In order to keep up with the writing community, I follow several groups, forums, and blogs. Recently, while reading an author’s post for thoughts on the start of his new novel, the concept of creative liberty came to mind. I believe in freedom of expression; I even wrote an article about the topic. However, I do think the potential exists to take that freedom a little too far. In this post, I will share my thoughts on the fine line of creative liberty.
Out of respect, I am not going to name the author, but I am going to share the general concept of his story as a reference point. Based on the first few pages, it appeared to be a coming-of-age story for a young girl, which is perfectly fine on the surface. My problem was with the content and presentation.
At 13, this girl is sexually active with a number of partners from all age ranges. While these sexual interludes aren’t depicted in graphic detail, they are highly suggestive and very demeaning. The girl is painted as a disturbed young lady with no self-esteem. On its own, that might not be crossing the lines, but, given that this is the theme of the entire book, it is a bit much for my taste.
Will some readers love a book like that? Probably. Look at the success of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. What you can get away with writing depends in large part on what your target audience is comfortable with reading.
I write about some pretty controversial and disturbing situations myself, but, as I discussed in my article on the economy of words, I think less is more. In my new book, The Wanderer, rape rears its ugly head in a couple of scenes. Rather than explicitly describing the details, I elude to what happened and focus on the aftermath. Sometimes, saying that he pinned her down and tore off her clothes is more than enough to convey the message of what happens next; we don’t always need all the sordid details.
Moderation is another concept I have talked about on many occasions. There are times when an explicit or socially unacceptable scene needs to play out. There is a big difference between including moments of pushing creativity liberty to the limits versus exploiting that freedom from beginning to end.
This author’s approach made me think of another author who I believe handled the touchy subject much better by using the same approach I listed above. In his bestselling novel, It, Stephen King wrote about a childhood orgy. In her 11-year-old naivete, Beverly decides that the only way to unite her group of misfits is to have sex with them. I won’t go so far as to say that he wrote a tasteful depiction because there is nothing tasteful about a pre-teen orgy. I will say that he kept it general and quickly moved on to the real story which has nothing to do with underage sex. The scene was simply a drop of water in a vast ocean of prose. Few people want to read an entire novel (written by an adult man) describing a young girl’s sexual exploits.
Certainly, you have the freedom to write whatever you see fit. As I have said before, you will never be able to please everyone. The key is to know your audience. If you are writing for the erotica niche, then you can push the limits of creative freedom on sexual content. However, if you are writing popular fiction, use caution in how far you go with that freedom.
Walking the fine line of creative liberty is like walking a tightrope; one slip and it’s all over.
Take Disney, for example. Their target was to create family-friendly content, but how many fans have they lost from racial stereotyping and socially inappropriate innuendos?
In summation, I will offer these tidbits of advice on pushing the limits of your creative liberty:
1. Take to heart that less is more.
2. Remember that context matters.
3. Leave some things to the imagination.
4. Keep your audience in mind.
5. Make the content relevant to your story.
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