Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Are there any subjects you avoid?

Over at Kill Zone Blog, a very simple, short post. Here it is in its entirety:

Are there any subjects you avoid completely in your writing? For example, is there anything you avoid writing about because it might be too disturbing to readers?

Then the comments, which are of course the point of the post. Click through and read them if you feel so inclined. Naturally someone declears that “nothing should be off-limits” which is of course true but does not address the question. Just because topics aren’t off the table for the entire literary world doesn’t mean I’m going to write (or read) books that include certain topics and tropes.

So, my personal response:

There is nothing I avoid because it might be too disturbing to readers. There are plenty of things I avoid because they are too disturbing to me, or because they’re simply distasteful and not necessary to include. I could probably write a top ten list for those things. In fact, I’ll take a stab at doing so:

1. I am very, very unlikely to kill a dog, or any sort of pet. Dogs that are ghosts at the beginning of the book don’t count, and in fact if you decide to make the animal into a ghost during the course of the story and then keep it around as a character, that’s fine.

2. I am even more unlikely to kill an important child secondary character, not once the reader has been offered a chance to get emotionally attached.

Destroying a whole city is different from killing a specific animal or child character. I wouldn’t show the people of that city to the reader in detail and encourage emotional attachment before destroying it.

3. I don’t expect ever to kill a point-of-view protagonist.

4. I doubt I would ever write an evil point-of-view protagonist. I almost always hate any chapters in books that are from the villains’ points of view. I almost never think that is necessary and I am not interested in reading the pov of a villain. Yes, I’m thinking of Game of Thrones here, but there are lots of other examples and I hate them all, or all I can think of right this moment.

5. I detest almost all betrayal plotlines, unless they are part of a larger redemption arc and sometimes even if they are. I am very unlikely to insert that kind of plotline into one of my books.

6. I really dislike petty, selfish, unlikable, mean-spirited characters and generally don’t write them. I often skim over their scenes in other authors’ books.

7. Detailed descriptions of torture are not something I would generally consider writing, although I can tolerate them in books I read (usually). I cannot tolerate them in visual media, it turns out. For me, violence is fine but torture is out when it comes to tv and movies.

8. The sort of plot where the protagonist makes one terrible decision after another and slowly self-destructs is SO AWFUL. I would never write this and I can’t read it. SO. AWFUL.

9. In general, I see no need to discuss, describe, or even mention certain natural functions of the human body. Too much detail of that type turns me right off in other authors’ books too.

10. This is not a subject or topic; it’s an element of storytelling: If the bad guy actually wins at the end of the book, I am done with the author. I would never write that kind of ending in a million years. Never. I mean, I hate to spoil the suspense if you wondered whether the bad guy would win in one of my books, but: No.

Now I am thinking of In the Woods by Tana French here. A wonderfully written novel with (a) an important betrayal plotline; (b) an important character-destroys-his-own-life plotline; and (c) the bad guy wins at the end.

After that I am never touching another book by Tana French, ever, no matter who recommends it.

How about you? What element would you never, ever touch in a novel of your own? Does it also mean an automatic Never-Buy rejection of an author if you see that element in a book you read?

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15 Comments Are there any subjects you avoid?

  1. Hanneke

    My reading dislikes align very well with your list.
    I think I’m a bit stronger inclined to dislike horror, noir, icky, violence, gritty and depressing; but that appears to be more a difference in degree than in kind.
    I also seem to have a somewhat higher tolerance for imperfections in gentle feel-good stories, and a much stronger impulse to complete a book or series, which is sometimes at war with my dislikes (which is why despite the torture which I hated, I did finish Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s first rule, then promptly gave it away and won’t recommend it to anyone).

    Still, authors who use the enumerated a-b-c plotlines will go on a mental don’t buy or read list.

    I will occasionally tolerate 3, if well done; sometimes such an ultimate sacrifice as a consequence of their actions fits a character so well that it’s unavoidable if you don’t want to do violence to the pov’s character. It’s one reason I prefer fiction, as it’s often easier to find alternate solutions.

    4 I will skip unless the villain is not so bad and it’s a redemption story for them; it’s not an absolute no-no but often goes together with too gritty or noir for my taste.

  2. Mary Beth

    Honestly, this list is one of the reasons why you are an auto-buy author for me. I know I can trust you not to betray ME as a reader (and, of course, to tell an excellent story with characters I’ll love).

  3. Maria

    I coincide with most of yours.:)

    I can handle torture if the victim is not mutilated. If they start chopping off fingers, I’ll start skipping.

    I like bad guy POVs as long as the villain is interesting and properly punished at the end.

    Mental illness and addiction. I’ve seen too many real-life tragedies.

    Preaching and lecturing. If an author wants to show that something is bad they should show how it hurts people instead of having a character or the narrator deliver a lecture about it.

    Medieval monarchy where everyone acts like 21st century people. I mean if they don’t have running water only the rich will be able to have daily baths in their own tub and serfs are not likely to be considered the nobles’ equal…

  4. Evelyn M. Hill

    I agree with the list but I would expand on #1 to include any kind of harm. Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs starts out with dogs in an animal research facility talking about the awful things being done to them, but how they must endure it because dogs are supposed to obey their masters.

    Tried to read that book 30 years ago. Couldn’t get past that scene. Can’t forget it.

  5. Pete Mack

    I have to disagree on evil character POV. When done right, they give a wonderful frisson. I am thinking of one in particular: the sorceror-king in Pillars of the Sky. As for petty character POVs: the queen in the same trilogy surely counts, though she gets some redemption at the end. All told, this is probably my favorite series with multiple POVs. Really well done. The next trilogy in that world is not shaping up well, alas: it centers on a really *obvious* prophesy. I put aside book 1, and have not picked it up again.

  6. mona

    4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 especially. I would add a point for anything lewd or disturbingly suggestive (or worse). I can’t stand that.

    Betrayal plotlines give me SO much heartache. Same with self destruction and triumphant villains.

    I read Hardinge’s The Lie Tree recently, and midway through I thought it might turn into a self destruction thing. But then my completionist tendencies forced me to finish it. I don’t know if I’ll read anything of hers again soon. Maybe in a few years.

  7. SarahZ

    I think that list is pretty accurate for me too.

    When rape is included in a story, it’s got to be handled with care. The disrespectful and unrealistic (from the victim’s pov) way it was handled in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was one of several reasons why I didn’t continue with that series (everyone said, ‘It’s about a female hacker, you’ll love it’…ugh).

    I also get really annoyed when the ending negates the rest of the story – that doesn’t happen often, but when it does it really upsets me. Like, where the character opts to forget all the events of the series, or there’s some time travelly reset, and nothing we saw actually happened.

  8. Andrea

    There’s some writing advice that goes “think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and do that”.

    I’d rather interesting, challenging and often pleasant things. I am so not into misery porn.

  9. Rachel

    Andrea, I think people who give that advice — which I’ve also heard — may not quiiite have realized what they are suggesting. “The worst thing that could happen” would generally make for a short and tragic story, not a novel.

  10. Rachel

    Sarah, I agree. I detest “– and then she woke up” types of endings. I’m surprised anybody ever writes that kind of ending, since as far as I can tell, 99.9% of all readers hate them. But I can think of several.

  11. Rachel

    Evelyn, yes. I read Plague Dogs, but I wish I hadn’t. It kind of has a happy ending … but not enough to be worth wading through the beginning.

  12. Rachel

    Maria, good points with preaching! Even if I agree with the author’s pov, I, the reader, should not be able to tell what the author’s pov actually is. If I can, then that too-obvious preachiness harms or even destroys the reading experience for me.

    Also totally agree about inserting modern values in a very different kind of society. I hate that.

  13. Elaine T

    Perhaps that advice Andrea quoted should be phrased “worst thing that could happen that they survive” .

  14. Pete Mack

    Elaine– it’s very much been there done that. All you need to do is read Book of Job.

  15. Rachel

    You are fully paralyzed and unable to communicate. No one notices you can blink to communicate. For the last twenty-seven years of your life you lie, mostly ignored, in a hospital bed.

    There you go: something really, really terrible. It does not lend itself to a very exciting plot. Seems to me that lots of utterly horrible things fall into the same basic category of awful, but not remotely suitable for a story.

    Of course I know what the advice means. But still. Even if I planned to be mean to my characters, I wouldn’t frame it as “do the worst possible thing you can imagine.”

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