Uke or Seme is IllBoy and the other has to care for him.
- Uke and Seme are in high school.
- Uke and Seme are in any of the following professions: prostitute/Sex Slave (especially if that's the uke), salarymen, Yakuza, or anything else with the Sempai/Kohai arrangement, ancient samurai, modern cops/detectives/soldiers/spies.
- Uke is a virgin.
Be Respectful of Others' PairingsOK, we've all seen our share of crack pairings. People put on their Shipping Goggles, and sometimes they'll see a pairing you don't like. Or a pairing that you like but not as a couple. So it goes. Rather than having a Flame War over whether it should be (let's say) Heero x Duo, Heero x Relena, etc., why not just agree to disagree? Enjoy the fics for what they are: fiction. Focus on the quality of the story and writing, not the pairing. The Fandom will be a lot more peaceful, and thus more enjoyable, for all concerned. That is not meant to say that you can't use the plot device of jealousy between characters both interested in someone who only wants one of them or the like - but if you write such fic, please be careful to make sure that any reader who is not an absolute moron can tell that you're not a Writer on Board. Using the Gundam Wing example above, let's say Duo and Wufei AND Relena all want Heero in your story. This is possible to do respectfully, but characterizing Relena as an Alpha Bitch and Wufei as the Yellow Peril turns your story into sexist, racist crap and a "bash fic," which will likely get you flamed. A better way to do it is to balance out all the characters as having good or bad points, and any bashing/hate being from the character PO Vs so it's obvious the characters may be jealous or fighting, but you as the writer aren't engaging in trying to start Ship-to-Ship Combat.
The GreatsWhat defines the greats is not necessarily that they are specifically great to all, but that they, either through becoming the defining work of their niche (e.g. traditional old-style Japanese BL, bara fusion, Slash Fic or original...) or, in some strange and surprising way (anything from Memetic Mutation to simply being something that everyone from GLBTQ people to straight people to whoever can find funny or interesting), hitting mainstream popularity. Two works will be listed per category, and feel free to add categories or fill them out further, while being careful not to link to anything in a way violating P5 or describing it one-handedly.
- Traditional BL anime/manga (e.g. traditional seme and uke roles, aimed solely at shojo and/or josei demographic)
- Gravitation: The traditional BL anime/manga (though it came along late enough to actually somewhat subvert the roles at points) that both established the "shounen-ai" variant (by its original series not being highly explicit) and introduced quite a lot of people (especially Westerners, as it was one of the first original yaoi anime/manga to get translated from Japanese) to the genre, the roles, and the concepts. If you're writing traditional BL, you definitely want to read/watch it to pick up some pointers on how the seme and uke roles work and are written.
- Bara Genre fusion (e.g. aimed at gay or bisexual male audience as well as female audience and without any use of the seme/uke roles, but with bishounen or biseinen as per BL or realistic as opposed to usual bara musclemen, and/or with some degree of serious plot and characterization as per BL over the usual bara trope of being PWP or Excuse Plot)
- Legend of the Blue Wolves: One of the first bara fusion works to get notice in both communities (drawing fandom both from bara fans that aren't into the unrealistically gigantic look and from yaoi fans tired of seme and uke roles), having a strong plot to which its notoriously explicit imagery actually has some relevance, for being set in a Science Fiction and Military Fiction setting (entirely unusual for BL of its time), and for its literally brutal aversion of the "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization with the victim's lover taking revenge on the rapist involving a Groin Attack with a knife, even knowing doing so would get him killed. Originally was going to be part of a series, but the production company ran out of money. Nonetheless, it became the most famous bara fusion work, and well worth a watch if you're interested in fusing yaoi and bara - as long as you're 17 or older and aren't severely triggered by a military setting or by graphically depicted Rape as Drama.
- BL/BL themed anime/manga that have achieved "mainstream" success (e.g. Long Runner with multiple demographic appeal)
- Patalliro: Good luck trying to put a genre on this - it's a Widget Series if there ever was one, a work of absurdist comedy. Somehow, though, it became one of the most popular BL-themed works in anime and manga, spawning its own universe, sequels upon sequels, and even picking up a Shout-Out from a rock band that would become one of the most famous in Japan when its guitarist picked his stage name from it. Just go read the page if you want to see how popular this got, at a time when BL itself was just getting started as a genre, and it's definitely worth checking out if you're more interested in writing comedy or for the Widget Series factor over the relationships or anything else - though an Archive Binge may lie ahead due to its being a Long Runner.