This topic has been on my mind for a while and was only dislodged around the most recent criticisms of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which consequently makes this a good time to finally tap out these thoughts into the undying wilds of the internet.
[Note: Where I fall on that side of the GoT issue isn’t really part of this post, not to mention that people more articulate and important than me have already hit the salient points with aplomb. For those reasons, I’m not going to discuss that here for the most part, unless I happen to do so in the comments. As a warning, sensitive topics will be mentioned and trolls will be dismissed.]
No, what I want to talk about is a certain bit of “wisdom” that pops up whenever someone criticizes the fictional. Things like:
“Why are you complaining? It’s just fiction!”; “smdh, these people don’t exist, they’re characters, so none of this matters, get a life.”; “1st world problems, lololololol.”; and so on, to infinity, you get the point.
This is where such remarks fail to hold weight and further the conversation. See, those glib dismissals? That it’s “just fiction” and we shouldn’t be getting our collective stomachs in knots over the distress of the unreal? Well, that’d make at least a bit of sense if the topic was about a completely fictional trope — for example, dragons, castles in the sky, or alien invasions.
But some things in fiction are real. Horribly, terribly, painfully real.
A multitude of violences and miseries thrive in the actual world where you and I live today. They exist now, in this century, today. They maim and destroy lives today.
When critics and fans discuss the mishandling of real-world topics, they aren’t dissecting esoteric literary theory on how every character in the work is secretly a metaphor for the malaise of modern Western society. They are talking about things that people have experienced, do experience, will experience.
So it follows that when the creators of fiction are depicting something that happens in actual existence they will inevitably meet with criticism.
That is precisely what should happen. Outrage over painful subjects isn’t the same as nitpicking* pedants attempting to determine an accurate layout of the Enterprise’s deck plans from season to season or mega “fans” complaining about actresses having the wrong hair color for a role.
Writing about something real shouldn’t be a check mark on the “is this edgy enough?” meter; it should drive the plot and the characters forward. It should matter. It shouldn’t stand there with “but it’s historically accurate!”** as a flimsy shield. Using the monumental as shock value holds no meaning if the people using it do not simultaneously deploy the counterbalance of respect and understanding. Victims and survivors of every type are not a plot point. They are fans, they are creators, they are real, and they will see what you are making.
To anyone involved in fiction-smithing: Remember the above, remember your research, and remember to give a damn about the living, breathing, feeling counterparts of your fictional ones.
We aren’t dragons, after all.
*Make no mistake; nitpicking is something I love to do since I’m a details person, but that’s not this post.
**This is something I’ve seen bandied about a lot but I’m ambivalent about these claims. Although this post at LiveScience has a good overview, seeing medievalists weigh in on the topic in, say, a book, is a dream of mine.
Top image courtesy of me and my sick skillz combined with too much free time after work.