Studying Writing About Tough Topics
There are endless books to capture the tougher things in life, because life is generally tough, and people write about life, don’t they? But some books capture the tougher things in life better than others. Even fantasy!
Some would say that fantasy, the genre that is my very favorite, is all about escape. But I disagree with this. Yes, fantasy can be an amazing escape from bills, laundry, and the like, but in the end I think the reason fantasy fans love fantasy so much is because it speaks to us EVEN while being set in worlds, with creatures and magics, that we do not have (or DO we?) in our world.
It can be very difficult to write about the tough subjects in life. Death. Rape. Suicide. Depression. Mental disorders. Trouble with family. Having no family. Poverty. Starvation. There’s a lot going on in many places in the world, and these things break our hearts, our bodies, and our minds. We can’t just avoid them and write about rainbows and flowers. So how do we write about these difficult topics, without sounding…trite, cliche, stupid, or insensitive?
I do not claim to have figured this out, but I am studying how to write about these topics. I have characters who have experienced tougher things than me in life, and I want to write about their struggles in a way that speaks to my readers, and does not fall flat.
But back to the main subject…how do fantasy authors tackle these challenging subjects?
Here is one example of a book which, I believe, tackles difficult topics while still being breathtakingly exciting and mystical:
The Wheel of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
For a fantasy fan, I know I’m horribly behind on reading this series. I am only now reading book 2. I know, I know! It’s a travesty, and how can I truly call myself a fantasy fan? Nonetheless, here I am reading book 2, and there’s a lot of things that come up in this book and the one before it:
The Dark One is razing the countrysides everywhere, sending half-animal, half-man bloodthirsty Trollocs to kill, and other “Darkfriends”, all so that he can get at The Dragon Reborn, aka our hero, and rule the world forevermore. Sounds like a typical fantasy quest series, doesn’t it?
But Robert Jordan knew his stuff. He shows war in a very visual and stunning way that is very stark and terrifying. He shows the heaps of bodies at the side of the road. The way families struggle just to get bread on the table. The fact that even if the good guys eventually win, the entire realm has been ravaged and so many lives lost that it will never, ever be the same again. He shows how traumatizing it is to live in a time of war, and how that sucks the hope out of you.
Here’s an example from book 2, The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan:
For once the trail had led straight to human habitation. Straight to the houses on the hill. No one moved on the single dirt street around which the dwellings clustered.
“Ambush, my lord?” Uno said softly.
Ingtar gave the necessary orders, and the Shienarans unlimbered their lances, sweeping around to encircle the houses. At a hand signal from Ingtar they galloped between the houses from four directions, thundering in with eyes searching, lances ready, dust rising under their hooves. Nothing moved but them. They drew rein, and the dust began to settle…
At first Rand thought the figures hanging by their arms from the thick gray limbs of the stoneoak were scarecrows. Crimson scarecrows. Then he recognized the two faces….Eyes staring, teeth bared in a rictus of pain…
“Skinned alive,” he heard someone behind him say, and the sounds of somebody else retching. He thought it was Mat, but was all far away from him, inside the void. But that nauseous flickering was in there, too. He thought he might throw up himself.
It is not easy to write about the violence of war. It can be easy to make battle sound glorious, with the good team stampeding over the other, slashing and hacking, yay for the cause, yaddah yaddah…but really it comes down to a loss of lives, and violence, and the imprints those leave behind.
Jordan shows the mercilessness of his villains in this scene, as well as the plain discomfort and ugliness, the urgency and the sorrow, of war.
- Class distinction
Here, Rand and his friends are stuck in an alternate, sinister dimension, when they meet a strange and beautiful woman who wears the outfit of a noble lady:
“You will be a great man when you’ve found the Horn of Valere,” she told him. “A man for the legends. The man who sounds the Horn will make his own legends.”
“I don’t want to sound it, and I don’t want to be part of any legend.” He did not know if she was wearing perfume, bu there seemed to be a scent to her, something that filled his head with her. Spices, sharp and sweet, tickling his nose, making him swallow.
“Every man wants to be great. You could be the greatest man in all the Ages.”
It sounded too close to what Moiraine had said. The Dragon Reborn would certainly stand out through the Ages. “Not me,” he said fervently, “I’m just -”
he thought of her scorn if he told her now that he was only a shepherd after letting her believe he was a lord, and changed what he had been going to say – “just trying to find it. And to help a friend.”
- Gender Equality
Here, Rand is summoned to a meeting with the Amyrlin Seat, the ruler and master of the mystical all-women group, the Aes Sedai. They can channel the Power, a magic which has been used only by women for many years, since it made the male Aes Sedai of the past go mad. Now, Rand has the Power and can wield it; will the Aes Sedai kill him, take away his power, or let him go free, so he can become the Dragon that will fight the Dark One?
The women at the entrance to the women’s apartments looked up calmly as they came closer. Some sat behind slanted tables, checking large ledgers and sometimes making an entry. Others were knitting, or working with needle and embroidery hoop. Ladies in silks kept this watch, as well as women in livery. The arched doors stood open, unguarded except for the women. No more was needed. No Shienaran man would enter uninvited, but any Shienaran man stood ready to defend that door if needed, and he would be aghast at the need.
Rand’s stomach churned, harsh and acid. They’ll take one look at our swords and turn us away. Well, that’s what I want, isn’t it? If they turn us back, maybe I can still get away. If they don’t call the guards down on us. He clung to the stance Lan had given him as he would have to a floating branch in a flood; holding it was the only thing that kept him from turning tail and running.
One of the Lady Amalisa’s attendants, Nisura, a round-faced woman, put aside her embroidery and stood as they came to a stop. Her eyes flickered across their swords, and her mouth tightened, but she did not mention them. All the women stopped what they were doing to watch, silent and intent.
This scene may not be very obviously about gender equality, but I feel that it is. It shows that women have power in this particular culture and case, and that they have more power than men. The men follow what they dictate, and they are comfortable with doing so. Rand, who comes from a different culture more like our modern one, feels strange submitting so much power to the women. He is afraid that the Amyrlin Seat will “gentle” him, taking away his magic, and he does not feel that it is fair, just because he is a man.
Notice how the women look at the men in a frosty way, because they are carrying swords in the women’s apartments – forbidden, and something a Shienaran man would never do. He “would know better”, but Rand is not a Shienaran, and in his village, the mayor of the village has most of the power (although, a female Wisdom is consulted from time to time).
I wanted to give more examples from other fantasy books of how they tackle difficult topics, but since that would be too long of a post, I hope that the examples I chose from Jordan’s The Great Hunt gave you something to think about.
I am interested in studying how authors communicate these difficult topics in a way that is sensitive, emotionally engaging, and uses powerful words; in a way that is concise, not long-winded but effective; in a way that makes readers who can or can’t relate to the specific topic, FEEL and connect with the character who is struggling.
What do you think? How do you write about difficult topics? Are there any books, fantasy or not, that you have read which discuss difficult topics in engaging ways?
Until next time,