What’s a Fiction Writer’s Responsibility in Dealing With Real-Life Pain?
In the past five days, I somehow ended up watching two different pieces of fiction that made me really contemplate the writer’s role in dealing with real-life trauma.
One of those accounts was Galaxy Quest, of all things: the 1999 Star Trek spoof starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub and a whole bunch of other crazy-entertaining people.
It’s the story of a bunch of washed-up actors whose big claim to fame is Galaxy Quest, a sci-fi show that’s been off the air for 18 years. Yet, in true Trekkie fashion, they still attend annual conventions filled with adoring fans who are dressed up as their favorite characters and aliens.
Only problem is that there are actual aliens out there way past Earth’s reach. And one of those races has found the old Galaxy Quest episodes – and mistaken them for historical documents that can save them from their evil tormentor, Sarris.
When these aliens come down to request the help of their “historical” heroes, it forces the actors to assume their character identities like they know what they’re doing.
Growing up with a former (okay, current) Trekkie for a mother, I find Galaxy Quest to be astronomically amusing. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve watched the thing, because I genuinely don’t know. Yet this last time, for whatever reason, I found myself wondering what I would do if I was caught up in a situation like that.
Or what if I was suddenly thrown into one of my own stories?
Obviously, I’m not an actor, a fact that I’m forever thankful for. I have no idea why anyone would want to live the life of a celebrity. But as a creative writer and fiction author, I pretend things all the time:
That faeries exist
That secret organization are running amuck with genocidal intentions
That politicians have gone mad with power.
Oh wait. That last one’s true. Still can’t stand almost any of them, the condescending little elitists.
But that aside, I still throw characters into nasty scrapes all the time. What if I was the one in those nasty scrapes instead?
How would I handle finding out I was a faerie with psychopaths and sociopaths after me? Or a battered woman being dragged before a religious mob?
What about having my house taken over by British soldiers who think themselves so superior while they eat my food and talk trash about my country? Or getting kidnapped by a senator trying to illegally swing a vote?
Here’s the thing: We writers can have all the fun we want being dramatic or melodramatic or downright mean by putting our characters into intense situations. But I think we might want to ask ourselves whether we push it too far from time to time.
It seems safe to say that we’re never going to find ourselves on a spaceship based off some TV show, trying to remember which control punches it into reverse and which sends it into warp speed. And it’s not like I ever lie awake at night freaking out that I might be a Scottish faerie princess with the weight of the world on my shoulders.
But then there are scenes of people being kidnapped and tied up and tortured for information: horrible, graphic, and up-close-and-personal forms of torture too.
I just watched a TV show where the writers added something to the plot that I'm not even comfortable putting down here considering the age range of my own audience. Let's just say I couldn’t watch the thing, it was so intense.
And while I wasn't watching it, all I could think about was how what it portrayed has actually been done throughout history, including modern times, to actual people.
Bad things – horrible things, even – really do happen in real life. It’s not entertainment when it happens. It’s genuine people suffering real trauma.
So I do think there’s a certain amount of respect we need to show to our fictional characters and the situations we put them in. There’s sadly no lines in real life, but I don’t see how that should give us leave to overstep our bounds in the stories we writers create.