Writing Excuses 15.34: Writing Deliberate Discomfort
Key Points: How do you write when parts of what you are writing make you uncomfortable? Cursing, sex, violence, racism, misogyny? Where is the discomfort coming from, and is it desirable? Do it on purpose. Signpost what you are doing. Let other characters balance. Don’t kick the puppies! Consequences! Be aware that for marketing, this may be hard to place. You may be uncomfortable, but you may also be hurting specific readers. Listen to your beta readers. Make sure you have thought through the discomfort, and you are doing it for a reason.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 34.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Deliberate Discomfort.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Lari] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Erin] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m definitely not that smart. My name’s Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Lari] I’m Lari.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dan] We are very excited to have Erin Roberts back with us. I won’t make you introduce yourself this time. But she’s amazing.
[Dan] We want to talk about deliberate discomfort. This was a really fascinating question that came in from a listener, and I’m going to read it to you. It says, “What do you do when your writing includes elements that make you uncomfortable, but you’re writing the story you want to write?” Someone asked this a while ago in the comments section in relation to a character cursing, but I’d like to ask this question in a broader sense. What if my mom reads this? This is uncomfortable to write. Thank you for submitting that question. I think this applies to so many things. Whether it is you are not a person who uses curse words, but your characters do. Maybe you are uncomfortable writing the sex scenes, or the violence. Maybe you’re writing about racism or misogyny or something like that that makes you very uncomfortable. How do you deal with this as authors, as editors? Deliberate discomfort. For yourself, or for the reader.
[Mary Robinette] I think all of us are uncomfortable about jumping on this one.
[Mary Robinette] So, I’ve done this a couple of times. What I find is that there are… There are different degrees of discomfort, and you have to understand where that discomfort comes from, and also think about whether or not it’s desirable. So there’s the what will people think aspect of it. So, like, I have a story Cerbo en Vitro Ujo, which I’ve told my parents, “Do not read this.” Like, I just… I don’t want to have that conversation. That’s a different kind of discomfort then when I am writing sexism in a novel, because that is stuff that I have experienced directly and I am putting things in that made me uncomfortable when they happened to me, and I know that they’re going to make my readers uncomfortable in the same ways, hopefully, that I was uncomfortable, and that for some people, it’s going to be even more painful than that. So… And with those, I am like, that discomfort, I know that I’m doing it on purpose because I want to invoke that sense of “Oh, this is really… Oh, God.” But other times, it is about making sure that I am reflecting the shape of the world. So, for me, it’s really about interrogating why am I putting that discomfort in there.
[Dan] Yeah. I had to have this conversation with my editor with my historical novel, Ghost Station. There are two major plot points that kind of turn on sexism. The fact that the women in the main character’s life, he doesn’t necessarily respect them as much as he should or consider them as equals. Which sounds horrible, and it is horrible. What that meant was that for the first two thirds of the novel, there’s a lot of kind of gendered language that I worked for 15 years to edit out of my own writing. Making sure to include more inclusive environments and cast of characters and so on. For this book, I was deliberately pulling back from that, so that we would be building this character towards the moment… Two different ones, like I said, where he realizes, “Oh. I screwed up because I have this massive blind spot in my life.” I had my beta readers, I had my editor, I had the copy editors, all of them for those first two thirds of the book were like, “You did this wrong. This is a wildly sexist book.” I had to say, “Yes. But it’s on purpose. I know that it’s painful to read. But that’s what we’re going for at the end, and it does pay off.”
[Erin] One thing that I love to do and stories in general is write horrible people that are… I like to call them sympathetic monsters. One of the things that you have to do, or at least that I have to do, when I’m writing a like really not the greatest person, is to remember that there is a difference between the story the character is telling and the story that I am telling about them. Even in a first-person perspective. There, you can signpost out there that what they’re like… I’m stuck in my horrible evil world, but you can still indicate by how other people see them and react to them, by what else you put in the descriptions of what they’re doing, to show people that it’s not necessarily… That you are not your character, and that they’re something that you’re trying to do, and that the discomfort is there for a reason.
[Dan] Relying on other characters is a good way of doing that. Because then you can still have that character, whether it’s the viewpoint or a side character, expressing an opinion that you as an author disagree with, but then you still get to have the balance in there through the other characters.
[Mary Robinette] I think that one of the…
[Erin] I was going to say, you could also use objectives… So I do a lot of unreliable narrators as well. I think there’s a similar craft there. If you take something objectively wrong, and the character is agreeing with it, it helps to show people that they’re… Something is off in the way that they see the world and that there’s… And that you realize the difference. They talk about it sometimes as like the kicking… Kicking puppies is always a good example people use in film. Like, if you have a character kick a puppy, and be like, “That’s the greatest moment of my life,” then you’re showing… Everyone objectively agrees that kicking puppies is wrong. So you’re showing that there’s… That the discomfort of living in that character is something you know about, and that you know the reader is experiencing and you’re saying that’s on purpose.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think also giving consequences to some of the horrible action that… Even if it’s your protagonist doing it, like, not letting them get away with it is something that you can do to kind of mitigate that and indicate that it… This is not acceptable behavior, there are consequences. Lari, I’m curious. How do you handle this as an editor?
[Lari] Also… I wanted to point out from a market perspective, just how what Dan did with 1/3 of the novel being a misogynist character is not something that everyone can do at any point. I do think that there should be… There is discomfort for yourself, like we were saying, there is discomfort for… In terms of who’s reading this. Then, I do think that when you’re trying to break through, there are a few things that I would consider inadvisable. That is one of the things, if you just spend a lot of time in it. As incredible as the second and third part would be, if that’s your breakthrough, that might be really hard to place.
[Mary Robinette] There was something that I recently saw someone say about Calculating Stars. I was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s a really good point.” It was on Twitter. It was a Black reader saying that she wondered when Elma’s friends would get tired of her continually making the same basic nice White lady mistakes. And that she found it exhausting to read because she had to deal with it so much in her own life. I think that that’s an important thing to understand, that when you put in something that’s deliberately discomforting… Uncomfortable, that it is often going to be significantly worse for… Like the misogyny that Dan was putting in. That’s uncomfortable for him. For me, reading that, that’s going to be worse for me reading it because it is an environment that I live in all the time. So you do have to think about the cost that you’re putting in there is that you are… You’re not just making yourself uncomfortable, you’re also potentially hurting specific readers. That… It’s like is that… You probably need less of the deliberate discomfort than you think you do.
[Dan] I definitely want to dig really deep into this. Everyone’s raising their hand, they have something they want to say.
[Dan] Let’s pause first for our book of the week, which is actually a short story, and then we’ll get back into it. Erin, you’ve got the story of the week.
[Erin] So the story of the week is The Lamentation of Their Women by Kai Ashante Wilson. It can be found, I believe, on Tor.com originally, and then it was republished at PodCastle as an audio. What I love about this story is it wants to make you uncomfortable because it has a point to make. So it is a story that has curse words in it, it has violence in it, it has a really stark look at policing in America in it. It is something that… Where discomfort is used as a tool to try to be part of the story that it is telling.
[Dan] Excellent. That is The Lamentation of Their Women by…
[Erin] Kai Ashante Wilson.
[Dan] Awesome. Thank you.
[Dan] So, yeah, let’s dig into this. Being deliberately uncomfortable in your work is going to affect your readers. It is going to cause discomfort in them, and, like Mary Robinette was saying, it’s going to be a lot more painful for some readers than for others. So why do we put it in? What is the purpose of this? What value does it have? I know Lari and Erin both have comments they wanted to make. Lari, let’s start with you. What were you going to say?
[Lari] I was going to talk about the importance of beta readers. I think it’s really important when you’re writing uncomfortable scenes to have people who are in that group make some comments. They might be something that you want to incorporate or not. But sometimes it’s a little hard to know where you are in that line. If… How far you’ve gone, how hurtful it might be. So I do think it’s really important to have people make comments.
[Erin] What I would say, to build on all that, is that you need to do the discomfort work first. If it’s something that you’re not comfortable enough with to write well, and to really do the work and make yourself feel horrible and all that stuff, don’t do it. Because… If you’re not doing that work, you’re putting it on your readers. It is unfair to ask readers to do work that you are not comfortable doing yourself. So make sure you’re in a place where you can use that discomfort as a tool, because there’s a specific thing you’re trying to get out of it. I would also say don’t do it as a thought exercise, like, “Can I write horrible people just for funsies?” When I do it, it’s usually because I’m trying to make a point about the way that culture… Oppressive culture can warp the people within them. So for me it’s important to show how a monstrous culture turns a person into a monster. But there’s a point that I’m trying to make. I’m not just doing it like to see if I can.
[Dan] That might be valuable as a writing exercise. But if it’s something that you are going to put in front of readers, then, yeah, I think you’re right. It is important to have a purpose, and have a purpose in mind. Why am I including, for example, racial oppression in my fantasy world? It doesn’t have to be there. I’m making this world up. So if it is there, why is it there?
[Mary Robinette] Within that, also, the… Like, again, that… It was just a single tweet. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m spending my entire life… But it did make me sit back and go, “Oh, yeah.” I knew that I was writing this book for an audience… For me. But this is a really good reminder that that also meant that specifically I was… As much as I want those books to be inclusive, that I was writing this book for a White audience. The realizations about race that are in there, that I… Like, I see a lot of people who are like, “Ah. I realize that I was doing the things that Elma was doing.” I’m like, “Yeah. Yeah. That’s… I mean, that is the realization that I want you to have.” But Elma’s realizations are all in there because I had friends who did the emotional labor to teach me. But that means that I have to recognize that any Black readers are also having to do emotional labor to like my character. That wasn’t something… That was not a deliberate choice. Like, that part of it was not a deliberate choice. That’s… That is the piece that I’m like… That was a thing that I missed when I wrote it. And that I’m trying to think about when I’m writing other things. Which doesn’t mean that I’m going to leave out the discomfort, but I’m also… It does mean that I’m going to think about… I’m going to think more carefully about how much is necessary to have that character arc and growth. It’s usually less than you think it is.
[Dan] All right. Well, let’s have some homework. Lari, you have homework for us.
[Lari] I’m calling this an exercise in confession. It is a short story in first person about a character whose point of view you completely disagree with.
[Dan] Excellent. A short story or a paragraph, write something with a character you disagree with. Excellent. This has been… I’ve been looking forward to this episode because I was hoping for a great discussion, and we got one. So, thank you, to all of you. This was awesome. Wonderful listeners, thank you. You are out of excuses. Now go write.