A couple weeks ago I had to write some essays about fiction, poetry, and my thesis. In these essays, I discussed ethics of fiction and how worldbuilding, character development, plot, and ethics are significant to the overall themes and intentions of the story. It was a challenging but important experience, and as I begin preparing to submit the drafts of my thesis, these discussions keep pestering me.
One of the things I’m most grateful for in my MFA is the encouragement from my classmates to deeply consider how my fiction challenges perceptions of power, spirituality, societal norms, and identity. I’ve spent years crafting the world and plot of my stories, but often find that the investigation of themes and messages is difficult to do in a direct and powerful way. But with feedback from my classmates, discussions with fellow writers, and personal reflection, I’ve come to identify ethical themes and questions both in my thesis and the general world of fiction.
The limits of language
Ever since I began studying literary theory, I’ve been intrigued by the conflicts and collisions between structuralist and deconstructive theory. I won’t go into details here, but essentially the main question I find myself asking—and consequently getting a response from in fiction—is how the limits of language affect perceptions of society, spirituality, religion, politics, identity, and morality.
Languages across the world have had different understandings of things like love, God, hierarchy, family, and identity, and as a result their languages reflect these differences in perspective. English was founded in a patriarchal, conservative Christian society and based in Western perceptions of reason and hierarchy. Regardless of your perspective of these things, the language we use is still impacted by these forms of thought and has shaped out worldview. As a result, our understanding of spirituality and identity is very black and white, making it difficult for people who primarily speak English to understand various diverse perspectives of hierarchy, relationships, love, God, and more.
So how does this impact fiction? Fiction is able to function outside of the world we presently live in and create new worldviews with languages that are more inclusive and flexible. As a result, people from all over the world have an opportunity to gain a new worldview in a digestible way through fiction. Loving others (which I’ve noticed most religions encourage) is only possible when we make an effort to understand others. But understanding others is difficult because it’s vulnerable, but fiction can be the answer. Instead of being vulnerable, fiction can allow an escape to a space outside of our reality where new languages can help us understand our present world in all its diverse beauty.
The impact of worldbuilding
Worldbuilding has always been a strong suit of mine, and I’ve always loved crafting cultures, creatures, and systems of government. Though, it wasn’t until recently that I began investigating the reason why I enjoy these things. For me, a good world trumps all other story items because being immersed in the world is what has forced me to consider my own perspectives of these aforementioned topics. I know that not everyone loves intense worldbuilding, and its often difficult to understand or follow, but regardless, worldbuilding is inherently important to the reader’s experience in fiction.
Oftentimes escaping our current reality is difficult because of how engrossed we become in technology, politics, or social situations. When asked to take a different perspective on a topic, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a reality separate from our own. However, worldbuilding can provide this escape and can actively reshape perspectives and worldviews to challenge readers to think beyond their own reality.
When my friends couldn’t understand me, or I couldn’t voice my thoughts on a topic, I turned to worldbuilding. By being able to reshape how I perceive the world and respond to others, I’m able to develop a voice that both speaks in my writing and in my everyday life.
The balance of plot and character development
I’ve had several discussions with my writing group about character versus plot and how they interact and collaborate to create a world and a story. In a sense, I could argue that every writer is either a plot or character writer: some excel in creating fantastic and exciting plots, while others are amazing with developing characters. There are also writers who have learned to balance these elements and therefore have become incredibly successful, and every writer should aim to balance these aspects. But why are these elements so difficult to master simultaneously? Why is it sometimes difficult to marry them in the context of a novel? I’ve realized that themes of the story can pull on plot and character separately and demand different things from each element.
Plot forces characters to move through the story and provides new opportunities and situations. On the other hand, character development is what causes the characters to respond to the plot and allows them to continue through their journey. While both are important methods of proceeding through the story, they affect the unfolding of the story in different ways. When there is more emphasis on character development, the reader is able to connect to characters, understand decisions, and highlight conflict. Meanwhile, plot is able to highlight major themes and details by providing the reader non-negotiable circumstances or situations. By creating a situation for character to make a decision, the reader has an opportunity to perceive the conflicts and themes of the story. These aspects may be obvious to any writer or reader, but understanding these nuanced differences and harnessing their potential can lead to a comprehensive and balanced story.