The world would be much better off if we tried considering ourselves through a different lens every once in a while – a villainous one, to be precise, where we’re not the story’s automatic heroes.
We’re the bad guys.
That’s why, a few weeks ago, I designed and posted an image to my historical fiction creative writing Pinterest page that goes something like this…
“Here’s a philosophical thought or creative writing prompt to ponder: If historians got to study you after you died, what would they conclude?”
I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that I designed the pin for three very specific political reasons:
We’re so quick to judge historical figures these days.
We’re so quick to judge our political opposition these days.
We’re so slow to judge ourselves these days.
Let’s face it. We all like to think we’re right or justified in our opinions and behavior. And sometimes, we can come up with pretty creative ways of rewriting reality in order to do so.
There’s the “He/She/It deserved it because of A, B and/or C” kind of line.
The “I deserve it because X, Y and/or Z” way of thinking.
And the “I’m an automatic expert on other people even though I hang out with a very politically or societally homogenous group” claim – which usually goes hand in hand with the very mature “You’re stupid because I said you’re stupid” argument.
There’s plenty more illogical attempts at logic where those come from.
The bottom line is that it’s way too easy to excuse our own bad behavior; while it’s also way too easy to look at other’s historical or current behavior, don our judge’s robes and start the sentencing.
“I, Jeannette DiLouie, do hereby sentence you to Siberia until you become a better driver” or “until you start practicing what you preach” or “until you admit you’re not the only person on the planet who deserves to have their thoughts and feelings taken into account” or “until you stop annoying me.”
I’ve definitely joked (and not joked) about all those renderings, imagining a life where I had the power to send problematic people elsewhere. And who knows. Maybe the horrendous drivers, hypocrites, narcissists and all-around annoying people I encounter truly do deserve to be sent to Siberia.
Judgments, after all, aren’t always wrong.
But what about me?
If someone was writing a story about me after I’d lived out my whole life, what would they say?
It’s a scary thought to some degree, but it deserves to be pondered anyway. We all should be wondering that from time to time, keeping our historical predecessors in mind while we do.
For instance, I doubt that someone as truly brave and capable and self-sacrificing as George Washington would have ever thought history would vilify him as a bigoted slave owner.
Yet for all his absolutely amazing traits, he was still a bigoted slave owner. I’ve done a decent amount of research on him for my historical fiction novels, so I’m pretty confident saying that he never mistreated his slaves like he could have. He emancipated them in his will. And he readily acknowledged what a vile system slavery was.
At the same time, he held them captive during his lifetime. Which makes him a hypocrite at best.
Editor's Note: Since writing this blog post, I've read David Barton's The Jefferson Lies, which explained why the equally expressive anti-slavery Thomas Jefferson didn't ever free his slaves.
As it turns out, there was Virginia legislation in place that just about flat-out forbade such things. Washington was only able to do so upon his death because of a very brief legal window where the law changed just enough for him to leave that stipulation in his will.
Next, let’s switch over to Shakespeare, who’s been picked to pieces by now. Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare, some people will say. Other literary analysts will point out how he stole his play plots from others (which he did). And there’s even the claim that, if he was writing today, he’d be writing trash because of the numerous innuendos he employed in his scripts.
Jumping over to American history again, I still remember the day I learned some really negative stuff about Martin Luther King, Jr. That was years ago, yet I can tell you exactly where I was and recall the utter shock and sadness that set in my stomach and stayed there for days.
If such impressive historical figures can be judged and analyzed and found wanting like that, what makes us think we’re immune from criticism? Who’s to say whether textbooks won’t vilify us one day?
If that doesn’t sound like a pleasant future, then it’s really not a bad idea to consider the “if you were a villain” creative writing prompt.
Because that creative writing angle – that lens – could help us be a little less quick to judge others and a little more willing to improve ourselves.
And then the world would be a much better place.