Archiv für Oktober 2011

New: Now with comments!

I‘m new to this whole „blogging“ thing. I only just realised that I had to ‚accept‘ comments before they would appear on my blog, and that there were in fact already three comments, patiently waiting for weeks. Rectified now! You can comment without me having to click any buttons.

…and there I was, wondering why nobody commented.

Messages in Fiction

I recently listened to the spectacular podcast StoryWonk Daily, which has been my greatest source of writerly inspiration and crafty insight since I discovered it about half a year ago.
The hosts Lani and Alastair discussed gender issues in writing last week, and in episode 197 − The World Vs Men And Women − Lani got very passionate about messages in fiction, arguing that you should never include them. She most likely meant that you should not preach to your readers or be anvilicious, but she ruled out the possibility that messages could be integrated into stories gracefully, organically. To me, expressing what you believe in and dropping anvils are two very different things and I‘m as passionate about achieving the former as Lani is about avoiding the latter.

I think that our understanding of the world, our values and biases and unquestioned assumptions will always shine through in our writing, and that the stories we as a culture tell each other have an impact on our society. How big that impact is, I don‘t know, and being a writer, I‘m likely to overstate it.

That doesn‘t mean I will have my characters get on a soapbox and preach − In fact Lani herself gave an excellent example of what works much better: She talked about the gay and transgendered characters in her books (which I haven‘t read yet) and that she included them without making a fuss about their sexuality or gender, without portraying them as jokes or freaks, and most importantly, that she made them rounded characters instead of clichés.

I think there is a common concern amongst writers that readers will not get the message if they are not explicitly told what it is. But they do. They are usually a lot smarter than you think, and will not thank you for patronising them.

As almost always when it comes to good fiction, the writing rule Show, don‘t Tell applies. Don‘t tell me that friendship is important, just show me how little Maggie defeats the evil narwhale by realising just in time that she has to get over her pride and ask Sandra and Robin for help even though she bragged to them earlier about not needing it.

If you‘re having trouble with this, just think about Terry Pratchett, and how he manages to tell us profound things about the human nature while simultaneously spinning one hell of a yarn. He never compromises his story, because his messages and yarn are intermingled, are one.

To give you another example: Zoe from the TV show Firefly is a very capable, tough and strong woman. We know this because of her actions, and it would really ruin the effect if another character turned their head towards the camera and intoned: „You see, kids, women can be capable too!“ I think it’s a good rule of thumb that you shouldn‘t have a character say anything just because you want your audience to know it. Also, it would assume that the concept of a strong woman is somehow new or daring or unusual, which would undermine the message that strength is completely normal for women.

Whether you are a writer or create other media, just the simple choice of which characters to include and how to portray them can have a huge impact. A fellow StoryWonk listener (Hi Jenni!) linked to this article by Ms. Twixt about girls and women in TV shows, and the statistics are pretty grim:
Less than one third of the characters are female, a number that hasn‘t changed since 1946. Likewise, only 19,5% of the workforce on screen are female, even though in reality, that number is 50%. In crowds, girls and women only account for 17% of the people.

The article concludes, „Other research GDIGM cites finds that girls who are exposed to more media have the feeling that they are fewer choices in life, and that, on average, the more media boys watch the more sexist their outlook.“

I‘m sure most television writers and producers don‘t set out to paint a sexist, reactionary picture of the world or want to endorse that women are so inferiour to men that the main reason to show them at all is to serve as eye-candy for straight men. Still, this is what most of them are doing, and if they don‘t like it, they had better include as many strong female characters as males, and not sexualise every single one of them.

I could probably make similar observations and arguments about people of colour, queer, trans and genderqueer people and every other marginalised group. Sure, you could fall into tokenism, but to be honest, I as a trans genderqueer would much rather have a dozen token trans sidekicks to identify with in the books I read and the movies I watch than be treated in the media like I don‘t even exist.

PS: StoryWonk are just celebrating their 200th episode! I‘m getting on my trusty old soapbox now to tell you to go forth and listen in on the fun!