Monday, April 2, 2012

The Mistakes Writers Make

(Warning: Divergent spoilers in this post. Also, discussing sexual assault, which may be a sensitive topic.)

Here is the thing about getting a book published: there will always be things you regret. If you're lucky, those will be things that you just didn't catch in copyediting, the wrong word or the wrong character name here and there, or some things you didn't research well enough (like how easy/hard it is to pull a trigger, for example...). If you're not lucky, those will be things you wish you hadn't included at all. Or that you didn't know you were saying until people started reading and reacting.

What do you do, when you start to see these things? Well, I tried to justify them in my mind. I talked them out with friends. I tried to let them go and resolve to do better in the future. All these responses are okay, I think. But at the end of the day, it just doesn't sit well with me to pretend that I haven't made mistakes. I believe that confession helps us to move past shame and regret and into determination for the future. Confession also sucks to have to do, but here we go.

This month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And in the past year, I've seen a lot of blog posts from very smart people about a new and problematic trend in YA: the "throwaway" sexual assault trope. This trope is included to artificially raise the stakes in a plot or situation, or to further establish how bad a villain is, but it doesn't actually affect the character all that much moving forward. It is problematic to include a sensitive issue in your work as a plot device only, without making it important for the character. Not just on a moral level, but on a storymaking level, too.

I have felt deeply convicted by these posts. In Divergent, there is a scene in which Tris is attacked by three of her fellow initiates, and in the process one of them grabs her chest and makes a snide remark about her physical appearance. Yet after the fact, while the attack does bother her and make her scared, it doesn't really factor into her character development.

Now, here's the thing: some people who have been through sexual assault really do push it down inside and try to stop thinking about it, or even don't realize how bad the situation was at the time, until a few years later when they take gender studies classes or something and they find out that some things are Really Not Okay-- sometimes they don't realize it at all. And there is an argument to be made for how Tris's fear of intimacy partly results from this incident she suffered through. But as I was saying to someone earlier, if her reaction is realistic, it is completely by accident, and that's what bothers me. That is the big mistake.

I was not intentional about what I wrote and how I wrote it. If I could go back and do it again, I might take that part of the attack out completely. Or I might change the way Tris reacts to it. I might make sure that it surges inside her every so often, no matter how hard she tries to shove it back down. Maybe it wouldn't be a huge plot point-- given everything else that's going on, she probably wouldn't focus on it-- but it would still be there, as a part of her.

It's hard to write about sensitive issues, especially in sci-fi/fantasy where those issues will rarely be the big focus of the books. But that doesn't mean we should shy away from them. It means that we should realize that they are real things that happen to real people. We should make sure that they have a real impact on our characters. Four, for example, has a sensitive issue in his past, but it affects him every day, and in really significant ways, the way it would in real life. It doesn't define him, in the same way that victims of sexual assault are not solely defined by what has happened to them. But it does really, deeply affect him.

To my fellow writers, I'm learning this lesson alongside you, and it is: be intentional about what you write. That doesn't mean we should avoid the hard stuff, or the dark stuff. It means we should take it seriously, do the research, do the thinking, do the feeling. We don't have to be preachy or spit out platitudes or make sure that it all turns out okay, like an after school special, but every writer (I think, anyway) has a responsibility to tell the truth with his or her work and part of that is being careful (as opposed to careless) about what we write and how we handle it. And for me, part of it is honoring the real people who have suffered these real things by telling stories like theirs as well as I can.

It's hard to see your own mistakes, especially when there's no way you can fix them, especially when they are out there for the world to pick up and read. But I've tried getting defensive, and I've tried ignoring things, and you know, it just doesn't work for me. I'm committed to learning to be a better writer and human being, and to opening my eyes to parts of the world I never had to see, and this is a big part of that process.

This is all to say, quite simply, that I wish I had done better, especially for those of my readers who have gone through hard things like these. I am learning, and I will do better in the future.

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