erinptah: (Kitten)
Where the towels are oh so fluffy ([personal profile] erinptah) wrote2011-06-01 12:50 pm

How to write Fic About Issues without it becoming Issuefic

This is a topic I've been pondering a lot recently. It's probably a natural result of following a bunch of Issue-based fandom comms, rec lists, and fests...but honestly, what spurred the post was a bunch of summaries that looked intriguing and thoughtful, leading into fics that were just bad. Cringe-inducingly, hair-tearingly bad.

Issuefic at its worst is didactic, boring, and with cookie-cutter characterization thanks to everything being subsumed by the goal of Making A Point, which is handled with about as much subtlety as a whack-a-mole mallet. (I could go on.)

But for the most part, I don't think writers set out to lecture. They just set out to write Non Faily Fic about some srs bsns subject or another, and try too hard. And there are a whole lot of srs bsns subjects that I would love more Non Faily But Also Non Sucky Fic about.

So here's my list of goals to aim for and pitfalls to avoid while writing Fic About Issues. They're not necessarily things I've always written well, but they're the things I know I like to read.

1. Don't try to cover every element of The [X] Experience.

Similar to the principal complaint in this post about formulaic transfic. You could probably come up with The Formula for any group.

This one is probably overcompensation for "writing [X] people 'just like everyone else' = erasing the [X] experience!" In an effort not to whitewash (or [Y]wash) their character, a writer takes everything and the kitchen sink that could go along with [X]ness and crams it all in. Long paragraphs of exposition about how the character feels about being [X], or discrimination they have experienced because of it, are a warning sign.

Weave the details in when they're relevant. Part of not whitewashing means that sometimes they will be, and of course if you're writing a long plotty fic it will be more apparent if they're left out. But 400 words of striking out against the white male heterosexist paradigm is not a prerequisite for 800 words of "Martha and Ace have sex on a motorbike."

2. Make it specific to the characters.

If you could search-and-replace a character's name with someone else from the same group and not see anything out of place? You're writing too generic.

This one's a universal hallmark of sloppy characterization -- you've probably read something, schmoop or PWP, that fits the bill. (The fanmix version is the collection of a dozen generic love songs, which totally fit your OTP because they love each other.) It's even more annoying when it happens in issuefic, where it undercuts the individuality and humanity (Vogonity, hobbitity, Gallifreiyanity, etc) of whoever the writer set out to stand up for.

Setting needs to be accounted for too, especially if it's sci-fi or fantasy. Racism in the 'Verse is going to manifest differently from racism in Arda is going to manifest differently from racism a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Tolkien's elves are going to have a different template for gender roles than Eoin Colfer's elves, which are going to be waaaaaaay different from Discworld elves. And so on.

Once you've figured out what challenges a particular setting and society is going to throw at your character, then work out how that individual would react.

Let's take Martha Jones, time-zapped into a working-class role in 1913: she plays along as best she can for the Doctor's sake, then finally snaps at one too many insults to her intelligence and starts rattling off the bones of the hand. Say what you will about that arc, but you can't say her actions weren't fantastically Martha. Uhura would have done it differently. Precious Ramotswe, differently again. I'm kind of scared to imagine how Foxxy Love would play this one.

3. Don't write characters more "enlightened" than they are.

This seems to hit ally and supporting characters rather than the main issue-facing character(s), but it can potentially apply to anyone. It's what happens when authors forget that they don't have to agree with their protagonists.

It's also what happens when authors forget that marginalized people don't always agree with each other. I remember one scene with a white author asking for advice on how to write a black OC, whose backstory was clearly influenced by some of LJ's recent discussions of racism. The author had latched onto a bit of advice on How To Write COCs and clearly thought it was Making A Stand Against Racism, and remained completely oblivious as three or four different POCs tried to tell her that it was, in their opinions, racist. (Thus the scare quotes around "enlightened." It doesn't necessarily have a set meaning.)

But even if you're working from your own personal and deeply-held views about what is The Right Thing To Believe, don't overlay those onto existing characters. At least, not if there's something already there. By all means, write Usagi cheering on the sidelines at a pride parade as Haruka and Michiru walk by...but if Jerri Blank is in that crowd, and she's cheering anything less filthy than "Take it off!", then you might as well be writing an OC.

(...I am coming up with so many horribleawesome fic ides in this post, you guys. Jerri Blank decides to fix her life by picking up right where she left off, and returns to Infinity Academy. Professor Tomoe catches wind of her dedication, thinks it must totally be the sign of a pure heart, and sends Mimete to investigate. That evening finds Mimete at the lab sink, frantically scrubbing her hands: "It won't come off! Why won't it come off???")

With futuristic canons, or, for that matter, futuristic AUs, it's fair to adjust for time period. Like how the original Enterprise crew looks tokenistic by modern standards, but was revolutionary back in the day -- no one's going to complain if you take the tokenism as an artefact of 1960s writers rather than a product of 2260s society. Fifty years from now, fans will look back and laugh at all the antiquated turn-of-the-century biases that showed up in Jack Harkness, then hopefully go on to write their own interpretation of a forward-thinking 51st-century guy.

4. Leave out the technical terms.

Partly because a lot of them are neologisms, or mostly used in the US, or have colloquial meanings outside of social-justice shop talk, or are considered reclaimed by half the population but offensive by the other half, or all of the above.

Something [personal profile] eisen said a while ago that really stuck with me (in paraphrase): the people that the words were created to describe have always existed, whether or not the words did. In other words, your asexual genderqueer Wookiee of color with a disability isn't going to be less valid of a character because ey just describes emself as "ooooaaaaAAAAAAaawuaaarghle."

But even if you're in a modern-day American setting with a widely-understood and neutral word (and characters who would feel comfortable saying it! Remember that '04 presidential debate where John Kerry stumbled over "lesbian"?), that doesn't mean it's going to come up. I can't remember the last time I said "lesbian" out loud, and I don't walk around thinking "well, as a gay person, I believe..." I walk around thinking "Ooh, pretty!"

If you give a technical term and then follow it up with the definition, either in dialogue or in narration, that's a huge red flag. I like to think it works in this comic, because the whole joke is that the character remembers a precise definition for "asexual" but has forgotten (a) the actual word and (b) to mention any of this to his partner. But even that is probably too didactic for some people.

5. Model, don't lecture.

The issuefic-specific version of "show, don't tell."

Most of this has been going under the assumption that you want to write without a specific moral goal in mind (beyond maybe "be decent to [X] people"). If you do in fact have something to teach...write meta. Or a rant. Or any other kind of blog/journal post. It'll be more honest than trying to shoehorn it into the fic format.

If you're determined to write a fic, don't spell out what The Right Thing is, or have one of the characters start with the wrong thing and learn a Very Special Lesson. The people who need to hear it will feel preached at, and the people who don't will be annoyed that you've wasted their time. Just have the right thing happen. Straight parents ask the gay couple if their kids can carpool home from Little League. Friends are sympathetic and comforting and non-freaked-out during the depressive person's downswing. And so on. My impression is that a lot of hurt/comfort is written by people who want that kind of comfort but don't feel they can ask for it.

Write the Right Thing as normal, and it'll help toward real-world normalization. No anvil necessary.

6. Write because you believe in something, not because you feel like you're supposed to.

To be clear: I'm a big fan of prompt fests, ficathons, exchanges, and so on that are focused on raising visibility. Even if a sense of obligation is what gets you there in the first place, if you find something there to inspire you, go for it. More power to you.

The problem is when people not only aren't inspired, but don't believe what they're writing. When you've tried to absorb some social justice talking point, and have a nagging sense that there's a disconnect, that it doesn't match up with things you've experienced, that you're not sure you understand how it works out...but you ignore all that and try to run with it anyway, assuming that any confusion is a product of your privilege, and it'll clear up eventually once you get more enlightened.

Stop. Listen to your gut on this one. If you try to write in that mode, the disconnect will show through. The result will be hollow, and if people say they like it then the praise will feel hollow, and if people call you out on it your defense will be hollow, if you don't just crumple like a cheap paper bag.

There's no easy way to deal with this; the only thing I've found that works is to put the story aside for a year, do some more reading, and let the concepts percolate for a while. Sometimes it'll settle into a solid position that you're comfortable taking.

Other times the discomfort is a sign that this isn't an issue you can write taking-a-stand fic about. That's okay too -- and it doesn't mean you have to throw up your hands and cry "I guess I just won't write about [X] characters." You don't have to have, say, a firm and comprehensive set of Opinions On Feminism to write that one-shot about Martha and Ace having sex on a motorbike.

THAT IS ALL. /Hodgman

At least, all I came up with while pondering. If there are more on your own list, don't hesitate to share.
snowynight: Kino in a suit with brown background (Default)

[personal profile] snowynight 2011-06-02 02:05 am (UTC)(link)
Great essay!
muccamukk: Spiral staircase decending multiple levels inside a tower.. (Politics: Face of Peace)

Here via snowynight

[personal profile] muccamukk 2011-06-02 03:39 am (UTC)(link)
Great meta. I have occasionally thought of issue fic, but mostly felt I had too much issue and too little story.

I find lgbt fest did this a lot, and I've been trying to parse what made stories work or not. Still kind of poking at it, but I think it comes down to the idea that the ones that work are about the character. The ones that don't are about the issue.
ein_myria: (Default)

[personal profile] ein_myria 2011-06-02 04:18 am (UTC)(link)
Great essay! :D I'll link to it. :)
dagas_isa: Sulli and her awesome hat. (Sulli's hat invalidates your argument)

[personal profile] dagas_isa 2011-06-02 04:51 am (UTC)(link)
Love this! <33333

Hmm...if I had to add some much of it would go under the general header of just relax already. Chances are for most stories with an [x] character, you'll get some people in [x] who totally resonate with what you've written, and others who see legitimate problems in it, not because you're wrong but because their experiences and tastes brought a different context (Also they're not wrong either). So really, it's about telling the story that speaks to you (and by extension others), not the one that won't offend anyone at all. By all means, don't write the next J2 Haiti fic or iteration 9000+ of "straight dude finds out the woman he's about to sleep with is trans (lol) and freaks out," but I, for one, wish that the people with f-preg fic bunnies stop worrying about perpetuating the baby-crazy lesbian stereotype and just write already.

Speaking of, people really underestimate the value of escapist stories. Yeah it's cool to up representation, but it's also awesome to see people who aren't white men at the center of not-issue fics.

Oh, and if you really, really want to write a story about the [x] experience instead of about a character who is [x], I've found it helps to put the focus on more than one [x] character, instead of relying on one character to represent all [x]s. That way, there's both a much deeper exploration of the issue (which, I think can make a good story for social science nerds) and also makes all the [x] characters more fully realized and interesting. Which is kind of the point, I hope.

Those are the couple of things (in addition to a lot of your points) I've kept in mind while writing "issue fic" or *gasp* awesome characters who aren't cis white dudes. XD
lotesse: (jewel-boxes)

[personal profile] lotesse 2011-06-02 03:05 pm (UTC)(link)
I would totally read that whole other essay in defense of escapism! Utopias get a bad rap far too often - or just get written off as subliterary/apolitical.
dagas_isa: Kanzaki Nao from Liar Game (Default)

[personal profile] dagas_isa 2011-06-04 06:03 am (UTC)(link)
There have been escapist fics that were criticized for being escapist fics, on the grounds that they were erasing the effects of *isms.

Because all there is to being anything but a cis white dude is *isms, am I right? There's a lot to be said for fics that treat lesbians or PoCs or trans people or disabled people as normal, and let them go on and solve mysteries and/or have hot sex.

Like with the idea (adage? theory? empirical observation?) that you need three female characters to make an ensemble work -- one and she's The Chick, two and they get shoehorned into opposing stereotypes.

I've talked about this before IRL, but I did not realize that it was officially a Thing that three female characters are what makes an ensemble work. Plus, in general, three "average" [x] characters can really say and do more than one "perfect" [x] character among cis white dudes, including talk to each other. And traits that might be problematic stereotypes when the token [x] has them become normalized when there are three [x] characters and only one of them has the trait.

[personal profile] purplekitte 2011-06-02 12:46 pm (UTC)(link)
Good advice all around. I think I've seen this all done badly before and warned against before, but not spelled out in the same place and I don't read that much Issuefic.

I know the one time I decided "I want to write trans fic", I immediately had to follow up with "I want to write trans urban fantasy, and while some of the drama will have to do with gender, none of the plot-action will, and here's the personal issues/character flaws the main characters would still have if they'd been born cys in their correct genders, as opposed to the ones directly related to their gender identities."
sqbr: WV stands proudly as mayor (homestuck)

[personal profile] sqbr 2011-06-03 05:27 am (UTC)(link)
This is a good post.

A couple of extra things:

I went to a panel on female characters in the background which made the good point (as someone brought up in an earlier comment) that it's one thing to have a single character from group X in your story, but are they the only one? Do all your characters (including background characters who may only show up for one line) default to being white cis able bodied straight men unless you have an in-story reason for them to be something different?

Relatedly, something else that's missing from a lot of stories about "the X experience" by people not in group X is the X community. And this can be hard to write because one probably won't have experienced it first hand, but if you genuinely want to explore the X experience then you have to include it. Otherwise you end up, like stories "about women" that don't pass the Bechdel Test, implying that nothing important happens that doesn't involve that white cis able bodied straight male deafult, even in the lives of people who aren't white cis able bodied straight men themselves.

I started writing a story exploring the experience of being disabled shortly after I became disabled, and the more time goes on, and the more comfortable and connected I become in my disabled identity and life, the more I notice how much it lacks any connection between the disabled main character and any other disabled people, or in fact any other disabled people at all.

Also: I tend to see everything I create not just as a work whose individual merit can be judged out of context by it's effect on the viewer/reader, but as part of my journey towards (hopefully) becoming a better writer and artist. In my experience sometimes heavy handed Issuefic style writing can be a useful first step to understanding an issue well enough to write it more naturally. You might not want to show anyone the writing, but that doesn't mean you should necessarily stop yourself from writing it if those are the only plotbunnies your muse is giving you on the subject.

Deviating from the status quo is a skill that requires thought and practice and will inevitably lead to a few missteps along the way. Of course unlike, say, a failed attempt at iambic pentameter, one can do real harm by putting those missteps out in public, and an associated skill is knowing when to keep things to yourself or at least find a reliable second opinion/beta.

Re number 5: there's Issuefic and Issuefic. You've focussed on the awkward well meaning flailing of someone trying to approach an Issue they don't fully grok, and that is definitely something to avoid writing if you can. But, while it's not everyone's cup of tea, fiction that is quite explicitly and unambiguously making a specific point can be very powerful and get across that point better than a non-fiction essay on the subject. An obvious example is satire with a social justice message. It is hard to do this and make the characters and plot engaging but it can be done. I think "The Female Man" by Joanna Russ succeeds, for example, and she literally stops the story, breaks the fourth wall, and rants about the publishing industry in the middle of the book! I think one reason Issuefic gets a bad rap is that most of the time it ignores the complexity of human experience and is used to make simplistic uninteresting points like SEXISM IS BAD, but it doesn't have to be that way. Anyway, given that you like the Daily Show etc we may just be defining things differently.
dagas_isa: Kanzaki Nao from Liar Game (Default)

[personal profile] dagas_isa 2011-06-04 05:49 am (UTC)(link)
I do think we're working with different definitions here. When I say issuefic, I don't mean "fiction that is quite explicitly and unambiguously making a specific point", but fiction that is doing so in an unsubtle and uninteresting way, at the expense of any other elements that might make up a story.

Yeah, I think a lot of the problems with discussing issuefic is that there are so many definitions I've seen regarding issuefic ranging from, "anything that engages with a social issue" to "stories that are looking to make a specific point on a social issue" to "stories that focus on a social issue to the exclusion of anything resembling a story or unique viewpoint" I'm assuming that you're working from the last definition, and that you'd categorize the former two, done well, as fic about issues.
sqbr: She's getting existential again. It's ok I have a super soaker. (existentialism)

[personal profile] sqbr 2011-06-04 12:31 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, community is a loaded word. Hmm. Glad my point got across despite it.

And sure, any kind of badfic can be part of a writer's efforts to get better. Or, for that matter, it might be someone's heart's desire to write Issuefic, in which case, more power to them. This post was deliberately framed, not as "no one should ever write issuefic," but "if you want to not write issuefic, here is some helpful advice."

*nods* I guess I was to some extent reminding myself: I am alas one of those people who tends to read "how not to write fiction that does X" advice (where X can be anything from "has bad grammar" to "is Issuefic") and get all neurotic about how much I suck if I don't manage to follow all the advice right away, but I get the feeling other people don't need "it's ok not to be perfect" spelled out for them quite as much as I do :)

Yes, I think we are using different definitions. Never mind then!

I will say that they're a very good example of how to present passionate viewpoints -- whether they're about social justice, politics, media criticism, or baconnaise -- in a way that is entertaining for an audience.

Exactly! Basically I started the paragraph defending my definition of Issuefic then by the end went "...actually from what I know of sailorptah I'm pretty sure she's ok with this kind of stuff. Hmm. Ok now I'm confused."
darth_eldritch: (Default)

via metafandom

[personal profile] darth_eldritch 2011-06-04 10:44 am (UTC)(link)
Very well written and your guidelines are very well thought out!

It is something of an art form to write about issues in any work of fiction without it becoming platform for the issue (unless the work is about an issue.)
I've seen the pros mess up on this.

"Show, don't tell," might sum up part of it, at least.
apiphile: (book)

[personal profile] apiphile 2011-06-05 01:37 pm (UTC)(link)
It's what happens when authors forget that they don't have to agree with their protagonists.

Here via metafandom. I could KISS you for this statement. I've had to write essays explaining that no, I don't agree with what my protagnoist says. One of the ways you can tell I don't agree with him is that he is a mass-murdering sociopath. Anyway! This post is awesome. Off to link to it everywhere.

PS: Write because you believe in something, not because you feel like you're supposed to.

Could not agree more.

[personal profile] rubyfruit 2011-06-06 04:45 pm (UTC)(link)
This is the essay I've always wanted to write but it'd devolve into multiple uses of the word "fuck".

And I would totally read/write an essay in defense of escapism. I would read about any characters having sex on a motorbike, just to see how it'd work. And because it would be hot.

[identity profile] 2012-07-27 04:12 am (UTC)(link)
This is a very interesting meta, and I'm definitely going to use it when writing my Issue (space :) Fics in the future.

I do tend to write a lot of issue-centric stories, mainly because everything I do in life seems to settle into a fandom-shaped pattern in my head nowadays, so that any new concept isn't understandable unless Jack Harkness says it, or something similar. In fact, I've started stories based entirely on the premise of 'What if Person M was [x]?' The saving grace (or at least, I hope) is that I try and write what the characters would actually say or do in response to the events I write, not what I want them to do. This can be frustrating, but hopefully makes for a more realistic story.

Another way to diminish the effects of [x]-centricity or issue-insertation is letting there be more going on in the story. One thing I find really annoying, even as I enjoy issue-centric fics, is if the issue is the /only/ thing going on in the story. It's all fine and dandy to write about someone coming out at work and the resulting drama, but please have some 'at work' going on as well. There needs to be actual character presence, not just charicature presence.

(Reading this over, I'm not sure how well many of my stories would pass all the anti-Issuefic requirements I've written... Oh well, more stuff to work on in the future :)