The 3 Responsibilities All Authors Ought to Keep in Mind

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Upon declaring her intention to become a published author someday, one of the questions that this writer always hoped/expected to be asked as a young girl was: “Why do you want to be a writer?” It was a bit disappointing when that question never came – not in the way this author expected or wanted it to be asked, anyway. That was probably for the best; in my youth, I could not have answered the question as well as I can today.

Why did I want to be an author, you ask? Why do I still want to be a storyteller? These are important questions to ask not only of me, but of all prospective writers. Life is not a bed of roses – or, rather, the roses that make up this bed do not lack for thorns. Things can be easy for a while, but the comfort does not last. We are fallen human beings. We stumble. We make mistakes. And we run into circumstances and people who are either unkind or absolutely cruel, whether we intend to meet them or not.

Dealing with these things can leave authors no less jaded and cynical than their readers. If the troubles we encounter are particularly difficult or harsh, we can become nihilistic. Bills have to be paid, a roof has to be maintained over one’s head and, if one marries, he or she often has children to think about. To paraphrase an old saying, life isn’t for sissies, or the faint of heart. It is hard, even on the strongest among us, and we all need some respite from that battle if we are to continue moving forward.

All of this naturally makes some wonder why anyone would bother becoming an author. Why tell fanciful “lies” for a living, especially one that can be touch-and-go, or take a long time to produce fiscal results? It does not lead to the creation of anything substantial in the world and there really is no guarantee of success. An author’s job, it seems, is to simply encourage people to pay him/her to stare at clouds all day and play with their imaginary friends.

When described in this manner, the vocation of storytelling is far from appealing. Most of you probably felt either depressed or offended by what you just read. Both reactions may, in this case, be a good sign: they indicate to me that you are serious about your craft. No one likes having their profession dismissed or belittled, and the fact that you have these reactions tells me you consider storytelling to be your calling in life. That is an important detail to establish before we go any further. (It also means that I have your attention. 😉 )

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So allow me to flip the situation around a little, future writers: What made you want to become a storyteller? What made you want to create tales about imaginary people? Did you want money? Prestige? Power? Or was it something else that got you started on this path – a driving urge or need that outweighed those base desires? Something which kept you going despite the constant, painful rejections? A passion that made you get up each day and continue writing rather than submit to the idea that you were nothing but a failure because you had not won a contest or sold a story (yet)?

To a degree, I think every author rather likes the sound of fame, fortune, and power. We all want to be able to pay our bills without worry, to be recognized and respected, to be listened to when we speak. As Stan Lee so aptly put it, we all want to be more than we are. For some of us, I suppose, this means that money, prestige, and power are the things driving us in our struggle for success as authors.

But these are not the motivation of all – or even most – writers. No, that particular incentive is a nugget nestled deep in the heart of every author, one which develops when we are children. Some sell it for a day’s worth of notoriety and wealth; others hoard it. Still other authors mine it, turning it into a worldwide enterprise that benefits all the people who read their stories. That fact can be seen in the way their fiction inspired future writers like us.

Do you remember which story or series was the first to really capture your imagination? You probably do. It is likely that you also remember insisting on reading or watching it again, and again, and yet again. If you recall these things, then you already know on an instinctive level what makes this profession most attractive to authors. Fiction is a potent tool, one that gives the writer a great deal of power – more than some may realize. Stories are not just fluffy fairy castles woven out of thin air; reading is the doorway to all learning. Once we can read, we can learn anything under the sun. We can study any subject we want, from mathematics to ancient history to literature.

And more often than not, what we want learn is how to live. Not in the sense that we want to know how to enter a specific profession; that is part of it, but not the whole. In fiction we watched our favorite characters do spectacular things and travel to fantastic places.

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That was something we found that we desperately wanted. We passionately desired to visit fascinating locations, just as our heroes did. And when the protagonists we loved were fighting or hurt, we wanted to fight alongside of them or stand with them. Most of all, we wanted to be as big as our heroes, to face down and defeat evil. In short, we wanted to be more than our weak four and five year old selves.

Over time, with the help of certain stories, we achieved this goal. By introducing us to places and things we had never seen, the authors behind the stories that inspired us as children widened our range of knowledge. For example, those who had never seen a real horse or cowboy were introduced to them through the medium of Westerns. Exposure to these stories enabled readers and viewers like us to talk to others about not only horses and cowboys, but other things as well. These were often the starting points that led us into fascinating digressions with our elders about history, nature, and/or animal breeding.

By this means we entered “a whole new world,” one ripe with thrilling possibilities. Without these writers’ stories, gaining a greater knowledge of the world we lived in would have been harder for us. Through expanding readers’ and viewers’ horizons, our favorite authors enabled us to step out into life with the determination to be something great: a human being who was fully alive and enjoying every minute of it.

In addition to opening our eyes to the world around us, fiction taught us about the wider world of human interactions. Through reading we vicariously experienced the human condition; we groaned over the losses of Pallas and Lausus, felt the suffering of the English under King John’s rule, wept with Scrooge over the loss of Tiny Tim, and cried with impotent rage and horror as Alderaan was destroyed. In traveling with Aeneas, Robin Hood, Scrooge, and Leia Organa, we learned empathy for our fellow man. We discovered that we are not alone in our sufferings, that others have shared them throughout time. What is more, we saw them survive these losses and move forward to build new lives for themselves and their dependents.

We also found that people do not act arbitrarily. There are always motivations, good and bad, for the behavior of others. From Saruman’s betrayal, for instance, we learned that even lusting for power can corrupt absolutely. One need not wield it to fall into evil ways; he need only covet it. At the same time the heroes’ selfless opposition to Saruman’s evil shone brightly through the darkness, reminding us that “…there is some good in this world…and it’s worth fighting for!” Their actions, their desire to protect and preserve the good that exists in the world – even if it cost them their lives – proved to us that good people exist. And we learned that when they work together under the aegis of the Good, they can change the world for the better.

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These stories also demonstrated that evil is not the most powerful force in the universe, for it can be defeated. Anything or anyone that can be overpowered is not omnipotent. Only that which cannot be conquered at all is worth believing in and following. That alone is worth our life, either through a commitment to direct servitude – as Aragorn and Sam showed – or offered in selfless sacrifice. (Here’s lookin’ at you, Boromir and Frodo. 😉 )

We also learned, through the medium of fiction, that not everyone on the “side” of evil in fact serves the darkness. Rather, some who live within the realm of evil actively work for its downfall, at great personal risk to themselves. Through the lens of the fantastic we found that even in the midst of manifest horror it is possible to find some good. Unless the enemy regiments are built from a manufactured race designed only to destroy and kill, à la Tolkien’s Orcs, it is best not to pre-judge everyone on the “side” of evil. For who among us can know with utter certainty what is in another’s heart?

Most importantly, however, we learned through the power of storytelling the differences between right and wrong. The heroes in our favorite stories taught us that what was right was right everywhere, at every time of day, whether we liked it or not. And what was wrong was wrong – especially when pursued to its ultimate, selfish end. By this means we came to recognize, in some dim way, that whenever we purposefully trangressed “the rules” we were opening the door to evil. And we sensed, however indistinctly, that if we traveled through that door we would lose ourselves – possibly forever.

It was good, true, beautiful, and wholesome fiction that taught us these things. It is also the type of storytelling most of us set out to write. We wanted to pass on what we had learned through stories, to teach old truths in new ways to new generations. We wanted to give them the same experiences that we enjoyed when we cracked open a new book at their age, or went to see a movie that became our favorite. Above all, we wanted to expand our audience’s view of the world the same way our favorite authors had helped us to see what we could accomplish, if we wanted to work for it.

Naturally, though, this was not the only kind of storytelling that we ran into growing up. It was definitely not the kind we always found in school. To paraphrase one of Dean Koontz’ characters in Odd Apocalypse, though we may not have been able to articulate it at the time, we could tell when a certain story was just plain wrong. Good stories left us uplifted, ready to face the world, while the bad stories we read made us feel depressed, worthless, and isolated.

In Call of the Wild the final battle between the hero of the novel, Buck, and his rival Spitz illustrates this point easily. During the fight, Buck manages to cripple the brutal canine by breaking both his rear legs. After this he allows the rest of the sled team to tear Spitz to shreds, instead of virtuously defend his defeated enemy. Buck then looks on with savage satisfaction as his opponent is violently executed and eaten.

In this one scene, the author teaches the opposite of the three lessons discussed above. He does not expand the reader’s view of life but narrows it to the self, adding a dose of contempt for the intrinsic worth of the lives of others as he does so. The author did not seek to remind his readers that the merciful are blessed, for they shall obtain mercy. In Call of the Wild, he promoted the cruel abuse or elimination of one’s fellows when they become liabilities to his desires.

Lord of the Flies follows a similar pattern. Throughout the novel the author offers readers his opinion that man’s true nature is animalistic. Only the arbitrary trappings of civilization keep the savage beast inside the heart of every man at bay; if ever that paraphernalia is removed, man reverts to his “natural” state of brutish behavior. While the author is partly correct in his description of society being a barrier against evil, he draws less than half of the real picture herein.

Yes, when they are removed from civilization, men can devolve into barbarians. This is a documented fact throughout history. However, it is also a matter of record that there will always be men who refuse to become monsters when a civilization collapses around them. Such men will not fall into cannibalism, but will rise to the challenge of building a new society out of the ashes of the previous one. Throughout time civilizations have risen, fallen, and been replaced by stronger cultures which absorbed the good from the old while building bulwarks against the bad. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Lord of the Flies vehemently claims that the author’s trite, dark vision of human nature is the complete and correct one.

Another example is the film Wrecked. In the movie a man wakes to find himself trapped in a ruined car at the base of a cliff, with a dead man in the seat beside him. For the duration of the movie the protagonist suffers from wild hallucinations of murder and isolation. Finally, at the end of the story, it is revealed that the lead character in the film heroically drove the car off the cliff to stop some bank robbers who forced him into the role of getaway driver.

Like the previous stories, Wrecked promotes a twisted, inverted belief about life. The story does not widen the viewers’ imagination; it dims their minds. It also leaves the audience feeling emotionally claustrophobic and does nothing to promote right over might. On the contrary, it mocks all three aims of fiction, degrading the art of storytelling and the viewers’ intelligence in the process.

Evidently, this is not the effect one should be trying to produce in his/her readers. This is not to say that heroes in fiction must be without blemish from beginning to end. Most of our favorite heroes – from Hercules to Han Solo, from Galahad to Captain America – either did not behave in perfectly honorable, moral ways or struggled with the temptation to stray from the path of righteousness. To suggest that, in order for writers to fulfill the three obligations mentioned above, they must make their protagonists either whitewashed heroes or vile villains is to avoid the point.

That point, future writers, is this: fiction is not meant to excuse evil. It is not meant to teach contempt for those who are weak. It is not meant to make men feel isolated from one another. And it is certainly not a vehicle for promoting “might makes right.” It is meant to widen the audience’s view of the world, to help them understand their fellow men, and to train their imagination toward the good, the true, and the beautiful.

It has been said that we are what we eat. It can truly be said as well that we are what we read. If one reads about a world that is fallen yet beautiful, wild but purposeful, and which can yet be saved, then that is what one will see. And that redemption is what one will work to achieve throughout his or her life, hopefully by seeking and serving God with the help of His grace.

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But if one is led through the lens of fiction to view the world as unutterably flawed, cruel, capricious, and destined to destruction, then that is what one will see. And that is the world that one will work toward creating, consciously or unconsciously. The loss of entertainment that inspires wonder, curiosity, hope, and love has contributed to the chaos presently running amok in the world.

Spoken or written, words have power. Like all such powers, this one is neutral; in and of itself, it cannot do anything good or bad. It is up to the wielder – the writer – to choose whether to use their authority over the minds of readers for benefit or ill.

Choose wisely, future writers. Choose wisely.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her novelette, “Halcyon,” will appear in Cirsova Magazine’s summer issue.

3 thoughts on “The 3 Responsibilities All Authors Ought to Keep in Mind

  1. Wow Caroline…this is a great article. This sums it all up. It’s a shame society isn’t teaching this anymore. You could spend $40,000 to get a creative writing degree, and you’d never come across anything like this. You’re picking up the ball our higher learning institutions are dropping. Keep on keeping on! P.S. I love the poster from “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” John Wayne is my hero.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Sincerity in Fiction – A Lost Art in Need of Recovery | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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