Cursing, Sex & Violence

 This is one of Those Posts. A post by association. A post sparked by other posts on both sides of a philosophical chasm: a schism that divides Authors Who Use Expletives from Those Who Disapprove. It’s also a post likely to be filled with capital letters, as I am feeling the need to Express Myself in Titles. I could also call this A Few Choice Words About Choice Words, or, What the Fuck, Over?

Oh, my stars and garters! Look at what I did, there. I used an expletive, right out in the open, without hardly any warning. Somewhere a reader is reaching for smelling salts. Feeling a little green around the gills. Sighing in disappointment over my uncouth, ignorant word choice. Preparing an internet rant about Youth Today or the Certain Downfall of Civilization As We Know It.

#SorryNotSorry. That’s the meme shorthand for my response to that reader’s reaction. Keep away from my stories, that’s all I can say. If one little f-bomb causes such dismay, then descriptions of rape, torture, and consensual sex might cause heart palpitations. Those topics inevitably come up in discussions about expletives. It’s the slippery slope of writing. First there’s cussing, then there’s fucking, then it’s Murdertown USA.

I’m a reader as well as a writer.  I understand the shock of crashing hard into elements that disgust or offend. I’ve felt it. Certain things offend me. Others repel me. Difference is, I don’t hold the Art or the Artist at fault for that shock. I reserve the right to judge it for those qualities, and I respect the right of any reader to dismiss my work on point. I reject utterly the idea that there’s an inherent fault to presenting those elements for consumption.

There’s a movement growing, to label books the way visual narratives like television and video games are. I see the value in disclaimers that parents might feel a story is unsuitable for children of a certain age, trigger bad reactions in trauma victims, or alarm those with certain cultural sensibilities. The movement wants to go much further than that. People need to know what to avoid. Potential readers need to know everything.  That’s the idea.

It could be done. There are existing conventions that could be more broadly adopted. Fan fiction has a working system of category and content labels that alert people to uncomfortable topics. Most online sales venues already provide rudimentary genre categorizations, allow for flagging for “Adult Content,” and for assigning age ranges. Those systems could certainly be expanded and their use made mandatory.

The complexity of prose makes such labels an awkward fit at best, and absurd at worst. The fan-fiction labeling system is tremendously unwieldy. It also developed within a community of shared assumptions and collective experience that does not transfer to the wider world. Retail divisions of genre already fail every test of descriptive  inclusiveness. Age ranges and minimums are fundamentally restrictive and arbitrary. To adequately address all possible issues, many books would need such comprehensive checklists of plot elements and character behaviors that they might as well have the header SPOILER ALERT written across the top.

Is a bad system better than no system? Hardly ever. I am a data junkie, so I’m all about informed consumption. I still think it’s unwise to expect labels to give more than a general warning. A proper vector for transmitting relevant information about a book’s content already exists: recommendations reviews,  product descriptions, and a sampling of the text. Informed readers inform themselves.

I don’t pull punches in my product descriptions. My books are marketed to adults, and they contain nothing more graphic than can be found on any premium cable channel during prime time. My choices in language, in descriptive wording and depth of detail — they’re within the bounds of the norm–and yet. And yet. I’m sure I’ve shocked and disturbed a few. As I grow and push my limits as a writer I am quite certain I’ll disturb more. (Why yes, since you haven’t asked–I am exploring the realm of explicit erotic writing. Why? Why not? It’s relevant to a  specific story. It’s human. And hell, yes, it’s fun.)

“I wish someone had warned me” is a valid emotional reaction to an unpleasant shock. “Someone oughta warn people,” does not necessarily follow like night after day.  Once the discussion descends to, “This kind of thing doesn’t belong in this kind of work, and it should be branded as unsuitable for X audience,” then the cause is lost. Reason has left the building.

 There is no singular solution for this issue. Here’s another handy meme shorthand: #YMMV. Your Mileage May Vary. Those who expect absolute adherence to any guideline, those who make sweeping declarations about propriety, those who insist on The One Right An Proper Way–they are dangerous. Beware those who state unequivocally that sex, violence or bad language should be employed in any one way, from explicit to absent. Beware those who believe that a label should do the job of informed research. Better yet, be brave and tell them they’re wrong. Seriously. Wrong.

Regular and exhaustive self-evaluation is a critical skill for any creator. Everyone makes assumptions. We all have biases. I have ask myself a lot of questions, and I ask them over and over, because I am not the person today I was a year ago, and in a day, a month, a decade, I will change again. That’s the human condition.

Should I be using expletives  in my literary work? Should I write about sex? Rape? Murder? Is explicit description and harsh language the literary equivalent of spitting on the floor indoors? Is it a zest for realism or intellectual laziness? Is it like burning the bottom of a pot of custard–where one hint of char ruins the whole batch? Or is it more like using fresh herbs instead of dry in a recipe–a choice resulting in sharper, deeper flavors? Is it principle or preference? 

Yeah, I ask a lot of questions. Here’s the answer to these.  Shit, yes, I will write about tits and dicks and flesh fucking–and about how hatred and pain can eat someone alive, about hands pulling out guts by the foot and what skin sounds like, being ripped from the muscle beneath. That’s what I do. I put life into words, and those are all real words. Real experiences.

This is one of those perennial arguments that can have no winners, only losers. Everyone’s threshold for offense is different. I do not set out to offend, when I write, but I accept that I inevitably will do so. That makes my writing neither better nor worse. It only means the art is alive.

To end on a cheery note, here is dancing baby Groot. You’re welcome.

I don’t need another hero

I started thinking about the main characters of my assorted works recently, after reading a couple of posts elsewhere concerning Mary Sue wish fulfillment characters and the social impact of protagonists in stories. I want to make the this post a useful one, full of thoughtful points about creating interesting, engaging characters, but this is a personal space for me. I’ll splat out my thoughts out willy-nilly. How useful they are as Professional Advice — that part I will leave up to you, the reader.

The principal character in a fictional narrative is its protagonist. The nature, the soul, the character, so to speak, of that main character are irrelevant.  Most lines? Most page time? Most relevance to the plot? Protagonist. They can be heroines,* antiheroes or even villains. Many of the best protagonists who tread along the knife’s edge between classifications. Maleficent? Vindictive kidnapper and destructive hater, loving foster mother. Thomas Covenant? Rapist, coward, savior of the world. When all is said and done, however, traditional heroines are by far the most popular genre protagonists.

What make a heroine heroic? The list of positive traits is tl;dr, but here’s a short sampling: strong, swift, beautiful, brave, confident, caring, loyal, devout, and determined. Pick any three of those traits, and a protagonist might as well also carry a sign that says “I can haz heroism.” (Yes, I spend too much time surfing Lolcats. Deal with it.) When it comes to wish-fulfillment–for the reader, if not the author–who wouldn’t want to be a heroine?

Perfection gets boring, so writers often hang disadvantages on their heroic protagonists, to “make them more human.” Here’s where things gets uncomfortable for me. Like an applicant at a job interview, a lot of writing takes other heroic traits and spins them as weaknesses. Determination is stubbornness. Beauty is coupled with vanity, confidence with arrogance, etc. It feels like cheating, to me.

I like my protagonists truly broken. Look at this list: a bossy administrative assistant with zero ambition. A bullied, timid child of the underclass who cannot organize a sock drawer. An arrogant intellectual who’s losing his mind. A feckless genius who’s too intellectually lazy to find a job until one falls into his lap. A couple of marginally stable violence-addicts. The closest to traditional heroes I’ve ever created are a pair of dedicated law enforcement agents–and they’re dedicated to upholding the rule of  an intrusive, suppressive government.

I’m even less comfortable with the way heroic protagonists in a lot of current genre fiction act in ways that would be criminal if they lived in the real world.  Backstabbing, bullying, abuse, torture, and murder are all condoned as long as the victim is a bad guy. All’s fair in love and war is a common heroic trope. It’s also a dangerous one. It perturbs me deeply.

Protagonists should never be given a pass on morality simply because they wear the mantle of heroism. The popularity of this trend is terrifying when you consider how narrative stories shape our perspectives on the real world. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Evil is not a simple thing. Breaking the system to save it doesn’t work.  I think that if a writer decides to create a heroic protagonist, then the heroine should act like one. When faced with moral choices, she may stumble and err during the course of her journey, but in the end, she should do the right thing.

If that idea does not appeal, remember that heroism isn’t necessary to creating a great story. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were international bestsellers. Thomas is an antihero to the core. (I loathed those books, if anyone cares, and several friends regularly wax poetic on their disgust for the character. To which I point out, there’s fiction for everyone.)

I don’t write heroes. All my protagonists are riddled with real imperfections. Some of their actions are decidedly unheroic. A lot of them do bad things. On review,  I’m relieved to note that I also deliver personal, permanent consequences. None of my protagonists commit violence without emotional scarring, and if they escape prosecution or social condemnation, it’s through realistic means. People with financial clout, political influence and powerful allies seldom see the inside of a courtroom, no matter how heinous their acts.  (I didn’t plan it that way. Thank you, subconscious, for having my back, hypocrisy-wise. Lesson learned.)

Every so often when writing, it’s worth asking,  are my protagonists heroic? Are they behaving like heroes? Those two questions probably should be asked before embarking on any story. They absolutely will be answered before every story is finished, whether it’s done consciously or not. The images and associations that travel along with heroism are not neutral. If a heroine does things that are illegal, unethical, and immoral, there should be consequences. Think it through. Your stories will be more powerful for the analysis.

*Yeah, I did that gendering thing. There’s a reason. If the conceit irritates you, I suggest you examine the reason that considering heroes feminine rubs you wrong.