*This post includes a spoiler (of sorts) for Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo. If you plan to read this book and haven't yet, save this one for later ;) *
I posted the quote below on FB recently, so you who are my friends may have seen it before; bear with me. It caught my attention because I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write my current novel to reflect real love and friendship without explicitly saying or preaching about it.
This struck me as a good example of writing grace without being explicit:
"It doesn't matter." I looked up at him. "It doesn't?" "No," he said a little too fiercely. "I don't think I believe you." "So maybe I don't believe it yet either, not completely, but it's the truth." He clutched my hands more tightly, holding them close to his heart. "...I love you, Alina, even the part of you that loved him."
-Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone
I read that and thought, “Isn’t that what God does? We don’t have to become something other than we are in order for him to love us. While he may not leave us in our current state, he accepts us as we are when we come to him. And there is something about that acceptance that begins to change us.”
Then I thought, “How cool is that? The idea that acceptance, simple grace, is the first step in a transformation.” The implications of that idea are mind-blowing, and I love that reading one short passage in a YA fantasy novel could make me think those thoughts.
But then I remembered this quote, from a recent WriWoW interview I did about the difference between writing male and female characters, about writing their hearts. In a conversation with each other, the authors I interviewed said this:
“Peter: …For example… a normal man will not keep coming back for more punishment for no particular reason. Here’s this female protagonist, she’s not attractive or she’s seriously damaged, and he falls in love with her for no reason and keeps coming back for more punishment. That’s not realistic.
Patrick: Men will go to a certain point with that, then they’ll just cut a woman off. And normally, in real life, at that point there’s no going back. When men turn off, they turn off completely. When a man abandons love, he abandons it completely. It seems like a lot of women never do.”
And I have to say, after fifty years of living life and relationships, I don’t think the above is just these guys’ opinion. My experience says they’re right. Not that one should blame them, but it seems true to life that when a man feels betrayed, when he’s fallen out of love, chances are there’s no going back.
Who was it that said, “Men forget but never forgive, women forgive but never forget?”
So if all this is true, the fact that the hero in this story forgives the woman for loving another man, really isn’t authentic. Probably 99.9% of the time, a man wouldn’t react this way. Which is what Peter and Patrick were talking about in the midst of this interview—that women write men the way they wish they were, not the way they really are.
But here’s a wrinkle: I don’t know Leigh Bardugo, and I haven’t finished the whole series of which this novel is the first installment. But while these novels are primarily about entertainment, Bardugo exhibits an understanding of love, the nuances of good and evil, mercy, and sacrifice in her writing that goes deeper than the normal angst you see in young adult fiction. While she’s writing fantasy, her characters seem “true” in many ways.
What if Bardugo isn’t writing the hero the way she wishes men were. She’s writing the hero the way we all should be. Which leads to this question: If we are trying to write truth in fiction that speaks life, is it inauthentic to also give people a vision of the way things ought to be? Isn’t that truth, too?
Someone else has said: “Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” While I appreciate this quote’s sentiment, it’s an activist view of making art that I don’t think encompasses all art should do, and certainly not all that fiction can do.
I was talking to a fifteen-year-old girl the other day who’s lived a sheltered life in some ways, but she’s a voracious reader, especially of fiction. She told me there was so much of life that she hadn’t experienced, that she never-the-less wants to write about, but she wasn’t sure if she could do it authentically. I said her writing would become deeper as her life experience widens. But I hope I was able to comfort by assuring her that because she is a reader, she has already experienced more life on a certain level than many non-readers will actually experience in a life-time, and it’s given her an understanding of life and human nature that is far beyond her years. It’s part of what makes her extraordinary.
That’s what good literature can do for us. Every story impacts us, changes us, makes us more than just the sum of our everyday experiences. Yes, we want what we write to change people so that they understand more about the human condition, so that they become more empathetic. But wouldn’t we also like our writing to give people a vision, not just for who we are, but for who we should be, what it’s possible to be?
Yes, as writers, we need to explode the myths of who we pretend to be, to cautionary-tale our readers around the pitfalls of a life of hypocrisy, small-mindedness and self-centeredness. We need to be honest about the fact that for most people in the world there are no easy answers, that most problems won’t be solved with a hug and a kiss, if they are ever solved at all. But in addition, shouldn’t we who have the ability to imagine things we haven’t experienced, help others see that our longings for lives of love, peace and belonging aren’t a by-product of some irrational hope, but a premonition of a possible future?
If we were made to be reflections of the grace, mercy, creativity, humility, salvation, truth, hope and love of our Creator, shouldn’t the people we writers create reflect those characteristics as well? We reflect them imperfectly, as will our characters. But reflect them we must.