Let’s Talk About – The Responsibility of the Writer

Star Wars: Squadrons just came out.

That was the impetus for this post.

I mean, I’ve felt like I needed to talk about what I think of as “the Responsibility of the Writer” for a while now, but Squadrons was a huge sign that I needed to post this today.

Because it’s the umpteenth Star Wars game that has let us play as redeemable, likable space nazis, and . . . let me just put it out there that the world does not fucking need likable space nazis in anything we watch, read, or play.

This reiterates a thing I spoke about a few weeks back, in my post about how much I hate Proxy Racist characters. In that post, I made the point that modern American society just does not need a feel-good revenge plot for a racist villain from an 80’s film. In fact, I feel like it’s irresponsible to write any story from a racist’s perspective in 2020, no matter how positively it portrays minority characters.

Because stories from the perspective of those minorities are infinitely more uplifting and undoubtedly what the world needs more right now.

I still stand by that. And I still stand by the idea that it is our responsibility as authors to make that change possible where we can (i.e. I’m going to write about Latinx and Afro-Latino characters because I’m an Afro-Latino who grew up in a Puerto Rican family).

But since that post, I’ve felt a nagging need to clarify . . .

. . . that this is not the “WRITE LIKE THIS OR ELSE” blog. I don’t want to make demands, and I never want to say a static “You cannot write this!”

But I do want to say that if you do write certain things, you absolutely need to frame them responsibly. And if you shirk that responsibility, you might be contributing to a wide range of societal problems, even if you think you’re not.

Because all media does have an impact on society. We, as writers, do have power over it.

The power to normalize ideas.

Trends become common thought, and yield results–good and bad. On the innocuous side, there are the obvious creative trends, like the magic school stories that came after Harry Potter, a much needed continued exploration of an environment we all loved. On the bad side, there’s the nationwide, decades-long trend for mean-but-morally-ascendant-bad boy-protagonists . . . that normalized selfish assholes, and, at the very least, put us on the path to Trump.

What I’m saying is, we can write whatever we want, but we need to start being responsible about how we write those things and what ideas we’re normalizing with them.

The Responsibility of the Writer

If I had to define the responsibility, it would be as follows:

It is the writer’s responsibility to handle risky content with care so as to not foster and uplift horrible ideas. If it is impossible to frame a story in a way that is healthy, the writer should instead frame it in such a way that is is very clearly unhealthy without glorifying that toxicity. In cases where the content is too hot, never ever present the story from an unhealthy perspective; while you absolutely still have the freedom to write from that unhealthy perspective, doing so means you’re outing yourself as a terrible person.

You can write a story from a villain’s perspective, but you should:

A) Not actually make them a fucking racist, a misogynist, an unapologetic serial killer, a violent criminal, etc. in a plot that gives them zero motivation and/or uplifts them for doing terrible shit. This includes the bog-standard, bad boy protagonist who murders people, but–for example–hates liars, which every other character in the plot turns out to be (as if that double standard is realistic in the goddamn slightest).

If for some reason you have to write about a really terrible person, then–

B) Make it extremely clear that they’re monsters by taking the checks and balances further; actively have characters call them out for the terrible shit they’re doing and don’t use the swelling music, set design, or plot to undermine that criticism, even if the protagonist ignores. Give your reader an unfiltered view of them; a reminder that, “Hey, in case you forgot, the shit they’re doing is actually bad.”

You can write the YA story about the toxic relationship, but you should:

A) Make your protagonist totally aware that it’s toxic and trying to get out of it, maybe ending the novel with the relief of escaping that kind of abusive relationship. Or–

B) At least have one goddamn character point out how toxic the protagonist’s relationship is in an exchange the reader cannot glance over. Make them aware that your boyfriend isn’t supposed to treat you like absolute shit all the time. Because selling a fucking book isn’t more important than empowering young women, you fucking leeches.

Sorry. The toxic bad boy trope just . . . really pisses me off because of how manipulative and ubiquitous it is. Like, some day, I want to have kids, and the idea that my daughter will get her hands on City of Bones and be convinced that she’s supposed to literally deify a pushy little shithead already pisses me off.

But moving on.

You can write the story about racism, but you should:

A) Never write it from the negative perspective. Write either from the perspective of the victim, or, at worst, the perspective of someone who used to be racist. Because crossing your arms, huffing, declaring that “This is a free country!” and writing an actual racist who says racist things means you’re just a fucking racist.

Or–

B) Nope. There is no “or.” Again, the topic’s too hot, so never write it from the negative perspective.

With all of that said, I get that not all stories are this clean cut. In fact . . .

Most Stories Can’t Be This Clean Cut

Many of the best ones aren’t. In fact, many of my favorites aren’t.

But, in my experience, all of the best risky fiction at least tries to be responsible.

Joker is an example of a villain’s story that at least tries to be responsible. It intentionally teeters between evocative / tragic and scary / murderer for the entire movie to build tension, and then goes full B at the end because it’s supposed to (although the mystique of the Joker, as an iconic character who’s had a ton of iterations, makes the crescendo weirdly triumphant anyway when it re-e-e-e-eally shouldn’t be).

In contrast, absolute garbage, guilty pleasure media is usually significantly less responsible:

In Venom, our protagonist, Eddie, bonds to a higher power, Venom, which talks in his head about how badly it wants to kill people. Eddie agrees to follow that voice’s orders (because it tells him it will kill him if he doesn’t), and then, via his willingness to serve, he’s rewarded with the ability to kill and eat whoever he wants . . . which the plot frames as a su-u-u-u-uper cool thing. There’s even a plot line where the higher power is slowly eating away at Eddie from the inside and that plot line never gets resolved, like the message is “Don’t ask questions! Just keep doing what you’re told!” It almost watches like fascist propaganda.

Meanwhile, the toxic relationship trope at least seems hugely popular in Romance across all media. Shows like You and 365 Days made the rounds at my job when they came out, with the one coworker demanding I watch You (and, yeah, literally demanding because she was a monstrous asshole), and the YA trope is the angry, raven-haired Once-Ler who negs the protagonist every chance he gets.

What I’m trying to say here is, once again, I’m not making demands. I’m not telling you what you can and cannot write.

I’m just begging you to please be responsible.

To acknowledge that your story might have the power to influence the way someone sees the world.

Please wield that power well.

~~~

I’m still hesitant to put this out there. Probably because, at this point, I’m just tired of stoking the totally unreasonable, determinedly close-minded First Amendment Bear.

But . . . I do think this needs to be said. Or, rather, I need to say it. It feels like we’ve been completely careless with our power to normalize ideas for ages, and now, in 2020, we have to acknowledge that lack of care comes with consequences that we need to consider in our own work and see in others.

By which, of course, I mean to say fuck Venom and don’t go see Venom 2.

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Until next time, take care and stay safe.

The Perfect Idea: That Thing You Can’t Hunt

Sometimes, I wonder about perfect ideas.

It seems like there’s just a time and a place for them; a story comes along, or a character, and they’re so straight forward and simple . . . but so awesome that it’s ridiculous.

Take Rick and Morty, for example. Is it a bad example? I don’t know–I love it; gave it a shot last week and just burned straight through all of it that night. Point is, for me, Rick and Morty is a perfect idea. It’s so simple; crude, animated Doctor Who, only the Doctor is replaced by an alcoholic, granddad scientist who shoves his stupid grandson into ridiculous, hilarious adventures. But, no–that’s not actually what it is. That hint of Doctor Who is just a byproduct of the show actually being a spoof on Doc Brown and Marty McFly from Back to the Future.

. . .

In what way . . . is that not perfect? A cartoon spoof on Doc Brown and Marty McFly is such an awesome idea that it is also another great idea–a spoof on the Doctor–by accident. You think, “But the Doctor’s already a great old bastard these days anyway,” but somehow, it winds up not being the same; you watch Rick and Morty and, despite the clear influences, you don’t feel like you’re watching someone take the piss out of Doctor Who or pay homage to Doc and Marty.

It’s beautiful. It’s stupid and beautiful and it’s perfectly timed.

Because, could a show like this have existed ten years ago? Back then, Doctor Who wasn’t the phenomenon it is now. I know I’m in danger of analyzing this backwards (Doctor Who and Back to the Future are undeniably responsible, to some degree, for Rick and Morty, so obviously Rick and Morty couldn’t have existed ten years ago without being a very different show).

But my point is that perfect ideas terrify me.

Other examples: Star Wars. The Hunger Games. Harry Potter.

At times, I look at these stories and think about how massive they were/are. Every time, a perfect idea is so incredibly simple that it seems to jump out of nowhere, right next to you, where it was the entire time (“He’s an orphan boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to wizard school” doesn’t just feel like something you could’ve made up; it feels like something you should’ve made up because, “Of course! Wizard school!”). Every time, perfect ideas have elements of something else (Buck Rogers intros and the traditional quest narrative) that make them feel warm and familiar.

And every time, these ideas are just . . . addictive.

Perfect idea characters are no less daunting to me. Example: nerddom is currently up in arms about Jared Leto’s Joker.

The Joker. Who is a criminal mastermind . . . who looks like a clown . . . because he’s named after the most powerful card in a deck of playing cards.

And people are losing their minds about who’s playing him because they love him that much.

And–in case it’s not obvious–so do I. Because (and I can’t even say this emphatically enough) how awesome of an idea is the fucking Joker? He’s perfect.

And . . . okay, my point with all of this is that you can’t write that kind of perfection on purpose. At least, I don’t think you can. I wonder how Finger, Kane, and Robinson figured out the Joker (“So does he like . . . throw the card?” “Shit, I don’t know, dude. Maybe he just looks like a clown?” “That’s stupid, Bill. That’s stupid and you’re stupid.”). But I know that answer with Star Wars, at least; I’ve heard many a time that George Lucas didn’t actually think that Star Wars would take off the way it did. It was a labor of love.

Which means the best we can do is stick to writing labors of love–stories we want to read, as the mantra goes. We can only do that and shrug. “I dunno. Maybe people will lose their minds over this thing I just made up. I have no idea.”

Maybe I’m wrong about this; maybe people who create things I love (or at least some of the things I love) kick back with an abacus and work out the exact formula for awesome–but, in all of the cases I’ve mentioned, it just seems to be the luck of the draw. None of the perfect ideas I’ve seen seem strictly calculated.

So, what we’re all left with, as writers, is a goal that we can’t really aspire to.  We can’t write with abaci. We can’t try to tweak our characters so audiences will love them more. We can’t go for “extremely marketable” because we know that it’ll all spiral into a nightmare of wooden business ventures, the likes of which we’ve seen countless times thanks to movie studios.

But how do I not wonder if x idea is going to blow up? How can I stop myself wondering if I’ll write something that turns out to be perfect?

It feels so unhealthy to even wonder about it. I try to stop; to ignore it like I ignore questions about human mortality (30+ years of practice! Bring it on, cold void of death!).

But sometimes, I find a stupid show about an alcoholic scientist and his dumb grandson and I think, “Maybe, someday, I’ll write something as totally stupid and casually perfect as this show.”

— Project Updates —

LS-ProgressSidebar(inPost)-7.16.15Actually, one of the major factors in this was having a new idea vomit itself at me. That’s my affectionate, totally-not-crass way of saying, “I thought of a new short story and it was so determined to get written that it vomited itself right out of my brain (I wrote this at 3AM–please forgive).” I started it on Saturday–finished it Tuesday. I don’t have a title (I’ll find one during revisions), but for now, I’m just calling it “Aixa” and throwing it up on the Progress Tab. Again, I’m reminded that this story, “The Drowned God of the Silent Realm,” and Memory are all things that I didn’t plan and just . . . wrote. Despite what I’ve argued before, here’s the current score: Writing with outlines 1 [completed but failed manuscript and two unfinished short stories], writing without outlines 3. If you feel you can only write one way, maybe try writing that other way you’re sure is wrong.

I finished my last edit of “The Drowned God” a few weeks ago and have submitted it and Memory repeatedly. I’m going to spend some time this month editing Memory again, but with two jobs in full swing, that’s about all I’ve had time for creatively.

— Acknowledgements —

Whoa ho! What’s this? Acknowledgements? Yes. I’m super tired of copying and pasting links at the top of my page and calling that gratitude for Likes and Follows; I really, really want to reach out to people who reach out to me, so, from now on, you’ll find Acknowledgements at the end of every post, in which I’ll give a quick thanks to those who Liked and Followed after my previous post. I’ll also throw in links to posts that I enjoyed on their sites (if there are posts, and if those posts are kosher [there was the one woman who followed me but had a bunch of naked pictures of herself on her page (I’m not complainin’, but–hey . . . not sure I can link that [I dunno])]). Anyway, let’s get to it!

Thanks for the Follow . . .

. . . WILDsound Review! WILDsound takes written entries and turns them into performances, which is pretty cool. Their blog is mostly poetry, but their latest post links to this dramatic reading of a screenplay for Hannibal–in case you’re in a mourning mood.

Thanks for the Likes . . .

. . . Megan Manzano! I’ve gone on here about how I feel it’s essential to pick out themes for my characters, so her latest post, about how music has impacted her writing and where it stands in her writing process, immediately spoke to me!

. . . Damyanti! She’s a long time supporter and I just want to say I’ve always appreciated that! Something else I appreciate: her reassuring post about the madness of submissions and Kelli Russell Agodon’s concept of submitting “like a man.”

. . . Ellis Nelson! I’m not much for astrology these days, but this post is still an interesting follow up for the rant you just read (also, it has a pretty sweet owl illustration).

. . . and Justine Manzano! Naturally, this post, about how artists have to build their careers, speaks volumes to me. Maybe because there’s a perfectly manic metaphor in there relating career building to pawing Lego pieces together. I enjoy Legos. And being manic!

And, really, also a huge thanks to anyone who passed by; I always appreciate it. Please Like or Follow if you enjoyed and remember that you can find me on Twitter @LSantiagoAuthor, where I suggest things like Normal Cop–a prequel to Robocop (truly next level tweets).

Regardless, thanks again! And, as always, write well.