A Writer’s Responsibility

A Writer’s Responsibility

On Tor’s website, you’ll find a brilliant series of articles on the portrayal of PTSD in fiction. If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend giving them a read before diving into this piece, but in brief, they argue that stories tend to handle PTSD (and mental health issues in general) pretty terribly. Often, characters will simply power through experiences which should leave them psychologically crippled (”Dresden Files,” I’m looking straight at you!), or deal with the trauma in a single, restorative scene, going back to their old selves immediately after. In other words, the trauma is often used as a simple plot device, which…well, let’s just say it should raise some serious questions for us as writers. One commenter put it this way, responding to the first post in the series:

You bring up an interesting point about the role of writers. How much are we responsible for telling a good tale and how much should we let social responsibility effect [sic] the telling… Understanding and integrating realistic PTSD into a story can certainly add depth and interest but as you have said, this is not as easy as picking the low hanging fruit of throw away plot devices.

Both the articles and this commenter conclude that yes, writers have work to do on this front. Indeed, you could extend this far beyond mental health, applying it to the portrayal of marginalized groups, gender and sexuality, or class conflict. Still, I think there’s some confusion in the way the commenter framed the question. They imply (however unintentionally) that “social responsibility” is at odds with “telling a good tale,” that it’s something we need to impose on the craft.

That’s completely understandable, but also dead wrong in my view. To explain why, we need to talk about the larger flaw in the way both writers and readers perceive the craft these days, how this comment reflects that, and what it means for us as storytellers.

A promotional poster for the show "Lost." A mountain, green with tropical foliage, rises in the background. The show's characters line the bottom of the image, and in the center, the title "Lost" appears. Immediately below, the tagline reads: "Everything happens for a reason."
…and that reason is dopamine.

In this day and age, the industry trends in fiction (whatever the medium) lean towards stories that never stop, never even slow down, dragging the reader slong by the nose whether they actually like the story or not. The show Lost is one of the most extreme and recognizable examples, of course. My brother jokingly called it “televised crack,” but really, that’s not far from the mark. Every element seems scientifically calculated to addict the viewer. The breathless pacing and music generate an almost ridiculous amount of suspense. Most episodes (hell, many scenes) end with an intriguing question which the show then doesn’t pay off (hey, it’s the dreaded Mystery Box again!). Characters constantly generate false conflict, artificially increasing tension still further. Even after I got sick of it, I kept watching just because I had to see what happened next.

Lost is far from the only offender here, though. I touched briefly on the breakneck pace of the new Star Wars trilogy in my Force Awakens post, but “Dresden Files” is another good example, alongside its cousins, the Dan Brown-style airplane books where chapters take up a scant handful of pages, giving scenes and characters no room to breathe. Such stories rely on cheap tricks, on adrenaline and dopamine, rather than interesting characters or substantive narrative, to keep their audiences. That’s not to say they lack interesting characters or substance1Indeed, that’s why Dresden Files annoys me so much sometimes: there is real substance there, but Butcher doesn’t trust it to keep his readers engaged. , just that they’re overshadowed by the shallower but more addictive elements.

Unfortunately, this frantically paced, plot-centric philosophy has become orthodoxy in most industries. You can see it in the rash of videos on Youtube from professional editors, and while most of their advice is decent (if trite), some of it is clearly warped by the demands of a for-profit industry—as for instance, an iWriterly video advising new writers take their style cues exclusively from recently published work, while resisting the influence of writing from even the (now apparently archaic) 1990s.

You’ll also hear it from published writers, though many seem to chafe against these standards. For example, in an episode of Writing Excuses2Alas, I don’t remember which episode it was, and I wouldn’t even know where to start looking. I listened to it years ago, and that part stuck in my mind, for obvious reasons., Brandon Sanderson says he likes to work natural stopping points into his books, despite it going against the “Never let the reader put the book down!” principle that passes for common sense in publishing these days.

The cover of "Sometimes the Magic Works" by Terry Brooks.

Even books that purportedly teach writers craft aren’t immune. In Sometimes the Magic Works, Terry Brooks advises us not to include characters if they don’t “serve a measurable purpose,” by which he means “do something to advance the story.” But that applies to more than just the characters: according to him, you shouldn’t give them any traits that don’t measurably advance the story, either. He also tells us to dive right into the story, eschewing the slower sort of beginning he himself employed in Sword of Shannara, back when readers and writers had (let’s be honest) longer attention spans.

On the one hand, this is obviously good advice: Why include a flashy character in your story if they don’t actually do anything except steal the thunder from your leads? Worse, it would be ridiculous to, say, give a character a speech impediment if it won’t actually affect them or their place in the story in any way. Not only would someone whose speech gives out at inopportune moments face some different obstacles from other characters (especially if your story’s world is even less tolerant than our own), you also risk coming off as insensitive. And opening your story with a hundred pages where literally nothing happens is obviously a stupid idea. Insofar as this rule helps you avoid such amateur mistakes, it’s okay by me.

However, it’s easy to see how how such a philosophy can lead us astray. If everything in the story must contribute to its forward motion, you’ve just barred vast tracts of human experience from appearing in literature. Patrick Rothfuss says it best in Name of the Wind:

If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.

What’s more, the idea that character traits themselves must only exist to measurably advance the story strikes me as nauseatingly utilitarian. Stories like this inevitably feel calculated; you can hear the gears grinding in the background when there shouldn’t (or at least needn’t) be any gears in the first place3See also: “What Makes a Story?” by Ursula K. Le Guin.. Indeed, one of my problems with Brooks’s work is that it often doesn’t get interesting until precisely three quarters of the way through. It resembles in novel form Robert McKee’s principle (set forth in his book Story) that everything in a movie only exists as setup for the last 20 minutes—the apotheosis of this utilitarian, reductionist approach.

Okay, so what the hell does all this have to do with social responsibility in writing? Well, it reveals just how much of the “craft” we talk about today, what exactly “telling a good tale” means to us, is itself an imposition on storytelling, not an inherent feature. Its purpose isn’t to make better stories per se, but more marketable, more compulsively readable ones. It echoes, in a far more subtle form, the methods by which fast food and junk food are engineered to be as addictive as possible. As Ursula K. Le Guin warned in her National Book Award acceptance speech, “The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.” It’s fine to acknowledge that certain techniques make a story more marketable, but if you want to argue that those tricks necessarily lead to better stories, you’ve got a lot more work to do.

Cover image of "A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula K. Le Guin, featuring a hawk set against a twilit horizon.
Read the book, don’t watch the miniseries. You have been warned.

Is it really necessary, then, to impose social responsibility on storytelling? I don’t think so. Socially responsible writing naturally arises when we properly research and contemplate our stories. If you want to write about deeply traumatized characters without any direct experience of how trauma affects people, you’d better do the research and the imaginative work necessary to portray those characters authentically. The same goes for any of the other issues I mentioned: the effects of prejudice on marginalized groups, issues of sex and gender, class conflict, and so on.

Examples of engaging and thought-provoking work abound. Ursula K. Le Guin addresses race in her Earthsea series simply by making dark skin the default in her world, helping (in some small way) to normalize the idea of dark-skinned people as, you know, people. The Harry Potter series (in spite of its many lazy storytelling decisions in other areas) integrates themes of trauma, marginalization, political struggle, and even a blistering critique of celebrity culture into its narrative without sacrificing suspense or excitement. Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith heavily populate their books with women and/or ambiguously gendered characters, in stark contrast to the typical male-centric sci-fi/fantasy fare. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man remains one of the most vivid illustrations of the psychological devastation systemic racism visits on its victims4You can get just the tiniest taste of that from this post’s header image, by the by.. And, without excusing his clear sexism and racism, J.R.R. Tolkien manages (as the original Tor.com articles point out) to give one of the most accurate portrayals of PTSD in fiction5In defiance, by the way, of the “Pull yourself together, it’s just shellshock!” attitude of the times..

These stories and countless others have no need to impose social commentary on otherwise strong narratives—indeed, such themes lie at the very heart of their appeal and power.

So don’t fall for the false dichotomy of “social responsibility vs. good storytelling” that infects the industry. It’s a product of the marketplace, and the marketplace, contrary to the neoliberal propaganda that saturates our culture, does not incentivize excellence, beauty, or what Guy Gavriel Kay calls “imaginative empathy” in anything, least of all in art. To strive for them in our work, therefore, is itself a tiny but powerful act of defiance.

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