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 triggered me.
Because, based on promo videos, I thought it was another Star Wars game that let us play as redeemable, likable space nazis, and my reaction was, “The world does not fucking need likable space nazis in anything we watch, read, or play.” And, again, yeah, I get it–that game isn’t actually about stormtropers.
But holy shit 2020 has been long…
A few weeks back, in my post about how much I hate Proxy Racist characters, 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 it. 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 a YA novel with a toxic relationship, and assume 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.
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.