Fiction v. Academic Writing: Sadism Showdown

Kurt Vonnegut once gave out a list of 8 rules for writing, one of those rules being:

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999)

This is an age-old rule that so many of today’s most beloved authors have clearly taken to heart (channel Stephen King here) and a rule that we find constantly reiterated throughout the Writing Tip world. Take, for example, this story from the Huff Post Books, called “Writing Advice: Tips for New Fiction Authors.” Their third tip, “Create real characters” is a page right out of Vonnegut’s book (although with much greater elaboration), suggesting:

Make your characters human – give them nervous tics, phobias, a funny way of messing up clichés. … Place your character in situations that force him or her to make difficult choices, mistakes, etc.


And, while I most certainly ascribe to this rule as a fiction writer – no one wants to read a story sans conflict, after all – I have been considering lately whether or not academic or nonfiction writers face this same challenge. After all, there’s only so much freedom an academic writer has for creating intrigue and conflict…right?

After plowing through Howling, my first major academic project, I’m no longer so certain. For instance, consider the choices an academic writer must make insofar as which sources to utilize, who to interview, how to both accurately and interestingly convey different results. All of these elements can impact the tone and excitement of a piece, certainly, but do they add anything close to conflict? Do they indicate any level of “sadism” on the author’s part? What about how relentlessly or to what ends the author went during the research process – definitely bits of that gory mess must seep through from time to time, right?

I would argue that it is Voice and a healthy dose of Self-Reflection that may lend an academic author some real toothy wildness, enabling them to truly dig into what that other researcher said, what that political group was protesting, how that development impacted the local ecosystem – by presenting arguments clearly and factually while utilizing a creative narrative voice and letting the reader see a bit of the authorial struggle, perhaps an academic author can manage to squeak a bit of sadism into their work.

What do you think? Do you feel like sadism is an important quality for a fiction writer? Have you ever felt as though a good story became lost or obscured because you just couldn’t commit to killing the goofy, loveable sidekick? And can an academic author join in on this fun or is their writing a different beast entirely?



(Pssst! Of course, on the other hand, there’s always our pal, Carl Sandburg to turn to: “Beware of advice—even this.”)


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