by Chloe Garner
I don’t know if you’ve looked around recently, but the world is kind of a tricky place. Issues concerning race and cultural identity live at the forefront of everything in the American news cycle, and I know that different versions of the same conversations are going on all over the world. Problems that I wouldn’t even imagine for the sake of my own fiction are very real, and no one wants anyone else to tell them what they are, what they should want, who they should be.
And I get that. There are no good answers. Most of us have been mistreated at some point, and no one wants to see things they identify with painted as villainous, either in the real world or in fiction. It creates a situation that – I’ve gotta tell you – is challenging for a fiction writer. Fiction is about the way the world is, the way the world could be, the way the world has been, and the way the world should be. Underneath of that, there are statements, theories, ideas, perspectives, pictures of what it means to be human. Thoughts about the way humans are, what’s normal, what’s not, what’s okay, and what really isn’t.
And those are really, really important to me, as a person, as a reader, and as a writer.
Conversations among authors are hot with passionate opinions about how to treat characters by type. I was in a class where a woman argued that describing a woman as ‘small’ was sexist, and I’ve more recently seen a statement that creating a bisexual assassin character plays on negative stereotypes about bisexual individuals. And sensitivity here is important. It’s also paralyzing. No one wants to see their people set up as villains. Even if the evil of the character has nothing to do with their race, class, or cultural associations, they don’t like it, and that’s perfectly rational, perfectly reasonable, and something I’m wholly empathetic to.
But fiction needs conflict.
And some women are small. And thieves exist most everywhere in the world. As do cheats and liars and busybodies.
Add to this a genuinely held belief that a writer does not have the ability to speak from a perspective that he has not experienced, be it racially, culturally, economically, or elsewise, and I often find myself at a loss. Because fiction remains important. Stories about people, regardless of where they come from or what formed them, they’re critical to empathy and our ability to look outside of ourselves and understand how others might experience the world.
We must tell stories.
More and more, both as a reader and as an author, I find that I take refuge in the world of fantasy. The things that are true about fantasy characters are also true about real people, but the divide between who is allowed to tell a story and whether or not their perspective is biased or inappropriate vanishes because we are now talking about races that do not have a real history – indeed, they have a complete history that exists solely in the head of the writer. Conflicts can be as complex as they need to be, but without the risk of underplaying a dynamic that is core to someone’s real life. Without the risk of speaking for the collective experience of a group, authors are free to create an experience that has an authentic and instructive perspective.
For much of my life, the grown ups have looked at fantasy as a form of childish play. Something that I would outgrow, that I would join the adult world in its pursuit of more adult fiction.
As I sit here today, thinking about what I want to write, what I care about, and the things that I believe are true, I wonder if maybe more childish play is exactly what we need. Play is where we learn to interact safely and healthily with others, and it’s about instruction more than agenda. The things that we have always needed fiction for remain true, today, perhaps even more than ever, but we close doors and condemn them as venues of conversation. Some writers are simply brave, but in being brave, they take on an additional layer of responsibility for being fair to all of the parties and types and groups that they’re representing.
I love speculative fiction. I always have. I don’t want to write fiction that is necessarily fair: I want to write fiction that is authentic and real and meaningful, even if it is about vampires and demons and aliens and magic. I think that, rather than being a barrier to reality, these separations from the real world form a protective shield, a barrier that protects these stories from the pressure to conform to sincere, well-meaning rules, and just tell the story that needs to be there.