Unless she’ll tell you what you want to hear; Unless she immediately sees your genius and raves about every little word that rolls off your tongue; Unless she’s the really honest sort and you’re actually interested in feedback.
I made this, ahem, mistake (Hi, Darling!) when I shared all that stuff that’s been percolating in my head for The Unchosen over the last two weeks of 5 am mornings. She began to get upset. Finally when she could talk about it–it took awhile–she said, and I quote, “I don’t know. I just don’t like where you’re going with the story. It…it turns me off.” Yeah, uber downer. I was crushed. And I sulked. And stewed. I was mad and hurt and frustrated and confused and depressed. But then I realized that in her shoes, I might’ve felt the same way. I gave her highlights without all the filler that I imagined falling between them. The filler that makes everything make sense. That makes it not sound like the crazy babbling of just another weird ass writer. She especially didn’t like my inclusion of, uh, uh, well, rape. It really turned her stomach (as it was intended to) that our precious protagonist gets pulled into the muck and mire of the world, dragged into the dark and shadowy places, and gets raped. The way I imagine it–as someone who has been sexually assaulted (even as a man, yes)–was that it wasn’t (as it never is) her fault, and that it would be this soul-rending moment (as it is) where she feels such deep anger at herself and at the perpetrator and at the world and she hurts and hurts and hurts and she feels deeply ashamed and afraid and embarrassed…and it drives her to act out in other bad ways because she’s hurting so much and is so angry. Anyway, none of that mattered to my wife. She was bothered by the feeling that I was just mining the horribleness of rape for sheer dramatic value. That I wasn’t treating the topic with respect. Her most pointed criticism was that she felt like the story had meandered away from the core that she really liked and found appealing into some Days of Our Lives soap with murder, rape, and all manner of evil deeds going on.
Initially I was, like, hey now. You just don’t understand. I’m building conflict, and–as someone who has been assaulted–I feel like it’s important to not be embarrassed about it, but to open the topic up. If that makes sense. I feel like rape is this big thing in our society which we don’t talk about and yet millions of women and men, boys and girls, are raped every year. Literally MILLIONS. And it becomes this horrible secret which tears them apart–that they feel they have to hide. And yeah, I wanted to build all that into my character, to let it motivate her actions, and hopefully to make her triumph all the greater for overcoming her shame (and it does feel like shame in my experience…somehow, even though you know it’s not your fault, a rape victim often feels like, somehow, it is).
So I steamed and stewed and eventually realized that perhaps my wife was not completely wrong. Maybe, just maybe, she was–again–mostly right. Not that I was going to treat the topic with disrespect, but just that I was getting off the rails and losing sight of the story I wanted to tell. The story I wanted to tell was being subsumed by all the other darker elements I was throwing at all my characters. Yeah, there would have been lots of excellent, and meaningful dramatic conflict that would have motivated the characters to act, but it also wouldn’t be The Unchosen.
The Unchosen is a very theme-oriented book. It is about one girl who–in a society where you have to be Chosen to be anything at all–isn’t. And how she finds her way, her own path, and makes her own choices in spite of the odds set against her. It is also about how even the Chosen–who theoretically have it all, who have been supposedly been Chosen by God and told what they should do with their lives–are unfulfilled, how they have these deep confusing longings for a place they belong which causes them a lot of angst and heartache because they’re not supposed to need to feel that way. After all, they all have God-given missions and callings. They are told exactly what they’re expected to do, and in doing it their immediate needs are taken care of. They have all of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but they are still missing something…something that gnaws at them. Veda (the protagonist) over the course of the series is instrumental in lighting the way through finding it herself.
I realized that I’m struggling to create drama and conflict and tension without the obvious answers: death, rape, murder, drugs, etc. It’s tricky to imbue a story with all the more nuanced threats and fears and engines of conflict. Mostly because I’m having a difficult time thinking of them. But I suppose it may just be a simple matter of asking myself what people–what I–am afraid of. Maybe the answers to that question are the means to infuse conflict and drama without having to reach the easy, and overused, dramatic elements. I aspire to be more nuanced. I do. I’d love to write stories where I never have to kill a character (or otherwise) because I’ve creatively come up with other threats that are even more terrifying to the character–even more motivating.
I don’t have a lot of answers at this point–mostly just musings. I’ve decided that it’s not that it’s not appropriate to have rape in some stories (where appropriate), or killing, or murder, or drugs, or whatever…but just that we writers need to work harder, be more creative, and really come up with creative conflict…conflict which is surprising and unexpected and, in that way, utterly genuine. Think about it. Most of us don’t worry about being raped or murdered on a daily basis. If you do, you should probably relocate or make new friends. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us aren’t frequently subject to our fair share of worry and anxiety though. We worry about losing our loved ones in accidents, or to illness. We worry about getting cancer and dying before we can afford life insurance. We worry about whether we’ll be able to keep our job and earn enough money to keep our kids in clothes and food in their tummies. We worry about whether we’re good enough spouses, lovers, friends… We feel ashamed when our dogs look at is with that judgmental stares that says we haven’t loved on them enough. We worry about our dwindling food supplies, and the wobble in the steering wheel that seems to be getting worse. We worry worry worry. And sometimes we’re right. We get sick. The car breaks down. We run out of food.
In short, even without murder and rape, there’s a lot of conflict in our lives which motivates us. My point for myself–and others–as a writer is that I think my wife was right on two points (even if she didn’t explicitly make them–I read between the lines): 1) stay true to the core of your story (or at least make sure you’re aware if you’re going to start telling a different story, and that you’re okay with doing so), 2) be more creative in terms of thinking of what will challenge your characters. Don’t automatically go for the big guns. Save them for big game–for big moments–and use them sparingly so the reader takes you seriously. It’s like magic. A little magic is, well, magical. Even a moderate amount of magic can work if managed carefully and restrained. But a lot of magic being cast by anyone and everyone is just boring. As they say in The Incredibles, “when everyone is special, no one will be special.”
It’s my bedtime. Seeyah!