There are some people in this world who are absolutely, unequivocally miserable; and the only spark of joy in their lives is in spreading this misery around, spewing their negativity at anyone and everyone so that all are as miserable as they. This is not a quote from some self-help guru or particularly enlightened individual, but it is a phrase to live (and let live) by… especially if you are a writer or other creative type person. Call it a personal mantra of mine or a pithy one-liner, but it has certainly helped me deal with negative feedback and destructive criticisms in my day to day fan fiction writer. Because—like it or not—as soon as you (insert your creative profession here) choose to share your art with the world, the world is going to do its best to push back and discourage you from sharing more.
It’s an incontrovertible fact, like gravity… You may enjoy flying, but eventually you will be coming down. It’s where we get such delightful images of dreamers constantly living “with their head in the clouds”; as if reality, like gravity, will keep us from attaining said dreams. But the whole point of fan fiction (at least for me) is that you can take something you love—a universe, a set of characters, etc.—and just run wild with it. You should be able to take Character A and Romantic Pair C, place them in a troupe of circus performers, and make something new and magical. [Note: I dislike circuses personally, but if that’s your dream, who am I to judge? Live your dream!] What you should not have to deal with is some snarky, anonymous critic who starts bashing your new setting and whining about how out of character you are writing the actors in your circus drama.
Yes, random reviewer hiding behind the guest settings on fanfiction.net, I AM in fact writing these individuals out of character. Because, having taken them from Established Universe Z, I have placed them in the completely different context of the troupe of circus performers; the second I, as a fan fiction writer, have made any alteration to the universe setting or to the character’s backstory, I have de facto written the individual out of character. That is the glory and the tragedy of fan fiction—I can remain as true to the characters as possible, but even one change about their past is going to completely change everything else about them.
Now, I’ve dealt with this accusation myself in the past, but this particular issue—that of negative, destructive feedback—struck me this past week because it seemed to be an issue for several of the writers I speak with on a regular basis and was mentioned in the author’s notes in some of the updated fics that I follow. So, to the fic writers, I say the following: don’t be afraid to stand up for your stories. You are not writing and being monetarily compensated by your readers; you are sharing your stories free of charge. You do this for fun or because this is your creative outlet, so this is your show to run; the fact that you are willing to put the fruits of those intellectual labors out there with no expectation of praise or payment is a beautiful thing. Stay true to you and to the story you want to write.
To the readers, reviewers, critics, etc…. Your opinion means nothing, and if you have nothing positive to contribute then shut the hell up. Your opinion, like your nose, is unique to you, but that doesn’t mean that your opinion is right, valid, or even necessary to the writer. You don’t like the universe I have put the characters in? You think that I included too much “useless” world building information, too much adorable one on one interactions with my romantic pairing, and did not advance the plot with this particular chapter? Too damn bad for you, because this is what I chose to write! By putting these characters in a different environment (say, a real world situation versus a fantasy one), I am going to change the events faced by said characters, change the sort of plot twists and decisions that they will face, so they will (naturally) become different people at the end of these new developments. That is the way storytelling and life works! People, and I include characters as well as real human beings, can and should be dynamic; they should change and (hopefully) grow as a result of the choices they made in life. So, yes, in changing their circumstances and choices faced, I have decided to write these individuals out of character. And if this is one of several installments in a series of interconnected fics, the characters had damn well better be changed and altered as a result of this new universe/setting. You have a problem with that? Fine. Feel free to share your concerns…
Unfortunately, we writers and creative types tend to be very sensitive to criticism and negative feedback of any kind; because realistically, most of us are social creatures at the end of the day and we yearn to be liked and accepted by those we consider our peers (and when you put your creative projects out into the world, everyone who experiences said works technically becomes a peer). So, when you as the reader see something you don’t like and you decide to tell us, regardless of how we may respond (or choose not to respond) we take your views very seriously to heart. And, when your opinion is stated in a negative, spiteful, hurtful manner then we as people and as artists are hurt; words have incredible power to inflict emotional and psychological damage, just as badly as sticks and stones can, but usually with longer lasting consequences. If you take an aggressive stance in your criticism of a writer, you are likely to get an equally aggressive or even rude response back; but, even if the writer is fully aware of all the reasons for the choices that they made and can logically dismantle your arguments (and negativity), it will undoubtedly prick more than just their ego.
“But J.J.”—you say to yourself— “what if the events that the writer has chosen to depict are hurtful to me personally? What if I walked into this fic wholly unprepared for a scene of gratuitous sexual violence? I am a woman and I can’t stand any representation of rape. It’s triggering for me! They should have put a warning on it.” Well, in the immortal words of Dr. Dennis Leary, “Life sucks, get a helmet.”
Obviously, I have an issue with trigger warnings, and yes, I am going to tell you why. First off, until I started writing fan fiction, I had absolutely zero clue as to what a trigger warning was. I had never even heard the term triggering used outside the arena of weaponry and firearms. The biggest issue with our society’s concept of triggering—and, indeed, there are many social terms associated with different media that are hyperbolic or misconstrued by its users (queer baiting falls under this category)—is that people have taken it entirely out of context and exaggerated what it is. Triggering is actually a term used in research psychology and psychotherapy practices; a trigger event is any occurrence which causes the patient to relive or re-experience a particularly traumatic episode from their past, which then causes the patient to have a panic attack or a psychotic break. People who are diagnosed with PTSD will often suffer one or more trigger events before they are diagnosed and treated; triggering is a medical diagnosis.
However, most people never experience a genuine triggering event, even if they have been traumatized in the past; just as not every soldier from World War I came back “shell-shocked” and not every soldier who has come back from the conflicts in the Middle East has suffered from PTSD, not every victim deals with trauma in the same way and not all victims will forever experience triggering. Many factors are involved, including the mental health/stability of the individual during the trauma, whether or not psychological counselling is received, etc. And there is nothing wrong with people who experience genuine episodes as a result of a trigger event. But saying that you find any mention of, for example, dubious sexual consent or non-consent in a book or a fic to be triggering is not accurate if you do not experience a panic attack. You dislike seeing those events depicted in a show, or you dislike reading about them; that’s okay too. What’s not okay is nastily and judgmentally demanding that every fic writer or every filmmaker warn you about it.
Like I said, I had never heard of triggering or trigger warnings before I started writing fan fiction, but I have seen this misuse grow in the few years of being involved in a fandom; in fact, trigger warnings have become so prevalent that if I go onto Amazon.com and look through my recommendations, I find that many authors have begun to include these warnings or notices, almost like the MMPA ratings that show up during trailers for new films. And in cases where you have a potentially triggering event like the depiction of a particularly violent rape, I can understand this; but what boggles my mind is when the “warnings” begin encompassing plot points, such as (my personal peeve) major character death.
So… Any time I’m going to kill off a character in the course of my writing, I am morally obligated to warn you in advance? Why? So you can emotionally prepare yourself? So you can—contrary to the purpose of most writers who will attempt for you to become attached to their characters and feel strongly about these characters—NOT relate to these characters or not like them enough so that you aren’t saddened or effected when they die? I know that fiction is an escape from reality, but there is a certain amount of realism that can and should creep into every story, no matter how fantastical the premise. If the death of a character is supposed to come as a shock, if I as a writer intend for you to feel sympathy for that character and to grieve their loss, then warning you that it’s going to happen in advance of you reading it is hardly going to help me attain my goal.
Heck, thrillers and mystery novels are predicated on the lack of warnings, the lack of audience/reader preparation for the events depicted; but the whole point, especially of writing, is for the reader to go on a journey of discovery. Life doesn’t warn us when it’s going to throw some challenges our way; we aren’t born with a warning label printed on our backsides, detailing for our parents, friends, and family the various illnesses we will suffer or the addictions and struggles we will encounter; even with advances in science and genetics, we cannot prevent our bodies from aging and dying. That’s just life—cruel and hard. But the joys of love, the wonders of learning and growing… those are also a part of life, and without the bad we would never fully appreciate the blessings and the good. And, since it is inextricably linked to our reality, because it is born from the author’s experience of life, so our art must reflect that duality of good and bad. This includes, sometimes, not knowing what is ahead of us as a reader, not having those warning labels obviously placed in flashing neon with plenty of opportunity for us to slow down or stop and either emotionally prepare or emotionally eject.
Because art has many purposes, and sometimes that purpose is specifically to make us as an audience uncomfortable. And sometimes, it’s purpose is purely for enjoyment. But demanding trigger warnings, insisting that the author reveal all of their cards before you decide to engage with their stories? Aside from coming close to censorship, what it does is it allows use to distance ourselves from experience; it gives us the coward’s way out of seeing life, of seeing the harsher realities as experienced through another’s eyes. It denies the writer their voice, silences their cry across time and space to the readers of today and tomorrow; the writer’s purpose might even be to warn their audience about a particular evil. Unless you are willing to risk some discomfort, unless you are willing to look through another’s eyes and know that you might see something that bothers you, then I beg you to please exercise your right to NOT continue reading. Share your reasons for no longer reading and enjoying if you must, but respect that the writer/creator has the right to continue speaking in their voice and telling their story in the way that they want. It is their right to see the world through their own eyes and it is our privilege that they have chosen to share it with us—not our right to their stories and certainly not our right to dictate what they say and how they deliver it. Respect that.
Stay geeky, my friends! –J.J.