The other day, I accidentally wrote the word “right” when I meant “write.” At first the mistake was just a mistake, and making the correction was really the only thing that I was thinking about. Then I started playing around with the mistake, and what it meant.
It occurred to me that yes, a writer can right. There is, in fact, a long tradition of writers doing just that–writing books to right wrongs…or perhaps, righting wrongs through the powerful act of writing a book.
There are, of course, a couple of different ways to make this happen. The ones I’m listing below aren’t the only ways…they just happen to be the ways that matter most to me.
Harriet Beecher Stowe used Uncle Tom’s Cabin to highlight the evils of slavery. Upton Sinclair helped shed some light on labor’s plight with The Jungle. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my personal favorites to this day, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel. These books helped to right wrongs by inspiring empathy, and by helping people see things they were blind to.
You don’t even have to do this by shining a light on a current truth. Good SF and Fantasy novels do it too. I’ll never forget the examination of power, privilege, and a society’s understanding of what’s “important” that I found in Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress, for example.
Fiction is awesome because it can inspire empathy where no empathy existed before. Seriously. Science has explored this fact. It’s just one more reason why I believe writing fiction is a sacred responsibility. You’re influencing people’s minds and hearts. You could help change a whole culture, however subtly. You can do it by simply writing the kind of world you want to see.
Including Lots of Different People in Your Stories
I want to see a world where people of all shapes and sizes are given a seat at the table and encouraged to live up to whatever potential God gave them.
I could cite any of hundreds of authors who simply quietly write outstanding female protagonists or protagonists of different races into their books, even as controversy swirls about “the right way to write a woman.” (Answer: like you’d write a person. If you’re doing it any other way, you’re doing it wrong).
You’re helping to right wrongs every time you consciously avoid stereotypes. You’re helping to right wrongs when you think outside of the box and add diversity to your novel in ways that are both large and small.
Does that mean you can’t ever, ever have a white male protagonist again? Of course not. Don’t be silly. Just try not to make every person who is not a white male dependent upon him for their very meaning, and try to make sure that other types of people aren’t totally invisible in your novel. In fact, I would say that unless you have a host of heroes showing both healthy masculine and healthy feminine traits then you’re missing something–but that is a whole other post.
Off the top of my head I can think of quite a few favorites, but I’ll stick to one. Mercedes Lackey, who has always written a wide range of heroes: male, female, straight, bi, and gay. She’s written gentle young men and bruiser women–and she’s written traditionally strong, buff guys along with women who are feminine, but who retain agency along with their femininity. In short, she writes a wide variety of people, and I’ve always loved her for it.
Later, I’ll have to do a nice big list post that talks about all of the others. It’s pretty heartening, because when I think about it, the SF and Fantasy community isn’t doing as badly as we all seem to think (though there’s always, always room for improvement). What’s more, I’m sure that I’ll leave out plenty, because the list will be limited to the people I’ve read.
With that being said, anyone who is not white, straight, young, and beautiful still has to struggle quite a bit to see people who are like them in fictional worlds. People like them who do amazing things. Women also struggle to see women doing amazing things.
I have literally made it into my mission statement to write awesome fiction which matters, and which includes people of all shapes and sizes, people who have agency and who do amazing things. I know that I will have to get better at this over time. I have to continue to spend time listening to other people’s realities, learning about issues which aren’t even on my radar, killing my assumptions and expanding my empathy. I have to do the best work I can do today, then examine it tomorrow for any harmful tropes or stereotypes which have crept inside of the work.
There are a lot of ways to make a difference, but inclusion is what I’ve chosen. I remember how painful it was, as a child, to feel invisible. To see women treated as idiots, play things, prizes. To see myself as “less” because everything I saw was telling me I was. To hear “girls can’t” and “girls don’t” in a thousand different ways. Sometimes I even heard it from my loved ones.
It also offends my soul to see anyone treated badly for their race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, gender, or physical ability. Yes. It literally offends my soul. We are all just people. Nobody is better than anybody else. Cultures may be problematic, but people are intrinsically valuable. God loves every one of us, and commanded us all to love WITHOUT EXCEPTION. Jesus always reached out to people different from himself, and over and over again we see his followers are commanded to do exactly the same thing. Everyone deserves to see themselves as heroes.
In fact, I hope to inspire people to courage and heroism every single day. When I was a child I identified with heroes who I read about. I wanted to be more like them. I would strive to be kinder than I was, braver than I was, stronger than I was. It’s an ongoing process, and most days I feel like I’m pretty far off the mark. But imagine what would happen if more and more people were in fact so inspired. That can’t happen if we’re busy erasing 75% of the world population from our fiction just to stay comfortable. I may make mistakes along the way, but I’m willing to make them, correct myself, and move on.
Is it weird for a writer to have a mission statement? Well, it is what it is. I have one.
Changing the Script
I keep talking about this idea because I just find it so incredibly powerful, and I really, really can’t stop thinking about it.
The “script” is whatever our culture has taught us is the appropriate response to experiences we’ve never had before. Fiction builds scripts. I’ve never been in a hostage situation myself, but I have read countless pieces of fiction which explore hostage situations. The “script” theory says that I will revert to whatever behavior was outlined for me in that script, depending on how I see myself–as a hero, victim, or whatever.
Right now the predominant script is: “Evil does wrong. Hero hunts evil. Hero destroys/kills (and, more rarely these days) imprisons evil. Order is returned to the community.”
I’ve loved countless stories like this, but it’s a problematic script. It’s all too easy to turn anyone into “the other.” To mark anyone as “evil.” Just turn on the news and you’ll hear all about it. And the moment we do that, we flip a switch and activate a script which says it’s okay to just stomp in and murder other human beings while seeing ourselves as heroes. In fact, we’re even writing some scripts which say it’s okay to commit any atrocity on these people we want–see the deplorable action show “24″ for examples. Of course, all that leads to is a bunch of horrible people doing horrible things to each other.
For the opposite example, see Once Upon a Time. It gets corny at times, but it follows a redemption script. It also talks about how everyone can do villainous things from time to time. You also get to see Regina taking the long, hard road back to becoming a good person through the love of her son and Robin Hood, as well as through the totally awesome friendship that’s developed between her and Emma. There’s a show which really flips scripts right on their tiny little heads, stomps around on them, and does a happy dance. I’ve wanted Regina and Rumple to get happy endings from the beginning of the show. My normal, scripted response? They’re villains. They’re bad. They deserve to die. I love how that show constantly makes me re-examine that response.
We’ve all been offered this other script–one where we love our enemies and seek reconciliation with them. It’s in the Bible, and it’s powerful, but most people have no idea how to apply it to most situations. It’s all very well for Jesus, we think, but back here in the real world we’ve got to slay the evil thing.
This is hard for me because I do believe in self-defense. Believe me. I’m not going to turn my cheek if you hit me. I’m going to hit you as hard as I can, if only to get away. I’ve got a lot to live for, and I’d never condemn anyone for staying safe. On the other hand, there’s this line that gets crossed between defending one’s self and hunting for trouble.
At any rate, so far at least I’ve managed to avoid making “kill the enemy” the solution in my books. Granted, in my first two books the enemies sort of did it to themselves. They still died. They just destroyed themselves in the process of trying to destroy my heroes. But I figure that’s okay–that’s kind of what happens. Turning to evil is self-destructive. Eventually you do implode, especially when confronted by principled people who stand up to you without seeking to destroy you. Someday I hope I can even manage to find a story in myself where I explore other scripts–like loving your enemy and coming to accord with your enemy–without losing the urgency, the flood of adventure, the thrill of danger. I think I’m getting there with The Maker’s Mark–Lucy’s goal is to save the planet, and she really is just trying to outmaneuver her enemy rather than destroy him, but as with inclusion I think this is an area where I’m just going to have to dive in, again and again, to confront my own assumptions and correct my own mistakes.
I’ve actually been working on this blog post for over a month, and the only reason is…fear.
Truthfully, fear keeps me from posting to this blog a lot. I’ll spin you a yarn all day long, but I don’t feel entirely comfortable talking about how I feel about things. First, because sometimes my opinions make people who I care deeply about pretty angry. Second, because I start second guessing myself–who am I to talk about all this stuff anyway? Who am I to render these long-winded opinions? Who even cares what I think?
But maybe I need to start opening my mouth more. Maybe I need to have the courage to speak up, not just in my fiction, but here on my blog as well. Because writers can right, and the times when I refuse to write could mean missed opportunities. And that would be a shame.