Short blog today, but I’m wondering, how do you draw the limits of how far you push the boundaries in your writing? Do you decide the limits based solely on your characters? Or does the genre / potential audience affect your choices? How, then, do you define gratuitous?
I wonder about this, because I think we’re seeing a change in what’s expected and acceptable in fiction, and simultaneously, we’re also writing for a culture which has become more politically aware, which has narrowed down the definitions of what’s acceptable. There are writers I know (some who comment here regularly) who’ve gotten nasty emails due to language. (Something I thoroughly expected to happen with Bobbie Faye, but which didn’t… and I wonder if that’s because I have other characters reprimand her already?) We see more and more thriller writers including sex scenes (or more descriptive sex scenes instead of merely the suggestion of sex), more detailed crime scene descriptions, and, I think, more elaborate descriptions of violence in the moment instead of just the lead up to and then the repercussions of. I know writers who wouldn’t hesitate to use curse words, but who shy completely away from certain word choices / epithets because they are no longer acceptable by society… even though their character, in that world, would have used them. The writer’s worried about offending a segment of society, (i.e., potential readers), whether they admit to the concern or not.
Trends in fiction are not new, of course, but we cannot ignore the fact that TV, film, and video games (Warcraft, Halo, etc.) have affected what’s now acceptable… or at least, tolerated. There’s a divide, though, between those who grew up with the video world on 24/7 and those who grew up before. When I googled readers median ages, there were several studies which suggested a median age anywhere from 35.8 for one study to 45.3 for another. I look at the generation of the 20-year-olds and the iPods and iPhones and constant community-gaming scenarios (playing Halo with a guy in Japan, another in DC, another in Australia, for example) and I think… that generation doesn’t just accept more violence / directness / explicit language or scenarios… they expect them, and are bored without them. So… if readership is declining, is it because we’re failing the younger reader? Failing to keep up with what they demand from story? And if we aim at that group, do we do so knowing we’ll alienate an older—and more likely to read right now—audience?
It’s a slippery slope, I’ll grant you. If we start writing to an audience, we’re going to prostitute story. Prostitute ourselves in the pursuit of story. Or… aren’t we, already? Because the slippery slope / prostitution theory depends on the a priori notion that adherence to character, being true to the creation and only that, should drive the story. Which begs the questions, who created the character to be true to in the first place and didn’t we tailor the character from his or her inception?
I think about limits when I’m writing because I don’t want to shy away from challenges. I chose to write a character who breaks rules, who says what she thinks, who pushes the limits of acceptable behavior, but I did so within a caper genre, which allows me to poke fun at her at the same time. I know some who refuse to have any character curse, for example, but I find it hard to believe that no one in their world curses, not even the villains. Other writers avoid sexual tension and descriptions, when sex (having, not having, wanting, desire, lust, love) is a big part of our world. That writer, though, has a limit, they’ve made choices, and maybe it’s due to genre, maybe it’s due to their audience. There is a famous author I respect tremendously whose audience is firmly anti-cursing, anti-taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain. She sells well, and I like her—we’ve become friends, and I love her books, though they are so different from my own. I respect her choices, because it works for her audience… but it doesn’t work in my world. We’ve each set limits based both on character and story… and genre.
How about you? How do you set your limits? Do you actively push across a line, pushing what’s “acceptable” or do you rein in? If you’re not a writer, what book shocked you in it’s breaking-of-limits, and did you love it or hate it?