Here’s the thing about fiction.
Well, it’s not really fake. The stories themselves are created, but when done right, the emotions and the experience is very real. My life has been shaped by powerful fictional moments. Before I lost anyone I cared about, I felt real loss with the death of Ironhide in the original Transformers animated film. I felt a sense of power and triumph when The Mighty Thor overcame Hela’s death curse after an epic struggle against his greatest enemies. I learned about zen from Kung Fu Panda, and I still get a little lump in my throat when I think of Wall-E joyfully dancing with EVE through the void of space.
These are all fictional moments. None of them really happened. As a writer who struggles to be perceived as more than just a fluffy artist, it probably doesn’t help my case to use these moments. Yet they illustrate my point perfectly because as fantastic and clearly imaginary as these examples are, they have had a profound effect on who I was, who I am, and who I will become as time goes on.
This is the power of stories, and it is undeniable. It is so potent that we often talk about stories as if they are real events, as if they actually happened. Such debates can certainly be interesting, but they are founded on our ability to completely ignore (or even outright forget) that fiction is constructed. It’s made by humans.
I’m reminded of a great article I was reading about Man of Steel where the author said debating whether or not Superman would kill someone was silly. Superman doesn’t exist. He’s only an idea. If someone wants to write a story where Superman kills, then he does it. Superman himself (and his world) is merely a puppet of someone else, and as much as we might argue about Superman as a character, he has no will of his own. So arguing whether or not Superman would kill is NOT a debate worth having. Instead, the discussion would be better served by asking WHY the writer chose to have Superman kill or not kill.
Man of Steel fails for me, for example, not because anything implausible happens in it. Well, nothing implausible for a Superman movie anyway. But because, on a core level, the creators of the movie and I do not see eye-to-eye on what makes a good Superman story. Right or wrong has little to do with it. It’s just a question of perception and emotional resonance.
What’s interesting to me is that whenever I try to have the debate over whether or not Superman should kill, the most common response is that “he had no choice.” This is again testament to the power of storytelling. Characters are only saddled with the choices the writer gives them. The circumstances are a creation of the artist, and while good writing allows us to play along, it doesn’t change the fact that everything that happens in a story, EVERYTHING, is a choice by the creator.
Looking at writing like that, it can break the illusion sometimes. I know that as a writer, I sometimes get lost in my own stories. It can feel like the characters and situations take on a life of their own. But in the end, if I choose to push them in a certain direction, they have no choice but to go that way. Though I try to avoid pushing them too hard. But every story has multiple choice moments where many things can happen, and in most stories (time travel stories excluded), the writer has to pick one outcome and go with it. Often the choices are all valid as possibilities, but the tone or themes determine where it goes.
This is why I can’t get behind a story where Superman kills. I believe a writer should always choose another outcome when confronted with this possibility. My reasons are actually pretty simple. I rather like Superman as a character who finds a better way. Also, a Superman that is willing to kill is just too unstoppable. Without an absolute moral code to keep him in check, how the hell could he ever lose?
That’s my perspective. The writers of Man of Steel chose a different path, and that’s their right. They weren’t trying to tell a Superman story about an ideal. They were trying to tell a more “realistic” Superman story, and their version of realism involves moping, the deaths of thousands, and a Superman who is willing to kill. I might even respect that choice if the movie didn’t basically cop out at the end by tacking on a happy ending that ignores all the carnage and negativity it created to tell its more “realistic” version.
But again, that’s just my opinion, and I’ve seen plenty who disagree. The validity of a story choice isn’t necessarily about realism or even, strangely, tonal consistency, but about what emotions the creator is trying to stir. If they succeed, then good for them. In the end though, the creator is manipulating the audience through the story.
I’m not suggesting that every story need be dissected by what it might say about the storyteller. Just because a person writes a serial killer story, it doesn’t mean they’re wrestling with their own subconscious desire to kill. And if a writer creates a sexist character, it’s always risky to assume they’re sexist themselves. If writers only wrote characters they could relate to, they’d very quickly run out of ideas. And stories are just as often about exploring ideas outside of ourselves, our own experiences.
Perhaps that’s another thing I dislike about Man of Steel. I don’t want to experience a Superman I can relate to in a world that seems very much like our own. I go to Superman stories for other reasons. Yes, the exact “unrelatable” complaint that I hear from so many Superman detractors is exactly what I find appealing about the character. But, again, not everyone is looking for something like that.
As a writer, I struggle with those choices sometimes. I know that I would be taken a lot more seriously if I killed more of my characters, if I elected for less positive endings. There seems little point in denying that at this stage. Most writers do seem to love doing that. To be truly literary, you must be willing to kill characters you like, and while people might be upset by that, they also know it marks you as a “serious” writer, whatever the hell that means.
But I really don’t like doing it. And I really don’t like doing it now because there’s just too damn much of it. In an age when even Superman isn’t given the luxury of being an ideal, I just don’t find much appealing about writing stories where people die just to prove I’m more than cotton candy. But let’s be honest here. It’s a choice on my part and not without consequences.
I’m not suggesting the audience should always think about the storyteller’s intentions. Such micro-analysis usually falls flat and misses the point. It’s like that old joke where the student writes a thesis on the metaphor of the blue curtains when all the writer was trying to say was that the curtains were blue. But when we start talking about things like whether or not Superman would kill someone or if the plot of Star Trek: Into Darkness makes a lick of sense (spoiler alert: it doesn’t), we need to move the debate from what happens on the screen to why someone choose for it to happen in the first place, what they were hoping to trigger within the audience, and why they succeed or fail.
Such debates will be highly subjective, of course, but they’re a good deal more productive toward getting us to relate to each other in a way fiction often allows best. And that’s always worth doing.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,