This week’s shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill got me thinking about just how many terrible things happen in the world, and the degree to which that should – or should not – be included in a work of fiction.
So far 2015 has seen mass killings; people killed or brutalized by police; people killed or brutalized by terrorists and extremists; and the standard run of murder and assault. And those are just the headline-worthy woes. If you get into the weeds of day-to-day prejudice and violence . . . well, why get out of bed in the morning?
I don’t think I’m the only one who finds it soul-crushing.
And yet it is happening, it is real, and ignoring it does not seem to be the answer.
Should We Include Such Things in Fiction?
I have mixed feelings on this.
Depicting hate-driven violence can help acknowledge that it is a real problem in our society. Such depictions can also be sickening and pointless. Of course, that is part of the point, but if I had run across the Chapel Hill shooting in a work of fiction – three nice young Muslims, two of them newly wed, gunned down by a hate-filled white atheist – I would have wondered why the author had chosen to include such a pointless horror.
However, we live in a world where such things are, horribly, a reality, and completely ignoring them does not seem to be the answer.
What to Include and in What Degree?
In a way “should we include it” boils down to two separate questions. What should we include, and how much of it should we include?
For example, if a work depicts prejudice, is it going to focus on the subtle day-to-day prejudice that is so insidious, or is it going to depict an all-out hate attack?
I think the “what” depends somewhat on the type of story, but humans being humans there is almost always some sort of prejudice available for consideration. I think it is a valuable thing to address in some form, whether it is class-based, age-based, race-based, gender-based, or something else. Really, “what” to include comes down to thinking through the dominant groups in a work, and how they would rub along together.
The “how much” can be a little trickier, and is likely to be more dependent on the type of story. If a religious war is central to the plot, then terrorist attacks are perfectly appropriate.
In a character-driven story where prejudice is a background element, rather than a major part of the plot, I think that keeping it to a background noise level is appropriate. It still acknowledges the problem. And really, that is the degree of problem that can realistically be addressed.
I think the truly horrific attacks grow out of the fertile soil provided by general prejudice. If the general prejudice were not there, these attacks might not occur, or might manifest in a different way.
I think it is very important to acknowledge the existence of prejudice, and to consider the impact it has on various members of a story.
I don’t think that the prejudice ever needs to escalate for its inclusion to be valuable.
Back Handed Inclusion
Many of us are uncomfortable with discussions of prejudice. Racism, religious prejudice, sexism – they are all loaded.
One thing that science fiction and fantasy bring to the table is the ability to mirror our world at safe remove.
For example, I’ve always found it interesting when a work of sci fi replaced inter-human racism with xenophobia against aliens.
It is sad that we have to go to an alternate reality to have a proper discussion about our irrational fears and biases, but at least we can take advantage of that safe space!
Thoughts on the subject? Please comment!