Polarizing Premises in Fiction—Should Writers (And Readers) Go There?

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Stephen King. In his book, On Writing, he encourages writers to write without worrying what others will think. He says as soon as we censor ourselves, we’re not writing honestly. He warns:

“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”—Stephen King, On Writing

(Original image from Bing search, free to modify, share, and use)

(Original image Bing search; free to modify, share, and use)

I tried to abide by those words while writing Eating Bull. When you have a nurse who sues the food industry and a serial killer who murders overweight people, you kind of have to. As soon as I’d think, “Oh no, you can’t do that,” I’d remember King’s words. And then I’d write it.

Of course, most authors have limits to how far they’ll go. But those limits will differ from one writer to the next. That’s the beauty of creating. Each writer must find his or her own boundaries and work within them, though those boundaries might shift over time.

Which leads to another quote I recently discovered:

“Don’t be afraid to put yourself and your writing out there. Take colossal risks. The publishing world rewards bravery.”—Brandy Vallence, author of The Covered Deep

braveheart-3

(Original image Bing search; free to modify, share, and use)

Though I have minimal experience with the rewarding part, that quote made me feel better about my own discomfiting topic. My first goal with Eating Bull was to entertain readers with a story. My second goal was to get a reaction out of them and make them think. As Sue, the public health nurse in my book, says: “a wimpy approach nets wimpy results.”

As for readers, they have boundaries too, boundaries that help decide what to read and what not to.

But there are a few things they must keep in mind:

1. The author is not the narrator. In an intimate first-person or third-person limited narrative, the character is the narrator. As such, the thoughts and actions reflect the character, not the author. In fact, the author’s opinion might be the complete opposite. People read fiction for the characters. They want to know what the characters think and what they feel. So that’s what we give them. And the greater the number of point-of-view characters, the greater the number of insights. That being said, it’s probably unlikely we can ever completely separate the two.

2. If you know the author, pretend you don’t. I read a lot of novels written by social media friends, but when I crack open their books, I try to remove the author from my mind (sorry, guys). Why? Because I know they’ve created characters who have their own thoughts and feelings, and that’s how they want them to be read. Such is the power of imagination. Such is the joy of writing.

3. The more controversial the characters or topic, the more reaction they’ll cause. Recently I read an excellent blog post by author Lisa Henderson touching on this subject (Is Art a Realm of Love and Hate?). Henderson mentions “the more original art is, the more polarizing it is likely to be.” Continuing on with this notion, fellow blogger, Smak, left a comment on one of my recent posts that said, “…if you want your book to do more than entertain…then you may have to make people uncomfortable.”

I agree with both of these statements. Polarizing topics might unleash a variety of opinions and emotions, and as authors, we need to be aware of this.

Which means we’ll also need to thicken our skin in the process.

Any thoughts on the subject? Do we stifle originality if we put limits on writing (or film-making, or art of any kind)? Can you separate creator from product?

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Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of The Seneca Scourge and the upcoming Eating Bull. For full bio, click here.

243 Responses to “Polarizing Premises in Fiction—Should Writers (And Readers) Go There?”

  1. Kourtney Heintz

    I think it’s hard to separate the creator from the art. I love all my characters and there’s a speck of me in each of them. I might not ever do what my characters do or say what they say, but some piece of them came from me. Some of my readers tend to want to know what in the story came from my life. They really seem to like to see the reality that trickles into my fiction. I love losing myself in someone else’s story. Having a personal connection to an author can either sweeten or sour me on a book depending on how the interaction goes. 🙂

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  2. earthriderjudyberman

    Yes, you want to avoid bland. So I have no problem with Stephen King’s philosophy and I love his “On Writing” book.

    Truman Capote also believed you should not blame an author for what a character says. Where I part company with Capote is he believed he had the write to write whatever he wanted about people – even if it was hurtful. That philosophy got him in trouble with his friends when they recognized themselves in one of his ‘fiction’ books.

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  3. Kate Johnston

    I absolutely agree with you. Even if a book is purely entertainment, an author still has to test boundaries if he/she wants that book to be memorable. As you know, this was one of the big reasons I was so drawn to your book, because you didn’t hold back and you gave it to us dead straight.

    I especially like your point about the author not being the narrator — I think that’s where many readers slip up in their interpretations. They forget that characters take the lead in books, and the things they say are beyond an author’s control (assuming the author is willing to let the characters take the lead, of course).

    Great post!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I suppose somewhere the author is always there–of course, how could he or she not be?–but I think as readers it’s much more fun to forget about the author and just get into the characters. Thanks, Kate!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. L. Marie

    I can’t help thinking of Chuck Palahniuk’s books. That’s his trademark.
    Yes, I can separate the author from his or her work. A friend is writing a very polarizing book. But that’s what inspires her to write.
    Books make us think and often prompt good discussions.

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  5. Rhoda Baxter

    Interesting point about separating the author from the characters. Weirdly, people don’t.
    My characters don’t hold my views, because they aren’t me. Often two characters will hold entirely different views on the same topic.
    That said, I write romance and there’s a limit to how far you can push some things within the genre. So far I’ve managed to write about sexism, workplace bullying and mental illness in the background to the romance element. The book I just sent in is about pro-choice / pro-life (with characters who support either side). I suspect I’m going to have to edit that a fair bit before it gets published…if it gets published.
    Still, how do you find where the limits are, if you don’t push against them?

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I like that you’ve added these themes to your romance writing. Gives more depth to the story, I think. And I agree–if we don’t push the limits, how will we know what they are? Great point.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. frederick anderson

    We have to concede a little to social mores, and there are issues that disrupt the creative process when we are trying to obtain a distillation of a character without giving offense. Whether we like it or not, we are subject to certain rules. The easiest one to pick upon, I guess, is relationship. The relationship between partners, particularly, is subject to many conditions and preconditions: what is acceptable to one may not comply with the moral code of the other, a habit of one partner may irritate the other profoundly, but in these days of minimalist writing, we can’t portray them all. And there are some we shouldn’t portray, even if we have a space. Difficult subject – and complex!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      It seems boundaries are pushed pretty far in the art world. I suppose as soon as we tell someone they can’t do something due to social norms, they’ll turn around and do it. Kind of like kids that way. 😉

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  7. Lucky Wreck

    I really like that quote about bravery. I need to remember that. One reason I don’t post as often as I feel I should, or try to publish anything is because I am constantly editing myself and second guessing myself. I love how honest you are about your feelings about writing ‘Eating Bull’. I feel inspired by that 🙂

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. Nice to hear. 🙂 The second guessing can be crippling, can’t it? Hopefully it gets less frequent as we go on. But I suppose a small degree of it comes in handy. Keeps us in check.

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  8. Nicole Roder

    Completely agree, Carrie! My WIP has some characters with some pretty extreme political positions. My goal is to be true to my characters without pushing my own opinions on them. Sometimes I’m a little worried that people will be angry with me when they read it, but I have to let the characters be honest.

    I agree that the first goal should be to entertain as well!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s a perfect example of an author not being the character–writing a character on the opposite side of the political spectrum. The writer might not agree at all with the character’s beliefs and that’s okay. What matters is that the character is convincing. I guess if people get angry at you, you know you’ve done your job well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. HonieBriggs

    Well, there’s something for Big Pharma to get crackin’ on, a skin thickening pill. You know, for when the time is right to read.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I don’t like taking medications of any kind, but that might be one I’d have to consider, especially after bad book reviews. 😉

      Like

  10. Sue Archer

    Back when I was taking Literary Theory in university, we heard about all the different philosophical approaches to understanding a text. One of them was to analyze the text through the lens of the author’s life. I remember my professor at the time saying that this was a formerly popular approach that was now out of favour. And yet people still do it. 🙂

    I find I have no issue separating the author from the work, but I’ve also never had trouble suspending my disbelief and immersing myself completely in a story. I wonder if there’s a relationship there, and if people who enjoy fiction that is far removed from “real life” (like fantasy) have less trouble separating the work from the author? Food for thought… 🙂

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    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s a great point. I can easily suspend disbelief too, as long as it’s believable in the frame of the story. Maybe there is a correlation. Thanks for the food for thought. As for analyzing text through the lens of the author’s life, I’m glad that’s falling out of favor. Certainly the author weighs in, but sometimes we write about things we have no experience in. Like serial killing. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Amy Reese

    How did I miss your post? I apologize, Carrie!! I’m a firm believer of risk taking. Why not? What do you have to lose anyway with all the books that are out there? I don’t mind get stirred up when I read. That’s the fun part, because I know it’s a book, I know it’s fiction, AND like you say here, these are characters and not the author! Too many people forget that last bit. Great post.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      “What do you have to lose anyway with all the books that are out there?”—What a great point. I like that. I’m going to tuck it in my mind when I start to question my stuff.

      Please, no worries about the post. We can’t read and comment on every blog post out there. If we did, we’d never leave our computers! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amy Reese

        I say go for it as far as the writing goes! Don’t let doubt talk you out of it. I always enjoy your posts and look for them. Lately, I’ve been missing quite a few. I’m currently cleaning out my email. It’s out of control, Carrie.

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        • Carrie Rubin

          I know the feeling. I try to get to everybody’s posts, but I can’t always get to them all. I barely make it to my own blog–I only post once a week to every other week. Pretty soon it will be monthly, then bi-monthly, then…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Amy Reese

            I know the feeling, Carrie. I don’t know how people post everyday. I can barely manage what I do and it always feels inadequate! I think we just have to do what feels right. We’re all juggling and trying to find balance. I’ve come to believe that less is more. 🙂

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  12. Marti

    Very topical subject that goes beyond book writing.

    My cartoons are hardly controversial, but sometimes I touch on the occasional hot spot. I am always conscious of this, but even more so now after the Charlie Hebdo incident.

    When that occurred, it shattered the cartooning fraternity here. Some remained staunch, but you could tell others hesitated. I wonder if it stopped them from publishing works they would have normally

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Oh yes, cartoonists definitely face this. Maybe even more so because cartoons are short and get right to the point. No chance of the message getting forgotten among lots of text like a book has.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Problems With Infinity

    I pretty much agree with what you said. I mean I like the kind of balls out, everything on the table style of writing- but more importantly being true to the character is more important. Like if it’s a memoir, then I want it to be full on brutal honesty. But in fiction if the main character is reserved, or wimpy or whatever- then that’s ok as long as the author stays true to this and the story itself is good…

    Also I loved that book by Stephen King- it’s pretty much his only work I can read without dying a little inside!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Ha, yes that King book is a good one. And without the creep factor. His wit shines throughout it too.

      I’m with you–no holding back as long as it makes sense for the story. That doesn’t mean we have to be gratuitous, but we shouldn’t leave things out just because we’re worried about what others will think.

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  14. Britt Skrabanek

    Awesome advice, hon. Writing is the one place in life where I just let it all out. A close second for this kind of self-expression would be dancing, except it’s still not the same. The body has its limitations, but the mind has infinite possibilities. Also to share dance means performing in front of an audience, and even though that audience is dark and you try to block out the presence of humans, you know they’re right there. When we write, nobody is watching us (except pets maybe).

    Amen on #2 up there! I do the same when I read my fellow authors’ work out of respect for the story. I imagine you’ve heard this too, but I’ve had family members and friends attempt to read my books and all they can think about is that I wrote it. Then, they can’t get into it at all.

    I don’t think my mom (the ultimate bookworm) has finished any of my books. 😉

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, I think it’s hard for family members to separate us from the story. I’m sure they’re wondering if we’ve actually done or said some of the things we put in there. I suspect my family’s eyes will grow wide with my latest book–profanity and some graphic violence. They might just disown me. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Dan Alatorre AUTHOR

    I think you pretty much nailed it. If two characters are written by the same author and they have a disagreement, which one is the author? Maybe both, maybe neither. I like to use real people to build my characters around, but in one story the MC was me at 21, the dad was me at 40, the witty friend was me as I’d like to be… almost all the characters were different sides of me! And no, I’m not on medication.

    Some stuff is crap that’s written just to get eyeballs, but it doesn’t hold up.

    Great writing pushes limits. The rules are a big fat wall designed to keep things safe.

    Great writing isn’t safe

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Exactly. Well said. Sometimes we might base some of our characters’ traits on ourselves, other times the character is our polar opposite. That’s what makes creating characters fun.

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  16. D. Wallace Peach

    Great post, Carrie. I think we MUST be true to our characters and stories. It’s a fact that we won’t satisfy every reader. There’s just no way, so it’s ridiculous to even try. I think our duty must be to the validity of our stories and to the techniques of our craft. Our readership will find us if we’ve told an artful tale.

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  17. BunKaryudo

    I thought the point about separating the author from the narrator was particularly interesting. I can imagine that some people don’t, but that’s really the literary equivalent of shouting abuse at the actor in a soap opera because his character had an affair.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Great analogy. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I suppose if the actor also wrote the soap opera episode, there might be more of him in the part than there would be otherwise, just like an author creating characters, but I still try to see the character in his or her own right.

      Liked by 1 person

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