When is squick too squicky?

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Falls Apart
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When is squick too squicky?

Post by Falls Apart » May 26th, 2011, 10:20 pm

I've always made it my policy to have my characters do whatever I think they would in a situation, whether or not I agree with it, and let the reader make up his/her mind on it. But some elements in my current WIP are starting to concern me. It's a cast full of horrible people, nice people who die quickly, and nice people who become horrible people. None are supposed to be admirable. But would these two elements would be disturbing enough to stop you from reading a book?

1. One character, in his early thirties, mentions having a sexual interest in a 16-year-old girl he works with and later enters a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. It's not exploitive (the girl is much more sexually agressive) but I'm not sure if that makes it worse, like I'm saying it's okay? It's not presented as being good or romantic, but the reader isn't hit over the head with an "and that's terrible."

2. Another character, 19 years old, is in a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. The age gap isn't nearly as big here, but the relationship is less consensual (she's with him as payment for getting her out of a life-or-death situation). The boy eventually develops romantic feelings for her, comes to regret his actions, and stops the physical side of the relationship, but the girl never forgives him for treating her that way and definitely doesn't end up with him. The guy is still a semi-sympathetic character, though, and I don't want it to seem like I'm condoning sexual manipulation.

I don't have any actual sex scenes, but it's clear what's going on, particularly in the second case. I might be able to lower the second guy's age by a year, but in the first case I really can't; the man has a government position, and the girl works for a corporation of teenage assassins. So, would these elements make a book seriously problematic for you/your kid, or would you take it as the fictitious actions of twisted characters? Thanks for any advice you can give!! :)

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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by craig » May 26th, 2011, 10:37 pm

What is the intended audience age range of your book?

But as far as that sort of squick goes -- the sci-fi novels "Warchild" and "Cagebird" (particularly "Cagebird") by Karin Lowachee have those sorts of things going on from time to time. "Cagebird," if I recall correctly, features a young boy being raped (and it is told from the boy's perspective). It was certainly difficult to sit through and read, but I didn't put the book down.

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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by dios4vida » May 26th, 2011, 10:48 pm

I definitely want to know the intended age, as well.

For me, neither of those would be deal-breakers. It might get 'squicky' but as long as it didn't get too detailed, perverted, or too focused on the sex rather than the plot then I think I'd be fine. After all, sometimes you need to have 'squicky' for it to hit the reader.
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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by polymath » May 27th, 2011, 1:05 am

Society has a big issue with age disparity for intimate relationships. 30 and 17 is pretty far off the acceptable age disparity formula. There actually is one, formally, from the age of gallantry. Half the age of the older partner plus seven. Half of 30 is 15, plus 7 is 22. 22 then would be the minimum socially acceptable age for the younger partner of the 30-year-old.

Half 19 is 9 1/2, plus 7 is 16 1/2. 15 is on the young side for the younger partner. It's worth noting that half 14 is 7, plus 7 is 14, coincidentally synchronous, an age when teenagers in general are earliest permited to date by liberally minded guardians. Also note that statutory rape laws also generally follow the age disparity formula. Half 18, the age of majority, is 9, plus 7 is 16. Many regions consider 16 the minimum age of sexual consent with older teenagers. Older adults? It gets dicey legal-wise and certainly socially scandalous.

Though the age disparity formula seems on the surface arbitrary and capricious, it accurately represents life stage maturity phases when partners are likely to have stable, ongoing relationships from mentor-protégé balance for the partners' mutual benefits. A 14-year-old male and a 14-year-old female, though of the same age, have different levels of emotional maturity. The tie goes to the female because ladies mature first, as in all things courteous, always ladies first. And 14 is the age when humans begin to be able to evaluate and conscientiously accommodate to disparate viewpoints.

One paramount consideration is do the age disparities in some significant, target reader age appropriate, and thematically unified way artfully convey a meaningful central message? Sure, there's a theme of complicated underage, older-age mixed romances. What else trumps that shocking, perhaps repulsive, maybe superficial, maybe, theme and would make it socially redeeming? Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, 1955, 1958, artfully portays the pathetic tragedy of extreme age disparity romances and unrequited passions. Still, it met, still meets with considerable social disapprobation. And meets with widespread critical condemnation. Among the many critically acclaimed works labeled plotless by many readers, Lolita ranks among the top few. It's too inaccessible for most mass culture readers to realize and appreciate its artful subtexts.
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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by Sommer Leigh » May 27th, 2011, 8:59 am

The thing that stands out for me here is that you worried whether people would think you were saying these things are ok if you write about them.

I think this is a significant issue we don't often talk about except in peripherial ways. There are topics that we as normal members of a normal society find difficult to stomach or embarressed to say out loud and so we immediately worry readers will think we are some kind of deviant for having imagined them up in the first place. Sex is one of the big issues, violence by and to children, and pretty much anything that you couldn't comfortably talk about in polite conversation. We often worry that it will somehow reflect back on us, that people will wonder about the type of person who could imagine something like this let alone write it down.

But we aren't deviants because we write (or like) graphic sex scenes or our fifteen year old main character violentlly kills her parents in chapter 3. We're storytellers and sometimes stories are about horrible people doing horrible things or the situations aren't horrible just a little private and embarressing. They are just stories.

As for how much squick is too much squick? Squick is not quantifiable. If your story calls for squick, then that is what it calls for. Don't neuter your story because there is something uncomfortable about part of the narrative. Tell the story as it needs to be told, your audience will be cool with it. I think about all the Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palaniuk books I've read and they are definitely squicky to the max, but they are also fantastic stories even if I wanted to hide my eyes through parts of them.

Tell the story the way it is supposed to be told. Don't censor yourself.
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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by dios4vida » May 27th, 2011, 11:10 am

Ditto to everything Sommer said. Those are definitely words of wisdom we should all listen to and follow.
Brenda :)

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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by Falls Apart » May 27th, 2011, 12:34 pm

Thanks for the advice! The intended age range is older teens, although it's something I could see my younger-teenage self having read. And it's definitely not detailed or perverted--trust me, statutory rape does not turn me on ;) Interesting insights on the age disparity, polymath. I usually stick to 2-3 year age difference between teenagers in a (healthy) relationship, and then it can vary depending on the personalities of adults. I think I'll leave it as-is, but be conscious of the way it might come off.

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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by polymath » May 27th, 2011, 12:51 pm

Yeah, the age disparity formula is by no means a global social prerogative. Just offered as a metric of social coding conventions for writers to consider for gauging potential audience reception.
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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by Mira » May 27th, 2011, 4:58 pm

I agree with Sommer as well! Well said. Be true to the story.

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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by maybegenius » May 27th, 2011, 9:49 pm

From a marketing/salable standpoint, if you're intending this to be a YA novel (older teens, like you said), then you might be pushing boundaries of what's acceptable within the genre. This is really difficult to say without having read the work, however. YA lit largely depends on the viewpoint/voice of the protagonist, and on how you handle the content. You may be leaning too much toward adult lit with the relationship between the 30-year old and the underage girl, especially if you're portraying her as sexually aggressive. You mention that it's not graphic, though, so again this is difficult for me to say. It just may be worth keeping in mind if you want to pitch this as a YA novel -- you may have a tough time finding a home for it there depending on how it's handled.

Tough/squicky content doesn't mean it CAN'T be YA, though. There's some really rough stuff within the genre, such as Tender Morsels; which features female rape, male rape, incest, violence, even a little possible bestiality depending on how you read it; or Living Dead Girl, which features a kidnapped, abused, and sexually exploited teenage girl. Disturbing stuff, yet it found a home in the YA market. However, in those cases, the content was treated as obviously immoral.

I don't know how much help I'm being, lol.

Ultimately, as Sommer said, write the book as it needs to be written. We are indeed storytellers, and our characters can and will do things we don't personally approve of. I think it's great that you're thinking about it, because it means you're mindful of what you're writing and how it's coming across.
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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by Falls Apart » May 30th, 2011, 9:49 am

Yeah, it's definitely pushing the boundaries. I tend to have little-to-no sense of appropriate vs. inappropriate. But even though the girl is more agressive, the man is definitely not portrayed as a good person. He's a brilliant strategist who believes people with lesser intelligence (read: 99.9% of the world) have no value and he ruins their lives for fun. Actually, he's probably one of the worst characters in the story, since everyone else has at least some motivation, even if it's just money or power. He's just in it because he's bored. So, even if his relationship with the girl isn't blatantly portrayed as exploitive, it's clear that he's a horrible person and not a role model or whatever :)

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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by sierramcconnell » May 31st, 2011, 5:25 pm

I watched a play once at the local theatre. There was a couple mentioned that didn't pan out, but it was cute. The way it was portrayed was adorable, and I was not at all squicked out by it. The girl wasn't aggressive though, she was naive, but I don't think she was /that/ naive.

The play was called Bus Stop: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_Stop_(play)

Dr. Gerald Lyman — A college philosophy professor who is articulate and charming but cannot hold a position, partially due to his resistance to any kind of authority, and partially due to his unfortunate taste for young women. He also has an obvious drinking problem.

Elma Duckworth - An intelligent, but naive and impressionable high school girl. She is Grace's waitress.


Those are the characters. The guy was played by someone who looked to be in their fifties, and the girl had to be like...sixteen.

There's a age difference. But he was overwhelmingly charming and cute. Some of the audience was creeped it seemed, but I -having a thing for odd pairs- thought the old man sad.

I think, if you play it right, you can find those that would read it. It's not the pairing you have to worry about, but the characters behind the pairing being portrayed correctly. You have to have them ping the right parts of the reader's heart and soul to make them want to read on despite what they are doing and acting upon. The character could do some seriously squicky things, but if they're attached to them, they'll stay, just to see. They may go "UGH!" and toss the book down, but if you've woven that character right, they'll come back...peeking around the cover of the book to see just what happened after...

At least, that's what I bank on when I right dark things. The human factor of the characters, even when they're not exactly human.
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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by trixie » June 1st, 2011, 1:42 pm

Sorry, but I have a simple question:

What is the working definition of "squick?" I want to make sure I understand the lingo.

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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by polymath » June 1st, 2011, 1:51 pm

Repulsive is the definition I know for the urbanitely coined term squicky.
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Re: When is squick too squicky?

Post by sierramcconnell » June 1st, 2011, 1:51 pm

trixie wrote:Sorry, but I have a simple question:

What is the working definition of "squick?" I want to make sure I understand the lingo.
http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/squick

NOUN
1.(slang) A source of psychological discomfort.

VERB
1.(slang, transitive) To gross out, to disgust.  
2.(slang, intransitive) To be grossed out, to experience disgust.
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