Monday, March 24, 2014

[rant] Ethics in Fiction: Don't Glamorize Murder

I've been thinking about my best friend, who died last year from ovarian cancer, and about my mother, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor teenager on drugs in 1986. Over the last couple of decades since the latter, I've exchanged stories (and tears, and laughter, and anguish) with other family members of murder victims. Sometimes when I read a story in which killing someone is presented as praiseworthy, I want to scream at the author, "Do you have any idea what you're doing? Do you understand how much pain your characters are causing?" I want to sit down with the writers and make them listen to what it's like to lose someone you love and all the years you might have had together for no good reason. I'm feeling really angry about it right now. Hence the rant below.

I admit that I cannot comprehend why anyone would think that deliberately ending someone's life is laudable. Yes, things happen by accident. People drive around in lethal weapons all the time. People get angry or frightened and lash out. But writing a story is not something that's over in a flash and can never be taken back. It's an act of deliberate creation and as such, calls on us to be mindful. Listen, folks. Life is all too brief, and incredibly precious. It's totally not okay with me to deliberately cut short a human life. For greed, for bigotry, for revenge, for patriotism. In fiction we often do kill off characters. If you do it, do it with full awareness of the cost.

Don't say it's only entertainment. That is such a bullshit excuse for not paying attention to human suffering. Go shoot up tin cans or climb a mountain instead of filling your stories with shooting galleries. Scream at clouds. Get some professional help - but don't pretend that blowing up characters left and right has no consequences. It's even worse if your "hero" is laughing and spouting nonsense like "That'll teach them" or "They had it coming."

Don't say fiction has nothing to do with emotions or healing, and therefore the author has no responsibility for how readers react. Good fiction has structure, tension, and resolution. The Greek playwrights understood this. Shakespeare knew it. So should you. Even in a tragedy, we want a sense of emotional closure and order. That's also why we love mysteries and police procedurals so much -- because at the end, no matter how difficult the problem or how hopeless the situation, we're left with a sense of restored order. We humans crave justice even when we can't agree on what it is. Fiction may not be literally true, but it must be emotionally true. Life is precious and all too short. Every single human being is unique. Murder, singly or by the millions, has consequences.

Don't say I'm being overreactive or too sensitive. If you haven't lost anyone you love to violence, I truly hope you never do. But between the obscenely high murder rate in this country, not to mention the deaths due to preventable firearms/weapons accidents, and one war after another, chances are you do know someone who died before their time and a family or twelve who are still grieving. Do you think it's fine to tell them not to feel their pain? To "snap out of it"? (Ask anyone with PTSD how well that works.)

Don't use the excuse that a story has to have conflict to be emotionally satisfying or that without physical conflict and victory, the story would be boring pablum.
I'm no suggesting that fiction has to be lovey-dovey feel-good. People do die and people do kill one another -- but such actions affect all the survivors. They create moral injury to those who kill, they torture the families of the killers, and they deeply wound those who grapple with grief and trying to make sense out of violence.

Does this mean you can never portray a sociopath or a dedicated soldier who does what he's told, points his gun and fires it as ordered, for a worthy cause? Of course not. What would the world of fiction be without Hannibal Lector, ninja assassins, and innumerable spear carriers? But that's only the surface level. Each of us, and each character, lives in community, whether it's family or other child-raising institution, village, nation, platoon, sewing circle, professional organization, tennis team, internet chat room. Our actions have consequences. You don't have to spell them out in psychological detail. Often all that is necessary is a suggestion that more is happening "off the page," a space in which the reader's own experience can be evoked.

Please don't tell me that because a fictional killing is "justified," that those who slaughter in the name of necessity and good are immune to the negative effects of their experience. If we've learned anything during the last two hundred years about what war does to veterans, it is that no matter how "good" the war is, they come home wounded. Some of them are so crippled, they end up addicts, vagrants, or suicides. Others are able to compartmentalize their experiences well enough to make something of the rest of their lives, as long as they don't have to think or talk about the most devastating things that happened.

Go deep in your fiction. Go true. And go with compassion.

Here endeth the rant.

The painting of Cain murdering Abel is by Daniele Crespi, about 1618

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