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Addressing ugly topics


JamesSavik

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Sometimes in a story "ugly topics" come up.

 

Various types of abuse, drugs, alcohol, date rape, etc.

 

I would like to know from the various authors:

  • How do you handle it?
  • How do you present it?
  • How do you make it a part of the plot without appearing to endorse it?

 

In the past I've gotten criticism for this and I don't really get it.

 

Murder mysteries don't endorse or glorify murder.

 

I don't really "get" why some people seem to lose it when the hot button issues come up.

 

Doubtless it's wrapped up in the word issues.

 

 

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Well, think for my part (I've written stories with abuse and rape) that making sure the abuser comes across as a pretty bad person is probably a key point.  I think if a writer makes the abuser appear in any kind of sympathetic light, then that can make what they do appear 'okay'.  Making sure that you portray that the abused is not okay with or 'enjoys' the abuse/rape is also important.  

 

I think in the case of drugs, I would say you'd probably have to make sure that the characters are that are using the drugs are not coming across as successful or being a better person because of the drugs/alcohol.  

 

But that's all just my opinion, don't know if it helps.

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Personally I'm too new at this game. Haven't dealt with the real hard issues yet in my stories.

I would probably just handle it in a realistic, matter of fact manner while not going into excruciating detail.

 

I have been cautioned about my comments against religious extremism, something I despise. Not one of the topics you mention but a hot button issue to some.

A couple of individuals explained to me that a lot of it is money driven. Google restrictions on content or labeling.If GA does not conform it could lose significant amounts of revenue?

Maybe that is also a reason for the attitude towards the subjects you bring up?

 

Personally I don't care what anyone writes. If It's not to my liking I just will avoid reading it.

 

C

 

.

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I approach it from a different direction. I try to look at not how I portray these things in the story, but how the readers may react. This is not so much applicable for drugs, but more for abuse. That's why anytime I have a story that involves abuse or similar topic that may disturb some readers, I include a warning at the start of the story or chapter.

 

For most people, I don't believe these things are of great importance, but for someone who has been abused, reading an evenly mildly graphic account of abuse can be very disturbing.

 

I don't believe we should shy away from these topics, but they need to be handled carefully. It's like anything -- handled incorrectly, they can cause harm.

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In the past I've gotten criticism for this and I don't really get it.

 

Murder mysteries don't endorse or glorify murder.

 

I don't really "get" why some people seem to lose it when the hot button issues come up.

 

Doubtless it's wrapped up in the word issues.

 

Because for a lot of people running into hot button issues gets in the way of escapist fun? I have heard that anyway. I don't know, I don't get it either. Then again, I deliberately seek out disturbing material, so I might not be the best judge of "most people." 

 

There was something you said in a different section of the forum here, society thinks about these things in really simplistic terms, people that have lived through it know it really isn't that easy and write things a little more realistically than your average person really wants to see. Especially when it avoids happy endings, neat closure, seeing the day that everything bad you went through (however horrible, however long term) becomes a total non issue. Maybe those things can happen in real life; not to me, or anyone I've personally known.

 

If I'm going to have a problem with how issues of abuse are presented, its never with the violence itself, but how the character is affected by it. No quick fixes, no far too early recovery, no long term trust or intimacy issues vanishing like dust in the wind the second the protagonist meets some hot guy/girl (I really hate that one, with a passion, maybe because I've seen it once too often). I don't need to see gritty reality, but if you're going to bring it up it should carry some real weight, not something that surfaces only when dramatic tension is needed but otherwise has no significant impact and is dismissed by the end.

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Separating the emotional impact of fiction from fact can be hard when it is something that is significant to you, personally. That said, there aren't many things that I can really say disturb me in terms of fiction. Whether it's because I know it's 'not real' or because I'm desensitised to whatever degree, I'm not fully sure. Regardless, very politically incorrect things are fine in my view if they add to the narrative and serve a real purpose -- if they are there simply for shock value and not much else, then that tends to turn me off as a reader.

 

As a writer I'm not shy about depicting 'ugly' situations. In what I have published on GA, there are plenty of instances of violence and death to choose from, some of them quite bloody, but also rape, torture, forced drugging, psychological abuse, alcohol use and, last but not least, euthanasia. While there is a point to them being present, my wish isn't to moralise about these issues. The characters may or may not have strong opinions on what is going on. Maybe the perpetrator gets away with it. Maybe he doesn't and is horribly punished. Maybe it's arguable whose fault it is, and who is really 'guilty', and where the right and wrong of it lies. I prefer that kind of ambiguity over clean-cut black and white, because the real world is not that way, and I like my fiction to trend towards realistic, insofar as that's possible.

 

If people don't want to read that ambiguity when it comes up, that's okay. It need not be to everyone's liking and they can drop my writing and go on to whatever else if they want. Yet ... I will continue to write it in the way I am accustomed, because I am portraying characters that have varying degrees of villainy and heroism in them. Sometimes they might have stupid backwards prejudices and hangups that make little sense to most people. Maybe they are culturally alien or have weird religious customs or whatever else it might be.

 

For me it's not about glorifying or abhorring, because I'm out to tell a story more than preach a sermon. Just so long as it isn't gratuitous and senseless, and has a reason for being, then I think it can be worth exploring.

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Sometimes in a sto

 

I don't really "get" why some people seem to lose it when the hot button issues come up.

 

 

Perhaps it is because hot button issues play to an individual's innate fears?  A claustrophobe will freak at a story about being trapped in a cave in.  Someone who has experienced abuse, or greatly fears abuse even if they have not been subject to it, would react strongly to abuse in a story.

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  • 1 month later...

Sometimes in a story "ugly topics" come up.

 

Various types of abuse, drugs, alcohol, date rape, etc.

 

I would like to know from the various authors:

  • How do you handle it?
  • How do you present it?
  • How do you make it a part of the plot without appearing to endorse it?

 

In the past I've gotten criticism for this and I don't really get it.

 

Murder mysteries don't endorse or glorify murder.

 

I don't really "get" why some people seem to lose it when the hot button issues come up.

 

Doubtless it's wrapped up in the word issues.

 

I've read horror forever, so ugly topics aren't as much of an issue for me, although there are some topics I avoid for reasons of taste. I assume that if a work is fiction, then whatever takes place in it is not necessarily being endorsed, only explored in the writer's imagination. To associate a murder mystery writer with being a murderer makes no sense. The human imagination is a queer thing. Sometimes the road less traveled appeals to a pioneering spirit that wants to forge his own path and do something that might not have been tried a hundred times before.

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Sometimes the road less traveled appeals to a pioneering spirit that wants to forge his own path and do something that might not have been tried a hundred times before.

 

What he said.

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Thank you! Yes, exactly! I don't read most stories here that are tagged with "abuse" because I've found that the vast majority of writers, even professional writers, don't want to do the work of representing the long-term impact of sexual violence (or any kind of violence) in any kind of realistic way.

 

This depends very much on the writer.

 

You can tell the difference between an exercise in imagination and someone who has really been there.

 

The whole emotional tone and dynamic is different. I don't care how good the writer, it is near impossible for someone that hasn't been there to portray the real dread of being around the abuser and what it is like in a long term, day to day setting. Even when they aren't hitting you, your nerves are still on the razor edge.

 

It's like someone pretending to be a cat. They can sound like a cat, move like a cat and act like a cat but no real cat would ever be fooled.

Edited by jamessavik
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This depends very much on the writer.

 

You can tell the difference between an exercise in imagination and someone who has really been there.

 

The whole emotional tone and dynamic is different. I don't care how good the writer, it is near impossible for someone that hasn't been there to portray the real dread of being around the abuser and what it is like in a long term, day to day setting. Even when they aren't hitting you, your nerves are still on the razor edge.

 

It's like someone pretending to be a cat. They can sound like a cat, move like a cat and act like a cat but no real cat would ever be fooled.

 

I don't know if I could make that claim. I feel like people differ so much that I couldn't predict someone else's reactions even if they had experienced exactly what I had. And who am I to say that an external observer can't have a useful insight about something that happened to me? even if it's a fake cat... does it not have anything interesting to say?

 

[Edit: to come out of abuse for a second, consider James Tiptree, Jr., who wasn't doing so badly as a male writer, for quite a while, till she screwed up a male masturbation scene]

 

I feel like ultimately it comes back to the reader's motive. Am I reading this because there's actually something valuable being expressed? Or am I just titillated, getting some horror and suspense out of a shocking narrative that's nicely gussied up with some moralizing and a few current platitudes? Sometimes you're so caught up you don't even know which it is till much later. 

 

Edit2: I see I didn't actually answer your point, James. By and large, I haven't seen the signs of effort among amateur writers. Maybe it's too easy to cheat because abuse is so harrowing as subject matter, so a strong reaction is guaranteed, I don't know. That certainly was the case when I was writing fiction--I didn't do it on purpose, but the buttons to press to freak people out were clearly marked even back then. And these days, 9 times out of 10, I don't even bother to look. It's gotten to the point that it seems like it's a lot harder to write an ordinary, non-criminal conflict between two people, and I'll give my attention and encouragement to people who want to try.

Edited by Irritable1
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Maybe we're talking about different things. 

 

If something in a narrative is  complex it feels right. Believable. It's incredibly rare. Well, you know how I feel about that.

 

Edit:

 

 

This depends very much on the writer.

 

I was fading last night and couldn't quite put this thought together. I think that regardless of subject matter, conveying the quality of life as it's lived and perceived is really complex, and that's true for negative experiences more than most things  The Place in Between succeeds better than a lot of stuff I've read. I can't put my finger on why, but I think it's partly because you left the complexity in place and didn't insist on trying to tie stuff off. And I think maybe that's the ultimate difference between the real and the fake, or the fake-feeling, that insistence that the nastiness (well, suffering, really) should all work out and be edifying in some way.

Edited by Irritable1
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  • 4 months later...

For one thing I'd say: write what you feel like writing. Too much self-censoring and political correctness kills creativity and a story.

A good story has ambivalence, is thought provoking and doesn't smooth down and explain everything.

Go with your flow and then check back with beta readers who can plausibly explain to you if and why something doesn't work for them or offend them in a way that's not perhaps not intended on your side.

However (!):

 

That is not to say that I endorse all kinds of stories being put out there that involve those topics. Not at all.
I think there is a lot of stuff out there that I'd personally censor because I think it is toxic.

 

If a third person narrator:

 

- objectifies victimized people

- presents abusers and their actions are as eg. 'cool' (or otherwise positive or attractive to emulate)

- offers no credible insight as to what abuse might cause in the abused and how debilitating and destrucitve it is.

- uses violence as sadistic delectation

 

Any of the above I would not be interested in reading and would quite likely find offensive.

 

Characters however can act in that way and while they can be important protagonists they should not be presented as unquestioned shining heroes.

 

 

 

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I'm all about trusting the reader's maturity and basic good will. I don't think a writer should modify his/her style or content in anticipation of people getting upset. I know that there are people whose hobby is taking offense, and there's no pleasing those people. If my presentation of an issue causes some of them to foam at the mouth, I don't want them reading my stuff to begin with. In my opinion, to assume that you have to "be careful" with readers is patronizing, and to burden yourself from the outset with constraints that try to respect a reader's putative queasiness or over-excitable sense of decency...well, you have enough of a challenge to tell your story and to tell it well; you don't need to make some presumed reader's problem yours.

 

A few of you may know that I finished up a story found at Gay Authors called It Started With Brian for "Dan Kincaid," a dear e-friend of mine who died of cancer before his notes had been translated into the last third of his story. We worked together on the completion until he got too sick to continue. His husband--no writer, he--helped me with the last bit.

 

It Started With Brian was autobiographical. Sam (that was his real name) himself had experienced some really awful things in his life, including sadistic, narcissitic parents and a boyfriend who terrorized him and subjected him to all kinds of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. As he contemplated posting the story to GA, Sam was intentional--even emphatic--about warning the readers at the head of the relevant chapters that those chapters contained material that might be disturbing to some readers.

 

I mention that for two reasons. First, and most importantly, in my opinion, is that those chapters are vitally relevant to the tale Sam had to tell, and there's no way to "make the point" that the chapters make in the story without conveying in all its ugliness the brutality that those chapters contain. In a way, this might have been easier for Sam than it is for some of us, because the man was dying. So what was narrating a few brutal chapters compared to that? And how bad could any potential negative reader response be compared to that?

 

Secondly, though, and to the other side of the ledger, Sam understood that you don't have to be someone who gets offended as a hobby for a narrative to upset you, and he didn't want to upset anyone beyond his/her ability to deal. He felt it was important to attach a warning before the reader started the chapter.

 

That's about all I'm willing to do myself in accommodating readers to "ugly topics." Warn them that they'll be encountering them. And then trust that they're adults. The ones who demonstrate after they fact that they couldn't be trusted aren't worth thinking a second thought about, much less worrying about how to write in such a way as to please them. You have a story to tell, and you have to tell it your way. To let readers compromise that with some theoretical easily-transgressed-against sense of propriety is to do yourself and your other readers a disservice.

 

Now if you're interested in making money from your story, other rules may apply.  :P

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I would like to know from the various authors: How do you handle it? How do you present it? How do you make it a part of the plot without appearing to endorse it?

 

I think the trick is not to dwell on the prurient parts of the ugly topic, but at the same time not shy away from the reality of the situation. I've had scenes with non-consensual sex, teenage drinking, drug use, blackmailers, incest, assaults, murders, and child molestation spread across five different novels (sounds like a typical week on Maury Povich's U.S. talk show). In all cases, I made sure the perpetrator was punished, the victim ultimately triumphs, and in one case the child molester was killed in a grisly but just manner.

 

In my case, I chose not to linger on the really ugly details, and in the case of the child molesting, it all happens off-camera and we only begin thinking about it through various clues, eventually winding up with a violent confrontation (between stepfather and son). I think there's a way to do it that's dramatic but not sensational, realistic but not sordid, and entertaining but not repelling. And I never take the side of the criminal -- I'm always against what they do and am firmly on the side of the victim.

 

There have been some interesting literary stories which follow murderers and other criminals and make them the primary focus of the story, to the point where you actually empathize with them... to a point. I've written stories where the lead characters commit very small crimes, or if they engage in bigger crimes, it's because they're confronted with monstrous evil that gives them no other choice. I think there's a way to study the balance of good and evil, present both sides, engage the reader, but see that justice prevails in some way. But I'd also defend any writers' creative right to go down a different path. Maybe the story of a criminal told solely from his or her point of view, could be done in an interesting way. But it's not something that I'm drawn to trying to write.

Edited by The Pecman
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Have any of you read any of Chelsea Cain's stuff? She has an ongoing series about a beautiful psychotic serial murderer named Gretchen Lowell. Her debut novel is arguably her best. Entitled Heartsick, it's such an intense swim in completely dark waters that it's utterly compelling. Far from protecting the reader from ugliness, she actually pushes the reader's face into it. The result is that the reader--this one, anyway--feels as though he's being squeezed to death in a giant vise grip while simulateously being pounded with a sledgehammer.

 

In a good way. :P

 

To some extent, goodness prevails, and the positive virtues are extolled. But what stays with you is the book's portrait of mind-numbing sadism and darkest evil. And there's not a supernatural note to it. And it's all the more disturbing because we all know that there are people out there among us who are like Gretchen Lowell.

 

I recommend the book to anyone who thinks they can stomach it and who luxuriates in good writing, even when the bath it has you bathe in is filled with blood.

Edited by Adam Phillips
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Personally, I just try not to make it seem gratuitous. I have yet to shy away from a topic when it feels right to put it in my narrative, but I do try to handle it with tact. Often, in the case of rape or abuse, I'll focus more on my character's reaction rather than the graphic detail of what's happening. Sometimes I'll fade to black and then explain what happened through retrospective conversation or internal monologue.  Traumatic experiences can be described through the shock of the character, as something far away while the character stares at a spec on the wall or their own hands. There are so many ways of addressing an ugly topic that doesn't involve trying to shock your audience with graphic descriptions (not that that can't be right sometimes too), and oftentimes in the end it ends up being far more effective. 

 

Of course, while there are no content warnings on published books, beyond what you include in the blurb, it doesn't hurt to tag an online work appropriately when dealing with difficult or potentially triggering topics. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Have any of you read any of Chelsea Cain's stuff? She has an ongoing series about a beautiful psychotic serial murderer named Gretchen Lowell. Her debut novel is arguably her best. Entitled Heartsick, it's such an intense swim in completely dark waters that it's utterly compelling. Far from protecting the reader from ugliness, she actually pushes the reader's face into it. The result is that the reader--this one, anyway--feels as though he's being squeezed to death in a giant vise grip while simulateously being pounded with a sledgehammer.

 

In a good way. :P

 

To some extent, goodness prevails, and the positive virtues are extolled. But what stays with you is the book's portrait of mind-numbing sadism and darkest evil. And there's not a supernatural note to it. And it's all the more disturbing because we all know that there are people out there among us who are like Gretchen Lowell.

 

I recommend the book to anyone who thinks they can stomach it and who luxuriates in good writing, even when the bath it has you bathe in is filled with blood.

 

 

Dropping in to high five a fellow Chelsea Cain reader.   I love that book and have enjoyed the series thus far as well :D

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