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Art & Politics

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.

WisCon considerations

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I attended Wiscon, the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention. The Apex Magazine party on Friday night featured a game called ‘Conversational Roulette’ in which the game master gives each contestant three minutes to tell an impromptu story based on a given theme. When I played, the theme was ‘running away to the circus’ and I confessed my preschool ambition to become a trapeze artist and wear a black sequined leotard, with black lipstick and nail polish (this was in the early 60’s long before Goth anything) and do stunts in midair, high above the crowd. I did not win my round, but got one vote.

I sat nearby when the game master started another round with a new set of three players and the theme ‘the most formative movie of your life.’ The winner of the round cited ‘The Princess Bride’ but dissed Princess Buttercup for not doing anything to rescue herself. (Isn’t it hard enough just being the Most Beautiful Woman in the World?)

A travesty that he should win (sorry, Nolan) – but the mention and my later conversation with Nolan Belk on the subject, got me to thinking about why I like that movie so much and what it has in common with some of my other favorite movies, shows and stories. For instance, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ and the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, and even Jane Austen’s works.

Princess stands out for great dialog that reveals a great cast of characters, each one, from heroes to villains to bit players, drawn with a loving eye to their unique, relatable human foibles.

Whedon’s BTVS strikes me as having that same virtue of great dialog deftly revealing great, relatable characters. Whedon and Goldman both create characters I care about, people who I want to accompany on their journeys.

Just as importantly, both shows are written with a sense of humor that tells me the writer is not taking himself or the material too seriously.

Saturday night I attended a banquet and awards ceremony for the Science Fiction Research Association, which brings critical and serious literary attention the genre of F/SF – and I’m all for it. The genre is my first love when it comes to reading material, from fairy tales to hard scientific extrapolations based on the expanding frontier of human knowledge. I love stories that help me to look at the world, humanity and the whole universe beyond us from new perspectives. I’m pleased to see my favorite genre grow in literary merit in the eyes of a broader readership…

At the same time, I’m concerned about losing some of the pleasure I find in that genre. I’m afraid the quest for serious literary standing will lead to the pitfall of stories that take themselves too seriously, that lose their sense of humor and the ability to make a little bit of fun at themselves along the way.

I was somewhat reassured that one of the award winning papers of the evening was in praise of ‘Buckaroo Banzai.’ Clearly a movie I must now see.

The Velveteen Rabbit Effect

Having my computer face the window of my office is a mixed blessing. I can see the sunshine on a winter’s day, and the bare limbs of a tree stark against the snow – but that same sunshine glares in my eyes as I look at the computer screen. My solution was to get a cheap sun visor at a dollar store. The visor was a poor fit. It had a hard plastic band sized for someone with a smaller hat size, and pinched the sides of my head if I snugged it down, so I generally wore it perched on top of my head with the visor tilted down to shield my eyes as best it could.

This week that hard plastic band broke. Without it, the visor lacked the structure to hold it to my head at all. When I broke a piece out of the middle and put the two side-ends back in their casing, I could make it fit at last. But now, the broken ends of that band poked at my brow. Today I got out needle and thread and a length of thick brocade ribbon, thinking to sew it across the break and cushion those broken ends.

As I sewed, my visor’s transformation from cheap mass-produced item to unique, custom-fit accessory reminded me of the tale of the Velveteen Rabbit. The toy becomes real because of how thoroughly it is loved and used, although it grows worn and threadbare in the process. The damages are what make it distinguishable from every other toy rabbit on the toy store shelf. The same adventures that damage it give it character.

Broken and mended as it is, my visor now has character. Character is an issue familiar to all writers. Our characters seem real to the extent that they have unique experiences that have touched them and changed them, from which they’ve learned and grown and become someone distinguishable from anyone else in the world.

I came to appreciate this principle first through visual arts. Especially the functional-art bookmarks I’ve been making for years now. Because of the bookmarks, I had the ribbon on hand that I needed in order to adapt my visor to my needs.

There are a vast array of colors, patterns and styles of ribbons, from narrow satin to wide brocade, to printed cottons and wire-edged organzas. There are beads in as many sizes and colors, from tiny glass seed beads, to large rough-cut shells, or many sizes of pearls, to shiny metal icons, to natural stones from quartz to jasper to opal and ruby, rough nuggets or precisely cut shapes. The potential variations I could create with my bookmarks seem truly endless. Each combination acquires a unique character.

Why settle for stereotypes in writing characters when the potential combinations of human qualities and experiences must be at least as variable as with beads and ribbons? People come in all sizes and shapes, from families rich, poor, and everywhere in between, with backgrounds touching every sort of work and industry, political belief, educational training and interconnections within their communities. Every person embodies a small world of unique characteristics at birth, and our experiences in life only add to the depth of that identity. We each become more real as we love and explore our lives. I, for one, want to remember that if my characters ever seem shallow, it’s because I haven’t looked at them deeply enough and found the experiences that make them real.