On Unfortunate Implications

In fiction, we often use the supernatural and fantasy races as analogies to real world situations. We can say that it began with Buffy, but that does the genre a disservice. Linking vampires to sexual freedom and using them as an analogy for the dangerous sexuality of foreigners goes all the way back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Horror, mystery, speculative fiction have used monsters as stand ins for xenophobia, repressed sexual urges, and countless other social issues. Both horror and speculative fiction have always been venues for which we talk about real world issues and fear in different guises.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with writing a story about monsters where the monsters are analogies for the fears and worries we have about growing up. Werewolves, for example, make for an excellent parallel to going through puberty. The issues pop up when a writer decides, accidentally or intentionally, to make their monsters thematically representative of a real world issue. When you explicitly make your werewolves about sex, remember that you’ve also opened them up to a discussion about rape. If your story involves a violent act on an unwitting party and spurred on by traumatizing transformation then yes, you may indeed by dealing with a rape analogy. Making magic, particularly demonic possession, your stand in for a discussion about mental illness is more than a little awkward given the history of treating mental illness. The discussion cannot simply be waved off because you don’t want to have that conversation. If you choose to start it, you will end up telling a story that says and means something vastly different from the one you intended.

For example, in Paranormal Romance and some Urban Fantasy, there’s a disturbing trend of supernatural creatures who want to be “normal”. There’s nothing wrong with this concept or desire in isolation. In fact, it’s a perfectly natural to want what society tells you you’re supposed to. Nearly every person experiences this desire at some point in their lives. However, there’s a difference between a swinging single young woman with a history of abuse entering into a relationship with the average handsome romantic lead and a werewolf jumping into bed with someone who has no clue that they just ate the neighbor’s cat (or used to kill runaways in Atlantic City on long weekends before they decided they didn’t like it anymore). When we step back and realize that most supernatural communities are treated as the equivalent of criminal organizations, mobster families, or gangs in their worlds then the process of leaving becomes much more complicated.

How do you feel about characters who knowingly endanger the lives of their loved ones without their knowledge or consent? Who knew they would be endangering their lives by entering the relationship before it even began? Is it romantic to sign the person they claim to love up for a gruesome death because their desires are more important than their lover’s life?

It doesn’t matter if you’ve decided that your character is a good person. It doesn’t matter if they’re supposed to be a hero in the context of their novel. There is no out to a dangerous lifestyle, there’s only delay. They know this, or they should, because most stories will bend over backwards to tell us how intelligent their protagonist is. If your character is a supernatural monster engaging in turf wars or a monster hunter or merely existing trying to get by, they’ll have made enemies. Those enemies aren’t going to simply go on sabbatical and hang up their hat just because the character has decided they’re done. While this can be a good source of drama in a story, it’s also worth noting that any character who does this is a selfish asshole. They can be a hero and an asshole.

What I’m saying is that it’s slightly different when a character discovers their boyfriend/girlfriend is a telepath who has been reading their mind the whole time after they’re already emotionally invested. Telepathy represents the ultimate breach of privacy and a character should have a choice to decide whether they want to have their minds read at all, much less realize that their “perfect guy” is literally knows their every whim. When the thread of the novel revolves around the idea that the love interest must acquiesce to allowing this character inside their mind (whether or not it’s within their control) and the character making no move at all to even negate the effects says very little about how much they value their lover and their right to privacy. When the novel ignores these problems, it becomes an issue.

For a real world parallel, how would you feel if your boyfriend hacked your Tumblr without your permission? How would you feel if a guy you’ve been crushing on at school did because he wanted to know more about you? Not just Facebook stalk or Twitter stalk, but a full on investigation into every aspect of your life. Instead of talking to you, he reads your diary and decides you’re the perfect girl for him. You don’t even get a chance to tell him you like him, he already knows. He’s decided you’ll be together, you can’t say no, and everyone in your life agrees with him. They think he’s great for you even though he’s been in your bedroom rifling through your underwear drawer.

Connotations and implications do matter, there’s a disconnect when the author says one thing about a character that doesn’t match up with who the character is in text. What your characters do and say, how the novel approaches their problems, who you choose to say is your character’s True Love, all these things matter.

There’s an easy solution to the problem which is allowing other characters to react in a realistic manner and sort through their feelings without being pressured or introducing new information to make the previous transgressions okay within the narrative. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if there’s a good reason for their harmful behavior. Kant is bullshit.  Regardless of intentions, justification is just how we live with ourselves and the choices we’ve made. It doesn’t mean other people have to be okay with or accept the choices we’ve made.

“I’m sorry I was a dick, but I was only doing it protect you!”

This doesn’t change the fact that one character hurt another character and now these two characters have to sort out where they’re at in the context of their relationship. Own it, your story will be better if you hold your characters to the consequences of their actions. Don’t force your characters to stay, give them the choice to walk away. Maybe they stay, maybe they don’t, I personally never know until I’m working in the moment. I’m often surprised.

In the end, there’s no way of escaping Unfortunate Implications. We are all flawed human beings shaped by our experiences and cultural prejudices. Despite our best intentions, they’ll always be there. All we can do is attempt to mitigate and address the problems we find. The trick is to acknowledge that they’re there and work to circumvent them both with our world building, plot, and characters. Handwaving or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away nor does it mean you automatically have to dislike or hate those characters because of it.

-Michi

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