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Thoughts on Writing: Hot-Button Topics

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Thoughts on Writing: Hot-Button Topics

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While reviewing the most recent batch of stories for the literary magazine, a few insights came to me that I wished to record and share. Why? Because with every story read or written, I learn a bit more about the craft. And I know that most of my flist are writers and many of you also like to discuss these things, so I thought I'd toss my thoughts out to be chewed on by the masses, so I'm going to try to periodically mull over what does and doesn't work for me in fiction-writing. We will call them Booda Bones of Writing. :^P

I hate feeling that I need a disclaimer on these sorts of posts, but alas, I do, so here goes...

Requisite Disclaimer to Henceforth Be Applied to All Present and Future Thoughts-on-Writing Posts:
What follows are some of my observations and opinions based on what I am learning about the craft of writing. I do not claim to have the answers nor do I claim to be an arbiter of quality in writing. Actually, I don't even believe in such a thing as "quality" in an art form, least of all writing. I am on the same road on the same journey as any other writer. What follows are observations of what works for me. Maybe not you...me. We can be different. You are welcome to disagree with me: that is why I have called this series of topics "Booda Bones" because we're all supposed to chew them into an unrecognizable pulp. I always welcome discussion of all sorts in my LJ. But if you find your feelings hurt or feel offended by this post, I think that you are reading it wrongly. Revisit disclaimer. Rinse. Repeat. Thank you. ;)

Sharon and I joke sometimes about banning certain topics for poetry, namely death, suicide, and obsessive love. It seems that we get scads of these sorts of poems; at least, according to Sharon we do. (I don't read the poetry. My mind refuses to comprehend poetry, so unless I'm forced, I leave it for the better-informed.) Fiction topics tend to be more varied and rarely have I found a story where the premise alone contributes to its acceptance or decline.

But I noticed something about the last batch of stories that I think goes along with Sharon's aversion to most poetry pertaining to death, suicide, and obsessive love: hot-button topics. There were a few of these mixed in with the last batch of fiction, so obviously "hot-button" (and little else) that I got to thinking about stories based on these sorts of ideas, how they can be done well, and how a complete mess can be made of them.

I have always joked about Characters in a Can (tm), those characters that crop up in stories with a set of ready-made traits and dilemmas, kind of like TV dinners of the writing world. Heat and serve: that's all you have to do. Hot-button topics--to me--are rather along the same lines; sort of Plotlines in a Can (tm), only they are a very specific brand of Plotlines in a Can (tm), those that are designed to incite emotion with little effort on the part of the writer. In other words, in a story about rape, for example, we know that we are supposed to sympathize with the victim and hate the perpetrator. In fact, if we feel differently--if we find the victim weak, sniveling, and annoying--then it is easy to almost feel bad about that, kind of like hearing that one's worst enemy has been badly injured in a car crash. As though by disliking the person, we have advocated her misfortune. Or felt that somehow--with her inferior personality--that she deserved it.

I found myself with a pair of stories this quarter about abusive relationships. Now I know: I am supposed to be heartbroken for the abused woman and despise her tormenter. Alas...I was not. In one of the stories, I almost wanted to slap around the brainless, spineless woman a little myself. And I really don't think this was the author's intent.

So do I think that hot-button topics--rape, abuse, suicide, depression, abortion et al--should not be written? Of course not! There are wonderful stories dealing with these subjects! But I suspect at times that writers choose these subjects because they are easy subjects, in a way. In fact, I think that these stories are the most difficult to write--or should be.

It sounds counterintuitive to say that a story about a topic as emotional as rape or abortion would be easy to write...but the reason that I say "easy" is because of the automatic emotional trigger that these sorts of stories touch, which is why I call them "hot-button" stories. The mere mention of such a topic automatically triggers a mixed-bag of strong emotions in many readers: horror, empathy, disgust, discomfort, anger. There is little else that the writer has to do except say the magic words: Rape victim. Domestic violence. Suicide. Drunk driving.

Unfortunately, like most writing devices that come in a can, this only works for so long with readers. The first few times, in my days of university writing workshops, that I read a hot-button story--regardless of its quality--I applauded the writer for her bravery in opening such a difficult topic for discussion. It felt almost as though she was doing a service for humanity by writing a mediocre tale about how No Means No or how Abuse Is Never Okay. The subsequent comments that I gave such stories often focused more on the issue than the writing, and I think that this is indicative of something. After a while, though, I began to realize that lots of people write about such topics. What I once regarded as very personal--suicide, miscarriage, abortion--began to pile up. Everyone had such a tale to tell. My automatic reaction of shock and horror, in turn, began to diminish. Soon, such stories did indeed make me queasy to ponder, if only at the idea of encountering another set of black-and-white, warmed-over characters from a can, plot devices from humanity's Cro-Magnon campfire days, and the idea that if I didn't love this story and its message and its beaten and bloodied cast of pie-eyed, wobbly-lipped women (or men), then I was some sort of heartless monster.

A few years ago, I had the realization that--for me--a story didn't have to be particularly exciting in order to be good. Our high school writing competition was judged by the author Anne Tyler, and a few years into university, I figured that since she did me the favor of reading two of my stories, I might as well read a few of hers. Her novels don't have monsters in the sewers or frantic car chases to expose double agents, but I loved them and I credit her work as my first plunge into character-based fiction. Her characters were ordinary and slightly pathetic, and when they cried over a bag of groceries broken upon the sidewalk, I cried too.

I realized that a reader's--or at least my--reaction to a story depended less on an exciting plot than a sympathetic character or characters. While I loved exciting stories with plots based on investigation, science, and technology, I found that the story had faded within a few days to where I couldn't even summarize it anymore, much less recall the protagonist's name. It was the stories with people in whom I believed that I hungered to read again and again--and have.

The way I see it, if an author can make me wubble with pity or grit my teeth in frustration when a character knocks a glass of wine onto her favorite dress, if an ordinary event can stir my sympathy, then an event like spousal abuse or discovering one's best friend has committed suicide or learning that one's sister has been killed by a drunk driver...those stories should more than stir my sympathy. The emotional response created in the reader, I think, should be in proportion to the event. A glass of spilled red wine should not be equivalent to a date rape in terms of response.

Unfortunately, I think that too many writers--lacking the skill or tenacity to create sympathy for the most ordinary of characters in the most ordinary of situations--turn to something that they know will get a reaction: hot-button topics.

As I said, hot-button topics are not necessarily bad. I am a horror aficionado and one of the scariest stories that I have ever read counts as what I would call a hot-button topic: a short story by Joyce Carol Oates about a young woman going for an illegal abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade. There is no blood or gruesomeness; the story ends before the procedure even begins. But it was one of the most horrifying stories that I have ever read because the woman's terror was conveyed to where I literally cringed to turn the page. I have a strong stomach for anything put into writing, but I doubted whether I would make it through that story. I did, but it haunts me to this day.

That would be a plotline easy to gloss and still gain a reaction from some--maybe most--readers. "Abortion" carries with it strong connotations even to those who do not have strong opinions on the subject; stirring people with such a story really doesn't take much skill. But again, I feel that people should be more than merely stirred.

In the Oates' version of the classic hot-button tale, a character in whom I believed and some time taken to develop the psychological elements of the story--horror, fear, doubt, desperation--resulted in a story so real that it was hard to remember, hey, I can close the book and this will all go away!

Sharon and I generally spend about half of our infrequent conversations these days prattling about writing. She admitted that certain subjects in poetry have to be exceptional in order to get a nod from her...and I find the same increasingly of myself.

So it's not necessarily--when choosing a topic for a story--that I think that the hot-button shouldn't be touched. But like pushing any button with the power to elicit an automatic and somewhat dangerous response, a degree of discretion should be observed. If you expect your readers to need a degree of fortitude to deal with your topic, then maybe you should do them the favor of likewise treating the topic with some consideration that extends beyond merely provoking a reflexive reaction.

Nor can I put the blame solely upon beginning writers, I have realized, after giving this some consideration. True, I think that a lot of beginning writers do jump into such topics with both feet, often without the skill or subtlety to generate an appropriate reader response. Is this bad? No! How else to practice writing than to...well, practice. And part of practice, of course, involves making mistakes. I have been "practicing" for most of my life now, and in some stories, I feel that my mistakes overwhelm what I do well. Still, I practice...so who am I to frown upon those who do the same, in whatever fashion befits them, churning out, as I do, what an editor--what I, even, in my editor's shoes--is likely to dismiss as crap?

There are plenty of "practiced" writers out there, though, making the same mistakes. Browse some of the featured fiction on display at Barnes & Noble or watch a set of previews of upcoming Hollywood movies. (That started as what? Written screenplays.) So this is hardly a critique of a beginning novelist too naive to understand that writing a "rape story" must go beyond the issue of rape--which the majority of folks will certainly agree is a Bad Thing--to bringing to life a personal experience...all constructed of fiction.

The more and more that I consider what works and doesn't work for me in fiction, the more that I am led back to the characters. I know that some writers would protest, and certainly, I've heard people sniff at "character-based artsy-fartsy-types" like me. I suppose it comes down to what you look for in a story. Interestingly, one "hot-button" story that I reviewed this quarter that I really liked took the topic--sexual child abuse--outside of any dramatic events: the abuse the protagonist had endured or that which he'd in turn inflicted upon another child. As a result, I was forced to focus on the boy and the very-real tension that evolved: Would he be discovered? As an abuser? Or as one who has been abused? Which was worse?

A story focused entirely on a child's bike-ride home from school: no shadows looming from the closets, no dramatic scenes involving the slow eking of life from a prostrate heroine. Boring, huh? But I loved it.
  • For at least forty years, the vast bulk of writing on Hot-Button Topics has been Young Adult fiction. This, with the possible exception of Judy Blume (who I've always heard recommended but have never actually read), tends to be badly written sludge designed more to teach a moral lesson than to, yannow, tell a good story. So, by default, this kind of writing tends to be the standard for writing on hot-button topics. There are authors, though they are few and far between, who can write real, adult stories about Issues.

    Marge Piercy writes about a lot of Issues, primarily ones related to 1970s-wave feminism. She can be hit-or-miss. Mostly, she's pretty good. She has a knack for writing character, and about 85% of the time, she remembers to write the character rather than the Issue.

    John Irving. The man can write anything believably. In The Hotel New Hampshire, he wrote an extended scene of sibling incest such that it a) came as a great relief that these two characters were finally having the sex they'd been wanting since page 1, and b) seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Only after you finish the book, put it down, walk away, and do something else for three hours, does it finally hit you: Dude, I just read and approved of and enjoyed a scene of a guy finally getting to do his sister! For a writer like John Irving, writing a novel in favor of abortion (The Cider House Rules) is small potatoes.

    It's gotta be about the characters rather than the Issue. Otherwise it fails like Dubya at Yale.
  • I'm guessing that many (amateur/young) writers also try to write those hot-button stories, because it fits their age, that particular stage in their lives - the angst and the drama of growing up, as well as learning to deal with real life issues on your own for the first time.

    I really don't think that you need to have witnessed or experienced everything you write about yourself, far from it! (Would make writing about death sort of impossible, except as a witness, too.)
    ...however, many young dystopian stories, many young post-modern stories, many young hot-button stories... they are clever, they are stylish... but they are missing something. Something essential.


    I know it's banal (and probably arrogant to say that), but there's simply a huge difference between wanting to address issues, and having lived long enough to encounter any issue at all in real life. And from many stories like that I get the feeling that they have never really encountered the issues they address. They feel like assignments for a creative writing class at school.
  • (no subject) - callirhoe
    • What are Booda Bones?

      A Booda Bone:

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      They're dog toys made of thousands of strings twisted together. The end result is something that can be flung dangerously into passersby or gnawed in happy contentment until the poor thing is so chewed and slobber-soaked that it's barely recognizable as what it started as! :^D

      I like people to feel free to chew over my topics as much as they want without worrying about "spamming" me or putting their opinions where they're not welcome...so Booda Bones! :)

      I'm not exaggerating when I say that 90% of the stories students turned in for workshopping had to do with one of these hot-button issues: murder, date rape, child pornography.

      Yes. Absolutely. I'm not so far gone from uni workshops (at the old age of 24) that I don't remember this, and you are absolutely right. Actually, I coined Characters in a Can (tm) based off of uni workshops where every protagonist was a fallen hero--Head Cheerleader or Class Valedictorian--brought low by their parents' divorce or a terrible accident involving a drunk driver that left them disabled. Luckily, I wasn't so hard-hearted and cynical then as I am now because I gave those stories a lot of love and rarely got anything in return. These days, I sometimes find myself literally doing a *facepalm* when I find such characters and stories, but--of course--the capacity of an editor is different as well from a workshop participant.

      Oh, while I'm on the subject, have you read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett?

      No! But having worked my way through all of Margaret Atwood's and Joyce Carol Oates' books at the Howard County Public Library Miller Branch, then I need some good summer reading. Thanks for the rec! I will probably read it on the beach in Puerto Rico. ;)

      In short: great post. Your thoughts on the matter are well-reasoned and always a pleasure to read. I'd love to read more of what you have to say about issues in writing.

      Thank you! *blushes* Don't worry, I have many more lined up. It helps me to put these things down onto "paper"--or the Internet equivalent thereof--and I love to discuss them too with other writers whom I respect...which is most of my flist! :)
    • (no subject) - ssotknapsack - Expand
  • You're absolutely right, Dawn, but because I'm an old fart, a lot of stuff that would seem important or dramatic to a young person no longer feels that way to me because I've seen/heard/lived it too many times. Uniqueness becomes less unique as you get older, unfortunately.

    I find in my middle age that I'm less interested in 'hot-button' topics and more interested in characters, as you are, and for myself specifically, in plots, events that interweave or just progress in a linear fashion, but in interesting ways.

    As a writer I find I have to be very interested in what I'm writing about or I fall back upon 'lazy' writer's tricks, and it's always obvious.

    As a reader, I am drawn to believable characters and great plot-based epic stories, or horror/scary science fiction stories more than anything else. The best advice to any new writer is what you have given in this post. Come up with believable, intriguing, fascinating characters and you'll have yourself a memorable and perhaps, well-loved story.
    • Maybe I'm an old fart then too 'cause I'm sure wearied of these plot-based "look at me I'm writing important issue!" stories. ;)

      Not that I would discourage anyone from writing anything...but I do wish that writing teachers* would encourage their students away from such topics and into daily-life types of stories where the people shine above what is going on.

      Some, I'm sure, do. But I never had one who did.

      As a writer I find I have to be very interested in what I'm writing about or I fall back upon 'lazy' writer's tricks, and it's always obvious.

      That's me too! When I don't feel love for a story, it's the hardest thing in the world to finish. And it always feels...wrong. Even as others praise it, it feels wrong to me.

      I said to Juno too: Writing about "hot" topics feels important, and I think that's why a lot of new writers take them on. I was a lot more idealistic in my youth than I am now (and I'm still pretty damned idealistic) and my stories were filled with Big Heroes stuck in such Big Dilemmas. What I--and a lot of writers, I think--didn't realize was that it's the ambiguous, shades-of-gray characters who bring such dilemmas to life, rather than larger-than-life, impeccable heroes.

      But I suppose that idealism needs important topics...and heroes.
  • I think you're right--an exciting topic does not necessarily an exciting story make. I agree with John Gardner that good writing involves about creating "a vivid and continuous dream" in the readers' heads, and this of course involves writing believable characters, and I sort of suspect that writing on a hot-button topic makes it extra easy to turn characters into Symbols instead of people. However, for me personally (with all due disclaimers) a good story will contain plot or at least dramatic tension *as well* as characterization, with the two closely interlinked. (Most of the time the plot arises out of character, and probably changes the characters as it progresses, no?) Only of course to me "plot" doesn't necessarily mean rapes and car chases.

    Oh, I am not sure what I am trying to say, except that I consider myself a very pro-plot writer but that this does not mean that I think character is unimportant--I think it's more that "character matters" seems so obviously true to me that I would never even debate it in my head.
    • It seems very obvious to me too that character should be central to a good story, but I read so many stories that fall into the categories of 1) only an exciting plot or 2) only a "beautiful" metaphor-turned-"story" that I begin to wonder sometimes if I am the crazy one!

      (Most of the time the plot arises out of character, and probably changes the characters as it progresses, no?)

      I certainly find this. I have written stories that began with no idea of a "story"--only a cast of characters--and it has worked quite well for me. I throw the people into a room together and see what happens. It's fun.

      Naturally, I agree that plot is also essential. I would also say this might count as obvious that something must happen in a story to make it work, but again, I've read my share of stories where nothing really happens to know that it (unfortunately) isn't obvious to all writers. Even more than hot-button writing, the stories that make me tear out my hair the most are those where the writer finds a clever metaphor and believes that it deserves its own story. Like the meaning of life compared to music. (I had one of those this quarter to review.) These rarely have plots or characters but lots of inflated, "beautiful" writing. Bleh.

      I do think it a testament to the skill of a writer, though, when s/he can keep a reader engrossed by daily-life sorts of struggles, the sorts of things that form the drama in the average person's life. And it qualifies a writer better, I think, to handle more exciting or controversial topics appropriately.
  • John Irving! I love John Irving! Besides on know what you write, usuing standard plot elements and such... I am wondering if those experiences can also difference from cultural background. For example, a writer can go and write the usage of (recreational) drugs as a basic plot element or vehicle, but that will most definetely make me go like: meh. It isn't a hot topic for me or neither for my social environement, so a story will not work for me. I also wonder, as a reader, that if you have gone through some of those hot canned topics, the author has to make more effort to make a story work for me. Maybe because there is a barrier pulled up, a distance created and such... it will take a writer the necessary effort to get to me.

    A few months ago I read Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. That book simply blew me away because a) it shows character growth. Not only in the way the events are written, but also in the author's voice. b) it tells the tale of poor Irish family. It might seem a boring topic, but I found it hard to put the book down and I was squeeing when I found his next book.

    Another tip is, and then I'll shut up: Neil Gaiman. Try for example Coraline and see how an author can write something so brilliantly about a child fantasy (or not)...
    • I totally agree that having written on a subject raises the standard for me for subsequent pieces that I read on the same topic. Perhaps, too, this is why I respond so negatively to most hot-button stories. I came to fiction later in life, and most of my formal education in writing was as a nonfiction and argument writer so mediocre propaganda disguised as a story tends not to work for me. ;)

      Please don't "shut up" with book recs! I'm leaving for Puerto Rico in 17 days now (*squee!*) and I need some suggestions for when I go to the library to check out beach reading.

      ("Beach reading" for me last year was Harry Potter, a book of gruesome horror stories, a book of essays of elements of writing, and a guide to copy-editing, so nothing really is too "heavy" or boring! :^P)

      Angela's Ashes sounds like something I'd like, so I'll check it out! I'm a huge fan of Maeve Binchy, who is also an Irish writer who writes about Ireland where you want to take the characters home after the story has ended. I love those sorts of stories.

      I just finished a short story by Gaiman last night, actually, called "A Study in Emerald" that was really awesome. Being a writing nerd, I was impressed with how masterfully he captured the narrator's voice; I haven't been able to stop thinking about it! Oh, and the movie MirrorMask (written by Gaiman) was fantastic too. So I'll check him out as well.

      Now it's my turn to shut up. ;)
  • I've made similar experiences, I have to say. A year or so ago I took a course for screenplay writing at my university. I learned many useful things during it, from the lay-out, to the way you describe scenes without using technical terms. That was rather cool, because when you know how to describe a camera pan without using the actual expression it can come in quite handy for writing fiction.

    But I'm losing my point here; what I actually wanted to talk about was when we did writing practice. When we did what we were supposed to write a short movie scene. I was really looking forward to discussing our screenplays, but when we read them to each other I realized that most of the stories (the biggest part of them written by young women of my age) were dealing with some king of pre-rape stories in which the victim (without exception whiny, anxious women) were chased through a dark wood/alley-way/park/your-teh-angsty!-location-of-choice. If I was supposed to feel for that women, well, I didn't. I know no women acting like that in reality. And I think it's a sad thing that this seemed to be the only plot device some could think about to create suspense.

    You know, I wrote a story concerning a chase, too. I wrote about a girl trying to catch her plane. I don't know if I made people care about her, since the scene was too short for any characterization, I know that I didn't manage the suspense to work as I wanted it to and I know that there were some plot-holes and unlogic stuff in there, too, but it was a practice after all... and I remember that - despite it all - I was rather proud of thinking about something different.

    I don't think that the situation described above cannot be done well, but I violently disliked these weepy women characters (actually while doing this exercise - silly as it may sound! - I suddenly felt quite proud of the fact that "my" Haleth was such a cool woman, neither such a little weepy bitch, nor some Xena, but something in between). I don't even think that half of the girls/guys on that course were in any way aspiring writers, but it shows well what people think is supposed to create "tension" I think. Only it didn't. Just a bit of eye-rolling on my side.

    And you're so right about "real" authors making the same mistakes. I only recently read a novel taking place somewhere in Northern Europe in the Middle-ages (around 1066 and the invasion of England, I think). It was certainly not the peak of literature, but it was a quick entertaining read. Okay, so the female main character was a bit of a Sue maybe, and it was very, very obvious that the author was very much in love with her male main character, but it was okay (I do not always need Dante or the likes, if you believe it or not, hehe).

    The one thing that got on my nerves was the fact that I was so obviously expected to feel sorry for the heroine, who disintegrated into a weepy mess, everytime something upsetting happened to her. *eyeroll* Really, I wanted to slap her sometimes. Now, there was this one situation - I don't know if I would really classify it as rape, but it was definitely non-con - that involved her and the drunk male character, and I was obviously made to feel sorry for her and detest him that my brain refused.

    There would have been so many possibilities in the story (which I thought was quite interesting) for the author to develop her heroine a little further - only she didn't. At the end she was married with two children, living somewhere in Scandinavia, but was essentially the same from where the plot took of. It was a bit annoying. Character development, anyone?
    • I wonder about the number of rape stories written. I think that there's an allure to them: a strong physical element, a strong psychological element, and a sense of treading on controversial ground. I think the fact that rape is such a psychological event might make readers feel profound by default, more so than writing about similar violent acts like assault or homicide that are shocking, very physical acts but just don't have the psychological impact of rape.

      And that is true...but it is a challenge then to develop the psychological angle, and I don't think that a lot of writers go that far. They assume that "rape" is enough in itself.

      I really like your idea, btw, of the woman late at the airport. That is a great example of what I meant when I mentioned daily-life struggles that won't influence the course of history or are even life-or-death but that can be suspenseful and frustrating for a reader nonetheless. And can this show a lot about a character? Heck yeah! Just look at how many people drive their cars differently and more aggressively when they're late. ;)

      I've always found female characters to be more difficult to write than males because it often seems that the weepy princess or Xena are lurking in the wings, trying to take over. ;) I think that readers are harder on female characters too than males. I know that I am. FCs seem to fall more readily into stereotypes, imho.

      When I introduce a character into a story, if s/he is to be a main player, then I decide some way in which s/he is going to change. This was my goal in AMC, for example, where there wasn't a whole lot of exciting plot going on, yet each character was vastly different from where s/he began. Or so I hoped. :)
  • I don't exactly know why, but it does not surprise me at all that we agree on this topic, as we do on so many others. Like you and Jenni said, these "Hot button" topics seem to impress me less and les, as well. Probably because they are all supposed to draw the same immediate reaction. Feel pity and affection for the victim and hate the bad guy. I don't know... for me, these things are too black and white. Besides, you know me, I always tend to look past the evil/bad facade and try to see the other side of the story, as well.

    Generally, I stay clear of the "hot button" topics and stories containing them, whether they be fantasy fiction of stories of a more realistic type. And I haven't been tempted to write any such things either. not even in the world of fanfic that allows me and other writers to do absolutely anything.

    Your post reminded me of a story I've read a while ago and Jenni is also reading it now. In it, one character takes advantage of another's utter vulnerability, rape occurs, the victim becomes pregnant and must flee to search for help and sanctuary with the unwitting and undeserving father. The victim becomes the other's slave and subject to constant abuse that drives the character to lose all self confidence and ultimately believe that he deserves no better and all he lives for is to please his master. (Yea, OK, it's slash and mpreg, Elves and all, but if you can get around that, the story will pull you in, because it is very intense and well written. Just let me know and I'll give you the links to it, if you are interested). The reason I'm ranting about this is that the whole rape, BDSM thing, which tends to be overdone in some parts of the LotR fandom, takes a whole new image in this story and the author focuses less on the physical aspect and more on the emotional turmoil of the characters. Though I was sorely tempted to hate the bad guy (and there were times when I did, though he's one of Tolkien's characters that's impossible to hate), the story forced me to go past the natural reaction, to read further and try to understand.

    I guess that what I'm trying to say is what you've also pointed in your post... no matter how over-done a plot-line might be, no matter how hot the button it presses becomes, the most important thing is the way the characters come out. If they reach you, if they talk to you and make you share their feelings and experiences, then the so-called action is irrelevant. You won't remember the plot, the stuff that happened, but you will remember the people and the feelings that they inspired. (And yea, this comes from a pr0n and slash consuming pervy Elf fancier... who also rants like hell!) ;)
    • Black-and-white characters, as you know (since we have ranted like hell about this in the past together! :^D) are another bane of writing to me. Nothing is that simple in life, and so I can't believe in a story that makes it such.*

      *Unless it is a PoV issue. For example, in your bday story, the entire story is written from Erestor's PoV. And Erestor doesn't like Nerdanel, so Nerdanel seems an unequivocal "bad guy." Is she? Of course not! She--or even Feanaro or one of their children--would tell the same story very differently. And I hope that Erestor's obvious jealousy will make most readers realize that I don't hate Nerdanel so much as Erestor isn't the most reliable narrator when it comes to talking about her. /ramble

      I love stories that take a convenient villain and make him sympathetic. That's why I began AMC, of course! Because I was tired of seeing Feanorians made into flat, black-and-white villains.

      In a non-fanfic example, the movie Paradise Now follows two Palestinian suicide bombers, certainly convenient villains by today's standards and politics, as they prepare for a mission in service of the Palestinian cause. It would be easy to portray these two as the bad guys that most of us believe them to be, but the movie doesn't do that. It puts viewers into the centers of their lives and so shows how such madness can arise.

      I think that the saying "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" should be kept in mind by writers. Every bad guy has followers who chose his side for a reason...or if he is alone in his convictions, he must say something to help himself sleep at night.* The Feanorians, for example, certainly didn't plunge into Alqualonde with intentions of slaying as many of the Teleri as they could. The challenge then is to trace back through their pasts and understand their circumstances to ask why it happened.

      *Unless he's a psychopath. But a psychopath is a difficult character to write, and I don't know how successful he could be as a round character. He'd work better, I think, as either an satiric/comic figure (as in American Psycho) or as an enigma a la Hannibal Lecter. Neither really counts as a round character, and in the case of Lecter, he really serves more to develop other characters, notably Clarise. Oh my, am I rambling! :^D

      I've seen you talking a lot about that story. I'd like to check it out sometime; I'm really far behind in my reading now, so maybe sometime in the next year or two? :^D
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