Monday, March 4, 2013

Social issues in the details

One of the joys of publication is the expectation that people will read what I've written. It's the chance to be heard.

It's a chance to make a difference.

When I write, the first thing I write is the story. The basics, the blocks, the stones that are the foundation. That's the rough draft, and also the philosophy: the story comes first.

By the end of the rough draft, I know what I'm missing. The characters need more of this, and the story needs more of that, and I could use a little more detail here, here, and here. So I can go back and fill in the blanks. Which sometimes leaves me a choice: what detail should I put in?

Stories have overarching themes, messages hidden in the subtext that apply throughout. But in the crevices, there's room for different messages. When I'm going back to flesh out a story, I try to choose details that draw attention to things needing attention.

For example, when choosing a backstory for a character who at various points referenced a particularly dark period of his life, I wanted to give him an unspecified eating disorder. I could very easily have gone with drugs, or alcohol, or driving too fast on too-curvy roads. All of those are things that are a call for help, and that need addressing, and stereotypically masculine. But I could choose anything, and I wanted to bring attention to real problem that doesn't get much attention: men are also subject to eating disorders, and because of the cultural associations of the problem with women, are more likely to die from them because they're less likely to seek help.

Let's say this here and now: Men do get eating disorders. It was once estimated that 10-15% of people with anorexia and bulimia are male, but revised estimations say "that the ratio between male and female eating disorders respectively is 1:3" (, which means 25%, a full one-quarter, of American eating disorders occur in men. Eating disorders have a relatively high rate of fatality, so getting help is very important. And many of the men affected do it for reasons such as excelling in sports or maintaining a profession where weight is a key factor in performance (wrestlers, runners, etc).

The nuances of life are in the details. By giving a gym-owning, very masculine male character this problem, I acknowledge men get eating disorders, too. Maybe it doesn't make much of a difference. But humans are good at picking up details like that, and the more times they hear it, the more normal--thus, the less shameful, and thus, the more okay it is to seek help--it seems. So maybe the difference is that a man seeks help when he otherwise wouldn't. If it helps one person, it's a difference worth making.

Not every added detail is chosen for its social implications, and no detail is chosen that doesn't fit the story. Most are simply things foreshadowing the end of the story, or details brought in from the beginning of the story to give the novel a rounded effect. Nor am I certain every detail I add will make it into the final draft. This is a detail I would like to remain, but it's the difference between selling the novel and not, it might not make the cut.

Nor is every detail perfectly realistic. The character reached near-death in less than month due to the way his magic manifests. And because of magic, he suffers no long-term physical symptoms. Neither reflects the way the eating disorders and their effects manifest in reality. But story comes first, which means figuring out how the issue would look in this world, in this character.

It's the details that enrich the story. And when I can choose an implication that might address a real problem needing attention, I try to do so. Maybe it won't ever make a difference--but maybe it will.

Do you notice social issues addressed in the details of the stories you read? Do you add social issues to the details of your own stories?

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