1. MythMachine

    MythMachine Active Member

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    Exploring the Profane: Taboo in Fiction?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by MythMachine, Oct 10, 2017.

    Welp, I debated with myself a lot before creating this thread, because I'm sure there will be a lot of conflicting opinions, and the subject is a pretty sensitive umbrella term for many different and touchy topics. In the end however, I think each of the opinions will be important in my decisions, so, without further ado, I will present my question:

    How do readers and writers feel, in regards to fiction specifically, about exploring ideas that are generally considered taboo in mainstream world culture?

    Now I ask this question, because, like many literary devices and archetypes, taboos have a tendency to draw out raw opinions and emotions regarding them, and I plan to try and use taboos in the designs of certain characters in my Graphic Novel. More specifically, and as an example, one of my main cast is a heiress to her clan, and her brother has deserted the clan in an attempt to broker peace with a particularly aggressive and violent war-nation. At the point when she joins the main squad, she is on a journey to find her brother, but is doing so against the wishes of the clan masters. Anyways, the main point I'm making is that she is on this journey, not just because she cares about her brother, but because he was her entire reason for becoming the heiress, and while she doesn't realize it, she's in love with him. Her culture is one of few in the world in which incest is not considered taboo, but most of the other characters in the group abhor it. They end up realizing that she's in love with her own brother before even she does, and that's a point of conflict that I'd like to explore throughout the story.

    There are other topics that I've been considering, but I feel asking the question generally will get more variety in response. The nature of my graphic novel is pretty dark, so I think taboo fits pretty well into the mix of depraved subjects it will tackle, however I don't want it to come across as heavy-handed. While I don't condone most of the cultural taboos in the real world, I think they potentially have some great value in writing. I'd like to know how people feel about them, in general, or even about specific taboos. If anyone has tips on how to portray certain ideas effectively, and what to avoid when writing them into the story, I'd really appreciate it =)

    EDIT: I should probably add that I'm not actually looking for a debate on whether taboos are right or wrong. Rather, I'd like to know what feelings they bring out in both readers and writers, and how best to apply them to characters and relationships between them. Opinion good, debate bad.
     
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2017
  2. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    A taboo as great as incest?

    I'm afraid my reaction to a story where the conflict was a sibling love affair was central would depend upon how well the story was told; Cersei and Jaime's relationship in GoT is a case in point. It was handled as a means of conflict, and helped drive the plot. There are some series on TV where a taboo has reached yawn-inducing proportions...Oh, another one of those!...it's no longer shocking, like children swearing just to be shocking.

    Incidentally, most taboos have some sort of practical application...like the taboo on incest is to prevent the deformity that often arises from inbreeding - an important consideration where the population is small enough that it's almost unavoidable, as would have happened in many primitive societies. So don't make it "just" a taboo.
     
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  3. MythMachine

    MythMachine Active Member

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    You bring up a couple of good points so I'll have to clarify my post a bit. While the relationship between her and her brother does become an important factor to her relationship between her and the team, it is not a central conflict. Each of the main characters will have a sub-conflict that I want to influence the main conflict in some way. The second point I need to make, is that this story takes place in a far-flung future, where evolution and environment has changed life dramatically. None of the main cast, nor characters in the are technically human, but are rather what humans evolved into after being wiped to near extinction in an apocalypse. Thus, their biology is different and (arguably) more advanced in the sense that many of the natural inhibitors, if I may, of the old humanity were washed out. I particularly added this rule to the blend so I could address certain ideas from a purely sociological standpoint. I get that incest in our world could often lead to inbreeding, but what if you take that away? Does the taboo remain? Is it as severe or strict? That's what I want to explore.
     
  4. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    1/ How has biology changed THAT much? Survival of the fittest = those that are best able to pass their genes on are those whose genes survive. Evolution takes place by minute mutations = bigger brains, sharper teeth, whatever; mutations are happening ALL the time. Some get passed on; some are indifferent = Anne Boleyn's "sixth finger" was neither better nor worse, plus her only child died childless, so that mutation died out; the VAST majority are harmful, leading to miscarriage = nature's way of disposing of non-viable children. Inbreeding is merely one of the most efficient ways of multiplying potentially harmful mutations = those horrendous pug noses where the poor dogs are frequently unable to breathe.

    2/ Inbreeding in our world is, largely, irrelevant; the taboo against incest means that sibling parenting doesn't often happen - the siblings know not to actually procreate, to keep their secret between themselves. Take away the driver and, ultimately, the taboo will (probably) wither and die...but how far down the line? We still have some phobias that go back to when being afraid of something was a survival mechanism, back in Palaeolithic times...so, I can see the taboo lingering because it's not...nice.
     
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  5. Sclavus

    Sclavus Active Member

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    As long as a subject is used to drive the story forward, I don't mind reading it, if it's written well. If it's a "narrative sermon" (for or against), then it becomes an irritation.

    In "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," there is a level called "No Russian." In it, the player is an undercover CIA agent attempting to gain the trust of a terrorist cell by participating in a mass shooting. The player spends the bulk of the level shooting (or not) unarmed civilians, and the player cannot interfere with the assault; shooting your fellow attackers results in the boss turning his gun on you, and he can't be killed.

    The level sparked a lot of controversy, and inspired some would-be terrorists who were discovered before they could carry out their attacks. But what is the point of including such a taboo level in the game? The game actually allows players to skip it, with no loss of any rewards or benefits within the game. While I'm not aghast when I see such content, it's just not good storytelling to me. There are ways to handle subjects we should talk about without jumping on a soap box or making use of shock value for its own sake.

    As far as the topic of incest is concerned, I don't think most people are as offended by it as they think they are. Most worldviews I've come across accept incest as necessary at one time or another. To be clear, I have no incestuous desires myself, nor do I think it's healthy (in any regard) when it takes place. I recently read an interview in which an adult woman claimed she was dating her father. I wasn't repulsed by it, but I did conclude she and her father are mentally and emotionally unbalanced, if what the woman said was true.

    Most people I've talked to about any taboo subject will be able to have a mature, calm conversation about it, but when people become radicalized by an ideology or fall into a mob mentality, they become aggressive, outspoken, and irrational. Unfortunately you'll have people like that read your work and vilify it, but if you can handle that, then I think such "transgressive fiction" has a place for inspiring discussion. I still think your primary duty is to tell a good story in which the events push the story forward, but it sounds like you're on the right track.

    It's always made me curious why certain people have certain aversions. Some can read about violence, but not sex. For some sex is okay, but not language. That by itself is perhaps another topic for a different thread--why do people consider different things to be more taboo than others?
     
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  6. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Look up Transgressive fiction. Particularly the writings of Chuck Palahniuk and William S Burroughs. They'll go WAY out there. Some authors will push the boundaries beyond good taste*, but I wonder what sort of name you'd already need to get it published?

    I think your idea is a good one. Well, not something I would aspire to, but it's a good subplot, I mean. haha. You could have the characters striving to find some sort of recessive genetic trait. Why should all of them be bad? Maybe one kicks ass in your setting and then the family gets prestige. Maybe the MC is convinced she and her brother are compatible. You could go a lot of directions with it.

    (* Good taste is defined by your audience, not by you, and not by cultures that will never read your work. So a future where everyone ate dogs would cause unease for your audience, though many modern cultures wouldn't care. So it would be in bad taste. Well . . . maybe add some sriracha sauce. LOL)
     
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  7. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Taboos are like any other topic, really. Some people will want to read about them, some people will read about them with an open mind, some people won't touch them with a barge pole and/or be mightily offended that you DARED write 'that kind' of a story.

    I'd say as long as you are clear in your own mind what you want your story to portray, then write whatever you want. Just be aware that not everybody is going to like it. But that's the case with all fiction. Even fiction that doesn't contain a single off-putting moment will put off some people because, to them, the story is too bland! You can't win everybody's approval, no matter what you do. So do what you want.

    Just be clear in your own mind what you are doing. If you're not, your tone may be either hesitant or even contradictory, which will spoil your story.
     
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  8. MythMachine

    MythMachine Active Member

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    Ok. Got a bunch of responses, so let's see...

    1/ I won't go into much detail about the story itself, but essentially, the mankind of the past came into contact with an element, that, when activated in large enough quantities, became an unstoppable force of destruction. This energy released a radiation that "cleanses" or "purifies" whatever it hits. Polluted water becomes clean, smoggy air becomes clear, diseased animals and humans become cured. It happened to be that the radiation also affected the evolution of all creatures and accelerated it, and cleansed any recessive traits, deformations, disorders, and so on. Essentially, it brought every being on earth to its pinnacle of evolution.

    2/I don't necessarily think it's irrelevant, but I can't say for sure. I don't have any siblings in real life, so I couldn't possibly understand the taboo or its consequences on the level of someone who does have siblings. As I mentioned in 1, recessive genes have been purged, so to speak, from humanity, making inbreeding irrelevant. I want to explore the contrast between cultures that accept or forgive incest and those that don't. It's not going to be a major conflict, but I definitely want it to have an influence on the development of the relationships between my characters.

    No Russian... that "simulation" CoD left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. Using certain elements or themes for dramatic impact is fine, but it needs to serve real purpose to the story. The creators of MW2 could have easily just played a nondesript cutscene showing the results of the atrocity, rather than having you gunning down the civilians yourself. Spec-Ops: The Line took a similar theme, but did a much better job of applying it to the story and its impact on the characters.

    In terms of my GN, I don't plan on using it as a soapbox. As I stated above, I don't have much opinion on incest, since I've never had siblings or sibling-like figures in my life. I haven't seen my mother since I was really little, so there would be nothing of an opinion in that respect either. On the other hand, I want to avoid making a fetish of it, like in Anime or Manga. My character's feelings for her brother are confirmed by her culture, and once she leaves, they are equally called into question by the cultures of her companions.

    On a similar note, other characters in my story also come from cultures that hold varying moral values on certain subjects and themes, such as violence, sex, and their respective religions or lack thereof. I initially created each main character based around the 5 different forms of literary conflict, so each one tackles their own problems in the course of resolving the primary conflict of the story. On top of this, I want to use a few of the taboos, or at least the idea of taboo itself to further narrow my focus for the characters and their respective personalities.

    Some of the problems I've had with reading fiction, is that authors will often touch on these topics, then second-guess their decision to put them into a story and try to underplay them. Even worse is when they try to satirize the ideas instead, when that wasn't the original intention.

    I do agree about your comment on aversions. I don't think it's necessarily off-topic, but perhaps it is better for it to have its own thread anyway. =)

    Transgressive Fiction.... I've heard that mentioned a few times in the past and Sclavus also brought it up. Sounds like my cup of tea, as long as it's done properly. Similar to my love for the horror genre, I admire stories that dare to approach the unapproachable. I think addressing the aversions and unpopular aspects of humanity brings our flaws and strengths into better perspective and allows us to grow, rather than the censoring that plagues media and entertainment of today. I think confronting and/or understanding our fears and why we're afraid of certain things not only opens our eyes to the world around us, but to how we function individually. It's easy to sympathize with a character running terrified for their life from a giant spider, because in their shoes a lot of people would do the same thing. It's easy to feel just as disgusted and mortified as a character whose father is being tortured or killed right before their eyes, because most people would feel the same way in that situation. I don't see why the fear of a taboo or the consequences of a taboo couldn't do the same thing.

    Your definition of good taste is pretty spot on. Thanks for the reply :-D

    I agree, and I'm well aware that not everyone is going to want to read a story that explores such touchy topics, even if my personal opinion is that reading material that makes us uncomfortable is generally healthy. I'm pretty weird though, in that regard, so a lot of people would disagree.

    I know that exploring taboo is going to take a commitment, because, as I stated above, I dislike a story that can't commit to the subjects it sets up. It's just like any other false promise.
    Thank you for replying!
     
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