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Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

I’ve been reflecting recently on a book review that was critical. The reviewer argued that I was irresponsible for the way I’d handled a particular scene. This made me think about the role of the author in writing difficult things. Should they reflect the world as it is, with its ugliness and chaos and lack of resolution? Or should they correct the problems of the world, perfecting them? The answer, of course, is complex, and depends very much on all sorts of factors, including genre. I could write a whole paper on this, but in the interests of keeping things short, I’ll address a few key points.

The power to change the world

I think the reason a lot of writers write is so they can change the world. They want to correct the problems they see around them. These might be personal experiences that they wish had happened differently, or broad social issues they want to address. A good area for authors to ‘correct’ is in diversity. For too long books have not reflected the real world, in terms of race, disability, gender and other differences. Authors can use their power to ensure it is not only middle class white people (generally men) in stories who have autonomy. They can create characters of all kinds, without stereotypes. Even in a genre like fantasy, places and people can be written as complex and nuanced, like the real world. To correct in this way is definitely worthwhile and important.

When it comes to events within a story though, there are some risks in over-correcting. Stories aren’t true. But they need to seem true. So the world in your book needs to seem convincing. It needs to reflect the real world to some extent. Even if it’s fantasy. Bad things do happen to good people and sometimes those people, or the people around them, don’t respond in the best ways. Writing a good character means giving them complexity. Writing a good plot means you don’t solve a problem straight away. If your villain immediately faces consequences for his actions, he’s not a very good villain. If you pose a problem, and immediately resolve it, there’s no tension in your story. If your character is always strong and demands justice, they’re not a real person, they’re a superhero.

Politics or story telling?

Why do people pick up a novel? Kafka says “a book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us”. He was talking about writing books to awaken emotional responses, not to enlighten us politically. In novels, readers connect with characters, not political ideas. As a writer my aim is to write scenes that will make readers feel something, not scenes that will politicise them. Books are great for creating empathy. But to create an emotional response you need to connect with the reader. This won’t happen if your scenes aren’t realistic. The scene in my book is true to life, and true to the characters involved. If I were to write it differently in order to responsibly reflect how this sort of thing should play out, I wouldn’t be writing a novel, I’d be writing a training manual. 

Trust the author

My final point is that it is important to trust the author. Writing a novel is about selection. As a writer you decide what to include and what to leave out. And what is included is there for a reason, if you know what you are doing. The reader doesn’t always have the full picture until the end. This is particularly true of a trilogy. Not everything will be resolved, or even revealed, in the first book. And even more true of a mystery.  A mystery has hints and clues that may look irrelevant, but may be very important later on. Look at the way JK Rowling revealed Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem in one of the early Harry Potter books. It seemed like an aside, a meaningless incident, but it wasn’t. Sometimes if you wait, you learn not everything is as it seems…