I strive to be a sensitive writer. Like most writers, I stress about whether my stories do justice to the people and places they portray. I want the people who read my stories to read then and take away something positive, and I hate the idea that my stories may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or depictions of marginalized communities, or perpetuate negative tropes that we as readers and consumers of media have become more and more aware of over the past twenty or so years. Sometimes, as a white cis woman, I find myself wanting my own writing to scream on my behalf, at the top of its lungs: I am one of the good ones!
But when writing does this, at the expense of organic story development, it is, at best, empty virtue signaling, a sign that the writer cares more about appearing to be the right kind of storyteller than in telling a cohesive story, and at worse offensive in its own right, a tone-deaf declaration of the writer’s supposed proper attitudes rather than a demonstration of true ally-ship. How can a writer weave ideology into the story seamlessly without having ideology taking over the narrative or worse, giving the impression that the writer cares more about being perceived as the write kind of writer than they do about writing the right kind of story? Here are three points to consider:
Character’s attitudes should be based upon their backgrounds and experience. Whether your characters are closed minded bigots or open and accepting, their attitudes can’t appear out of nowhere just to have an excuse for the writer to show off their own political or social attitudes. In my current work in progress, I have a lesbian character living in a society that is relatively homophobic. She is the main character’s best friend, and the main character knows about her sexuality and is very accepting. So how would a character who grew up in a homophobic society, with traditional parents reinforcing that society’s traditional values, end up being accepting of her friend’s sexuality? Personal experience. My main character was once forced into a marriage that she didn’t want, and it had disastrous results for her personally. Since then, she has always hated the idea of anyone not having the right to choose who they love. Gradually, from her own experience, her attitudes became more accepting.
Character attitudes come from their background, which is different from your background as an author. If you want your character to embody certain progressive ideals, then make sure they have personal history that supports this. This is less important in modern contemporary fiction, because our own world is full of diverse beliefs and attitudes, any of which could influence our characters, but it is very important to consider in fantasy, particularly medieval or pre-industrial fantasy. If your world is a typical medieval world but your main character embodies modern progressive ideals with no backstory to back these up, you run the risk of creating an empty vessel for your beliefs and not a fully developed character.
Worldbuilding needs to be internally consistent with its history and culture. In our world the dominance of heteronormative marriage practices, including patrilineal hereditary monarchy, arranged marriage, arose out of patriarchal views that saw women as property. Although eventually most human cultures mostly moved past the point where women were literally bought and sold, this was the starting point for many human cultures. If you want to create a quasi-medieval culture where, for instance, people can marry whomever they want, then you need to create a world that supports that right down to its very foundations, not a patriarchal Medieval Europe with magic.
I found a great example in the recent YA book Lady Smoke, by Laura Sebastian. In a part of the book where Sebastian is introducing royalty from several neighboring kingdoms as potential suitors and suitresses for the main character, she included a culture in which “marriage wasn’t limited to being between men and women.” One character explains to the main character that this kingdom isn’t a matriarchy OR a patriarchy. Heirs are chosen and adopted by the current ruler as children. Since producing children wasn’t the goal of marriage, and rule wasn’t decided through the male line, who married who became irrelevant. And this wasn’t the product of pages and pages of explanation or worldbuilding, it was a couple of lines of dialogue, but it added a hint of realism, showing a world that was both progressive but logically consistent. In fantasy circles you’ll often hear the refrain repeated, “it’s fantasy, write whatever you want? Why recreate the prejudices of our world in your fantasy world?” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment! However, too many writers take the easy way out with worldbuilding, creating social The cultural norms of our own world did not appear at random, but rather grew out of historical and social factors, so make sure that whatever norms exist in your world are logically consistent.
Characters must interact with their world in realistic ways. Let’s say you create a world in which arranged marriage is the norm – common in many quasi-medieval fantasy worlds. If your characters resist arranged marriages and choose to marry for love or other reasons, what are the consequences? If they avoid consequences entirely, your reader will have a hard time suspending disbelief. Let’s say your world has slavery, but your main character is completely opposed to slavery and wants to dismantle the system and free all the slaves. How will the world react to this? George R.R. Martin actually handles this quite skillfully when Daenerys frees the slaves of Essos she has a very hard time handling the former slave owners, and as soon as she leaves, they’re pretty much right back to their old ways. It is great to have a character that fights for the rights of others, but those fights are rarely easily won. Just look at our own society – still feeling the effects of slavery over 150 years after slavery ended. Don’t make things too easy on your characters in order to showcase your own personal feelings about the issues. As Chairman Mao once said, “revolution is not a dinner party.” Your characters can change their world, or change their own place within the world, but the change should have lasting and serious repercussions.
Ultimately, stories can be a great way to showcase our own ideals and attitudes. The best stories are often indeed the stories that have a political or social message, and sometimes those messages are overt, not subtle. The artist can also be an activist, but the artist must never forget her duty is not just to the message, but to the art as well. Orwell’s classic 1984 is not just an ant-fascist screed, but a good, compelling story. More recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give spotlights police brutality, but at its core is the of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. Just as our beliefs do not exist for the sake of performing them for others, our works should be more than displays of our own virtue, signals that we stand on the “correct” side of the political and social divides that characterize modern life. Ultimately, our stories have to be able to stand on their own as stories and not rely on the virtue of the message to prop them up and avoid criticism. Weave your message into your story in a natural and skillful way and no one will know where the story ends and the message begins — one will be entirely indistinguishable from the other.