Tip of the Week: If you use social media, subscribe to or 'follow' Merriam Webster. Yes, they're American. They also give commonsense explanations, they're playful, and they troll the living daylights out of pompous politicians. You'll learn fun things that surprise you. If you stay off social media (good for you!), try clicking on their word of the day, which at time of writing is 'gormless', a British word.
Writing Right with Dmitri: Applying the Lasso of Truth
You like comics and graphic novels. You must: the Marvel people are counting on it. Or you watch their movies. So you probably know Wonder Woman. She's sort of a Greek goddess of truth and feminism. You can read about this heroine here. What surprised me was that Wonder Woman was invented by a psychologist, his wife, and a comic book artist. The psychologist and his wife were involved in a polyamorous relationship with another woman (it was complicated), and they had all sorts of Theories about Life, the Universe, and Everything, a lot of which come into play in the story of Diana Prince.
I don't like comics, and the only graphic novel I'm really fond of is Maus, so I only knew Wonder Woman from the old television series with Lynda Carter because, well, Lynda Carter. One of Wonder Woman's tricks that impressed me was her use of the Lasso of Truth. This artefact, said to be of Olympian origin, could compel people to tell the truth.
I want us to realise that as writers, we, too, can use the Lasso of Truth. How do we do it?
The Fictional Edge
Right now, I'm watching Boardwalk Empire, because Amazon has got it on Prime and I'm too broke to pay HBO to make great TV with extra added cursing. Steve Buscemi does a very professional job, as always, portraying a fictionalised political boss in 1920s Atlantic City. Dabney Coleman is the 'retired' boss, who mostly pets his dog these days. These two characters are 'loosely based' on real people. However, beyond the basic situation – Atlantic City during Prohibition – and some slightly changed names and behavioural tics – the actors aren't really playing the historical figures.
Knowing that I'm a history writer, you might think that irks me. Not at all. In fact, I applaud this move. For one thing, I don't give what the Transylvanian Saxons call 'a damp fly-speck' for the 'facts' when it comes to gangsters. They did lousy things. We don't want to memorialise lousy things like that. They bumped guys off, gave them cement overshoes, sent them to sleep with the fishes. They took bribes. They were purveyors of bathtub gin. We don't care which wise guys they eradicated when, or how much money they made the third week in April, or how much formaldehyde was in the recipe. We're not talking about the details of the Atlantic Charter here. (Look it up.)
More than that, this lack of compulsive detailing allows the storymakers to concentrate on the important stuff: getting the period right (they do, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, how could they not?), and letting the actors discover the truth behind the moral decision-making. And that's where the Lasso of Truth comes in. The Lasso is much easier to wield if you're working with fiction.
In real life, people are cagey and dodgy. It might surprise you to learn this, but most people who have done evil things never own up to them. They never change, and they hardly ever tell the truth. They usually attempt to present their own motives, to themselves and others, in the best light possible. You might not be as surprised as all that if you've been following various world events. Watch British parliamentarians make excuses for why they will or won't do this or that about Brexit. Or watch a White House press conference these days, if you have the stomach for it. That's real life.
Jesus said unto them, If you were blind, you should have no sin: but now you say, We see; therefore your sin remains.
John 9:41, Authorised Version
Jesus always told the Pharisees – outwardly respectable community leaders – that their main problems were that they knew better than to act the way they did, they did it, anyway, and then they believed their own lies. He stated pretty clearly that this kind of behaviour would put them on the universe's enemies list. He said, 'I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.' Jesus is very good at calling humans on their b.s. But the Pharisees are running the world's governments, and they control a lot of the media outlets. What can we do?
We can write fiction. We can structure our stories so that they tell the truth. We can force our characters to confront the consequences of their actions – something they seldom do in real life. The hunters who destroyed whole species like the passenger pigeon and the dodo? They never saw the devastation that came after them. Those who stole every single tree in Iceland got nice ships out of them. What did they care if, down the timeline, the cold wind blew on Reykjavik's poverty? Don't you want to make them see? You can. You can't make them repent. Nobody can. But you can make your story tell the truth. You can force reality into the light for everyone to see.
Am I saying, 'Fix the problem?' No, I am not. Before anyone can fix a problem, they have to identify it and define the issues. You don't have to turn your stories into socio-economic treatises. Nobody would want to read them, and you probably don't have the training, anyway. You can keep writing the same kinds of detective story/fantasy/romance/light humour that you always write. Just make absolutely sure that you don't let the characters get away with self-delusion. Rope them with the Lasso of Truth. Show the truths of the world as best you see them. Somebody else will appreciate.
A personal request from me: for the love of all that's holy, would you please never, ever tell anyone in a story to 'follow your heart'?