Writing the Taboo

Disclaimer: This post is pure opinion, and I make no claims at any authority on the subject.

Little back story here: I’ve been writing fantasy for about ten years now and have, on and off, been writing in the same world. However, I’ve actually not really made any attempt to cohesively world-build before. Sure, I’ve had ideas for cultures and things, and mostly have been consistent in the rules of magic and what-have-you, but my world-building is nowhere near complete.

One of my resolutions for 2014? World-build my heart out.

So, I was thinking about one of the religions in the country where my story is set, and came to the realisation that they eat their dead. In a very much reverant kind of way, you understand.

And that got me to thinking about how these characters would be perceived by readers. I mean, cannibalism is a pretty huge taboo in our society.

Can cannibalism – and other taboos, such as incest, beastiality and paedophilia – be written in a way where a reader may sympathise with the characters commiting them? (See? The word ‘committing’ already paints the act in a negative light.) Not necessarily empathise, but sympathise. Understand them. Like them.

There are two ways to go about this, I think.

The first way is to, as a writer, take a physical step back from these characters, so we as a reader view them through another layer of consciousness. The trouble with this approach, I think, is it is all too easy to paint the character committing the taboo as a villain.

For example, in A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, we know from the first few chapters that Jaime and Cersei Lannister, who are twins, are involved in a sexual relationship. We see them purely through the eyes of characters who don’t like them. When viewpoint characters discover this information about them (with the exception of Bran, the child who we as readers learn the information through), it’s treated as another layer of their villainy. In the ‘of course they’re having sex, Lannisters are horrible people’ kind of way.

(This changes somewhat when we get both Jaime and Cersei’s viewpoint characters in later books, making them much more sympathetic, but more on that in a minute.)

The only other example I can think of right now is Hannibal Lecter, but sadly I haven’t read any of Thomas Harris’s books so I can’t give much of an insight. I have seen the films, however, and Lecter is a very compelling character. Clarice Starling is definitely the protagonist, but Lecter is very much an overarching presence. He can’t be called a hero, not by a long shot, but I don’t think he’s entirely a villain either.

And considering the amount of fangirling I’ve seen over the recent tv series, I’m pretty sure that’s not just the film maker’s decision.

The other way of doing it, and the way I’m probably going to do it, is putting the reader inside the characters’ heads. This is an entirely different experience to having your opinion of them filtered through another character, as you’re experiencing the world of the story with them. They are not just a sightseeing stop along the way.

Jaime Lannister (and to a lesser extent, Cersei) is an example of this. Once you read a couple of chapters from his point of view, it is hard not to change your opinion of him. The incest (no spoilers here, honest) is a much bigger part of him than it first seems. In A Game of Thrones, it’s a) what sets the wheels of the plot in motion and b) a way to make the Lannisters seem that tiiiny bit more despicable. When you read from Jaime’s point of view, you see that it is his powerful love for Cersei that is the driving force behind him, and the thing that keeps him going when times are hard. You can’t help but fall for him, in that sense. In that way, I think that Martin handled the taboo incredibly well. He went along with readers’ gut reactions in the first book, and then turned it around when Jaime gets a voice.

Another author that handles the taboo of incest well is Tabitha Suzuma in her book, Forbidden. This novel is told from the alternating first-person viewpoints of Maya and her brother, Lochan. As a reader, you experience along with them the joy and agony of falling in love with a sibling. The whole book is very interior, with not much to distract you from the rising sexual tension and the fear of being discovered. You want it to work out for them, even if that want makes you feel rather conflicted.

Then, there is Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, told from the point of view of Humbert Humbert, a man with a rather unsettling obsession with young girls. If you look at the reviews on Goodreads, they’re divided between people who found Humbert Humbert disquietingly sympathetic, and people who are shocked and/or disgusted to be reading about paedophilia. I think there is a fine line between eliciting those two reactions from your readers, and Nabokov has found the balance.

It’s interesting to note that Lolita ended up on the banned books list for obscenity here in England for a while.

What does everyone think? Would you prefer to be distanced from a taboo, or to face it head on when reading fiction? Do you have any other examples of books that you believe have handled taboo subjects well, either from a distance or up close? Or do you believe there are certain subjects writers just shouldn’t tackle? Let me know your thoughts! :)



  1. Is it terrible that when you said a religion where people eat their dead – I didn’t have a negative reaction to that at all? In fact, there’s something almost primal about it. I think it’s all to do with the reasons WHY people commit taboos. Take the cannibalism. If it’s for survival or seen as a mark of respect, I see that completely differently from someone just developing a taste for human flesh and killing to satisfy a craving.

    I don’t think there are any subjects writers shouldn’t tackle. I’d suggest We Need to Talk About Kevin as something to read, though. I found myself agreeing with his opinions a lot more than I was strictly comfortable with! I wish the book had been written from his perspective, actually, or maybe alternating, to fully explore his reasons for what he did. (Also, don’t look up what he did, just read the book!)

    • That’s interesting – when I mentioned it to my fianceé she was suitably horrified, even though I emphasised the whole ritualistic reverance behind the act. I agree with you, though, definitely. Motivation is huge a big part of our willingness to accept taboos, and to sympathise with characters that carry them out. Like, with incest, I think consent is a big part of it. There is a world of difference between consensual incest and incestual rape, for example.

      I believe I have We Need to Talk About Kevin on my bookshelf. I’ll have to see if I can dig it out! Thank you for the recommendation!

  2. First time reader…great post.

    You’ve pretty much answered your own question. Generally everything is how it’s presented by the writer. Saying that you’ve come up with a fantasy world where portions of the population eat their dead in a religious setting makes it sound like something I’d like to hear more about. It’s unusual, and if presented correctly could be a very good fantasy “hook”. If it’s presented “matter of factly” it really could work into a nice plot device.

    My only issue with writing about “taboo” subjects are based solely on “consent”. Bestiality and pedophilia are things where one party cannot consent to what is happening. I think that’s really where the line is.

    BTW, noticed on the right listing you’re currently reading Kushiel’s Dart. It’s a tough book to get through because there’s a lot going on, but it’s a great series. One of the best ever, IMO.

    • I think so too. I think if it was sensationalised or made a big deal of, it wouldn’t have as nearly as much impact. As it is normal for the main character, it’d be very matter-of-fact if it’s mentioned. :)

      Definitely. Consent is the main thing. I think that’s partly what makes Lolita so disturbing, since Humbert Humbert is quite the unreliable narrator and you get no insight into what Dolores is thinking aside from what he tells you.

      Yes! I’m finding it quite slow going because there is sooo much world-building, but I’m enjoying it. I’ve been distracted by The Lies of Locke Lamora at the moment, but I’ll get back to Kushiel’s Dart soon. :)

      Thanks for the comment! :)

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