I try to stay away from wagging my finger and telling people how to write. When it comes down to it, I have preferences like any other reader or editor, and that goes triple for how I write a story. But a man asked me a question at BoucherCon that I’ve been chewing on since.
He wondered what the taboos of crime fiction are, and lamented that he thinks he sometimes crosses them.
Given my experience in crime fiction, I don’t know that there are any true taboos. One of my most popular stories deals with pedophilia, and lets be clear about what we do: we murder the fuck out of people on the page. Certainly though, as an editor, there are stories that make me cringe. Not because they cross some taboo, but because I don’t understand why they bothered.
We talk about character motivation all the time - if you keep asking “why” a character is doing something, eventually you’ll be mining gold. Most of the stories that make me cringe could use that. But what I think they could use even more than that, and what we rarely seem to discuss, is why did we sit down and write it? What’s the writer’s motivation?
It’s okay if your motivation is simply “To entertain the hell out of crime fiction readers.” Some of my favorite movies are entertaining stories about crime that don’t offer much else. But is it appropriate to write a five hundred word “entertaining” rape scene? Or spend a chapter torturing and beating a woman for “entertainment”? Let’s take it away from “women’s issues” and expand it. Would it be okay for me to try to “entertain” you with pedophilia? How about animal abuse or spending hundreds of words gleefully describing a junkie dying of overdose with no motivation other than to “entertain”?
First - none of these examples sound entertaining, at least not to me. But I can imagine, and have read, stories about the above topics that moved me, blew my mind, and made me want more of that writer’s work. The writer’s motivation in those cases was clearly beyond simple entertainment. In my case, my motivation was to explore what could make a mentally healthy, loving mother, get a gun and kill her teenager. People read it and probably guess different motivations, but there it is. A writer’s motivation could be to make the reader feel a certain way, to explore how trauma affects a person, to shine a light on some ugly part of our society we forget. There are a million reasons to tackle a “taboo” topic. If we know WHY we’re doing it, and do it with skill and care, someone out there is going to want it (in honesty, someone out there is going to want your torture porn, too, but not me). And it’s going to do more than entertain for a little while or make your reader feel queasy.
Next time you’re thinking about a story you want to write - whether it be a “taboo” or something that can be approached as pure entertainment (like a fun heist story), I challenge you to ask of yourself the same questions you have to ask of your protagonists. “What do I want out of this?” “Why?” And then keeping asking why until you hit the goldmine.