Terms and conditions

Last week, I was reading a YA novel that was a little dark, but had interesting characters and twists, and seemed to promise some redemption for the troubled MC as his character developed throughout the story. Then a violent sexual assault occurred out of nowhere, in fairly graphic detail, and I felt as if I'd been assaulted myself.

It's been troubling me ever since. I write some particularly graphic scenes in my own books, and I got to worrying that I might be needlessly traumatizing my readers. I'd hate to think that anyone reading my books would end up feeling the way I did last week (and still feel; those kinds of images stay with me for a long time).

While I was ruminating over this, I came across a blog post by a former Harry Potter fan who felt J.K. Rowling had betrayed the reader by killing off characters she liked. The blog author seemed to feel that writers do terrible things to their characters merely out of sadism, and that they enjoy traumatizing their readers for an emotional reaction. For that reader, Harry didn't need to experience the losses he did to become who he was.

That conclusion struck me as rather odd. What would the Harry Potter books be like if Harry never experienced trauma or loss? In my opinion, they'd be pointless.

But how much trauma and loss is enough? What does an author owe her readers in this writer-reader contract? When is trauma too much or unnecessary?

Thinking back over the graphic scenes in my books, I'm still not sure of the answer. But the scene I read last week that blindsided me seemed unmotivated and unrealistic, and I hope that mine are not. If a sudden, violent sexual assault occurred in the middle of the Harry Potter series, for instance, that would be a violation of the contract. It would serve no purpose. Was the scene I read the same? Not entirely; it wasn't completely out of the bounds of what might occur in these characters' lives, but there was no motivation for it, and no reason to go into such detail for a secondary character's point of view.

One of my favorite authors, Jacqueline Carey, does some pretty brutal things to her characters, but those events are what makes those characters who they are. You can't fall hopelessly in love with Imriel de la Courcel in Kushiel's Scion without the unspeakably awful things that shaped his life. (And, boy, did I fall hopelessly in love with him!)

I'm not sure where the balance lies between needless violence and trauma that's true to the story. Maybe it's only in the eye of the beholder. Plenty of people love the Harry Potter series, despite the loss of beloved characters. But at least one reader felt those losses were cruel and unacceptable. There are many positive reviews on Goodreads of the YA novel I was reading (and will not be finishing), but there were a significant number who hated it as well.

Whether people love my books or hate them, I just hope no one ever feels that I'm manipulating them as a reader. Whatever trauma I throw my characters' way, I hope I'm fulfilling my end of the contract.