“I don’t know, Ruth. You seem like such a happy person; I mean, I’ve never seen you less than glowing with anybody. But I have a question for you: your prettiness, all the attention, do you ever find it oppressive? Like, because men just like the idea of themselves being ‘with’ someone as pretty as you, but not really caring about you?”
I am damned with two coincident conditions: I am inquisitive, and I am analytical. This comorbidity could easily result in me asking wildly inappropriate questions. These questions are inappropriate not because they are vulgar, or in poor taste, or even, well, inappropriate; but because they are so rarely asked, especially in casual conversation, they are interpreted as strange, their asker as something of an outlier, or a Nietzschean. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Zarathustra.)
I believe the unspeakable nature of these questions is repressive and tragic, and it leads to that malaise hysteria–or, if the questions are particularly disturbing, they lead the asker to be admitted to mental health facilities. But because fiction is, technically, a separate and ontologically porous realm where almost anything goes, characters are able to ask those questions. If an author lets her/his characters ask these difficult questions, his/her book or story is lauded by critics–in the language particular to book critics–as “poignant” or “heartbreaking” or as “a daring exhortation compelling the reader to explore the inner world of [fill in the blank]. [Writer’s Name] shoves readers toward the door to the silent conscious, opens it, and dares them to step into the black.” Or whatever.
But, the thing about these questions is that they open up entire universes of personhood. Asking these questions takes what is otherwise a laundry list of traits and descriptions, set pieces, the meta-structures of introductions –> introduction of tension –> complicating factors –> climax –> denouement –> closing, and renders them real and relatable.
They are the barbs in the hook of plot; they emotionally attach the reader. Based on characters’ answers, they grow into something real; readers either empathize with a character’s assertions and grow fond of them, or they disagree and come to hate the character. It’s that connection which prevents the reader from leaving the story; once hooked, they come along for the ride.