Just for a change, eh? [grin]
This one was triggered by THIS particular comment, and it seems to follow on in a semi-natural segue from my last-but-one post, the one commenting about how one should not write on, or even have opinions on, things that one had not experienced first-hand on one's own skin.
Social fears. What a lovely wide-encompassing thing that is, and what a lot of sins it covers. From the awkwardness of putting your foot in it in some sort of social gaffe (we all know socially inept people who will ask a fat woman when the baby is due, with an earnest and friendly smile on their face) to the frustration of dealing with someone whose accent makes it hard for you to understand what they are trying to tell you, to the extreme of plastering all members of a certain social or religious or racial class as "other than human" and therefore fair game for guilt-free destruction, these are all containers which brim full of story, and they are fertile ground for storytellers to mine. Robin Hobb, in her comments, says that she writes about things that scare her - and this works, because these are the things that will trigger something in herself which will communicate itself to her readers and trigger a corresponding reaction there. The ultimate goal of a good story is to, in some either real or metaphorical way, raise a reader's hackles with something - empathy, horror, astonishment, fear, awe, love, loathing, jealousy... and most of all a sense of internal recognition, something that will connect to those things that touch us all because we are all human, and something that will therefore attach itself to memory and make sure that the reader in question remembers your book.
That sort of emotional bonding has always been one of the ultimate things that has made ME decide to follow an author's career through every book they've ever written, once I've had the chance to read ONE, or else to set that author's work aside without further reaction because it just didn't engage me. All readers have these triggers set like trip wires - it takes different kinds of authors, different kinds of stories, to trip them into that desired reaction, but someone somewhere will write the kind of story that will trip any given wire at some point.
For me, as a reader, it's books that give me room to stretch and breathe. I want characters who grow while I'm watching voyeur-like from the sidelines. That was one of the things that a friend of mine said about the books of Louis de Bernieres - "he knows what makes people change" - and that was probably one of the reasons I liked de Bernieres's work a lot. That is the reason I like books by people like Ursula Le Guin, too. And Guy Gavriel Kay. They have complex, layered characters who have all these faults and fears and flaws and are flung into situations that range from aggravating to terrifying, and they DEAL. In ways that gives me goosebumps. For me, as a writer, it means writing characters who sometimes do things that both I and (hopefully) my readers recognise as unspeakable - but giving them enough of a motivation and a reason for the action which makes the action, in the end, seem inevitable - and therefore shading the reader's reaction from recoil and horror and revulsion into pity. I said this on a recent panel on "believable evil" - this is what I do with my antagonist characters - I don't make them cardboard cutout black-hearted evil-because-they-are-just-born-that-way people. I make them real. I make them pitiful. I try and make the reader, at the conclusion of my story, when these "Bad guys" meet their often richly deserved ends, actually sit back and spare a thought like this: "Well, (s)he weas a bastard, but I suppose (s)he thought they were doing the right thing at the time. Rest in peace."
I want, in other words, to make a reader go beyond the social fears. I want the reader to look at a character who is *alien*, who is cursed with an obsession that most of us would abhor, who is from a different culture or race than the reader, who practices habits and rituals and ideologies the reader might find inherently offensive, who
I want the reader to look at this character, and, in some way, *understand*. Understand what drove them, what made them angry, what made them happy and why. Understand, and therefore recognise that in every one of those characters, however damned and evil they might seem in the story or on the page, there is some tiny microscopic kernel that each of us inevitably carries in ourselves. There are no living saints. We may pride ourselves in not kicking puppies or giving to charity or putting a quarter in a beggar's hat as we pass by or simply giving our children a hug when we come home from work - but there is, in ALL of us, a racial memory of towering rage, of distrust for the strange and unfamiliar, and if we channel our impulse to kill into squashing the spider in the bathroom or the cockroach in the tenement hall we're doing well. I don't necessarily want my readers to LIKE these monstrous characters who occasionally bestride the pages of my books - but I do want pity for them. Even pity tinged with loathing. Because pity means that the character has crossed from the caricature to the real, and has become HUMAN.
And dealing with another human being... whether you're steeling yourself to ask someone for a date, to tell someone they have terminal cancer, or to point a gun at someone in a back alley or a battlefield... that's the biggest social fear of all - and none of us are immune to it.