Writing on the Edge of Propriety Part 4
by Hank Isaac
How interesting would Little Red Riding Hood be if all that happens to her is that she skins a knee or hooks her coat on some plant thorn. She gets to Grandma’s house and it’s really Grandma who’s in bed. Then they spend the afternoon together eating tea cakes.
As old as I am, I’m still trying to understand a culture which is reviled by the possibility of a child getting a glimpse of a woman’s bare breast (or other body part) and yet is somehow okay with that same child watching endless versions of people getting shot, beat up, maimed, mangled in machinery, eaten by aliens or dinosaurs, having their limbs torn off in violent battles… Not to mention hours and hours of various forms of mental cruelty and deeds which that very same culture at least gives lip service to working against.
And yet, show that breast, or, heaven forbid, show a young girl’s bare chest, and everyone goes ballistic. It probably has a lot to do with people being afraid of their own thoughts. But I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t speak to that with any schooled authority.
I’m venturing down this path because I like to write characters and stories which push the envelope. My series, “Lilac,” features a ten-year-old female protagonist. She’s homeless and therefore pretty much a free-range kid. She has to deal with both kids and grownups who view her as disposable. She’s still trying to make sense of the world and so doesn’t yet notice that the local parish priest has an unhealthy fondness for children.
She’s currently unaware that the vigilante-style deeds she’s been performing are driving a police detective insane, a detective who really, really wants to retire off the force but can’t ’til he solves these weird cases. Additionally, a battle for her soul is underway between the homeless university professor who is trying to protect her and a local prostitute who is trying to “educate” her. And then there’s “The Bishop” who is the local crime syndicate “enforcer.” He and Lilac have a tenuous though mutually beneficial relationship.
Oh, and Lilac smokes.
Which is interesting because that single trait is the one which seems to bother people the most. “Why do you have her smoke?” I’ve been asked. My answer is that I’m a militant nonsmoker – both my parents perished as a result of smoking – and I want to create a proper role model for kids.
You heard right. There is no way of knowing yet, but Lilac will eventually give up cigarettes. Problem is: There’s nothing to give up if she never does the things she needs to stop doing. So my risk as a storyteller rests with my audience: They either trust me or they don’t. Sure, I could’ve eliminated the smoking from the start. The priest could just be a nice guy, meddlesome at the worst.
And now the impending disaster…
“Lilac” is intended for a family audience.
I can’t tell you how many agents and production companies have said about another story I wrote, something like, “We really like [fill in character’s name here] but does she have to swear so much?” Thing of it is, that’s the way I created her. This is who she is. My stories have mountains and canyons and lots and lots of tall trees. They rarely have flat prairies which stretch over the horizon.
If I’m not allowed to create the characters I want, what’s the point of creating them at all? I’m beginning to wander into the concept of rewriting to end up with a story which pleases no one so I’ll save that for another time.
Maybe it’s that we all feel more comfortable if we can categorize things. This is a murder mystery. This is a comedy. This is a family film or series. The problem is that we then write to the most basic definition of each category. I’ve watched films and TV with my family. Most “family” fare is really written down to an age of about six years old, in my opinion. Thing is, children can understand a lot, especially if they’re sitting next to a grownup who can fill in the missing pieces. And kids have genuine concerns which are often more complex and widespread than simply how they can look cool and fit in with their peers. Why have so many writers and producers forgotten what it was like to be a child?
And why do so many writers feel they need to flatten the peaks and fill in the valleys? Looking back through the years at some of the elements which were forbidden to be included in films and TV shows, and realizing the sorts of things the censors forced the studios to cut, we all laugh at them.
And yet, so many of today’s films and TV shows have been “sanitized for your protection” and crafted to produce characters who are nothing more than a pastiche.
I’ve been told that if I don’t write what “they” want, nothing I write will ever be produced (not counting my half-dozen award-winning projects). Well, if that’s the case, then so be it. I don’t want to write what they want.
I want to write what I want.
Lilac is here: http://youtu.be/r7CqN29dFqA
Next time: Writing a ten-minute episode with a dozen subplots.