Friday, April 1, 2016

The role of self in writing fiction

Part of a series. See the intro here, and part 1 (on songwriting) here.


So today, we're going to talk about what to do with yourself when writing fiction. Specifically, let's talk about mimesis a bit -- the idea that Art imitates Life -- and how that inevitably shows up in our writing.

Not to be confused with "Mime-Sis," which is what happens when your sister becomes a mime.
Which, now that I think about it, is pretty rad in its own right! (Image courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/drurydrama/4266958089) 
Remember that Orson Scott Card quote from the intro?
"Every story choice you make arises out of who you are"
This gets at one of the key ideas on display here. The question is not "is there any room for me in my writing?" but rather, "what role does my identity play in the process of writing?

It's worth noting that Card's book, Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters and Viewpoint -- which is like $3.50 on Kindle -- is entirely on-point in regards to this issue. In it, Card essentially posits that yes, you should absolutely be pulling from your life to create fiction, so long as you remain mindful of a couple things.

Rather than go through his points blow-by-blow, risking a DMCA takedown notice, and alienating all of you poor souls who mistakenly believe I have an original thought in my head fine folks who are good enough to read my blog, let's talk about some things that come up when drawing on your own life in creative writing.

Thing #1: I shouldn't write anything from my life, because my life is BORING AS HELL.

Slow down there, partner; you're going to ride that self-doubt train right past Productive Thoughts Station into Self-Defeating Junction faster than you realize what an objectively rubbish metaphor that was. 
This is what came up when I googled "Productive Thoughts Junction."
Apparently, it's on the ISS, near the S1 Pump module. Thanks, NASA! 

This gets into questions of what is "normal," and what's "exotic." Rather than dive into the abyss of philosophy that awaits anyone trying to define what normal is, I'm going to roll with the following quick-and-dirty working definition:

Normal is what somebody's used to. Exotic is what they're not.

This can be anything from linguistic quirks (you say "soda" instead of "pop?" How very exotic,) to the role of familial ties (it's normal to visit your family on Thanksgivng and Christmas,) all the way to troublesome societal issues (it never occurred to me that [behavior x] was offensive - it was so normal where I grew up) and so on. And while it's certainly worth checking to see if you're engaging in nasty stereotyping -- protip: if you paint every member of a group with a broadly demeaning brush, maybe ask why? -- we're going to focus on a different value of "normal."

Mainly, as a synonym for bland.

So, maybe you grew up in a rural area, with a big family that was highly involved in your life. That stuff might seem pretty boring to you. It's not exciting, it's not interesting, it's, well, it's just so normal. It's not an exciting setting. It's dull. Wouldn't it be better to write about a bold, single woman, all by herself in the big city, with absentee parents?

Well, maybe. Depends on what you want to write about. But the idea that the things you know about aren't interesting is just silly.

In this case, our hypothetical writer should ask themselves why they want to put their character in the city. Is it because that's what the story needs, or is it because that makes it feel fresher to them, more exotic? 

Because frankly, it's not going to seem all that exotic to someone who lives by themselves in an urban environment, communicating rarely -- if at all -- with their family. If you do well, your setting won't necessarily be a problem, just kind of there. If you do it poorly, making mistakes that show you don't really understand your source material, you might lose people who find their believability stretched thin. 

Now, this is not to say you shouldn't write about things you haven't experienced first-hand; that's what research is for. Maybe you've never been a Maya Priestess from the post-classic era*, but if you want to write one, you'd better do your research. But even in that case, you have access to a wealth of information about life, people - everything, really. Our hypothetical rural author will have seen things that I haven't, and vice versa.

Exoticism is, quite honestly, not that big a deal. Even in science fiction and fantasy, simply dotting the landscape with weird crap isn't compelling world-building; the audience needs a reason to care. And more often than not, that comes from relatable characters, conflicts we care about, interesting dilemmas - all things that you, as a human being, know about from experience.

So don't sell yourself short.
Don't mind me, just here to help the heroes
whenever they're written into a corner.

Thing #2: I should insert myself or my friends into my stories, they'll be realistic and awesome.

I'll spare you the discussion on Mary Sues, and direct you to the TV Tropes article.

Authorial inserts can range from the aforementioned Sues, to walking Deus Ex Machina like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, to a mouthpiece for the author's thesis statement,à la Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park. These are often great, if handled mindfully.Honestly, I could probably build a comfortable house just using printouts of all the ink spilled on how not to mess this up. So I feel like we're probably good? Do I have to tell you not to write a character who is basically you, except poorly written? No?

Excellent.

So, let's talk about inserting people who aren't you into your fiction -- presumably with the serial numbers filed off, but recognizable nonetheless --  as that's:

  1. More likely to happen
  2. Less frequently discussed
  3. One of the few authorial techniques that can get you punched in the mouth

First off, if you flat-out put yourself, or someone you know, into your fiction, that's probably not ideal. Even if you change the names, people might recognize themselves -- or think they do -- and be unhappy with the results.

This can get really ugly. It's probably best to spare everyone the headache.

Another one of the dangers of pulling something straight out of your life, is that you lose all the context that informs it. An example:

Maybe you have a friend who calls you terrible names, always in private, and always incredibly foul. Maybe this started when you were kids, and the thrill of using such taboo words gave young you an incredible rush, and made these names feel unbearably hilarious.

Maybe as you grew older, you abandoned this practice, but your friend kept it up -- always in private, and with absolutely nothing but love in their heart, and nostalgia for your youthful adventures -- and it's an identifiable trait of someone who's a steadfast, loyal friend, with a great sense of humor.

So you put them in your novel. 

Specifically, you want your female lead to have a childhood friend who's got their back through thick and thin. Someone reliable, with a good sense of humor, to help her maintain perspective. Well, that pretty much describes the relationship you have with this friend, so you drop them in, more-or-less whole cloth, as your heroine's confidant.

Furthermore, while your heroine is attracted to men, you want to establish her as someone who's not defined by their sexuality. A steady friendship with a member of the opposite sex should do the trick nicely. So you write your friend in as a man, and true to real life, he gives the kind of support you've so often benefited from.

What your readers see, is someone who heaps verbal abuse on our heroine the second he gets her alone.

Worse still, she takes it all without so much as a second thought.

If you've made your lead at all sympathetic, your readers are far more likely to see an abusive boyfriend, rather than a beloved platonic ally. And even if you go out of your way to explain that no, he's done this since they were kids, and she likes it, many will simply see a lifetime of abuse.

Context is everything. More to the point the fact that something really happened is a terrible reason to put it in a story. In fact, I feel strongly enough about this to make it our next point:

Thing #3: But it really happened/it's like that in the real world!

Dude, no. Just no. Unless you're writing history -- and are quite confident in your sources -- this is not a great reason to include elements in your story. To quote Card once more:

"Remember that believability in fiction doesn't come from the facts -- what actually happened. It comes from the readers' sense of what is plausible -- what is likely to happen."
The farther you get from things that seem plausible, the more time you're going to want to spend providing context, justifying events, showing the process of how we got to point C from A via B.

If you put this guy in your story, he's going to come off as an unrealistic, moustache-twirling cartoon villain. And he's real!
Furthermore, you won't be there to tell your readers that it really did happen that way. And frankly, if you were, they'd be right to point out that truth is often stranger than -- and poor groundwork for -- fiction. As a journalist, you have a responsibility to get at the objective truth, as freaking impossible as that so often is.

As a storyteller, you have a responsibility to tell stories.

While working on my Equalibrium setting -- a near-future sci-fi espionage thingy -- I got to learn this lesson the hard way. I'd spent a lot of time researching about political tensions between the United States and various nations, and thought I had a pretty good idea of how things were going. (Disturbingly good, as it turned out; I really should have just published the novel when I was doing this, I could then claim to have predicted all kinds of stuff.)

Regardless, I felt like I had a pretty good idea on relations, policies, and especially ugly things that International Persons of Mystery might be wrapped up in. So imagine my surprise when -- adapting the material for a roleplaying game -- it seemed like I was portraying certain nations as, and I quote, "unrealistically cartoonish villains." 

I thought about explaining how I had actually toned down some of these things from their real-world counterparts, but what would be the point? Your audience sees what you put in front of them. I'mma say that again in a different font:

Your audience sees what you put in front of them.

Using real-world elements is fine -- in fact, it's where we'll get many of our ideas -- but be careful not to eschew the elements of storytelling, regardless of source. Your audience has what you give them; anything else is supplied by their imagination, and they'll apply cognitive shortcuts to fill in the gaps.

So, if you want to take elements from yourself, your friends, your surroundings, and stuff them in your fiction, that's probably fine. Just remember that your audience doesn't have access to context you don't provide them, and you should be just fine. But by all means; trust in your weird, beautiful, unique perspective. Use that. As Neil Gaiman put it in Make Good Art:
"The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked…that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
So -- just like anything involving personal nudity -- be thoughtful and responsible, and you should be all right.

* - on the other hand, maybe you are! We should talk sometime. You know. About your immortality.