Today’s Teacher: Jennifer Diane Reitz (Pastel Defender Heliotrope)
Today’s Lesson: Humanize Your Symbols
I’ve written a lot in the past about ways in which your writing may present offensive messages, so now let’s move on to something much more advanced.
What about when you’re right? How do you effectively use writing as a vehicle for things you truly do believe, and more importantly, want to convince your readers to believe? It’s harder than it sounds to write about something that means a lot to you in a way that will help others understand your point of view.
Have a read of the example comic up there. It doesn’t take much context, especially since it’s presented at the beginning of Fuschia’s storyline. No, it doesn’t get much more complex than this, either. Unsurprisingly, Fuschia’s own parents soon take the same stand as Yellow’s did.
Reitz’s treatment of the subject of LGBTQ-identified persons and struggles with their families falls short here. It’s blunt, simplistic, and because neither character’s been introduced yet, it lacks real punch and empathy. Even though we can see that Fuschia’s in a painful situation, at this point we have no idea who she is, or of the depth of her feelings. So, we’re expected to empathize with her based not on who she is and how she feels, but exclusively based on her situation. So, while there’s a connection there, it’s not as deep or as strong as it should be, and the character is pretty shallow because the audience knows nothing else about her so far.
That’s not to say that Reitz is wrong; far from it. This is a genuine problem she’s chosen to portray, one with a lot of painful consequences in people’s lives. And, make no mistake, she’s under no obligation to try to correct these problems; she may just be portraying them as a way of expressing her own feelings, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s not her job. The purpose of this lesson isn’t to decry her for her choice of subject matter, or even really for her tone. It’s to use this strip as a talking-point for the way writers use their writing to express their values.
It is absolutely important to inject your values into your writing. Entertainment has a lot of power in people’s lives, and a writer who seriously wants to make an impact in the world needs to be prepared to take a principled stand. But, when your entire story is your moral stand, then you wind up with a story stripped of interest. It’s not a story anymore, really. This is why people lose patience with “preachy” works – because there’s not much of a story underneath them. The characters and the plot just serve as vehicles for the message, and your readers can’t latch onto them for personal reasons, meaning that they don’t interact as meaningfully with the work. If your readers don’t really connect with your work, then the depth of your message can also be lost, even on people who agree with you.
People empathize with people. We connect with each other on a personal level first, face to face. So, Reitz’s mistake here wasn’t her tone or her subject matter. The problem here is that she gave us a character we knew nothing about, and then put her into a painful situation too early. It was a missed opportunity; if she had developed Fuschia more before this sequence, or at all, then a reader would be able to understand her as a person and really feel her sorrow at being torn away from someone she loves. The focus in this scene isn’t on Fuschia, though; it’s on her situation. The scene is more about Fuschia as a victim than about her as an entire human being—more about the message than the story. Not only that, but the situation is presented in such a simple these-are-the-bad-guys kind of way that it’s hard to take seriously. The character’s not a real person, the situation doesn’t seem like a real situation. The whole thing seems artificial, because it was contrived to make a point, so it’s harder for the reader to really feel it.
Here’s the other problem with making the story about the message. It’s dehumanizing. The people involved, whether it’s people of color, LGBTQ-identified persons, women, people with physical or mental disabilities, mental illness or addiction: they don’t function within stories like this as actual persons, just as symbols for a greater cause. Even if you’re doing it with the best of intentions, reducing your characters to their minority status is harmful because it perpetuates a pattern that robs real people of their individuality. Characters like Fuschia, who are lesbians and nothing else, don’t exist in the real world. Lesbians in the real world have hobbies, have interests, have relationships, the vast majority of them non-sexual. Yes, sometimes they face situations like Fuschia’s, but they’re not entirely defined by them as Fuschia is.
Human beings are complicated creatures, and your characters should be too. Never settle for portraying characters less complex than people you can meet in your everyday life. If your goal is to make people empathize with someone living as an oppressed minority, then you have to first make them empathize with the whole person, not just with the minority status alone. It’s like I said in Lesson Four – these issues have real people connected with them.
Never forget that; the people come first. I guarantee that if you give your audience a well-rounded character they can love, you’ll do a ton more for your message. People empathize with other people, and that’s one of the most powerful things in the human experience. Use it to your advantage.
Practice: Watch some old after-school specials. Do you agree with the moral being presented here? What do you think of the people portrayed in the show? Are they all fully-realized characters who make a meaningful contribution to the plot? In what ways do you think an old cartoon could be adjusted to make a more meaningful statement?