Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Writer's Responsiblities

I recently came across an interesting article Science fiction needs more scientist heroes.  First, the article gets a big thumbs up from me just for using Agatha Heterodyne as it's lead picture.  If you haven't experienced the Foglio's Girl Genius, you are depriving yourself. 

However, what really struck me was the writer's call for more scientists who can write to try writing SciFi with scientist protagonists. 

It's a nice idea, really.  And as a scientist who writes, I see the merit in that request.  In fact, I am working on selling my own novel right now.  So if that works out, I could be just the sort of person they're looking for.  Of course, my books are YA, so none of the MCs are professional scientists.  To be fair, most of them are geeks of one type or another, and a few have interests in science or technology.  However, I'm not sure it's where the writer was going.

But it got me thinking, can a writer change society that much?  Could a well-written book with a scientist hero really help turn the tide against all those scientist villains? 

Well, I think the article has a point; certainly the prevalence of evil scientists in fiction does seem to correlate to the negative view many people hold of scientists and science in general.  But of course, any good scientists knows correlation does not mean causation.  It could as easily be the other way around - the fact that there is a general bias against scientists could cause the poor portrayals of scientists in fiction. 

And even if it is possible for a writer to turn around the world's view of scientists with one brilliant book, maybe that's the wrong way to look at it.  Because I've found that books that have a message, the ones that are "about" something, usually suck.  If the writer is too busy hitting the reader over the head with a moral or lesson, then the reader usually gets bored or insulted and stops reading. 

If the writer really wants to connect to the reader, they need to start with telling an interesting story.  They need to make the reader care -- about the characters, about the story, about where this is all going.  And maybe somewhere along the line, if the MC is an interesting character that the reader can connect to and root for, who happens to also be a scientist, maybe that will help achieve the article's goal. 

Because in the end, I think the writer's real responsibility is to the story.  They need to tell the whole story, and just the story.  They need to be true to their characters and to their world.  If they do that, then the reader will want to be drawn in, taken along for the ride.  And if somewhere along that ride they learn a thing or two of some real world value, so much the better.

Even the great theologians of the past knew that a good story will stay in the memory a lot longer than any lecture.  So tell them a good story, make it involve people doing things, making hard choices and following the sorts of paths you feel people should, and your readers will remember it. 

As the old saying goes, you can get anyone to do anything, you just have to get their attention first.  Sometimes it takes a gentle word, sometimes a two-by-four upside the head.  And sometimes it takes a really great story.

So what do you think?  Is a writer's responsibility to what the story can do, or to the story itself?  Or is it just about writing something that will sell?  Or something else completely?