The Accountability of Stories

In the grim future of the 41st millennium that is the presidential tenure of the Fascist, Loofah-Faced Shitgibbon, it seems important to talk about stories and their relationship with reality.

To start with, you don’t need to worry. I’m not going to talk about news media or the Shitgibbon’s loose grasp on fact. There are a lot of other people with vastly more appropriate degrees who have trod that ground, so any contribution I might have is unnecessary. Today, we’re just gonna talk about stories and the Real World©®™.

I’m also gonna set out a warning here at the very top. I’m white, and I’ve got the metric shit-tonne of privilege that accompanies that. So I know that I am not an authority on what I’m about to talk about, and anyone who would like to offer clarifications or corrections are more than welcome to do so. That having been said, here we go.

There are folks who insist that stories are unaccountable fantasy with little to no impact on the real world. In my wildly inflated opinion, these people are full of shit. Just because most people are able to distinguish stories from reality doesn’t mean they won’t take cues from those stories.  You can argue that economies will collapse without money, that cities will grind to a halt without electricity, but I’d like to posit that without stories, civilization itself would collapse. And I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, either. The most influential texts in all of human history are basically just collections of stories. The Quran, the Torah, myths, legends, the Bible (of course), fairy tales, folklore, fucking Harry Potter. Hell, even Twilight had a profound effect on the global cultural landscape, whether you like it or not.

Stories give human beings common ground to relate on. If you’ve ever just met someone and you are in that weird awkward phase where neither of you knows whether it’s safe to talk about anything but the weather until one of you goes “fuck it” and says, “I straight-up dropped my phone in the toilet the other day. I didn’t even need to dry it out. It just kept on truckin’.” And the other person is like, “Holy shit, that’s an awesome phone. …Did you, like, wipe it off afterward?” And suddenly the conversation is rolling, even if the other person has a deep suspicion that you might just have a poop-phone in your pocket.

If you want an even more literal example, you just have to look at the episode “Darmok” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s an entire episode about first contact with an alien species that uses nothing but scraps of their shared literary history to communicate. And the only way that the crew of the Enterprise is able to figure out what the holy hell is going on is by learning to understand this other species’s stories.

Screencap of Captain Darthon from Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok"
“Darmok and Jalad… at Tanagra. Bitches.”

Sure, it’s not so often that you wind up in a situation where you have to decipher a metaphorical construct or die, but in the grand scheme of things that’s essentially what human beings have to do.

Lots of contemplative practices (as well as some neuroscientists) assert that there is not really a self. There is only your specific existence, moment to moment, and the self is a construct—a story—that is created as a decision-making mechanism based on remembered experience. “In the past I recall that I have enjoyed glazed chocolate cake donuts. Which means that I am a person who enjoys glazed chocolate cake donuts. Ergo, I will now drive to Dunkin Donuts and get me some motherfuckin’ glazed chocolate cake donuts.

This means that, in order to understand another person, you have to understand their self, which is literally just a story that is reconstituted from memory every time a decision needs to be made.

Furthermore, stories define normalcy for the world. This is the point where I trot out a tired phrase that I’m sure you lot have heard a dozen times before. But there’s no better way to say it, so here we go:

Representation matters.

You might think that stories don’t provide a baseline for “normal”, but then why, when you’re called for jury duty, do the lawyers always want to know if you think the law works like it does on TV, all wrapped up in a tidy bow at the one-hour mark based on indisputable evidence (or the forty-five minute mark, if you skip commercials)? It’s because lots of folks think the world really works that way due to twenty-plus years of Law & Order. THANKS, DICK WOLF*.

Those stories I mentioned before—the holy texts, the fairy tales, Twilight—have all had an impact because they resonate. They’re a looking glass held up to the world and to ourselves as readers, as consumers of stories. It tells us what the world looks like and how we look in relation to it.

In the western world, though, there’s a pervasive problem where just about everywhere you look, the protagonists of these stories are uniformly male, presumed white, straight, and cisgendered. We’re getting better about it, but the disparity is still vast and the fact that there is a disparity at all falls squarely under the category of Not Good Things.

This is the part where those of you who I wouldn’t want to party with anyway will call me an SJW cuck and bail, which says a lot more about you than it does about me. But that’s none of my business.

Kermit the Frog drinking tea

So the problem that folks run into nowadays is this: what if you’re not male, white, straight, and cisgendered? What if you are not part of the “normal” world of most stories? That world is gonna look foreign, if not outright hostile. What happens when you peer into the looking glass and the face that peers back isn’t yours?

A fucking horror movie. That’s what happens.

A young girl whose reflection is turned the wrong way

And there’s a lot of people who have to live with that, every day. Which is wildly unfair. But here’s the upside: writers—those intemperate and moderately mad tale-mongers—are in a perfect place to make sure that it gets better. It isn’t even hard. Skin color, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, those things are important and, sure, can be tricky to get right. But at the end of the day, we’re all just fuckin’ people. With largely similar hopes and dreams and fears. So as soon as you stop thinking that a black character needs to be defined by their blackness or that a gay character needs to be defined by their gayness and you realize that those characters just need to be defined by their personhood, all the regular shit that every single human being on the planet has in their hearts and brains, you’re gonna find it a whole lot easier to write characters who are not like you.

When you write a white person, you don’t wholly construct them around their whiteness. You’re not just like, “Oh man they better be in lululemons with a PSL stapled to their hand in every scene.” They’re a person who just happens to be white.

Similarly, you don’t write a black person. You write a person who just happens to be black.

You don’t write an LGBTQIA person. You write a person who just happens to be LGBTQIA.

Everything about the human experience is largely accidental, the result of infinitesimally small genetic differences and the families and societies we’re born into, except for the fact that we are all human. So if you grab on to that shared humanity with both hands and use it as the springboard for every character you write, maybe we can make the world a better place. One story at a time.

* I’m kidding, I love Law & Order. I just like to take every chance I can to say Dick Wolf’s name. … Dick Wolf.

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