Dear fellow writers,
Don’t be afraid to write what you want.
Sociologists will tell you that you have to have characters of every ethnicity or else you’re a racist. Feminists say that you have to have two named female characters who talk about not-a-man, or else you’re a sexist. Politicians say you have to represent every lifestyle fairly, without a preference for one over the other, or else you’re a bigot. I’ve actually heard storytellers (I’m resisting the urge to add quotation marks) supporting these claims.
And that’s nothing but a heap of rot. As much as we admire the social scientists and true feminists for finding the best way for our civilization to work, and as much as we (sometimes) admire politicians for trying to achieve an agenda, none of these folks are really storytellers. Sure, they can learn to tell stories as well, but it’s not automatically their job, just as it’s not my job to analyze statistics or give speeches. However, lately these culture-workers have been sticking sociology’s nose where it doesn’t belong: into writing. And there’s the rub.
In most modernized countries, we have something along the lines of the First Amendment, which says that we can write what we want without getting in trouble. That goes beyond government coercion. We can’t be intimidated into saying something we don’t believe or shutting up about something we do, and we shouldn’t have to be afraid of ostracism when we write a good story that just happened to have differences from what the audience expected. We can write our own stories, and if readers don’t like them, then they can read something else. Maybe they can even write their own book- because honestly, if people have enough time to read that many “bigoted” books and complain about them, they probably aren’t suffering for free time. So that means, in any free country, such pressure is just plain stupid.
Yes, I’m talking about the Bechdel test. I’m talking about the pressure to write in the latest popular genre, and I’m talking about the fad that fantasy and historical writers have to represent every ethnicity in their stories. Really, I’m talking about any non-storyteller that tries to tell writers how to do their jobs. Things like this have no place in literature because they are anti-story. Their underlying assumption is that storytelling is nothing more than a string of conversations or an archetypal set of characters, and when we look at those conversations or characters, we had better find everything we ever wanted.
However, readers have many ways of understanding the deeply-held beliefs of the author. Counting the negligible details of a single interaction in a story is not one of those ways. As anyone who knows the first thing about storytelling would explain, storytelling is about many small components- theme, development, plot, characters, even good prose- built into a larger structure called “story.” That is how we identify a good or bad book.
Let’s look at it this way. 12 Angry Men or Fifty Shades of Grey: Which one is more likely to encourage men and women to think critically about social bias? And which one is more likely to (at best) demean women? Well… guess which one actually passes the “feminist” Bechdel test? Yeah. And this is what non-storytellers have to offer the world of writing. It’s great for educational textbooks, but horrible for stories.
What’s the first rule of writing? Don’t overthink it. The first rule is to write what you want. When writing stories, you don’t have to write for your mom, your professor, feminist critics, the government… you are in charge. Sure, the beta-reading and polishing phases will require a little more thought, but for the first draft, no one hired you to write a politically-correct vampire romance. Don’t ever let a non-storyteller tell you what to do.
Write the story that only you can write.
Hannah A. Krynicki