How to write Fic About Issues without it becoming Issuefic

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Title: How to write Fic About Issues without it becoming Issuefic
Creator: erinptah
Date(s): June 6th, 2011
Medium:
Fandom: pan-fandom
Topic: Issuefic
External Links: How to write Fic About Issues without it becoming Issuefic
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How to write Fic About Issues without it becoming Issuefic is a post written by erinptah in 2011.

List

  1. Don't try to cover every element of The [X] Experience.
  2. Make it specific to the characters.
  3. Don't write characters more "enlightened" than they are.
  4. Leave out the technical terms.
  5. Model, don't lecture.
  6. Write because you believe in something, not because you feel like you're supposed to.

Excerpts

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."

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.

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.

Responses

[muccamukk]: 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.

[degas isa]: Love this! <33333

Hmm...if I had to add some things...so 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

sqbr:

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.

[degas isa]: 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.

[meatball42]: 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 :)

Further Reading

References