Layered Narratives

I recently spent some time and thought energy discussing the role of heroism in stories: (I Don’t Need Another Hero) and on my feelings about portraying protagonists as heroic when their actions are anything but good.

Now I want to consider whole stories that do the same thing. Plots that create inaccurate mythology are even more prevalent than heroines who get away with murder, and I try to avoid them. There’s a trick to doing that, and I want to share the way I do it.

This is where I insert the usual disclaimer: this is about me. I don’t do advice.  This principle guides my work, and I think it makes my writing better–from a craft standpoint, not a moral one–than it otherwise would be.  I’m not talking about writing happy stories.  Pfft.  Hardly. (Anyone who’s read my work knows it leans to the dark side.) I’m talking about writing stories that say what I mean them to say.

All stories send out sneaky messages underneath the actual story itself. Call them subliminals. Call them subtext. Call them meta. Call them what you like. I’m sure there’s a literary term. The name isn’t the important point. The effect they have in the real world is.

Confused yet? Sorry. It isn’t a simple issue. Let me offer a few examples of meta-story issues that make me twitch. When news breaks —  I’m talking about real, it-by-golly-actually-happened events — observers instantly begin turning facts into narrative. People make stories. It’s a human thing. We make sense of the world by comparing it to the models of life that we build in our minds. And we’ve all heard witnesses make comments like these:
“He was such a quiet man.”
“She didn’t deserve to die like that.”
“How could this happen here?”
I’m sure you can come up with more, now that I’ve started the ball rolling.  Think about the implications of those statements. They’re dire ones. Perilous.

All quiet loners are violence time bombs or serial killers in the making.
A violent death would be okay if the victim were less of a saintly person.
There are safe zones in life, where bad things never happen.

None of those statements are true. Never have been true. They are stories that are believed because they are seen, and heard over and over and OVER, and they feel right in real life they’ve been absorbed through a multitude of lessons. When I watch feature movies and episodic television programs, when I read prose narratives or treat my eyes to graphic ones, those ideas are everywhere. There are reasons for it, of course. We want someone who dies to deserve it. We want villains to be identifiable in appearance. We want to believe in the illusion of safety.

These are just the tip of a mythology iceberg so big there’s a huge website devoted to spotting these elements in every venue of fiction. ( It’s an amazing, awe-inspiring stunning motherlode of information gathered by fans, for fans.) It’s all about facts. Interpretation, though–that’s up to the artists.

This isn’t the place for an argument over the validity of tropes, or how stereotypes are based on archetypes, or profiles have foundations in fact or so on. I’ll simply lay these truths out: the “people become abusers because they were abused” concept? Wrong. The quiet loner flips out and turns violent plotline: proven bullshit. The awkward geek getting the hot chick through sheer persistent nagging, without doing anything to make himself attractive? Don’t get me started on the abusive stalker behavior promoted by that trope. We’ll be here all week. I have so many statistics…moving on.

Fiction is a web of lies, but here’s the thing: storytellers are the ones who decide which lies to tell. The myths that shape us as we mature–the ones we accept and create for ourselves–leave us blind to so many important things. The stories we absorb affect the way we react in real life. I try to be conscious of this.

The one that goes, “Bad acts are good, as long as the victim deserved it?” That one makes me sick.

So, then. Here are a few things I eyeball with care, when going from the artful brain-to-page direct dreaming of the first draft to the craft of the subsequent edits.

Assumptions. We all make them.
Biases. We all have them.
Consciousness. This is the keystone. I try to know my own assumptions and biases. I try to craft the plot that tells the story I mean to tell, not the one I think I’m telling. Do I assume certain points of social order to be true without closely examining them? Do I believe one viewpoint over another? (Yes, and yes. We all do.)  I try to be sure, before I hit publish that I’ve said what I mean to say.
I like to see someone get saved who isn’t pretty, someone who isn’t kind behave heroically,  someone who isn’t brave step up to the action plate. Shouldn’t the petty, the rude, and the nasty also be saved from  disaster? Why do orphans always have to be adorable? Real children in need of real care are seldom perfect. And how could they be? They’re human. When someone kills someone else in cold blood when other alternatives are available, is it only a tragedy or a crime if the victim was a nice person, a good person, an attractive one? Laws, ethics and most moral codes would say no, but far too many stories say yes.

Make the principles serve the story. Make all the layers line up. If I believe in the sanctity of human life, are all my victims sympathetic? Are the people my heroines save worthy of her efforts by being tender, strong, and true?  If so, I might want to rethink my victims, because I’m only promoting sanctity for some lives. Are my villains unrelentingly evil? Do they do bad things because they want to see the world burn? Why? I might want to give them rational motivations and make their acts logical, even if the logic is twisted. Otherwise, my evil won’t look like the evil my readers see in their daily lives.

Getting second and third opinions is a painful but important step to getting this right. Painful, because disagreement inevitably feels like an attack. They’re personal beliefs, after all. It’s personal.  Important, because learning to understand many viewpoints–even opposing ones–is a critical writer’s skill. I’ve learned that my own visceral response is a good indicator that something’s amiss. It’s impossible for a reader’s opinion (on the writing!) to be an attack.  The power dynamic is all wrong. It’s my writing. I control it. Defending my position isn’t necessary. if I feel defensive,  there’s probably a splinter of an idea festering deep that needs examining. Taking the time to work it out will add to my ability to write well.

I try to write narratives that break loose from a foundation of ready lies and into the thin air of real, flawed human behavior. I can still hold up the ideals of kindness, bravery, honor, and sacrifice while admitting that few people ever attain them. That’s what will draw me into a book and hold me there until the last page. I don’t always succeed, but it’s always my goal.

I believe the best lies are ones that reflect the world back to us and make it a better place. That’s me. What are your beliefs? Does your writing reflect them? (Rhetorical questions. I’m just offering an excuse to go re-read your own work with an eye to subtext. Any excuse to re-read is a good one.)