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Are Sensitive Topics Worth The Risk

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Nihilium 7th, Nov 3, 2013.

  1. Nihilium 7th

    Nihilium 7th Sage

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    Elements such as race, sexuality, morality and religion are rarely found in fantasy stories; but when they are, they are displayed in generic or "lets not go too far" ways. Do you guys think that injecting controversial elements into a story is worth the risk of turning off timid readers?
     
  2. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

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    It depends on the story and the writer.

    With that said, however, fantasy and sci-fi are great places to put those sort of controversies, because the fiction allows the issue to be removed from the real world. 1984 is, after all, science fiction.

    And with that said, it's much more effective to slip the issue in subtly, not bash the reader over the head with it. If they get the idea you're preaching to them, they'll put it down. If you're sneaky, they may not even realize the moral you're telling them.

    However, it's up to each individual writer to decide if they're willing to take the risk.
     
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  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    From a marketing/sales perspective, it depends. The more you segment yourself into a niche, the higher you need to saturate that niche in order to achieve the same level of sales. So from that perspective, if you're going to cover a topic in a way that turns off readers, you need to do so in a way that touches all the right buttons for the people who like your perspective on the subject to share it and make up for the lost readers. If you're going to lose some readers by covering the topic, ideally you want to gain some others in return.

    That's not as easy as it sounds. It's easy to delve into a topic in ways that just turn people off. You can't just walk into a movie theater and scream "EVERYONE! HEAR ME TALK ABOUT RACE!" Sometimes that's how it comes across.

    Of course, you can cover a topic in ways that don't turn off a significant number of readers, and still make the same points. It's just more subtle.
     
  4. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason authors avoid those issues is because it's hard to portray them in any way without offending somebody out there. For example, we've all heard social justice writers advocating for more "people of color" characters (i.e. non-Europeans) in fantasy literature and movies. However, once those PoC characters get written, you have another set of social justice writers (or sometimes even the same ones) tearing their characterization apart in search of potentially offensive stereotypes. It can become a "damned if you don't, damned if you do" situation.

    And then you have writers and artists with progressive intentions who nonetheless get charged with the oppressive beliefs they actually oppose. If someone were to romantically pair up a white male character with a black woman, he might get accused of "racial fetishism" (especially if said writer were a white male himself) even if his real motivation was to portray interracial relationships in a positive light. One man's anti-racism is another man's racism, apparently.
     
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  5. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    If the story you want to tell involves those topics, the greater risk would be to soften or dance around the issues.

    Imagine if Harper Lee decided that the ugliness of racism should be only hinted at in "To Kill a Mockingbird". What about "Huck Finn", or more recently, Stockett's "The Help"?

    "The Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye was extremely popular, and dealt with modern Christianity beliefs on the Revelations and the rapture. Then there's the more recent work by Young... "The Shack" was a best seller.

    My point is, write the story you want to tell. Write for someone like you, someone who will like that story. If you write for the world, no one will find it more than average. Exceptional art will offend some people, there's no getting around that fact. Pushing barriers and challenging thinking though can take your story from entertainment to art. Question is, are you brave enough?
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2013
  6. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    Depends. If that's the story you want to tell, then yes. I think doing it just to be controversial, though, is a bad idea.
     
  7. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    I think this is a very big reason. Another is that in fantasy we're often portraying different species (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) interacting. Maybe some writers think that's safer territory. It's not like you have to worry about angering the Uruk Hai Anti-defamation League.

    One of the stories I'm working on right now has several characters of non-white race, not because I feel obligated to but because I thought the characters were cool and used them. I go about writing them the same as I do any other character. If it offends someone, oh-flippin'-well. I don't worry about it any more than I worry about someone thinking I'm sexist in my portrayal of female characters.
     
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  8. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    We write urban fantasy and we ask a lot of very hard questions and explore many themes that would be considered controversial - themes of sexuality, substance abuse, childhood sexual abuse, rape, questioning good and evil, atonement and redemption, the value of human life, some multi-racial characters, and what makes a family. We don't raise these issues to tell a moral story (frankly morality tales make me gag); we raise them because these are issues that happen to normal people, every day, and we want our characters to be as rich and realistic as possible while they deal with both their inner and outer demons. We ask these questions because they are issues that are most often kept in the dark, and they need to be talked about in the light of day. What we don't do is answer them, because our characters, like us, like everyone else, simply don't have all the answers. We put it all out on the table and leave it up to both the reader and our unreliable characters to sort out for themselves.
     
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  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't think they're rare, exactly, and I disagree with the statement that when they are addressed it is always in superficial ways. There is a lot more to fantasy literature than you (the OP) seem to realize, which suggests that maybe you self-select for this sort of work.

    Storm Constantine deals extensively gender and sexuality in her Wraeththu books.

    Read any of Angela Carter's fantasy works.

    Ursula K. LeGuin's Annals of the Western Shore deals with race.

    Octavia Butler is usually associated with science fiction, but some of her work is fantasy. Fledgling and Kindred both deal with race.

    See also Nalo Hopkinson.

    And look at Sherri S. Tepper, who tackles gender and religion issues.

    For others who deal with religion, there are C.S. Lewis (of course), and Philip Pullman on the other side of things.

    That's just off the top of my head. If I dig through my library I could come up with a lot more examples, and by looking online you'd find even more.

    As for asking whether it is worth the risk, that's something that I hope not too many artists ask. Illuminating these aspects of the human experience is part of what art does. A writer shouldn't take the easy way out for fear of offending someone.
     
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  10. Perhaps the "show and don't tell" approach is the way to go. You could deal with such issues subtely, like disguise them under a thread of the story. It's been happening since ancient times; one Greek writer wrote a story about frogs which was actually a political tract. That's one way to do it, if you feel it's too risky to write about sensitive issues overtly.
     
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  11. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'm hoping to get a good opportunity to show off some of the racism in my setting at some point.
    The elves in my world arrived there from a different plane of existence. They've been on the planet longer than anyone else can remember, but it's still common knowledge they're not from here. They're outsiders.
    It's that simple: "they're not from here", "they don't belong", "they're mean and evil", "they take our jobs".

    I'm thinking it'll be interesting to explore that aspect a bit to see what it turns out like. It's my impression that elves are often held as some kind of superior beings. Humans may not always approve of them, but they're often held in some kind of respect. I believe that the average reader will have an image of elves similar to that. I'm curious to see what would come of combining that with the elves being the target of racism from the other races.

    [disclaimer]: I'm sure it's been done before, but I want to give it a go and put my own spin on it.
     
  12. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

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    Exactly.

    I haven't read all of the authors you mention, but I do know that these issues have been dealt with. Perhaps because they were dealt with subtly rather than with the beating-over-the-head method is why they got missed.
     
  13. saellys

    saellys Inkling

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    Yes, producing a story that deviates from "white straight cis men save the world yet again" is always worth the risk.

    The real question is whether you, the author, think it's worth the work. You have to be able to consider all the angles of an issue you're trying to portray in your story. You have to be able to present characters who face challenges that may be related to their race, sexuality, morality, and/or religion, but who aren't defined solely by those aspects. Representing sensitive topics in a way that rings true to the reader (who might have firsthand experience where you do not) requires work, so don't ask whether your readers are timid--ask whether you are.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2013
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  14. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    In light of that: even if a character is a blue, asexual, female, it may still fit the role of the straight, white, male if she behaves and is treated like it.
     
  15. saellys

    saellys Inkling

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    As in, if the most dominant/abundant type of people in your fantasy world are blue asexual women? Yup, there are stories to be told of power dynamics and privilege in that world. A potential for satire, even, by virtue of the fact that it would stand out to the reader as being a departure from the norm. It still requires a steady hand and a lot of work.
     
  16. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    That could of course happen too. I was more thinking of a badly characterized character. She's made different for the sake of looking different, but the author just runs her like your regular average SWM hero.

    Edit: What I'm getting it as that you have to understand the issues a non-standard character faces in order to portray them in a believable way.
     
  17. saellys

    saellys Inkling

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    Gotcha! We're on the same page.

    SWM heroes usually fall flat for me for the same reason--they don't have any other challenges or motivations apart from the A-plot. Take Pacific Rim (which seems to be my go-to example these days, but for good reason--there are a lot of characters to draw from): Raleigh Becket's character development happens in the first ten minutes of the film and that's basically it. Mako Mori actually gets a hero's journey. Even Herc and Chuck Hansen, stereotypical action film white guy heroes if ever any existed, have more going on than the film's POV character.

    Every character needs motivation beyond "Put this magic ring in a volcano" or "Kill the serpent-wizard who murdered my mom". Likewise, they need motivation beyond "I'm a woman in a knee-jerk misogynistic world" or "I'm gay and my culture is homophobic." Those are real issues, but they don't define women and gay people.
     
  18. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    I used to be baffled by the people who thought that "social justice" readers would be offended by their stories. Then I tried reading some. As a general rule, they fall into two categories:

    1): Forcing people who look or act a certain way into a specific role from which they're not allowed to deviate.

    2): Putting people who look or act a certain way on such a high pedestal they're no longer recognizable and relatable.

    I can promise you that if you write minority members as people with their own personalities and motivations, and you don't force them into a rigid box or cut away all their flaws, you won't get complaints from the people who're numerous enough to actually matter in book sales. (Well, you might get complaints if you seriously screw up your research on a culture, but you'll still get defenders for at least making the attempt.)

    On subjects like religion, I find C.S. Lewis to be a good model. I don't agree with a lot of his ideas, but he never outright caricatured other views--he presented flaws in certain ways of thinking, and he naturally and believably showed the consequences of those flaws. I may not be a fan, but he never pissed me off the way Nathaniel Hawthorne did, because he at least played fair.
     
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  19. Alexandra

    Alexandra Closed Account

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    Grand Theft Auto 5 is poised to outsell the entire global music industry, or already has. "So what" you might ask, "what has that to do with fantasy writing?" Plenty. A good story is essential to video games such as GTA5, Skyrim, Assassins Creed... any rpg or adventure game. The GTA franchise was notorious for its controversy and that controversy has done the franchise no harm.

    If controversy concerns anyone just wait for a publisher like Harlequin to provide software for their writers where in which you just fill in the blanks and the program does the rest. Safe, formulaic, only mildly controversial at best, saleable (perhaps), crap.

    Don't become a timid writer because of timid readers. No guts no glory.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Also, see my signature :D
     
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