A writer never stops learning about their characters. Case in point: I recently finished the editing process for my next release, Mojo Queen, and even though it was late in the game I wound up adding to an important scene. Re-reading the scene over and over, I felt like it was incomplete. When I got the line edits back and found a comment from my editor where she basically said the same thing, it really got the wheels in my brain turning. I knew if I was going to give this scene what it needed it would be a challenge in more ways than one. Because you see, this was the scene where my two main characters Roxie and Blake finally sleep together. (That means they had the sex. Not just "sex" but "the sex." No, I don't know what the difference is, either, but it's fun to say. Go ahead, give it a try - "the sex." Okay, I'm through being silly.)
In the original version of this scene the sex (oops, didn't mean to say it that way) happens off the page. I had two reasons for writing it this way. One, I'd never written anything like that for publication before and only done it a few times in short stories that will never see the light of day. (One of them was crossover Buffy / Supernatural fan fiction featuring a strip poker game between Faith and Castiel. Faith wanted Cas out of his trench coat. Don't judge me.) The second reason was that MQ is in first person. Every time I tried to write a real sex scene in first person, it just did not work. So I gave up and went the "off the page" route.
I had one last chance when the manuscript came back to me after line edits. I did my usual thing, which is to say I worried, and fretted, and worried some more. I kept asking myself a series of questions. By keeping such an important moment in their relationship off the page, was I cheating potential readers? Was I cheating the characters? What could be revealed about them both as individuals and as the couple they are becoming in a more detailed scene? What did Roxie and Blake need emotionally that first night together? I thought a lot about those questions, making notes and going through other parts of the story as well as the first part of that scene. As I discovered the answers and started to form ideas about what the scene would entail I found myself learning so much about my characters. I learned what Roxie and Blake each needed from the other, as well as what they had to give. I saw a glimpse of what their future relationship might be like, both in and out of bed. Some of what I learned was a little surprising, which brings me back to my original point: you never really stop learning about your characters.
A well-written sex scene is about so much more than just bodies, even if the characters aren't in love yet. Or even if they'll never be in love. Strip a character down for some hot lovin' and you will find out - and show your reader - what that character is made of. Who they are as a person, without pretense and hopefully without whatever emotional armor they wear to protect themselves. It can serve as a window right into a character's heart and soul.
As for the scene I wrote for Roxie and Blake, I hope I did right by them. I hope readers find the scene sexy, and that they gain a little insight into the characters as well. As far as edits go, my editor and I did another quick round of edits to smooth out the scene's rough edges and now the manuscript is done.
And as for what I have learned as a writer: basically from now on all of my characters will be having the sex. In the interest of learning about them as characters, of course.