Take it to the limit

(It should be obvious, but the title comes from one of the best Eagles songs.)

Yesterday, my partner mentioned a “disturbing” scene in a book she had read. It was indeed disturbing, from the description she gave, and it got me thinking about what I consider to be the limits of my writing. By this, I don’t mean the things I can’t write, but those I won’t write.

Every author has limits. Some see those limits as challenges, barriers. Others treat them more like a fence around the yard, defining the boundaries of personal space. I do lean more in that direction, I’ll admit. Over the past decade, my writing has visited some interesting genres, character interactions, and scene elements, but a few things just make me stop, shake myself, and ask, “Are you sure you want to write that?”

Sex is at the top of the list, as I think it is for many authors. Of course, some of us have to deal with publisher or platform requirements. (Amazon only allows certain kinds of erotica, for example, while Kobo seems to prohibit anything a church lady would find offensive.) Even without those restrictions, however, I would find myself hard-pressed—pardon the pun—to write explicit sex scenes for public consumption.

I’ve written implicit sex on many occasions, and many of my stories have more than their fair share of innuendo. Neither of those bother me. It’s only when I get into the details that I find myself wondering if I should bother. Very, very few written stories benefit from the addition of sexual content. Most of the time, it’s there for wish fulfillment or pure titillation, both of which are better served by other forms of media. The thing is, people do have sex. Therefore, my characters, being people, should do the same. But it’s also one of the most private acts humans can commit, so how much does it really belong in, say, a fantasy or sci-fi novel?

I suppose another reason I’m leery of sexual content in my stories is that so many of my characters are children and teenagers. That’s one of modern society’s biggest taboos, as we know, and most platforms take a heavy-handed approach to policing it. (Established authors can get away with a lot more. Ask George R. R. Martin or Terry Goodkind, to name two examples among many.) But such strictures also cause a chilling effect for those of us who don’t want to deal in explicit sexuality. How far am I allowed to go in exploring, say, the relationship between 13-year-old Justin and 14-year-old Derry? More importantly, what do I do if I reach the platform’s limits before my own?

In other types of media, specifically TV and movies, sex is a surefire way of getting an adult rating, but gratuitous violence and gore are very often allowed in material geared towards teens. In my opinion, that’s one of the greatest failings of Hollywood, because it gives favor to acts of destruction over those of creation.

Don’t get me wrong. Some things are inherently violent and gory. War, particularly. I’ve written numerous scenes of battle, mostly squad-level skirmishes or even duels. I’ve written about monsters and murders. Only in The Linear Cycle and the Endless Forms novels do I really delve into some of the more gruesome aspects, though. In both cases, I feel I’m justified: one is a zombie apocalypse, the other a paranormal detective series.

I don’t go out of my way to shock my readers. You won’t see Tom Clancy levels of detail about guns and the effects they have on the targets of their aggression. I’ll never write the novelization of Saw. I do have blood and guts, explosions and corpses, but I always treat these with a little bit of distance.

That’s just who I am. I don’t like death. Or war, for that matter. I’d much rather write about the aftereffects of a battle, or the tactics, or the causes that led to it, not excruciating details about how many body parts are being lost by the soldiers on the front lines.

This extends to more general sorts of violence, as well. Although some might describe me as sadistic—all authors possess some measure of sadism, to be honest—I don’t like seeing people hurt for no reason. I don’t even like seeing it happen to my characters, and they’re not real people!

The hardest scenes for me to write are those involving character injury and death. The climactic chapters of Nocturne, for instance, took a lot out of me. (One scene in particular still almost brings me to tears.) Likewise for the RPG-style battles of The Soulstone Sorcerer and even the death of a fairly minor character in Written in Black and White. I’m just a big softy, I guess.

I have a few other writing limits, too. Many of these are personal, like my aversion to profanity, which stems from a choice I made many years ago, long before I ever dreamed of becoming an author. I don’t write transgender characters, as I feel the very subject is so politicized that it would be a waste of my time. You’ll never see my name on a horror novel; I don’t like the genre, and I don’t feel I could do it justice. And I’ll likely never kill off a main character. A main character’s love interest, yes. A main character’s best friend, sure. Not the protagonists themselves, however. (I have flirted with the idea on two occasions, but it never felt right. Congratulations, Gabriel and Chei, you both survive this time.)

Pushing the boundaries is part of our growth as authors and people. It’s natural and healthy to want to try new things we didn’t think were possible. But the comfort zone is real. Once we’re past it, once we truly feel uncomfortable because of what we’re writing, it’s time to step back and think it over. Do we really need to put that in? Does it serve a purpose? Does it add to the story? Or are we just doing it because of, well, peer pressure?

Because that’s what it is, when you think about it. The uncomfortable excursions beyond our limits usually come about from an attempt at…showing off, to put it bluntly. Sex sells. Violence isn’t exactly sitting on the shelves, either. All those little things we think a “real” story needs—because the pros have them—aren’t always necessary. Sometimes it’s better to do more with less. Sometimes taking a step back from the action can work better than getting down and dirty.

It’s all about what you want, what suits you and your story, and that’s something you have to find for yourself. Explore, because there’s no other way to find your boundaries. And if you want to go beyond them, but you don’t think you can bring yourself to do it, look for encouragement. Find a private audience, someone who is willing to help you experiment and grow. Often, what we think is near actually lies farther away than we imagined. Your boundaries might not be as close as you believe.

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