Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard
In response to an RWA article advising romance writers to avoid polarizing topics, SF writer, John Scalzi responded to the effect that one’s political attitudes are part of one’s identity and experience of the world from which is drawn anything a writer might produce of any unique worth.
This makes me wonder who I am as a writer. Am I trying to tailor my stories to please everyone? And by so doing, denying some part of my personal truth?
Is a desire for truth necessarily polarizing? The truth is that the world contains people with widely polarized views. If I want my work to reflect reality to any extent I need to include characters with strongly held and divergent opinions. I need to reflect what I have experienced as true, hopefully, without becoming pedantic about it. In respect to the intelligence of readers, it’s best to present my evidence, meaning the sorts of experiences I know to be real, and let the readers draw their own conclusions, even if some of my characters draw conclusions like my own.
In the cause of engaging more readers, we’re encouraged to write sympathetic characters. The fact is, nobody is universally likeable. There are probably people out there who hated Mother Theresa and thought Gandhi was a pill. People who are trying to please everyone seem to me less rather than more likeable. Giving characters polarized views isn’t going to change this state of affairs.
In any case, I think the sympathy is in the writer. Every human being has an a-hole, is born selfish, and retains selfish interests throughout life – and none of this makes them impossible to love. Babies are loved because it’s in the interest of the species – it’s in our hearts to love them – no matter how self-occupied the little hedonists are.
It’s the writer’s job to sympathize with her characters – even the nasty ones. They won’t all be the heroes or heroines of the story, but they will all have viewpoints and see themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. Their goals and methods may be unsympathetic, but they will have been somebody’s baby at some point in life, and there’s always room for a little sympathy for that beginning that went somehow awry. If nothing else, we can sympathize with unmet needs and lost potential, with the wrong turns taken.
That said, romances do tend to be more concerned with personal relationships than with the political affairs of the world at large.
Writer Lois McMaster Bujold, in her much-cited guest of honor speech at Denvention, pointed out the different story expectations held by romance readers and f/sf readers. Romance readers expect a story to address the emotional issues involved in building intimacy in interpersonal relationships. Avoiding polarizing topics may be appropriate for some romances – such as short, category romances too tightly focused on a single relationship to allow time for other issues.
Fantasy/SF readers are more concerned with world-building and political issues. I write crossover urban fantasy-romances where I’m concerned with satisfying the expectations of both fantasy/adventure readers who care about broader world-building and romance readers concerned with interpersonal relationships. Writers of Womens’ Fiction or single title romances may also want to involve readers who care about the broader issues, however polarizing they may be.
That is to say, the political views of the writer and characters may have more or less of a place depending on the sort of story being told.