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. (TVTropes.com. 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.)

I don’t need another hero

I started thinking about the main characters of my assorted works recently, after reading a couple of posts elsewhere concerning Mary Sue wish fulfillment characters and the social impact of protagonists in stories. I want to make the this post a useful one, full of thoughtful points about creating interesting, engaging characters, but this is a personal space for me. I’ll splat out my thoughts out willy-nilly. How useful they are as Professional Advice — that part I will leave up to you, the reader.

The principal character in a fictional narrative is its protagonist. The nature, the soul, the character, so to speak, of that main character are irrelevant.  Most lines? Most page time? Most relevance to the plot? Protagonist. They can be heroines,* antiheroes or even villains. Many of the best protagonists who tread along the knife’s edge between classifications. Maleficent? Vindictive kidnapper and destructive hater, loving foster mother. Thomas Covenant? Rapist, coward, savior of the world. When all is said and done, however, traditional heroines are by far the most popular genre protagonists.

What make a heroine heroic? The list of positive traits is tl;dr, but here’s a short sampling: strong, swift, beautiful, brave, confident, caring, loyal, devout, and determined. Pick any three of those traits, and a protagonist might as well also carry a sign that says “I can haz heroism.” (Yes, I spend too much time surfing Lolcats. Deal with it.) When it comes to wish-fulfillment–for the reader, if not the author–who wouldn’t want to be a heroine?

Perfection gets boring, so writers often hang disadvantages on their heroic protagonists, to “make them more human.” Here’s where things gets uncomfortable for me. Like an applicant at a job interview, a lot of writing takes other heroic traits and spins them as weaknesses. Determination is stubbornness. Beauty is coupled with vanity, confidence with arrogance, etc. It feels like cheating, to me.

I like my protagonists truly broken. Look at this list: a bossy administrative assistant with zero ambition. A bullied, timid child of the underclass who cannot organize a sock drawer. An arrogant intellectual who’s losing his mind. A feckless genius who’s too intellectually lazy to find a job until one falls into his lap. A couple of marginally stable violence-addicts. The closest to traditional heroes I’ve ever created are a pair of dedicated law enforcement agents–and they’re dedicated to upholding the rule of  an intrusive, suppressive government.

I’m even less comfortable with the way heroic protagonists in a lot of current genre fiction act in ways that would be criminal if they lived in the real world.  Backstabbing, bullying, abuse, torture, and murder are all condoned as long as the victim is a bad guy. All’s fair in love and war is a common heroic trope. It’s also a dangerous one. It perturbs me deeply.

Protagonists should never be given a pass on morality simply because they wear the mantle of heroism. The popularity of this trend is terrifying when you consider how narrative stories shape our perspectives on the real world. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Evil is not a simple thing. Breaking the system to save it doesn’t work.  I think that if a writer decides to create a heroic protagonist, then the heroine should act like one. When faced with moral choices, she may stumble and err during the course of her journey, but in the end, she should do the right thing.

If that idea does not appeal, remember that heroism isn’t necessary to creating a great story. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were international bestsellers. Thomas is an antihero to the core. (I loathed those books, if anyone cares, and several friends regularly wax poetic on their disgust for the character. To which I point out, there’s fiction for everyone.)

I don’t write heroes. All my protagonists are riddled with real imperfections. Some of their actions are decidedly unheroic. A lot of them do bad things. On review,  I’m relieved to note that I also deliver personal, permanent consequences. None of my protagonists commit violence without emotional scarring, and if they escape prosecution or social condemnation, it’s through realistic means. People with financial clout, political influence and powerful allies seldom see the inside of a courtroom, no matter how heinous their acts.  (I didn’t plan it that way. Thank you, subconscious, for having my back, hypocrisy-wise. Lesson learned.)

Every so often when writing, it’s worth asking,  are my protagonists heroic? Are they behaving like heroes? Those two questions probably should be asked before embarking on any story. They absolutely will be answered before every story is finished, whether it’s done consciously or not. The images and associations that travel along with heroism are not neutral. If a heroine does things that are illegal, unethical, and immoral, there should be consequences. Think it through. Your stories will be more powerful for the analysis.

*Yeah, I did that gendering thing. There’s a reason. If the conceit irritates you, I suggest you examine the reason that considering heroes feminine rubs you wrong.