I had another thought on this topic since the last post, so I’m extending the series to three parts. Basically, it deals with the difficulty concerning a strictly politically correct approach to race and the fact that any piece of literature will deal with a finite number of major characters. And by finite, I mean small.
Much literature consists of a protagonist and an antagonist and a variable number of supporting characters. In more recent years, we have seen the rise of multiple major characters. One of my favorite examples is the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson. There are probably close to a dozen major characters in the series, maybe even more. However, that was a series spanning fourteen books and probably around 10,000 pages, giving the authors plenty of room to flesh out all the characters. Anyway, my point is that unless you intend to write a behemoth of similar magnitude, you will probably be limited to a handful of major characters in your story. Let’s say five.
How many races are there on planet Earth? There’s African, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, American Indian, and, I’m sure, a good many more. If we are going to take political correctness to its anal extreme, we should have representatives from every race among our main characters. But, clearly, that is impossible. There are too many races involved. We only have five characters and the incomplete list of races above has already reached six. We didn’t even include pygmies or Aborigines, and who knows who else.
Still, despite my harping, political correctness has (or at least did have) a point. Back in the 1950’s or so, most of the movies in the U.S. featured almost entirely white casts. And, I think if you take such in the aggregate that can be a problem. I’m sure it leads to a kind of psychological apartheid (as well as a more literal societal apartheid), particularly when there are large segments of the population who are not represented in the movies at all (i.e. blacks, American Indians, etc…). However, I think nowadays, we are so preoccupied with race and “diversity” we are going off in the other direction, insisting on diversity where it might actually do a disservice to the story in question. I must object when political correctness is used to justify an inconsistency with historical truth, such as in the movie “Thor” of my first post on the subject (not sure “truth” is the right word there, but I think you get my point—the gods of Asgard should have been white for historical reasons, not mixed for politically correct ones). Anyway, I think we have reached the point where, on an individual basis, we can set aside politically correct concerns and just tell good stories. There may be times when an all black or all white cast may be called for, and I don’t think the artist should be penalized for such. The needs of the story should determine the characters involved, not the latest trend in contemporary politics or literary groupthink.
I will say from the get-go that I am not a fan of political correctness; it seems far too close to 1984’s Newspeak to me; at the very least, it is eerily similar. When I wrote my novel, Drasmyr (about 18 years ago, now), I pretty much paid little attention to variations in the human race and while writing, pretty much imagined all my characters as white (I’m white); however, I never went out of my way to specify human races in the novel, so, it would require little effort on the reader’s part to imagine the characters as black, or oriental, or what-have-you. The only thing that might jar would be the names. That said, as the author, I imagined the characters as white. So, let’s just assume they are.
Is that a weakness in the book? I’m sure some people think so. Personally, I think it is much ado about nothing. To me, the way to overcome racism is to be colorblind. It simply doesn’t matter that all the characters are white. By the same token, a black author should have no problem writing a book featuring all black characters. Or I could write a book featuring all black characters if I wanted to; either way, taken by itself, a book featuring human characters who are all of the same race should be acceptable, particularly since it is not necessarily true that—especially in earlier times—the human races were mixed equally around the globe. I mean, really, the reason racism starts, is because a homogenous population encounters someone who looks “different.” That presupposes that the population was homogenous in the first place. So, why can’t you write a story that takes place in that homogenous population before they encountered peoples of different races? A story set in ancient Japan would probably be strange if it featured American Indians, unless it incorporated a very specific justification for such, would it not?
Still, the politically correct forces are what they are. But they do lead to some strange, if not downright silly, results. A friend of mine actually pointed the following out to me: in the movie “Thor,” from a couple years back, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) is accompanied by a small group of companions. All of them come from Asgard, the home of the Asgardian “gods”—you know, Odin, Loki … them guys. His companions are, conveniently, a mix of different races representative of the peoples of the various places of Earth. Yet, as my friend pointed out, Thor and Odin were NORSE gods. The gods of every culture on the planet have always, according to the legends, pretty much been of the same race as the people who worshipped them—just bigger, stronger, and immortal (or they were human-animal hybrids). That kind of poses a difficulty for the movie “Thor”: if Thor had black and Asian companions, why didn’t the Norsemen worship them and have corresponding legends about them? Maybe that’s a trivial flaw—and I’m sure you could get by it with some mental gymnastics—but it does show how adherence to politically correct tenets can cause difficulties with plots and stories that might be better served if such tenets were ignored. In the case of Thor, political correctness might have been better served if, again as my friend suggested, the major Earth characters in the movie were of mixed races—which they weren’t.
Anyway, this leads to my next point: as a writer, I don’t like being “told” I have to include such and such a character in my story or the story is flawed or I’m a racist. I prefer to write characters that fit the story, and sometimes, an all white, or all black cast might be called for. That said, Drasmyr was written with only white characters in mind only because I never made a conscious effort to do otherwise. It was not intended as a slight to blacks or Asians or anyone else. All that being said, I will tip my hat to political correctness to a certain extent and include a black snake priestess in the next book. But only because I think she is really cool … and that’s the real reason to include a character, any character, in your novel.
Perhaps, since I started writing this blog over a year ago, this entry is long overdue. In any event, I have just gotten around to writing it. Hopefully, my words will entertain you for a bit, and inspire you to look at fantasy in a new light.
First, why write? Writing is an enjoyable process of both exploration and self-expression. Exploration because there are times when you don’t know what’s going to come out next, and self-expression because it allows for the dissemination of personal ideas both simple and complex. I’ve been writing pretty much my entire adult life, off and on, for a variety of purposes. Usually, I’m chasing that ever elusive carrot of publication and entering the big-time, but sometimes I do it just for fun.
Now, why fantasy? Well, this is actually a multi-part answer. First, there is an adage (well, if there isn’t, there should be) that says “write what you know.” I’ve always been enchanted by fantasy, whether it be books, or role-playing games, or videos games, or movies. There is something profoundly alluring about exploring magical realms where dragons and sorcerers are real. It’s a form of escapism. Perhaps, that means my regular life is too mundane—that I’m indeed escaping from something unpleasant. I don’t know if I would go that far, but even if that is the case, then so be it. I enjoy the fantasy world because it re-ignites a sense of wonder and awe. Something we all felt as children, but which has a tendency to grow stale and die as we age. There is something about fairy dust and fireballs that stirs the imagination. Second, there is a certain degree of freedom in fantasy writing that may not be present in other forms of writing. The whole premise of the genre is that you are writing about a world, a situation, or a character that does not follow the same rules that apply here on Earth, or even in our universe for that matter. Whatever you can imagine can take form in your stories. Winged men, burning plants, freezing fire … whatever you want: it can happen. That doesn’t mean you can write completely willy-nilly ignoring all sense of logic. At a certain point, such would degenerate into unintelligible nonsense. But I digress. The third reason for writing fantasy is a bit more subtle, and, to be honest, is not always pertinent. Fantasy can provide a powerful means of providing metaphors about society and criticism of culture. I don’t always write like that, to be honest; most of the time, I just write a story because I like a good story. But I have on occasion written a bit of social commentary using fantasy as its vehicle. This is not uncommon. Some of the most famous names in the genre told stories that were meant to be so much more: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, just to name two. At any rate, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for literary criticism.
In the end, perhaps the most important reason for me to write fantasy is that I enjoy doing so. I have several interests and hobbies, but by far, the one with the most powerful draw is fantasy writing. Now, if only I could make some money at it. Then, I’d be all set.
Another post on vampires? Actually, today, I’m taking a little detour. I’m not going to write about vampires so much as one of the defining characteristics of them: immortality. A vampire, whether it is Dracula, Lestat, or Lucian val Drasmyr, is generally considered immortal provided he or she is not slain by some pesky human or the victim of some other fatal twist of fate. With that in mind, I want to examine immortality. Why is it so appealing? Or, better yet, is it really appealing?
Clearly, at some visceral level, immortality is appealing. That’s usually one of the temptations to become a vampire (“Become as I. Strong. Immortal …). Writer’s wouldn’t use immortality as bait for us poor mortal humans unless some part of us pined to last forever. I think this is largely a result of the natural fear of death. Even if you are religious and believe in an afterlife with sunshine and flower-filled fields of leisure, you certainly don’t know it will be as you think. No one does. And because of that, there is always a threat of total annihilation as one contemplates one’s future death. The fix for such is, of course, to not die. And obtaining immortality somehow—be it through a vampire’s bite, or what-have-you—is a way to avoid death. Immortality, then, is a balm for the human condition. We fear death. We seek to avoid it. And so we set up elaborate fancies in which we imagine we will never die.
But is immortality all it’s cracked up to be? First, what are the positives? For me, I like to learn. I could learn advanced physics, and math, and a bundle of other disciplines that have always intrigued me. Curious about the nature of Infinity? You’ll have ample time to read up on the subject. Quantum Mechanics? All in due time. Intellectually, it would be great for the first few centuries or so. Then, I suspect, boredom would sink in. How much can you learn, how much can you know, before it all just devolves into meaningless drivel? I’m forty years old and some days I’m already tired of life; I can’t imagine what it would be like when I’m 4000. Yikes!
Worse, still, is the question of company. Would being the only immortal on the planet be worth it? If all the people you knew and cared about died, would it be worth it? I’d say no. That would be depressing in the extreme. Talk about loneliness. Soon you would become an introvert simply for your sanity: it would be too painful to befriend somebody, just to watch them die a few years down the road.
Finally, the last negative of immortality concerns the afterlife. If there really is one, and it really is quite nice, then becoming immortal would deny you such an experience. And that would hardly be good.
Last time I wrote, I listed a large number of writing types and a few means of looking at each type. From the large list, I selected the following types: philosophical essays, novels, and short stories (and poems); and I claimed that of the many different ways of looking at a piece of writing, the ones I was interested in included: as a means of self-expression, as a means of communication, and aesthetically. Today, I’m going to combine both thoughts, and evaluate each type of writing in accordance with the ways of looking at it. And maybe add one or two thoughts to top it off.
I wrote tons of philosophical essays in college. And I can tell you most emphatically that philosophical writing is all about communication. I guess there is some self-expression involved, and, I suppose, aesthetic writing is always a plus, but the primary duty of the philosopher is to communicate, clearly and cogently, some thought worth telling. That’s why it’s so difficult to read. Seriously. It’s a paradox, but not really. Natural language is so vague, that philosophy involves going through various literary contortions to precisely delineate the exact meaning the writer wants to express and none other. It’s that ‘none other’ bit that is problematic. Oh yes, and there is Logic involved. Lots and lots of logic. Philosophers are basically the inspiration for Star Trek’s Vulcans.
At the other extreme, I think, is poetry. That seems to be largely a work of self-expression, greatly concerned with aesthetics almost above all else. It does communicate thoughts, but it is as much emotional thinking as it is analytical. It is something that you either ‘get it’ as it comes across, or you are hopelessly lost. But, like I said, my experience in poetry is limited, so I could be totally wrong.
Novels and short stories, though, are kind of a hybrid. They involve both self-expression and communication. Pretty language has a place, dressing the work up as an art form, but it is useless if it does not communicate some thought relatively clearly. Like poetry, the thought need not be purely rational (unlike philosophy—irrational philosophy is like a computer spewing out illegitimate code); it can be emotional, or humorous, or what-have-you. But it must be communicated clearly enough that the average reader will get the point without too much difficulty.
Regardless of which type of writing engaged in, many of the best examples involve some kind of social commentary, be it a critique of the current political structures or what-have-you. But that isn’t an absolute necessity. I enjoy stories that are just stories all the time.
I do have one final thought concerning the distinction between philosophy and literature (in whatever form). Literature consists largely of opinion (admittedly opinion that is defended or critiqued to varying levels and degrees, but it is, all the same, just opinion). Philosophy is concerned with knowledge. Which is one of the reasons it makes virtually no progress. I took four years of philosophy, and what do I know with absolute 100% certainty beyond a shadow of a doubt? Not much: I know I am not omniscient. That’s one thing. And I know 2+2=4. It’s a small kernel of truth, but it is truth nonetheless.
Take that Mr. Relativist! (Yes, I have this horrible fixation on murdering the hideous relativistic beast that is slowly eating our society alive!)
Bwu-ha ha ha!