The end of the year is an excuse to celebrate, to let go a little, to start all over again tomorrow. New Year's Eve is the biggest party of the year for many people, but it's not the only party. And if your characters are going to be mixing with dangerous activities (like heavy drinking) in your stories, you have to make sure you're writing responsibly. ...Don't you?
What's Your Poison?
As a YA writer, I've often pondered the responsibilities of authors. Shouldn't a YA writer avoid writing about characters who have unprotected sex, for example? Shouldn't a children's book author shy away from themes like murder and torture? A character who goes about breaking rules and acting wild and yet faces no consequences could be seductive, in a way.
I'll use Breakfast at Tiffany's as an example. I saw the movie when I was still fairly young, and to me it was all about Audrey Hepburn's glamor and the majesty of New York City (and eating Danish in front of the Tiffany & Co. window). To me, at that time, it seemed that Holly Golightly had an amazing life. So what did I want to do with my life? I wanted to be a professional dater, like Holly. It was a few years later that I learned Breakfast at Tiffany's is based on a book, and Holly is actually a hooker (high-class, but still). So there you have it. Had I followed Holly's steps, I could be living in a barren New York walk up with a nameless cat right this minute.
It's not the worst of fates, of course, but it's true that books do have a certain power over people. Mark David Chapman, for reasons only he understands, fell in love with the book Catcher in the Rye and was inspired by it to shoot and kill John Lennon. I've often wondered if J. D. Salinger feels bad about that. Of course, I've read the book and it doesn't even mention Lennon or the Beatles. Chapman's mind was twisted, and somehow he used this book to carry out a dark fantasy. And now Catcher will for ever be tied up with that event.
These two examples, to me, represent both ends of the responsibility spectrum. Truman Capote made New York's cafe society look very glamorous and appealing to me as a young girl. Shouldn't he have made Holly face more consequences, suffer some great downfall? Shouldn't he have showed me why her lifestyle was fundamentally flawed?
Or should he? Salinger wrote a rambling tale about a man wandering around New York City, and it inspired a killer. But his book is not about killing, so how can any blame be piled at the author's door? He wrote a book that many people love, and one man used it to commit murder with total randomness. Where, in all that, does Salinger's responsibility begin and end?
When any book can inspire any emotion, even something so twisted we're all left scratching our heads 30 years later, does the author have any responsibility for what he or she writes?
That's up to the author. Some authors entertain. Some impart wisdom. Some teach things. Some may do all of this. But novels are stories, and they are fiction. And at the end of the day, no author has the ultimate responsibility for teaching anyone the difference between what's right and what's wrong. The problem with books is that the message is almost always lost, or changed, as the story is read by different people. Everyone will see in it what they want to see, not necessarily what you as the author intended to write. So as far as responsibilities go, you should be responsible for yourself. Write something that you can be proud of, and feel good about, and stand by it. That's the best you can do.
And on that note, stay responsible tonight for yourself as well. Come back in the New Year for more writing tips and everything else indie authors need. See you then!