What can authors learn from Deadpool?

Deadpool, image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Woohoo, I’m topical!

Deadpool is out, and it rocks. Seriously, go see it. I’ll wait.

Still haven’t? No worries, I’ll keep this spoiler-free.

As I’m sure many are aware, Deadpool  took a lot of arm-twisting to get into production. The studio feared the rating, figuring it would cut out half the potential audience.

Isn’t this mentality a bit odd? I mean, us readers and writers know that sex and violence (both gratuitous and plot-justified) do wonders for book sales, so why should a movie studio be surprised that an R-rated movie could do so well?

But mindful readers and good writers already knew it could succeed! In bookstores, books are organized by genre and audience. We know the YA books (usually) won’t have wanton sex and violence, while all bets are off in the aisles of books aimed at adult readers. Why shouldn’t a movie, clearly labeled as being for adults, be able to cash in just like Song of Ice and Fire, 50 Shades of Whatever, and other adult-oriented books?

Okay, my little rant is going off-topic. I wanted to write about what this means for authors.

Deadpool shows one major way to have graphic content in a story and still have it appeal to many.

You can have graphic content in writing in basically two ways, I think, if you want good art and good sales:

  1. The characters and story are developed in such ways that violence and sex are perfectly justified – it would be unrealistic not to have them there.
  2. The graphic content punctuates the story, and allows the reader to see raw desires played out in a fictional setting (rather than among real people).

Deadpool falls into category 2. The graphic nature takes it over-the-top, fulfilling dark fantasies while poking fun at our own dark natures. This is an art – the movie makers had to balance the violence carefully. If we see Deadpool drop-kick a newborn kitten, we are not going to cheer for him. But if we see him decapitate bad guys, we’re cheering for him! This is an important point – Deadpool doesn’t just have wanton violence. It has violence directed in ways that match dark desires in the audience, and that violence serves a ‘means to an end’ for the character.

We dream about getting revenge on those who wrong us, which is why so many successful antiheroes are ‘out for vengeance’. But even the bloodiest antihero has to have a “soft side”. In the movie, Deadpool really just wants to get back to his girlfriend (that’s not a spoiler, is it?). In other stories of antiheroes, there is some ‘good’ motivation we can latch onto – true love, rescuing someone, defending loved ones, desire for justice – there has to be some ‘greater good’ (at least from the antihero’s point of view).

So I think this is the main takeaway from Deadpool for authors:

If you want lots of graphic content in your story, give it a direction. There is a reason your characters inflict violence, and a ‘point’ to your sex scenes. The point might be humorous or over-the-top, but it matters. If the scenes are there just because you’re hoping they will sell copies – well, this strategy does inexplicably work sometimes (*cough* 50 Shades *cough*), but it’s not something you can rely on for a good reputation as an author.

Am I overthinking this, or am I on to something here? Let me know!