How To Be An Asshole

How To Be An Asshole | Cat Caddy

…Yeah…don’t be like this.

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Responsibility As Writers

I’ve read a lot of stuff in my day, and one thing that keeps coming up for me as I read the various comment sections (why do I do this?!) and reactions to the work I’m reading is this:

When we write for a large audience (comics, webcomics, stories, whatever), to what extent are we responsible for being sure that our characters uphold moral righteousness at all times? To what extent are we responsible for being bastions of all that is Good and Politically Correct when writing, even if our story is being told about flawed characters in flawed situations? And to what extent do the voices of our characters, however different from us, represent our exact thoughts and feelings as writers?

This is a question I think about everyday. I think about this as a writer, and I think about this as a reader. I think about this when I see an author having to clarify that the decisions their characters make are purposely flawed and not representative of the One True Right Action. And I think about this when I see an author being hen-pecked for putting something out there that readers felt was damaging. So where do we draw the line?

I think this question comes into even sharper focus when we are writing about sensitive subjects or cultures which we ourselves are not a part of (or even if we are a part of them!). The issue becomes apparent when, for instance, you write about a gay character and your readers assume that you are speaking about all gay people, on behalf of all gay people. And that puts a shit-ton of responsibility on you as a writer. Your character who broke the law also happens to be gay? Well, then, you’re making a comment on how all gay people are law-breakers. And you should be ashamed!

Yikes.

So maybe the real challenge isn’t in what you present, but how you present it. I’ve read things that were intending to be inclusive and make positive comments on certain people, social practices, and subcultures, but that came off as being disrespectful to me because of the way it was presented. At times it comes off as being silly, funny, absurd, and therefore harmless, and at other times it comes off as a look how inclusive I’m being by including this character, situation, or subculture. In both cases, the character, situation, or subculture isn’t really being treated as normal. It’s still being treated as an oddity or something to be laughed at rather than just being presented as it is. And that, I feel, can rub a reader the wrong way.

But then there are more gray areas. Say you want to write a character who is misogynist. I think it would be fair to put this character in situations where he is confronted with the realities of his beliefs and is forced to take responsibility for them. But are you, as a writer, required to make a statement about misogyny? Are you required to say misogyny is bad and you shouldn’t be like that guy, otherwise you are a bad writer and an offense to society? Well, saying yes to that question may seem obvious because we can see how misogyny is a harmful thing. But it also requires something else. It requires us to believe that there is only one right answer for social behavior, and that answer is dependent on whatever society believes is the most Politically Correct at that moment. It’s not really cool to hate on women anymore. So boo to you, unless you are clearly presenting your character as being Wrong!

But do we all have to believe the same things as writers? Do we all have to have the same moral compass? Must we all be forward thinking, inclusive, morally righteous people who seek only to do good? To what extent can we be held responsible for the ideas we put out into the world? To what extent is the writer responsible, and to what extent is the reader responsible for what they take away?

I think the best writers are the ones who step back from editorializing and let their readers form their own conclusion. These are writers who aren’t presenting any viewpoint over another (because trying to preach through one’s writing is only going to have one effect: people will hold you responsible for what you believe and what you believe others should believe). They are simply letting their characters and their story talk, and allowing you to take away from it what you will.

What do you think as a reader, or a writer?