Weird thoughts about fashion in writing

Writing fiction is something of an artifice. Telling stories is not. Telling stories is a very basic human activity. But telling stories in the context of writing fiction is subject to fad and fashion.

Case in point, some people now consider it so important to address social issues in their fiction, that they neglect to tell a satisfying story. Every checkbox has to be marked, from “people of color” (I refuse to use that horror without quotes) to LGBTQRSTLSMFT, or whatever the current alphabet soup of gender and preference entitlement is. And any fiction that does not check all the boxes is open to criticism. Hell, they complained because “Dunkirk,” an historical movie, did not include women and “people of color,” even though historically there were none of them there. White males, by and large, fought Europe’s wars.

Another fashion in writing is person. It used to be you wrote in first person or third person. These are basic to story telling, from everyday life to high literature. “So I go to the grocery store, and I’m looking for this cheese I saw on television….” Now, once our first person narrator tells this story to one of his friends, his friend passes it on in third person. “So my buddy goes to the grocery store, and he’s looking for some cheese he saw on television….”

Simple, right? Not so fast. There are now a whole bucketful of third persons. Distant 3rd, close 3rd, tight 3rd, omniscient 3rd, single point of view, multiple point of view. A whole cottage industry has grown up around them — teaching them to authors in seminars, and books, and articles. They have a whole vocabulary of technical terms that goes with them.

What are the differences? In brief, as far as I understand it: distant 3rd is where everything is described by an outsider watching the action, like telling someone the story of a movie; close 3rd is basically a first person narrative written in the third person, so you are in the head of the character; tight 3rd is where the narrator only knows and tells what the character knows, so if John is the tight character there are no scenes where John isn’t there; omniscient 3rd is what most fiction was before, say, 1970, and encompasses a lot of what you are familiar with; single point of view means that the narrator follows one character, while multiple point of view means the narrator follows different characters in different scenes. If you have action going on in multiple locations, and you want the reader to be there, you need to do multiple point of view.

Classical fiction is mostly omniscient 3rd, with multiple point of view. Movies are almost by definition omniscient 3rd with multiple point of view. But that isn’t what’s big now. Tight 3rd, single point of view and close 3rd, single point of view are what a lot of writers go for now. There is a lot of “It’s better” talk, but I suspect it’s just fashion. What’s “better” is always going to have to bow before the one Great Question: Is it a good story?

One more writing trope I have to discuss is the concept of a “Mary Sue.” A Mary Sue is a character who is perfect. They don’t need to practice to develop a skill, they are expert at anything they try. They always have the perfect rejoinder right now, not five minutes after the other person has left the room. They are brilliant, they are beautiful, they are strong. They have no character flaws, no petty emotions, no self-doubt. Their hearts are pure and their motives are noble. They are, in short, the author’s wish fulfillment for himself.

At least, that’s what a Mary Sue used to be. Now, though, any character who isn’t deeply flawed, gnawed by self-doubt, and more or less incompetent on multiple levels risks being called a Mary Sue. You couldn’t write a story about Mother Theresa without criticism. “Your main character is a Mary Sue. She’s basically a saint.” Well, yeah. She is.

Or Winston Churchill, a guy who was born to wealth and privilege. Who rode his horse back and forth across the lines with the bullets flying all around him, urging his men on, and did not just survive, but wasn’t even wounded. Was captured,  but escaped. Who learned to fly an airplane a handful of years after they were first invented, crashed one of these primitive planes when it mechanically failed, and walked away unharmed. Who was made First Lord of the Admiralty at age 37. Who, when removed from the Admiralty during the investigation of the Gallipoli disaster, volunteered for the front lines in France as a mere Major, and then shared with his men the expensive luxuries — brandy, cigars, cheese — he had his wife ship to him at the front. Who personally went out multiple times to inspect the wires during the trench warfare, and was never wounded. Who invented the tank, which ultimately won the war. Who was cleared of responsibility for the Gallipoli disaster, and then put in charge of war production, which, of course, he revolutionized, making available the level of supply required to push the war to an end using the tanks he himself had invented. Who railed against the Nazi threat for years between the wars, and then found himself named Prime Minister when his warnings, of course, proved true. Who led his country through the war to victory, in his seventies. Who was re-elected Prime Minister during peacetime, serving until he was 81 years old. Who called out the Soviets, and coined the term “Iron Curtain.” Who was an accomplished artist. Who wrote more English-language prose than any other person, before or since, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Who was famous for the perfect bon mot, delivered on the spot. And who lived into his 90s.

Put him, or a character like him, in your fiction and see what people say.

“Mary Sue! Mary Sue!”

Of course, Winston Churchill was an exceptional person. No question. Can we not now, though, write fiction about exceptional persons?

I say this with a bit of pique. I wrote my first novel about an exceptional character. Her exceptionalism was on three fronts: she was extremely bright, she worked her ass off, and she was grateful for being rescued from the slums. That’s it. Her adult height was stunted from malnutrition. When the story opens, she is basically skin and bones and achieves healthy body mass only through her own efforts at nutrition and exercise. She is so traumatized from the abuses of her youth that she can sink into terror at such everyday actions as disrobing for a bath, and suffers from terrible nightmares for years. She needs therapy to even consider the possibility of normal, human relationships. But she’s very smart, and succeeds through continuous effort on her own part.

And I was told she was a Mary Sue. No kidding.

Whatever. Fiction writing has its own tropes and customs, as arcane as any other activity, I suppose. I’m just going to write stories that appeal to me.

Likely in distant, omniscient 3rd, with multiple point of view, exceptional characters, and without regard to checkboxes.

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