Throughout my revision process for The Warden of Everfeld: Memento, I have continually questioned the information I am presenting in my story. Is this detail pertinent to the scene? Does the reader care/need to know this? How does this trait affect the character’s personality?
These questions are vital for building real, lifelike characters while also maintaining a fluid and natural story arc. However, at times I have wondered if the trauma or suffering I put my characters through is necessary to tell the larger story.
A story with no suffering will feel like a fluffy, glittering dream at best and a disingenuous glossing over of the complexity of human emotion at worst. I think a sense of trauma or emotional ambiguity can make a character feel stronger and more believable.
But where do you draw the line? Can there be such a thing as “piling on” the suffering for characters, and ultimately, readers? The types of hardships our characters face can vary widely, but most are based off of real situations that real people may be dealing with right now: war, poverty, inequality, mental or emotional health issues, sexual assault, bigotry.
While I appreciate when fictional stories delve into these issues, or even offer analogies to our own world, sometimes it can feel a little too on the nose.
Incorporating Social Issues into Storytelling
Jessie and I had quite the engaging conversation about this very question recently, and it triggered some further thoughts on my part that I wanted to share. I’ll start by sharing part of our conversation via text message.
Now, fair warning, in this conversation, we are talking about one of my characters, who was born out of the rape of their mother. Sexual violence is not a subject we take lightly, but nor is it one that should be avoided or ignored. The sensitivity and complexity of these subjects is exactly why I want to delve into them and maybe spur some further discussion or thinking on their place in storytelling.
In the below conversation, Jessie and I are discussing how I might navigate this piece of the character’s past in relation to their personality and choices. Glossing over a subject like sexual violence as if it had no impact on a character would be callous, but victimizing this character (who did not themselves experience this sexual violence) is just as insensitive.
Here is a transcript of that text conversation. (Names/details of my own story redacted for spoiler reasons.)
Steve: …Maybe [the character] has a complex about [their] mother’s rape? That might be too touchy to try and tackle though
Jessie: Hmm true, that would be intense to navigate =/ … But intense makes for a captivating story too so there’s that argument
Steve: I just don’t know if I can cover it in sufficient depth for a “short” novel like this … It’s such a sensitive and important topic, even in a fantasy world
Jessie: Ugh truth. I was thinking about it in a vacuum
Steve: I definitely want to bring more attention to very real social issues through my stories, but something like sexual violence tends to dominate a story arc
Jessie: Hmmm do you think that’s true even of fantasy like GOT [Game of Thrones]
Steve: This is sort of reductive, but I think ASoIaF [A Song of Ice and Fire] is built on social issues – sexual violence, war, slavery, gender inequality – just in a Medieval setting. Martin created this Hobbesian world and forces the reader to navigate the turmoil … So it dominates the story in the way that the world fucks with the reader’s emotions and comfort level … But with [this character] I don’t want it to dominate [their] life or the choices [they make], because [they’re] not the victim, and I don’t want [the character] to come off as one
Questions to Address with Your Characters and Social Issues
From there our conversation turns to much more detailed discussions about the story itself, rather than the prevalence of social issues in my writing.
I asked these questions because I did not want to harp on that single detail of my character’s backstory too much, but I also did not want to gloss over it as if it had not happened. It also brings up further questions that should be answered in my story:
- When did the character learn of the sexual assault of their mother?
- Did it change the character’s views of their parents?
- How has this knowledge affected the character since; in their relationships or in their trust of others?
- Does this knowledge change the character’s perception of themselves?
I do not think we should be afraid to approach very real social issues in our writing. I just think we have to ask the right questions so as not the do these issues, our characters, or our readers a disservice.
So, do you agree? Should we explore social issues in our writing? Have your stories touched on any such issues?