Guest post - Difficult topics to write about by Peter Orullian

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I get the irony of writing an article about difficult things to write about. I mean, I’m gearing up to write about things I think are hard to deal with in fiction. But on at least one level, it might also be important to call attention to such things. Anyway, I intend to try.

Let me start with: Death

In fantasy fiction death is common. It often happens at scale, too, with armies and battles and sweeping wars. But even when it’s not a numbers game, there’s usually plenty of death to go around.

The thing is, too often I’m not sure the deaths are made to matter. I’m not suggesting we mourn the death of an unrepentant “bad guy.” And in a scene with hundreds of deaths, there’s not time enough to go into each one individually. But typically, we’re following one—or maybe a few—characters. Whether it’s one of them who dies, or perhaps them doing the killing, reactions to death need to be on the page.

Artwork by Adam Kuczek

It’s not simply that death is cheapened if no one gives a damn. It’s also that it’s just unrealistic if no one does. Most people have others who care about them. This is absolutely true for military folk, starting with the men and women with whom they serve. 

So, if someone falls, there will be grief. And the point I’m making is that death deserves that much. I’m not making an argument that not doing so desensitizes us. Maybe it does, there’d need to be real research to prove that out. No, my argument is simpler. It’s that however natural or part of life death might be, it’s difficult. We grieve. Maybe you’re writing a stoic character who holds in his or her emotions. Maybe. But the world isn’t uniformly stoic. 

When a character falls or watches a friend or loved one fall—whether in battle, or from old age, or whatever—the emotion it evinces from those who care about the one who’s fallen should be clear. And for fiction writers, it’s a powerful opportunity to build character, sharpen motivations, and deepen the narrative. I tried to do this at the very beginning of TRIAL OF INTENTIONS, having a character pause to mark the moment of the passing of some few who’ve perished. With any luck, it’s added some resonance both to the character, and to the story more broadly.

And beyond all this, I think—for folks who are more intimately acquainted with death (perhaps because they’ve lost loved ones, themselves)—writing death has added layers. Or should. Again, not every death. Clearly, in a war there are countless who fall, and we can’t kneel beside each one of them. But wherever we’ve focused our story, I’m suggesting that writing death honestly is a taut, emotional experience. It leaves one drained. That’s the investment I think is right on the part of the writer. And it goes a long way to helping that specific death have weight and meaning, which then enriches the tale.

Next, I want to talk about: The mistreatment of children
I’ve often wondered if writing about the mistreatment of children is harder for writers who are parents than those who are not. I don’t have any data to argue the idea one way or the other. But for my part, the very moment my first child was born, something in me changed. For the better, I think. Less selfish. More dedicated. 

And the idea of a child in peril is bound to evince powerful reactions in me, even when I’m writing it myself. This is why I make every effort to be thoughtful about my approach to this topic. I dislike the notion of playing loose with the mistreatment of children. Yes, if it serves the story, it has a place. But if it’s a device inserted without care, simply to garner a shock, I get turned off.

Artwork by Casey Weeks

In my series—The Vault of Heaven—I have a character who cares for castoff children, orphans, and foundlings. And he pays visits to families where he’s able to place a few, from time to time. In one instance, he finds a man who’s abusing a child he’s entrusted to this man’s safe-keeping. It doesn’t go well for the abuser, as you might imagine.

My point is not that writers shouldn’t write about child abuse or other kinds of mistreatment of the young. In many stories, it’s salient. Even necessary. But my feeling is that it needs to be germane to the story. And when it’s written, it needs to be done with care. Not that it can’t be stark, or brutal, or both. In fact, it’s not a thing to be gilded. But by the same token, I, personally, want to see it done thoughtfully. This might take many forms. 

If you’re writing from the POV of the child, take me inside their pain. Talk to me about how they feel, how they might intend to escape, or why they stay. It reminds me of the film Radio Flyer. Good flick, if you have the time.

And I caution against trying to make a child abuser sympathetic, which, in turn, reminds me of the film The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon. I love Kevin, but he tried to play a pedophile sympathetically. He failed. The story set him up to fail. 

Sure, share with me the reason why an abuser is abusive. People usually do things for reasons. But reasons are not justifications. Big difference. I know it’s fashionable to write about moral ambiguity. But where mistreatment of children is concerned, ambiguity is a bad choice.

Show some care, is what I’m trying to say. It’s a topic that warrants it.

Last, I’d like to talk a bit about: Suicide
Want to know the truth . . . I waited to write this last. I even wrote the closing that comes at the end before coming to this. Why? It’s a bit raw for me. I’ll try to explain.

See, in TRIAL OF INTENTIONS I take up the topic of suicide. It’s not what the book is about, but a few of my characters are intimately acquainted with it. They’ve had people make this choice. And they’re struggling through the aftermath. Their motivations become stronger, deeper, as a result. But it’s not easy. 

Then, as I was writing this book, early on, I had a friend make this choice here in the real world. I thought I’d worked through all the emotions. But when I went back to the book for edits, it was startling to see how it had woven itself into the book.

TRIAL OF INTENTIONS was always going to deal with suicide. There are harsh conditions for many of my characters. And some lose their battle to the weight of it all. But the real world imposed itself. And I did write it as honestly as I could. I think it resonates fairly well.

But to circle back to the point, this is a sensitive topic. It’s more common than is reported. Military veterans. Kids from abusive homes. Kids who are the victim of bullying. 

I rage at preventable circumstances that contribute to someone making such a choice. And always, I just wish those who are suffering could find the help they need.

In fiction, whether you’re writing a character who is battling the kind of depression that suggests they kill themselves, or those left behind when someone close to them takes their own life, please give it some thought. I’m not suggesting page after page of it. In some instances, sparingly treated is appropriate. But even then, the few words you use to communicate about suicide will say a lot. About the characters. About you.

Like the other topics I’ve covered, this is one that deserves a kind of gentleness. Not to be mistaken with gentle writing or soft words. Starkness may be precisely what is called for. But when describing the act or the consequences for those left behind, you’re writing about hopelessness and helplessness. These are powerful emotions. Treated well, they can lend a lot of power to the narrative. Deepen motivation for other characters. Give it all a more human feeling that increases our sympathy and investment as readers. 

It’s not a trick or device. Or, I should say, it shouldn’t be treated as such. Not from where I’m sitting, anyway. Others may disagree with me. That’s fine. Glad to have the debate. But as I’ve said of other topics that I think deserve careful attention, when suicide is flippantly or carelessly or thoughtlessly written, it’s easy to tell. And it’s a turn off.

Where does that leave us?
To close, by “difficult to write about,” I don’t mean the words come slowly. Nor do I mean that these topics are off limits. Or even that the degree to which you show these things has a limit. Those are writer choices and proficiencies. 

What I mean is that I’m of the opinion that they’re challenging topics to write about if you intend to do them well. They’re potent, to be sure. They can fill you story with a depth they might not otherwise have. But to achieve that depth, you have to plumb. Trust me, it’s easy to spot the difference between writers who do and writers who don’t go down to the bottom of the pain.

None of which is to say I—or any writer, for that matter—is perfect at any of this. Sometimes you nail it. Sometimes you don’t. But in all instances, it’s better to make the effort.


Written by Peter Orullian:

Peter has worked at Xbox for over a decade, which is good, because he’s a gamer. He’s toured internationally with various bands and been a featured vocalist at major rock and metal festivals, which is good, because he’s a musician. He’s also learned to hold his tongue, because he’s a contrarian. Peter has published several short stories, which he thinks are good. The Unremembered and Trial of Intentions are his first novels, which he hopes you will think are good. He lives in Seattle, where it rains all the damn time. He has nothing to say about that. Visit Peter at, or follow him at @peterorullian.

Trial of Intentions blurb:
The heart of grief lies somewhere between one man’s expectation and another’s intent. 
Enemies come. But one enemy believes the gods were wrong about his exiled people. And he’s impatient. 
Nations arm. But one man finds a realm paying for its gearworks with an awful currency. And he’s angry. 
Politicians lie. But one leader lies because he would end the days of slums and porridge. And he’s ambitious. 
Songs restore. But one woman will train to make her rough song a weapon. And she’s in pain. 
Magi influence. But one sage follows not his order’s creed; he follows his heart. And his heart is bitter. 
And one young man remembers. He remembers friends who despaired in a place left barren by war. Friends who did self-slaughter. But he also remembers years in a society of science. A gentler place. So he leaves the rest, daring to think he can lead not in battle, but by finding a way to prevent self-slaughter, prevent war. 
The heart of grief . . . is a trial of intentions.


Unknown said...

These topics definitely need to be talked about. Death is a part of any story because it is the epitome of human mortality. Some authors glaze over it while others focus on it too much. As for the mistreatment of children, I agree that shock value on this is completely out of line. Dark things happen to children in real life, but as writers it is our duty to convey that suffering for a point in the story. Likewise, suicide is a hard thing to write because there is so much depressing leading up to the actually self-murder. I don't know if I would ever write a suicide of one of my characters. I'm glad you were able to find the creativity to do it justice. Oh, and you are spot on about it affecting everyone around that person.

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