Sunday, June 8, 2008

Actually, I Might WATCH "Soldier #3 Who Gets Blown Up Real Good".

That doesn't give me hope for a tasteful handling of this issue, really. I don't follow Ctrl+Alt+Del, though, so my interest here is mainly about the broader issues of portraying miscarriage and other female-centric tragedies in fictional settings -- comics, web comics, roleplaying games, and so on.

How do you think such issues are best handled, and in what way? To what extent does the gender of the writer matter? Does the focus of the story (e.g. "I was raped" vs "my girlfriend was raped"; "I had a miscarriage" vs "she had a miscarriage") affect how you'd view such a story?

Every story, even the most hackneyed, retarded, cliché and trope-ridden drek, has a purpose to it, a point, even if it's a stupid point. Okay, maybe if you're like three, or are an avant-garde writer intentionally trying to dissect and deconstruct the written artform, you can exclude any kind of purpose (or can you? even denying the existence of a point has a point to it...!).

In the beginning of the Iron Man movie, (OMG SPOILER ALERT) Tony Stark rides through Afghanistan with some soldiers in a hum-vee. As they bump along, he banters with them, and we see flashes of personality from the soldiers: the eager young man with the camera, the female soldier who starts out professional and detached but begins to grin at Stark's patter...

And then they're attacked. In short order, the soldiers are wiped out, and Stark himself is injured and taken captive, beginning the chain of events that will make him become Iron Man.

That's the name of the movie, after all: IRON MAN. Not "SOLDIER #3 WHO GETS BLOWN UP REAL GOOD". It's Tony Stark's story, the focus is on Mr. Stark.

From a writer's perspective, those soldiers were created to die. The personalities they were given were composed specifically to make the audience feel for them. It'd be a different sort of set-up if Stark had just sat quietly and the soldiers were all looking attentively at the road ahead just before the attack. We wouldn't have been as uneasy knowing that these lively young folk we'd just seen joking around were now DEAD AND GONE, cut down ruthlessly. Without that spark of empathy, we might have just said, "well, sucks for them but that's war".

All people are not equal in fiction. Even an ensemble cast focuses on a relatively small portion of total humanity. A writer has to choose what elements complement the point he or she is trying to make and what is nonessential and needs to be pruned, who lives, who dies. This may sound a bit coldblooded, but it would drastically limit a writer if they could only merely write mildly distressing drama because they were too weak-willed to cause a fictional character to undergo severe trauma (or death).

Here's the thing: a miscarriage, or any other "female-centric" tragedy, affects more than just the "centric female" involved. If you are telling a story whose focus is on that woman, then sure, it should be her views, her feelings and what happens next to her that gets priority.

But she may not be the focus of the story at all. She might be "Soldier #3".*

A writer may wish to mainly explore the feelings of her significant other. Or perhaps how the miscarriage affects her parents. Maybe the doctor who tried so hard to save the baby. Maybe the pregnant woman three doors down, hearing anguished wails and fearing for her own unborn child.

Now, most competent writers are going to have the bulk of this already figured out well before they begin telling the story. They should know what the focus of the story is, what messages they want to impart, and who they need to follow to make the story they're trying to tell happen. (I can tell you that often the message that your final draft of a story tells may turn out to be different than the message you thought you had going into the first draft, but at least you should start out with some kind of plan.)

So to the character of the woman in question, the miscarriage may be one of the most devastating events that will occur in her fictional life. That does not, however, mean that her feelings are necessarily going to be important to the story itself. Her existence may be nothing more than a prop to provide impetus for some other character. Her tragedy may pain the reader, if they have for some reason come to care about the character, but even this empathy may be intentional on the part of the author, to provide convincing dramatic resonance.

Again, this is all dependent on what sort of story you're trying to tell, or whose story you're trying to tell.

If you think that a story that features a "female-centric" tragedy must automatically focus on the female in question from that point on, regardless of any previous focus the story may have had, then that is an agenda driving critique or creation of the story, over and above any structure or understanding of the art of writing.

Which isn't to say an author can't write a good story with an agenda in place, but it is a mistake for a reader to assume that the author's agenda is the same as, or should be the same as, their own, and it would be a mistake for an author to shift focus in a jarring manner merely to appease those who have different agendas.

*If, at this point, you're thinking that some elements in this post are evocative of discussions of the "Women In Refrigerators" phenomenon, congratulations! you're pretty sharp. There is a connection. That, though, is a topic for some other date.