|And every comic was hand-painted with expended gun powder taken from crime scenes.|
Now, this is your story, and you are more than welcome to tell it with whatever elements you want. If you want to have genocide, sexual assault, brutality, oppression, slavery, and any of a thousand other things on your page then no one can stop you from doing it. However, there is no ducking your responsibility for those things. This is your book, and those elements exist because you decided to make them exist. Full stop, no excuses.
But I'm Just Being Realistic!
A lot of people use this word to defend their stories, but this term doesn't mean what they think it means. Because as long as you are writing fiction, the creative control is entirely in your hands. The events you are showing your readers happen the way they do because you make them happen. None of this, "Well, my characters have lives of their own!" nonsense. You are Frankenstein, and this monster exists how it does because of the decisions you made.
|Which is why you should always triple-check your blueprint.|
Again, I'm not saying you can't put brutal, awful, controversial stuff in your stories. I'm primarily a horror writer, for fuck's sake, I know that sometimes a story needs a bit of blood to make the flavor just right. But that's the word you should keep in mind... need. Before you add any element that might lead to gagging, distaste, or anger in someone who reads your story, ask if it needs to be there. Then, once you've determined that it does need to be there, ask how you're going to present that element, and why you are choosing to present it that way.
Give you an example. Take the horror classic I Spit On Your Grave. If you're not familiar with it, the movie is the best-known example of the exploitative rape-revenge film. You take a (usually) female character, we show her experiencing her "fate worse than death" moment (typically at the hands of several men), and then the rest of the story is just her taking her revenge in (from her and the audience's perspective) justifiably brutal ways.
Break that story down to its elements, and examine them.
Does our protagonist have to be raped? Technically not. She needs to experience some kind of transgression against her to justify the level of retribution she's going to so that she doesn't lose her relatability in the eyes of the reader, but it doesn't have to be a sexual assault. There are a lot of different ways that could happen, from people who ruined her life socially (got her expelled from school, fired from her job, destroyed her relationships with her friends and family by spreading lies about what they'd done with her, for example), to people who assaulted and left her for dead (the age-old Western trope we see in films like Hang 'Em High).
Even though there are functional alternatives, the creators chose to have the protagonist be raped. Not only did this event happen, but they chose to present it in such a way that the viewers witness it with their own eyes. Now is that necessary? Not strictly speaking, no. The incident can just as easily happen before we start the film, kept as something of a mystery as we focus instead on the revenge killings. Alternatively we could see the aftermath of the incident, or have the assault implied by the soundtrack, the way the perpetrators walk away straightening their clothes, or just by seeing the protagonist's portrayal of the post-trauma. But the film (and many others like it) have the audience watch the whole thing.
Why? Well, it could be argued that by forcing the audience to bear witness, it deepens their sympathy with our protagonist as they share this intimate trauma. It could also be argued that by seeing what happened, we know for a fact that what she experienced is true. Also, given the exploitative nature of the genre, it could be argued that the combination of nudity and violence would draw audiences who wanted to see the film cross lines typically considered taboo.
Know Your Reasons
Whether you have decided that the evil empire in your sci-fi epic uses chattel slavery in off-world mines (even though is has to be less expensive and more efficient for that work to be done by robots), your protagonist is graphically abused by a partner, or the supporting cast is tortured right in front of your audience, those are decisions you made. Understand why you made them.
Because saying that you felt the graphic nature of this approach would shock the audience, causing them to form a deeper bond with the character is a legitimate reason for something you've done in your story. People may disagree with it, but at least there is a logic behind why you chose to do it. Saying, "that's just the way things were back then," shows that you neither understand that this is a fictional story (and that your choice of acts and the presentation of those acts is not bound by what may or may not have happened "back then"), nor that you are responsible for your decisions as a creator.
If your story touches people, and brings them a rush of emotion when they read it, that's your doing. If that emotion rushing through them is a combination of anger and disgust, well, that's still on you. So before you pull that trigger, ask if that was the best way to execute your story. Because whether you did it for good reasons or bad, because it was what the story demanded or because you didn't stop to question it, the gun is still in your hand. You should know why you did it.
That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! Hopefully it helps some folks out there who struggle with when to take their tales down dark paths. If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or go to My Amazon Author Page where you can get your hands on books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!
To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! And if you'd like to support me directly you can leave me a tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or to become a regular, monthly patron you could head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Any and all help you can give is appreciated!