22 January 2017

The Protagonist as Social Justice Warrior

This month may be a dangerous time to blog, but I feel I must rev up the blog once more for a new year or it will never get started. However, given the stormy season we have passed through, this blast from the past may be sufficiently mind-boggling as to be entertaining, or worse thought-provoking. In this political season, who are our protagonists?

The following was originally posted on 4 October 2015, edited to update the context.

Do you write what you preach? Are fiction authors supposed to promote their personal values? Or is the story supposed to be a self-contained entity with its own political views and separate from the author's? Must (or should) the author reveal personal positions on every social and political issues undergoing discussion in the public arena? Or is the story just a story and everything political is thrown to the wind for the sake of the story? 

The writer is supposedly imbued with a welter of imagination, able to leap tall plots in a single bound, about to stop dastardly antagonists with bare hands (obviously, on a keyboard). So it should go beyond the "write what you know"--shouldn't it? It is the mark of an author that he/she can make you believe he/she knows what he/she is writing about. 

However, there are plenty of instances where readers get in the way. I mean that in a wholly innocent sense. If writing for a particular category of reader, the writer may shape the story in certain ways to appeal to those readers. Part of that may be, say, to use initials instead of a name or to use a pen name completely to hide the gender of the author. Because a Romance author cannot be a man...in theory. And a hardcore sci-fi author cannot be female...traditionally.
I don't intend to focus on, say, gender issues, but today we seem surrounded by issues of all kinds, political and social, which make me wonder. Do authors include their personal values and views in their fiction writing? For example, if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, do you write stories in which the traditional opposite-sex marriage is the only option? Granted, the world of the story may demand such, but if the author feels strongly about the issue, might there not be some occurrence in the story of a same-sex marriage?

If an author is against guns...would the story be gun-free? If the author believes in a nation having a strong military and the government protecting its citizens by militarizing city police forces, would that idea be reflected in the author's latest book? If the author is a card-carrying conservative opposed to abortion, would the character in the story who gets pregnant have an abortion or, more likely, have the baby and offer it for adoption? It starts to get complicated. Or perhaps it's very easy. Do your characters act as you would act?
I have to say here that the examples in the preceding paragraphs were cherry-picked and do not reflect my own personal positions on those issues--or perhaps they do. You can never know for sure, because we like to keep our beliefs private. Or do we? Plenty of us speak up and speak out on whatever we believe is right or should be right, and we either find those who agree with us speaking with us or those who disagree trying to shout us down. The third column, which I suspect is the largest one, remains mostly silent--or dabbles in subtle sarcasm just to be able to vent something when necessary to maintain personal mental health.

And then there is the marketing question. If an author writes books in which the characters act as he/she would, hold views the author holds, act as the author would act with regard to a whole host of political and social issues, views, and positions, where does that leave the reader? Could that reader like a story enough to buy it and read it even though that reader and the book's author may have different views on, say, immigration reform? Or do we authors censor ourselves so as to be as mild-mannered as possible and not offend anyone who just might be tempted to buy our book? Do we act so as to not alienate half the potential readership, or do we go forth boldly proclaiming where we stand on this or that issue, and hope or expect that we will be praised for our stance(s)? Tough questions--or non-issues?

Perhaps many writers, authors, dabblers in words, whatever the label, just don't care about such matters because just writing an interesting story is hard enough and we don't have time to be concerned about things outside the story. Or are we politely disingenuous, hiding our true nature and our true beliefs and values for the sake of that interesting story, afraid to speak out about something we feel strongly about because we worry about offending fellow authors and potential readers. Compare the statistics of recent voting and decide which half of the book-buying population you will market to.

I don't believe fiction writers, as a clan, deal much with pontification; that is, we do not write a work of fiction solely to push a view of how the world should be. Or do we? Or should we? Or...why shouldn't we? When I've written sci-fi and fantasy, I've invented political systems which run the spectrum from left to right, not as a reflection of my own view of "how things should me" but only for the sake of plausibility in the story and influence on the plot. (One might consider the Sekuatean Empire, for which this blog was originally named, as an example.)

Sure, the literary canon is full of authors who pushed agendas, who wrote dogmatic tales, who gave us strongly-worded suggestions of how we should behave, what we should think, what we should do or stop doing--woven more or less subtly through a fictional narrative that served to entertain us long enough to get the message across. And others wrote to warn us of possible future scenarios we may not wish to experience. The world of literary imagination is both a safe space and a war zone. Reader beware. Or are they simply stories which only in hindsight do we see a message or a warning? And if the warning may be too strong, too upsetting, too triggering, then such a book might be moved into the banned book pile. Fearing the ban, authors may self-censor, keep it clean, water it down, set it all in a land of make-believe where nothing is actually meant to be real or serious, certainly not as a commentary on the present political climate, oh no!

And yet, in this present day world of saying the right thing, being politically correct or decidedly not, what is the author's responsibility...or compulsion? Must a novel follow a political agenda? May a work of fiction illustrate differing views on particular social issues? Should our protagonists be social justice warriors? 

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

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