Rules for Writing
I participate in online discussions and sometimes they end up touching upon subjects a little close to heart. The other week, I happened to be in a discourse over the representation of racial and sexual minorities in media and how the under representation of these people was a rather unfortunate habit which should be addressed. The usual suspects arrived to the argument – creatives merely write what they know and one shouldn’t demand otherwise; if minorities wished to see more representation then they should produce their own entertainment; stories featuring minorities don’t sell because the majority audience is unable to identify or sympathize with them etc…
I’m not going to address those arguments mostly because any sort of discussion on diversity in media is going to have those trotted out like some sick horse for a carnival’s grotesque show and if someone were truly interested in learning why those positions are weak, they wouldn’t need to look far for the counter points.
Instead, the discussion spurred a rather curious comment from a poster. This individual stated, with a remarkable amount of conviction, that everything presented to the audience about a character in a narrative must be there for a reason and that reason should reveal their desires and intentions. It is not an outlandish claim on its own and seems rather reasonable on first blush.
It is this statement which I wish to rant about today. Though the original discussion was not aimed squarely at writing, the argument presented was and, as such, I shall argue against it from a writing perspective and ignore other media forms and whether such a statement holds merit in them or not.
It’s a curious position since, whenever in an editorial role, I am constantly asking either myself or the author of the work what is the point for scenes and characters to the story. I do maintain that events, actions, characters and scenes should be added for a purpose. It must seem rather hypocritical that I’ll edit out scenes and dialogue because I feel it adds nothing while simultaneously writing long paragraphs on the Internet why someone who purportedly is expressing the same values is inherently wrong. However, outside of being a rather strong dictum, I feel this sort of rigid regulation of how art should be is rather insidious and dangerous.
Not that this individual is alone. Like I mentioned, I often wield this decree towards my own writing. Even Kurt Vonnegut, when publishing his eight rules for writing fiction, had something similar in his list which is produced below for this discussion and interest sake:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time is wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things – either reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet or innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open your window to make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the stories themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I don’t know about you but not only are these decent suggestions but right there, plain as day, is rule four supporting this anonymous individual’s bold stance. Granted, it has a bit more elegance as surely a writer as successful and proficient as Kurt Vonnegut would recognize that mere character alone does not create all works of good fiction.
So why my umbrage?
Well, the context of the debate is immensely important. I have written some articles before about modern feminism and diversity and it is my goal to try and adapt some of those philosophies in my own work. I need to stress that this debate started over the question about the viability of racial and sexual minorities in media. Ultimately, the statement expressing that all details given by an author must reveal character is, in essence, stating that “You must only use minority individuals as protagonists if your story is dealing with the issues a minority would face in that narrative.”
Basically, we must suffer Shia the Beef’s and Megan Vixen’s god awful performances in Transformers because the Transformers movies are not dealing with the hardships that African Americans or Jewish immigrants face in modern America. It is an argument which carries certain inherent biases. If you are to write any fiction not dealing with discrimination based on racial, sexual or gender difficulties then you must make your protagonist a white, heterosexual male. Otherwise, the argument purports, it is bad writing for you are presenting unneeded information.
I want to stress again that this is not me twisting the posters words as this dialogue was occurring in a thread bemoaning the lack of diversity present in main protagonists across modern Western media. It is a discriminatory position since it puts forward that the characteristics which make these groups disadvantaged minorities must have deep bearing upon their identity. You can not, as the argument goes, make the lead brother of Pacific Rim gay “just because” since his sexuality must have some grander bearing on the story. Of course, his heterosexuality is, essentially, assumed thus it need not be justified in its expression. He can make some passing comment on pretty girls and not have that line considered “bad writing” since it is, essentially, the audience’s expected “default.”
I would counter that this is a very dangerous stance to take and thus, ultimately, I must disagree with Kurt Vonnegut’s fourth rule. I feel an author should be free to make their character hispanic, female, transgendered or whatever and not be weighed down by the challenges faced by any of these groups if the narrative does not call for it. Ultimately, our stories are expressions of ourselves and our experiences. The majority of them will feature humans or analogous individuals which explore the vast array of characteristics and lives that a diverse species will face. When writing a story about my characters, I am necessitated in choosing a gender for them – not because that gender weighs heavily upon that narrative but because humans have gender.
Of course, the immediate counter argument is that stating a person is female is revealing character and the proclamation in of itself satisfies Vonnegut’s requirement. In fact, this person probably intended to communicate just that with this response when I questioned his position about an off-handed comment on a character’s marriage status:
“I said it should affect their character, not that it should define them. If we run with marriage, then what does that mean? It means the main character made a commitment with someone else. Is that a happy marriage? Are they constantly arguing? If so, why? If not, to what extent is that person the most important part of our main character’s life? Maybe the marriage won’t change their decisions, but if they’re happily married it should at least weigh on their conscience if their decisions will impact the other person. If they’re not happily married, how does that impact the character’s decisions? Maybe it’ll make it easier for them to make decisions that put themselves in harms way… All I’m saying is that if we learn that a character is married, that should, in at least a small way, have a bearing on what happens or the nature of the character. That they have a dog, a specific type of car, where they live, what they eat for breakfast, where they work etc. If it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t tell us anything about the character, why is the author telling the reader?” ~ Anonymous Poster On Internet
And this is when, I feel, the argument really breaks down upon itself. Now we are no longer insuring our lines are revealing character or advancing action but bogging down the narrative with constant explanation for why every small detail is necessary for inclusion. Make mention of a character’s blonde hair – we will need some justification for how that blonde hair shaped this individual’s life or they must be identified later in the story by their hair. If you wish to make your character a woman but do not go into great length about the impact of her womanhood on her personality or pivot a key narrative scene on her gender, then you should not have included it in the first place.
But as stated, we’re writing humans, so these characters need a gender and physical features. Most stories do not trip over these requirements so, unless this individual is arguing that essentially there is no well written stories, then some combination must be free of this restriction.
I don’t think it necessary to state what that combination inherently is.
I discussed this rather odious position with my co-contributors and Derek provided an expanded rule to Vonnegut’s fourth: Each sentence must do one of the following: reveal character, explain the world, advance action or reinforce tone.
I, personally, subscribe to a different approach. If I were to include this in my “Rules of Writing” it would be as such: Each sentence must be added for a reason. That’s it. Every line you write should be put to serve a purpose. What that purpose is, however, is entirely up to the author and it need not be inherently apparent for the reader. Perhaps you wish to make your lead in a sci-fi space opera transgendered for no other reason than you want to feature more transgendered individuals in fiction. Art is not a solitary experience but shared amongst the creator and consumer. This most peculiar of relationships is what inevitably determines what “works” and what “does not.” No list of simple rules will create a foolproof method for creation. No mandates from anonymous individuals can insure your writing is widely acclaimed.
And Kurt Vonnegut would agree. After creating his rules for good fiction writing, even he admitted that his great contemporaries had a habit of breaking many of his rules and that the best writers tend to do just that.