Welcome, lovely octopi! Help yourself to some cookies, please, and settle in for a conversation about what it means to be an Evil Author. GeGi ever-so-wonderfully began this topic several weeks ago, and now I (endever*) would like to add some of my own musings. Specifically, I’d like to discuss the difference between being evil to one’s characters and having a real-world impact that is evil.
As Evil Authors, GeGi and I like to – shall we say – mess with our readers. By making our characters lovable and then putting them through all sorts of trials and dangers, we keep our readers engaged and desperate to keep reading. This practice makes stories suspenseful and emotionally interesting – and is rather fun for the author, as well. There’s nothing quite like writing a tragedy into your story and sighing in glee at the effect…. or, for that matter, having your beta reader tell you they almost threw their laptop at the wall in angst over your characters. It’s tantalizing to know you can have a real effect on your (actual or potential) readers; this is some of the magic of writing. But there’s a point at which being evil in the context of your story also becomes true evil in our universe, as well.
As a trans, queer, disabled, low-income person, social justice is not an abstract topic of interest; it’s more like the very air I breathe. So it’s of utmost importance to me that my writing doesn’t perpetuate oppression, especially on any axis in which I hold privilege. This is what I refer to in this post as real-world evil: I consider every manifestation of oppression a form of violence, and every manifestation of violence relevant to concepts of right/wrong and good/evil. To the extent that I am actively or passively complicit in this violence, regardless of my intentions, my actions (or lack thereof) have an evil impact. It takes ongoing conscious work to avoid perpetuating oppression, not to mention the work of intervening in oppressive actions happening around me. This work is central in my personal system of ethics. So how do I reconcile that with my Evil Authorhood?
Let’s examine these fine lines via a quandary I’m currently struggling with in the research/revision process on the first two novels in my trilogy. I warn you now that I don’t plan to present end-all answers so much as to pick apart the questions I’m grappling with as an illustration of the process of drawing these tricky fine lines. (Oh, and I’m going to be a little vague, on the off-chance that any of you end up reading my books and don’t want to be spoiled.)
Partway through my story, I kill off one of my characters. This is a classic technique of Evil Authors everywhere, of course; death is the ultimate horrible fate you can inflict upon your readers’ beloved characters. And geez was it fun to write – I’d never written a death before, and it was lovely to step back and reread the scene and revel in the despair of it. It makes you feel a bit like a god, I think, to have come up with a believable imaginary person and built up an entire world for them to live in, and then to order them into a terrible end. (Oh dear, I hope I do not sound like a serial killer – please understand that the delight I experience over this fictional power is nothing in comparison to the horror I feel when contemplating real-world murder.) But here’s the thing – it’s such a trope to kill off characters with oppressed identities that even the term “trope” is a bitter understatement. And the character I kill is a disabled youth. They’re disabled by a condition that in some ways is more stigmatized than my own disabilities. And although I obviously experienced ageism when I was younger, I currently benefit from adult privilege. So I must ask myself: does killing this character contribute to ableism and ageism in my own world?
There are some mitigating factors to consider, I suppose. For one thing, most of my main characters are disabled youth, and many of them have probably quite happy endings awaiting them at the end of my trilogy. I’m endeavoring to portray a variety of disabilities, and accurately. Out of my multitude of “good guys” (the pool of seventeen main/off-main characters from which I’m selecting a character to die, given the emotional impact I’m going for) I think only one holds altogether more privilege on various axes than the character who does die in my current draft. My story displays both realistic and dystopically exaggerated experiences of ableism/ageism as well as movement towards more revolutionary anti-ableist/anti-ageist attitudes and structures within the story – the hope being that I am creating a work which challenges the oppressive norms I and my readers are used to and suggests one possible beginning of a blueprint for change.
Yet, as I said, on some axes I hold more privilege than this character. Is it fair for me as an author – Evil or not – to use my godlike power for this specific imaginary person’s destruction? I suppose I must consider my audience: at this point I have no real plans to pursue any form of publishing, so my potential readers are limited to friends/acquaintances I might talk into reading it. Does that shift my responsibility to write a piece of work which is, as best I can make it, socially just? What if no one else ever reads it at all? Would evil in a hypothetical vacuum truly be evil?
Personally, I think I have a responsibility to the universe (that is, this one) and to my conscience to not settle on writing something that is oppressive, even if there’s only a chance that one person might read the completed trilogy. But I think I’ve hit the point in my internal debate about this character death where I am too torn to know what to do. I believe that the mitigating factors I described are mitigating to a large extent; I just don’t know if they’re enough. And so ultimately, I think this is where I might need a beta reader – or even specifically a sensitivity reader. Like with any other aspect of writing, as the author it’s easy to lose perspective and not understand how certain elements of will actually register to readers’ minds. I need feedback to be able to accurately estimate the impact of this character’s death. (Please note that it’s crucial in an anti-oppression framework to compensate sensitivity readers, and general good practice to at least trade beta reading with fellow authors, rather than soliciting sheer donations of time/emotional energy from people.)
If you, too, are concerned about whether your writing might have an evil impact on the real world, I encourage you to take apart the elements you’re concerned about. Write self-reflections on your work, as well as consider employing a sensitivity reader. If you need ideas on where to start, here are some of the questions I asked myself (and literally wrote out answers to) as part of my revision process on my first novel:
- What key messages/themes am I aiming for? Are they coming across? What else is coming across that I didn’t intend? Am I okay with that?
- What oppressions am I perpetuating through the text? How can I deconstruct them? Are my existing processes of deconstruction nonviolent?
- Do I have any personal moral concerns about what I’ve written?
- Is there an anti-oppressive balance between representation and telling a story that isn’t my own?
- What content warnings should I be providing to readers?
- Have I given my whole self to this? Have I really been present? Did I write the hard stuff? Where have I copped out?
In summary, octopi, it’s important to differentiate between writing that is evil towards your characters (or simply your readers’ heartstrings) versus writing that might create/perpetuate more systemic evil in our world. When in your quest for Evil Authorhood you realize your attempt at the first category may be leaking into the second, ask yourself the hard questions. Evaluate it in the context of your story as a whole as well as the context of this world you and I live in that is so shaped by oppression. Get feedback when you can no longer trust your own judgment (something that is especially likely when you’re working on axes of oppression in which you hold privilege).
Do you have thoughts on this topic you’d like to share? What did I miss? You’re welcome to comment below! And stay tuned for an upcoming post related to this topic: writing as revolution/resistance.