It's the argument people often use for including things like graphic violence, language, or explicit sexual content in their st...

Should Authors Portray Life As It Is or As It Should Be?

It's the argument people often use for including things like graphic violence, language, or explicit sexual content in their stories, that they have to portray their characters accurately, the way they truly are. After all, who wants to read a book full of sunshine and rainbows and streams of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate as common as water? Obviously, that would be boring. The gritty isn’t excess. It’s necessary, so that the reader can feel understood as they wade through the stinking cesspool that is everyday life (particularly in YA fiction), to make the emotions powerful enough for the readers to feel them as deeply as the author desires.

On the other side, you have those who wish to portray life in a more ideal sense. Not that there's no conflict in these types of stories, but it’s toned down a little for the sake of the audience. There are no Hershey’s Dark chocolate streams (to which I call foul), but there are rainbows and sunshine and fluffiness; only a taste of darkness seeps in with the light, just enough to give the story a well-rounded conflict, but not enough for the reader to feel that their soul has been tainted and their worldview obliterated.

And then of course there are the stories that balance the two: they have a lot of darkness, but light still shines through in the end. The characters are beaten and bruised, but every once in a while, a little fluff dabs their wounds and everything looks okay.

So, which side is right?

I see some truth in both: on the one hand, honesty is vital to a good story. Some part of it must ring true to the reader, something about the characters, the plot, the setting, the theme, something must be true or there is no hook to pull us into a world that is ultimately fictional, to convince us to suspend disbelief for a few hours and pretend that what we read is real. Without truth, there is no way to portray fiction.

On the other hand, I personally prefer not to be bombarded with mental images of things like graphic brutality and sex (language kinda depends, because I have uncommon opinions on that, but still, I don't want it to overwhelm my brain). I understand that those things often have to be part of the story so that the hero/heroine can have the opportunity to RISE UP, but I also have no desire to read about them in explicit or unnecessary detail. I know that these things exist; I don’t need to be assailed by them in every book I read to be aware of that. Plus, my biggest reason for reading is entertainment of some kind; I want things to turn out good in the end, and frankly, there's a limited amount of crap that I'm willing to wade through while trying to lose myself in an otherwise good story. Sometimes, the characters grab me and I find it nearly impossible to stop, but there's a part of me that's still squinting and squeamishing through it all. I'm in it for the characters, but when those other elements go overboard to my senses, they do, to some extent, take away from my enjoyment of the tale.

Then again, where would the story be in a story without conflict, a hero without a villain, a victory without loss? It might be good, even temporarily satisfying, but I think there's an important element that would be missing, that would keep it from being truly memorable. We humans, particularly us hardcore nerds, are often melodramatic, masochistic creatures when it comes to our fiction: we want to feel things, all the things, because the happiness becomes euphoria when the sadness was formerly despair.

When it all comes out, I think this issue ultimately depends on one, the genre, because not all of these things are even accurate for every genre, and two, the person, whether reader or writer. Some writers feel the need to express the deepest depths of the darkness in the darkest way possible; others would rather shine a more hopeful view; others balance somewhere in the middle; and each should write their stories the way they see fit then find readers who agree with their take on life. I guess I'm presenting the idea that perhaps readers shouldn't get so upset with an author when that author doesn't portray their own story the way the reader thinks it should be portrayed; but instead we as readers should acknowledge that that particular portrayal wasn't for us, yet that doesn't make it any less true, any less meaningful, or any less needed by someone else somewhere else.

There's room for it all. Not everyone's going to like it all; using myself as an example, there have been many stories that were absolutely brilliant yet I couldn't stomach because of the horror and brutality (looking at you, Code Name Verity) and there have been many others that were cute and fun and adorable, but they didn't really stick with me (case in point, I know I've read some and enjoyed them at the time, but I can't think of one to name right now). But does that make those stories wrong? Does that make them bad?

It makes them wrong for me. In most cases (there are of course some that don't fall under this post), I don't think that makes the stories wrong in general. Just not what I wanted to read.

However, it was what the writer wanted to write. And (again, except in a few extreme cases), I think that's the author's only actual responsibility. To tell the story that they desire to tell and then hope the readers who desire to read it, find it. They can't worry about every reader in the world, just the ones that they and their unique perspective can touch and make a difference for. They should be aware of the readers and the influence that they as writers have, but there is some element of art and creative license that shouldn't be restricted. And just as the author can creatively write the sunshine or the darkness, I can respectfully reject it if it's not what I'm looking for.

Both are okay.

For my reading, I like stories that balance both perspectives, that both pain and provide joy in a unique and beautiful, accurate yet hopeful way. In my own writing, I want to do that. To write stories that portray life as it is, in all of its lovely, ugly glory, so that we can make a way for it to become what it ought to be.

So what about you? Do you prefer stories that portray life even in the dark and ugly parts, or ones that show a more idealistic point of view? Something of a balance in between, leaning one way or the other? Can’t wait to hear from you all, and I will see you in the comment section!

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  1. I like enough darkness that the light is obvious. If there is too much light, the burning flame is hard to see. I tend to like books that are in between. I want hope, and obvious hope, but I also want the characters to have a good reason to not have hope. I also don't want something so sweet and fluffy that it breaks my suspense of disbelief, such as something where, at the end, everything is perfect and human nature somehow has changed so everyone will be good forever.
    I think Kaladin's story in The Way of Kings did quite well with this. Without the darkness, him watching people he cared about slaughtered, his enslavement, and other awful things that happened, the story wouldn't have had much impact. It wouldn't have been nearly as happy when he was finally free, because there wouldn't have been as much reason to break free. His disbelief at the situation wouldn't have been as realistic if he hadn't suffered so much abuse.
    I like it to be enough violence I know how bad the wound is, but not much more than that. I don't need a picture of how the internal organs are falling out, just enough to know the character is beyond saving. Sometimes, these descriptions even make the situation less believable for me. (One very gory scene involved a horse falling on a kid, and my first thought was, "A horse falling on someone isn't going to make them squish/pop like that.") This situation can get even worse if I'm watching an anime and thinking, "if they lost that much blood, they shouldn't be running around."
    In my own stories, I do add some grittiness to wars because I don't want readers to think war is fun.
    When it comes to immoral stuff, and things like sex, I figure I'll try to avoid showing anything that people might think is okay that I'm against. For example, I won't have a character have sex before marriage, but I don't have a problem with a bit of slavery, pirating, or terrorism because readers know that's not right and likely won't do it in the real world. (At least I hope they won't.)

    1. That makes sense. And I haven't read that story, but like I mentioned in the post, there is a difference in the feeling of happiness when the sadness was formerly despair. So yeah. It definitely packs more of a punch when they were in the depths of despondency before they won.

      Yeah, same for anime. :p They can get pretty extreme in that.

      That's fair. Especially in a lot of stories these days, war can be glorified and it's not. Not really.

      Hmm, I take more of the approach that my character is not necessarily me, so they would therefore do a lot of things that I wouldn't, but I can see where you're coming from with that too.

    2. That's one thing I really liked about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It didn't glorify war like some of the other films.

      I think too much of anything tends to make it boring and not as emotional. Blood or swearing are good examples since the audience gets used to it, so then it loses its impact.

      I figure my characters aren't me, but I also don't want to accidentally lead a reader astray.

    3. I haven't seen that movie, but that element is a good one that should be recognized more often.

      That's definitely true. People are our culture seem to be easily desensitized, especially to those sort of things.

      That's fair. :)

  2. As a pessimist, I feel that we should sometimes have dark stuff. I can handle some violence because I can't imagine it very well? But rape? That stuff scars me. I really liked The Kite Runner and I didn't think the rape scene was super super graphic but anyone could've seen the image. Absolutely horrifying.

    I'd prefer to write about how most people are fake... because well, they are. But not just the fake-ness of people but other stuff? (what am I even trying to say?).

    Well, I just believe authors can portray life in a gritty way and also in an idealistic way but I prefer to read a more realistic version.

    1. Well, that's where we would differ cuz I consider myself a romantic/optimistic realist. :) So, dark stuff? Sure. But like I said in the post, not too much and with a little sunshine shining through.
      I do agree on rape/sexual violence scenes. I don't handle those well at all, so I avoid books that I know have stuff like that in them.

      *nods* That's fair. I hope you're able to find the books you're looking for!

  3. For me, honesty is the key thing. I get that books are about entertainment, but even in high school it was pretty obvious that every book is political, whether it means to be or not. And, to clarify, I don't (necessarily) mean that in direct reference to this year's political election, or anything like that. But when a book presents an issue a certain way, a lot of times they are saying, "This is what this thing looks like." And everything from justice to family to playtime to weapons to poetry to history is defined from a societal standpoint, and thus honest portrayals of the world matter to me. Because books influence people and can change what they see.

    Admittedly, while I believe books should always stay honest (and thus portray the truth in all its painful glory) that doesn't necessarily mean it applies to all audiences, either. Even though I disagree with book bans I can understand why some people wait to teach their kids about some things. Nonetheless, especially books intended for older teens and DEFINITELY books for adults, I don't really buy the "ideal" world. In most cases, I wouldn't even consider it ideal—again, morality is a matter of perception. And so the darkness is important not because of what the author feels is necessary to preach but because of what I, the reader, need to open my eyes to.

    1. That's fair. Though I don't know that I'd agree that every book is political. Any book can definitely be construed to be political, but I think the book only is political if the author meant for it to be.

      I honestly am not positive whether or not I agree with book bans (depends on why and for what audience it was banned), but yeah, I do agree that parents and other people in authority over children have the right and the responsibility to shield certain age groups from things they just don't yet need to be aware of.

      Like I said in the post, I'm not 100% for a completely ideal world, but I think if someone wants to read about that, then that's their prerogative. But if someone wants to search for different ideas and widen their perspective of the world, which seems to be something you're pretty into ;), then there would ideally be books available for you to do that as well.

  4. I don't like explicit stuff... but I like to use my words, so that they hint at that darkness in a more subtle, strong way than just being graphic. I like to write realistic stories that are appropriate for all ages, yet would tug at one who really knew what was being said. Darkness is good... I like to play with emotions, while stretching the mind. And I love endings (in my writing and reading) that end on the bittersweet note of the sun just setting, but there is hope, for it WILL rise tomorrow morning.

    1. Yeah, I would be for that, hinting without graphicness.

      That... was beautiful put, lol. Personally, I really like tied-up-in-a-bow endings, even if the characters have gone through a TON to get there, but if done well, I enjoy the bittersweet ones too.

  5. This is a really interesting topic, and something I've had to deal with in my recent writing.
    Stuff like brothels and possessing magic have actually been in my stories, and honestly, my deciding factor has been, 'would I let my little brother read this?' in terms of when to stop.
    I personally, like the truth more than what life should be like, because it can be more relatable to people who have been there if you get me. :P
    For me, I like writing truthfully dark stories, but characters that bring in light. Hope that made sence. XD
    Thanks for posting!

    1. That's a good idea, to set... a bar so that you know when you've gone a little bit farther than you feel you should.

      Yeah, that definitely makes sense, and to me, that sounds like a nice balance. :)
      You're welcome! And thanks for commenting!

  6. I think I agree with you. There's a happy (or really, half happy half dark) medium of a book where it isn't so dark it makes you want to give up, but isn't so fluffy that it doesn't actually tackle the realities of living in the world. My preference for a book's level of darkness kind of depends on my mood; when I'm stressed or busy I like fluffy things I can escape into, but when I've got more time I enjoy reading books that actually, y'know, make me think .
    Recently I read a book that started really dark (basically, MCs had been captured and were constantly tortured, had basically given up, one had been raped) and I was about to stop because it made me feel so depressed. But then two things happened: life got better for the characters, and I realised that actually, it was realistic. Somehow it managed to have light without dismissing the world's problems/the books problems. I ended up really enjoying the book. (it was While We Run by Karen Healey, if you're wondering) And I loved Code Name Verity, although it was quite dark. I guess there was some light with everything about Maddy? This is an age-old question with no very definite answer, but you've done a great job tackling it :)

    1. Yeah, that's a balance I like, light without dismissing problems. And I'd agree, the part with Maddy was lighter, but everything before that and also the ending... it just tore me apart--and not in a good way.

      Yup, and since I'm opinionated, I had to throw in my 2 cents, lol. And thank you!! :D

  7. This post really made me think, I am always trying to find a balance with these things.

    1. So glad it did! That was the goal! Let me know if you come to any conclusions. :)

  8. Great post! I'm probably for more of the light. Not the there's-no-problem-and-no-story life-is-awesome-and-awesome-only sort of light. Instead, the light that gives hope through the dark times. The light that acknowledges the problem, but doesn't dwell on all its gritty details. I DO NOT like cussing in books, but am mostly okay with the phrase "he/she cussed." I am fine with admitting sexual encounters, but want the general tone of the book to disprove of sex outside of marriage. And I DO NOT need details of the encounter. I, frankly, have a too-active imagination and do not detailed act-by-act renderings of the sin. As an example, I recently read "Captives" by Jill Williamson. I loved the story, but some of its part were too detailed, even if the one actual sex scene wasn't described. Life can be horrible; most of the world knows that. And, yes, stories need to have some reality to it. I just don't want the details to flood my brain. And I do want to see the light throughout and at the end of each story.

    1. That's fair. And I agree with NOT NEEDING DETAILS. I know the stuff exists; I also know that my imagination is crazy active and I don't need that kind of thing to overwhelm my brain.

      Light at the end is my favorite kind of finish too. :)


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