Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Just Write A Good Story"

There are always a lot of advice-pellets regarding writing.
"Show, don't tell."
"You can't fix what isn't on the page."
"The story starts where the action begins."
"A chapter/book is as long as it needs to be."

We've all heard them. We've probably repeated a few of them or even printed them out and taped them over our writing spaces. (Somewhere online is the certificate that gives each writer permission to write a crap first draft.)

Sometimes those pieces of advice get taken the wrong way or offered as absolutes.
"Never start with a prologue."
"Never start with a character in their everyday life."
"POV/description must move like a camera in a film."

And sometimes a good piece of advice turns into something else altogether.

There are several variations on "Just write a good story." Sometimes it's expressed more in line with "Write it all down and then see what works and what doesn't." Sometimes you hear "Kill your darlings." All different riffs on the idea that every plot point, every character, every scene, and every word should serve the purpose of creating an engaging story and plot points/characters/scenes/words that don't serve the story need to be cut.

This is excellent advice.

But lately I keep seeing the phrase "Just write a good story" paired up with "Stop trying to write a message book." It came up in response to a column suggesting we should look beyond a binary gender presentation in fiction. It's been used as an argument against female protagonists specifically and also female characters in general who are more than a romantic interest or family matron. More recently I've seen it bandied about as the shut-out argument against diversity in fiction and especially in the fantasy genre. And by diversity, I mean including folks who are PoC, QUILTBAG and women as characters who are more than just bit parts. (And also as bit parts because if a world is diverse, the whole damn thing is, not just the protagonist and his/her/ier buddies.)

The assumption in every case is that any of these things that (some)* readers and (some) authors are asking for are somehow exclusive of presenting a good story. That somehow, if you want to have a cast of characters that are not all white and/or all male and/or all straight and/or all cis and/or all abled, that this automatically makes the book a "political message" rather than a good piece of fiction.

There are a number of words I would love to use in response to that idea, but, as much fun as I have with obscenity, in this case it only lends itself to an attitude of outrage which isn't helpful. 

Instead, I will point out two things.

First, the call for diversity in fiction is not a "socio-political message" - it's a call for a reality check. A little research shows that diversity is not only a fact of life now, but it has been for hundreds and thousands of years. (Yes, there are places in the world which were isolated, but they were primarily small, rare and not white. Partly because the majority of the world... isn't white.) Presenting characters who come from culturally diverse background, characters who are not all straight or male or abled, is not a radical statement of how the world should be - it's a reflection of how the world actually is. Giving me a world in which all the heroes are straight, white, cis, abled men is not realistic, it's wishful thinking**. 

Secondly, choosing not to present a diverse world in fiction is just as much a political message as choosing to is. Which is to say, it presents a certain bias - either toward inclusion or exclusion - because we are unable to completely divest ourselves of our personal assumptions about the world. When we choose the elements of our fictional world we are presenting a message. Period.

It might be something simple.
"Love is all you need."
"Love isn't enough."
"In the end we all die."
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
"Every man for himself."
"All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."
"Anyone can be a hero."
"Money is the root of all evil."
"There are ghosts in the corners of your mind."

Or even, "Boys are icky, let's throw rocks at them."

Every book has some message to it. That does not mean they are not good stories. Nor does it mean that a good story must be presented within a certain cultural framework. It doesn't even mean that stories with really blatant messages are somehow inferior. (Think of books like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange or Ender's Game or even Hard Times. They are not lesser books or stories simply because they have a visible message.)

So maybe the advice should not be "Forget the message," but rather "Recognize your message." And then write a damn good story.

*I say "some" because there are, clearly, folks who feel differently and like things just the way they are.

** Can there be a good story reason to have this presentation as the norm? Sure. But since that's not what we see in the world around us I consider it to be a speculative element, part of the "what if?" of the story and therefore there needs to be a reason for it.

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