Friday, 24 April 2009

On Writing Books of Vile Darkness

A while ago I began to feel uncomfortable with one of my ongoing yarns. This half-finished fantasy novel, which I like to label the Tri-World Gunpowder Plot, sets about Big Brother government and political correctness with Fawkesian enthusiasm. All very fun and dandy. But an unwanted alternate reading emerged as the story developed. According to my tale's evil shadow, black people are bad, crazy, and/or scary; sexually forward girls are mean and trashy; smoking is what the cool rebel cats do; everything the Daily Mail says is absolutely right; and the evul tranzi clerisy pwns your cheezburger.

Since I dislike these opinions quite a lot, with the very partial exception of the one about the cheezburger, and think them actively injurious to their bearer and everybody within halitosis range, this gave me painful pause. Sure, it’s a dumb reading, but I’m pretty sure a good few people on either side of the battle-lines are well qualified to make it. Do I really want to take responsibility for inflicting such ills upon the world?

Having thought it over, all I can say is: by the Lord Harry, yes!

When I tell my tales so they ring true, to me, as "what really happened", I'm showing my readers respect and giving them their data. I can't, and shouldn't, spoon-feed or force-feed them my preferred conclusions.

Why? After all, I know those are just as true - in the tale-world inside my head. But if a reader sees given things in the real world, and interprets them very differently than I, then why shouldn't they keep their interpretation for those same familiar things when they see them in my story? The tale-world they recreate in their head may be as consistent with the facts, and as unlike my own, as our respective visions of our workaday Earth.

I don’t have to like that. In cases like this, I dislike it a big fat lot! But I oughtn't purposely to manipulate the reader by rigging our game to suit my external agenda. My world's inherently rigged in my favour, as it is, because my assumptions already inform the way everything happens, whereas reality can often be a bit sub-standard in this department.

Which is actually where virtue in composition gets its chance at reward. Suppose I do a good honest job of worldbuilding, so that even people so benighted as to disagree with my opinions in one way or another can respond to its feel of the real. Then any such heretic must automatically stand a fair chance of getting whacked with a clue-by-four at some point; and, because it feels like the sort of clue-by-four with which we are all familiar from our real live adventures, it may actually get their attention, or even induce second thoughts.

But the real world does not always so oblige its residents - and nor, outside the course of the story, should mine so oblige its readers. Because then it’ll be a different kind of world again, and Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby will be dropping by any moment to borrow a cup of sugar.

I realise it may sound pretty strange to spout off like this, as if there were a sort of journalistic ethics to be observed in the profession of selling willing victims pretty lies, but - oh? You don’t feel the dissonance? Well, maybe it ain’t so strange, at that.

It’s how I feel about it, anyway.

As to why this particular yarn might cast such a strange and disturbing shadow in the first place, and how this relates to why I want to write it - I think that probably deserves its own post.


  1. wow, Gray, you're so *right*!

  2. You really must finish that thing before I die--I'm only 56 so I'm not putting a lot of pressure on you.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  3. Thanks, Irina! Of course, I should expect such a famously scrupulous worldbuilder to feel that way too; but it is good to hear it from a less biased source than myself, you know.

    Mary Anne: I shall try not to impact your options for the trans-Sahara barefoot spear-dodging race too heavily, though I suspect that the need to finish the yarn before *it* dies may be dogging my heels more closely.

    I really don't want to lose this one. Even the difficulties are the kind that hint at promise. I shall be getting back to some of them soon.


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