A Bridge Too Far: Taboos in Fiction

Thanks to all the wonderful readers for their enthusiastic reception of SHADOW WIZARD! Just because it’s so squee-worthy, here’s a fabulous Reddit Gush about the book. Made me very happy!

This week at the SFF Seven, we’re asking about limits. How far is too far in your writing? Is there anything you find taboo?

I think these are two different questions. I mean, they’re literally two different questions, but I think the consideration of what is “too far” for me vs. what I find taboo are not the same at all.

George R.R. Martin once told me about one of his favorite writing exercises to assign when he teaches workshops. He’d ask the students to write about the worst thing they ever did. Some, he said, were clearly fictionalizing. And others couldn’t seem to come up with anything that terrible – which he figured for another sort of denial. But the point of the exercise was to demonstrate that all people – and thus all characters – can do really awful things. I mulled this over, and the conversation has clearly stuck with me, and I’m pretty clear that I do have places I won’t go in my writing.

Some of the reactions to SHADOW WIZARD that I’ve seen remark on how awful some of the high houses in the Convocation are. In fact, some readers tap out on the world altogether, because it is so dark. I want to show in my work what absolute power does to people – it’s a recurring theme for me – so perhaps I’m not so different from GRRM in that perspective. I have shown sexual abuse to the point of rape on the page, so that’s clearly not too far for me. I won’t show the death of a child or an animal-friend, however. That’s just because it’s too much sorrow for me.

As far as taboos, however… I have a workshop I sometimes teach on writing sexual tension, and I delve heavily into taboos, especially as they apply to sex. In short, taboos exist in society for good reasons – they are instilled in us as children to protect our health (no dessert before dinner) and safety (don’t touch the hot stove) and later they come from our larger communities to protect us all (murder is wrong). Because taboos are so deeply ingrained in us, breaking them releases a huge amount of emotional and spiritual energy. It’s freeing to break taboos – which is why breaking sexual taboos (which often don’t exist for very good reasons) can be so healthy.

The great thing about fiction is you can break all the taboos you want to! It’s exhilarating for the writer and the reader. There’s a reason we love kick-ass characters who kill with glee and ease. That releases the same energy in us as breaking the murder taboo, but without social or personal consequences. So… is there anything taboo for me in fiction?

Probably not.

First Cup of Coffee – October 3, 2022

How I handle self-published projects vs. trad-pub targeted projects with my agent, my sugarplum of a midwinter holiday novella, and shaking my cane at publicists these days and how they’re promoting books.