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. Inion N. Mathair

    Brilliant post, Carrie. Mathair and I have always said that we’d rather have authentic character voices then bring our own agenda across. Though there are things in our novels that we don’t agree with (things that make us uncomfortable to write) we would never want to betray the story or that character’s journey. We’re with you all the way, give us a little controversy and a whole lot of authenticity and you have a story that will stand the test of time.

    Like

  2. Dana

    If the character is a bad guy, they can get away with a lot, but if it’s the hero, I have to like him/her, so they can’t be a jerk, or I can’t enjoy the story.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I’m like that too. A lot of people will say you don’t have to like the hero, but you have to empathize with him or her. But I’m with you, I want to like them too.

      Like

  3. Paul S

    “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”

    Like

  4. diannegray

    I totally agree with Stephen King. If you’re ever worried about something other than the story it will come through in the words. I don’t know if it’s just me – but I can pick a story where the author is thinking about money or themselves other than letting it all go and just plunging their thoughts into a great story. You can see it in the words, but I find it quite hard to explain how I know this. Lately I’ve been proofing websites (with my job) and I can tell when the writing changes from old to new or person to person. I’m sure my boss thinks I’m weird when I say, ‘you have to have a voice when you write, because it really shines through the entire text.’ I can tell when she’s cut and pasted something or written it ten years ago or yesterday. Yes, she thinks I’m either weird or psychic because I get it right every time (LOL) 😉

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    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s actually really interesting. I’m not sure if I have that skill, but I’ve never really thought about it. I’ll try to be more perceptive when I’m reading just to test it out. But I agree–a consistent voice is important, especially throughout a novel. I think our voice evolves over time too. My early blog posts sound different from my newer ones. But maybe some of that is experience too.

      Like

  5. Pam Huggins

    Being authentic as an artist is what makes great original art.
    I regard Eating Bull as great original art.

    Every artist out there must confront these issues. And as you say, decide for themselves what their boundaries are.
    I think authenticity is recognizable, even if only on a subconscious level. The trick is recognizing it in ourselves and then being willing to let the outside world in on it.

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  6. Phillip McCollum

    Great post Carrie. I agree every author has to define their own limits, but what nurse Sue is generally true. We tend to remember stories that impact us emotionally and, at least in my experience, they tend to be the ones that speak more truly than those that just kind of “skim the surface.”

    Like

  7. Vanessa-Jane Chapman

    If you can’t get the author out of your mind when you’re reading a book then I figure the book can’t be that good! When I read books by authors I know, through blogging or whatever, I don’t consciously put them out of my mind, but if I’m enjoying the book then I completely forget that it’s someone I know who wrote it, occasionally a thought of them might come in if it’s relevant to something, like say with yours, if it’s a bit of medical info, I might think “Ah yes, well that must be right because Carrie knows about these things 🙂 ” The difference of course is a memoir piece, then I do deliberately want to keep them in mind because it is about them!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, a memoir is a bit different, isn’t it? Then it’s all about the author, and we’ll want that visual and mental image.

      “Ah yes, well that must be right because Carrie knows about these things”—Hehehe. I’m going to put that on my fridge and change ‘Carrie’ to ‘Mom.’

      Like

  8. Joanna Aislinn

    Think I’m pretty good at separating author from product–unless we’re talking about me, of course. 😉 That’s a whole ‘nother animal.

    Probably why, too, I’ve held back on releasing a wip that’s been pretty much done for several years now. I can hear all the why-this-won’t-work from some very well-meaning folks in my head.

    Having said that, the self-pub breakthrough of recent years has totally changed the publishing game. With a strong fan base and a good product, one can put one’s off-the-beaten-path work out there. Honestly, a lot of the trad-pubbed stuff I’ve read over the years hasn’t overly impressed me. I like work that seeks to break out of a mold.

    Anyway, that’s MHO. Great post, Carrie. Thank you!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks, Joanna. It’s all too easy to hold back when we worry what others will think. But once I let that go (well, it never completely goes away), it was liberating and my story could really take form. But the self-doubt loves to keep rearing its head.

      You’re right–there are so many more publishing options now. I’ve been so happy with my boutique publisher for this novel. They’ve been wonderful. Now, we just have to get those trade journals and other review sites to review books that don’t come from the Big 5 publishers. Even with a small press it’s hard to get any notice.

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      • Joanna Aislinn

        Having worked with The Wild Rose Press–are they maybe a mid-size press?–I can relate in terms of getting any real notice. I do remember, however, a writer friend of mine who worked with a Big 5 publisher. Oh the $$$$ they spent on promoting her novel, as depicted via posts on her blog. As much as I loved her previous books, the her last did absolutely nothing for me. Couldn’t get past page 10. As I said in my comment to you, not the first time I haven’t been impressed by trad pubbed works. Keep plugging away regardless, right?

        Like

  9. aFrankAngle

    Two great bits of advise in this post. 1) King’s quote should drive the writer – which it has for you … 2) Yours about knowing your boundaries (which I assume you follow your own suggestions) 😉

    Like

  10. Polly

    Logically, we have to divorce the author from their work, yet it’s not always easy for human beans to do so 😆

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      No it’s not, is it? Even the bigwig authors I don’t know, sometimes I read a passage and think, “What in the world was he or she thinking when they wrote this?” But with a good enough story, I can usually let this go. It’s even trickier if I “know” the author. But I still try. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. thefolia

    OMG your Mel caption…I can’t stop laughing! Back to the question, I have to agree with your buddy Stephen , I think we are not being our true selves if we worry about what others think, take for example the Trump. I don’t think there is any filter on when he talks..his true self shines through. Enter your next point, is he doing it for the sock and to be remembered since there seems to be no substance underneath his thick skin?

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    • Carrie Rubin

      You’re right, Trump definitely doesn’t have a filter! I think part of it’s him and part of it’s for effect.

      How I write is different than how I communicate in real life though. When I write, I’m representing characters. When I’m interacting face-to-face, I’m representing myself. And I’m such a conflict avoider in real life! I try to be very diplomatic and follow the Golden Rule. 🙂

      Like

  12. Zen A.

    When I’m writing, the most I’ll think about is, “If I read this particular thing in any random book, would I find it cliche/unrealistic/just plain bad?” I try to put myself in the reader’s shoes and see how I would react, but I don’t think I’ve ever stopped myself from writing something that others might not like. In fact, most of my stories are pretty weird!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s a good practice to do. I try to do that as well, and that’s where beta readers are a huge help. They can home in on things we didn’t even see. I always take their reactions to things seriously. If they say something seems too callous, too cold, too sweet, etc., I pay attention.

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  13. A @ moylomenterprises

    Great topic!
    I haven’t published anything beyond blogging but there are times I cringe when I reread some things I’ve written in the past. At the time I’m working on a piece I’m dealing with raw emotion: happiness, sadness, being flirty, anger, love etc. At that point I’m not thinking about who’s gonna read it I’m just working out my inner struggles /stuff. But once I hit publish then is when my gut does the summesaults! Especially with polarizing topics like christianity, religion faith etc. Or with the red-faced edgy pieces on romance, sexuality etc Then I have to say to myself in a real stern defiant voice, “Hey, this is my blog, I can write whatever I want! If they like it, great! If they don’t like it, that’s OK too! ”

    See, like you said, it’s all about ‘risk” — putting ourselves out there; being willing to go raw; Bare our souls; suffer through the process of creating a life then giving birth! Childbirth is a raw, cringe worthy process but look at the beautiful bundles of joy that results from it. Be authentic, be raw, it works!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Great analogy to childbirth–I like that. And I agree, we have to be authentic. Like you, I often cringe when I read my old blog posts. Sometimes I’m tempted to delete them, but then I think that’s not being very honest with my writing. I’ve gotten rid of a couple if they’re not relevant (for example, they link to something that’s no longer there), but for the most part I keep them. Even if they make me cringe. 🙂

      Thanks for weighing in. Much appreciated. And I think it’s great you take risks and write about what’s going on with you at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Alejandro De La Garza

    A few years ago I sent a birthday card to an older female friend of mine that had a 1920s-era photo of women dancing in scandalously short dresses with the verbiage: “Well-behaved women rarely made history.” It fit my friend perfectly in that she lived her life mostly on her own terms, despite growing up in a time when people like her, Black and female, had serious limitations imposed upon them.

    Artists are always pushing those ubiquitous boundaries that other people have set so they themselves won’t be offended by anything or anyone they don’t like. It’s just in our nature. As shy as I was growing up, I found writing allowed the true me to come out. It’s a risky venture, but it has to be done. Harshly conservative societies rarely advance forward.

    Keep fighting and keep writing!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! I will. And I smiled when I saw the quote you included about well-behaved women, because my nurse in the story says that very line. She fits the description perfectly. And I agree–it’s often pushing boundaries that lead us forward.

      Like

  15. Claudia Anderson

    Wow…already 126 comments! I shall add 127. This blog really strikes home. I have a story I want to write about Altzheimers and imagination and the otherworld, but Ive been afraid of writing it because someone might think I am making fun. Which Im not. You have given me real incentive. And I thank you for it. Truly.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Glad to hear it! As an earlier commenter said, we’ll never please everyone with what we write, so we might as well write what we want and what we’d like to say. Otherwise there’s little joy in the process. I think we can do this and still be sensitive with our writing. Sounds like an interesting premise you’re considering.

      Like

  16. kingmidget

    Those are tough questions … as for separating the work from the creator, I have regularly said that the stories I am most proud to have written are the ones where I was able to do just that — create a story, a setting, a group of characters that are as separate from me as is possible. The reality is, though, that every story I have ever written does have a piece of me buried in there somewhere. Just some stories have more than others. And when I read, I rarely can separate the story from the writer — sometimes trying to figure out what in the story may be based on the writer’s own experiences or thoughts.

    I like the quote about writing making people uncomfortable. It strikes a chord with me because I think that’s what is lacking in much of my efforts — dancing out on the edge and taking the reader with me.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–there’s probably a piece of the author in every story, because even if we don’t agree with our characters, we’re still creating them from our mind.

      I try not to think of the author because it distracts me. I start to wonder, does the author really think that or is that complete fiction? But if the story is good enough, usually I can let it go and just focus on the characters.

      Like

      • kingmidget

        Agreed … if the story is good enough you forget you’re reading something created by another human being. It’s like with movies. Most movies, at some point, involve me sitting back and thinking “these are just actors playing roles” but every once in awhile, a movie is so good I am absolutely absorbed in the story and it never occurs to me that they are actors playing roles.

        Like

  17. My Inner Chick

    Stephen King is a very wise man.
    Limits on writing?
    Never.
    Ever.
    At least, not for me.
    I love authors who “GIVE ME EVERYTHING.”
    I want it all.

    xx

    Like

  18. michellejoycebond

    Great post! I guess that sometimes it depends on what the purpose of the reading is. If it’s a romance and readers want to get away from it all, it might be jarring to come across a polarizing topic. Then again, I know of subgenres like dark romance that really push the boundaries…

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree. It doesn’t work for everything. And while I sometimes like to read edgy novels with a message, I also sometimes like to read pure fluff. It’s all about balance!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Sheila

    That’s a great point that a character’s thoughts are not the author’s thoughts. Maybe the characters truly come to life when they are completely different from the author. Your characters definitely did that for me. It’s true that you have to show different types of characters, with both good and bad thoughts about the world. The best books do that and make us think – just like your book does!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you, Sheila. You’re kind to say. In terms of my own characters, I probably fall somewhere between Jeremy and Sue. To try to get into Darwin’s mindset, I took the cruel words overweight people told me have been said to them (and the things that have been done to them) and extrapolated them into Darwin’s acts. It was usually his scenes where I thought, “I can’t write that.” And then I tried to channel Stephen King. 🙂

      Like

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