35

I have a story which has some controversial social problems, and my intention is to just show these issues (for drama) realistically and impartially (i.e. just showing the facts, without imposing any opinion).

But the problem is that, by doing just that, I can be accused of "making apology" to these things, as if I'm treating these things as acceptable/normal. So I need to show it with at least a slightly negative view on that, but I don't want to do it in a "Dewd, that's bad! Don't do that." kind of way, and without punishing the culprit characters in some way (such as making them go to jail), because, let's face it, most people who do these things go unpunished, unfortunately. Also, I don't want to deeply explore these subjects, as that's not the story's goal (it's just a substory).

So how can I just show these things without making it ambiguous if I'm in favor or not and without "preaching" that these things are bad?

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    Here are some gun control titles. bustle.com/articles/… Nonfiction and fiction, both. Famous authors and some you've never heard of. You might see some ideas there. If it is a topic people have formed opinions about you will not come across as neutral to them. Best you can do is your best and trust that most people are willing to consider that they might have room to change their views. – DPT Feb 15 '18 at 0:59
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    Almost everybody in Westeros takes the mickey out of the Lannisters for their antics, to the point of being a key plot device, yet I don't recall anybody even once saying out loud that incest is deemed bad in that universe. So you could do something like that. I don't think many people believe George RR Martin is a strong proponent of such activity in real life. Ultimately you just have to trust your readers... and if they take it the wrong way, well, that's their problem. That's the magic of art - people will take from it what they will, and that's a good thing. – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 15 '18 at 12:45
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    I don't understand your question - can you check that you are using the word "polemic" correctly? It means "a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something", and I'm confused as to what you are trying to do. It doesn't appear anyone else has this issue, so maybe it's just me, but could you include a definition of what the word "polemic" means when you use it? – Benubird Feb 15 '18 at 14:34
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    @Benubird Sorry, I didn't checked the definition. In my mother language it means "controversial". I'll edit it. – Yuuza Feb 15 '18 at 17:12
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    Not-really-an-answer answer: You can't. No matter how you write it, someone is going to insist that portraying third children as seen as bad means that you think it's evil, or whatever your book is about. You can't stop people from interpreting your work as the complete opposite of what you wanted it to, and you shouldn't expect to have a single, universal interpretation. That shouldn't stop you from trying the things suggested in answers, but make sure your expectations are reasonable. – Nic Hartley Feb 15 '18 at 21:28
50

You do not have to preach they are bad. They are bad because they harm others in some way. If you wish to show reality, show that harm, whatever it may be, beginning or taking place or having already taken place with previous victims.

Don't tell us they are bad, show us they are bad. As the narrator, you can neutrally tell that tale. As an author, you won't be accused of being an apologist, because you did not show the outcomes as being neutral, but clearly bad for somebody, even if the perpetrators are happy with themselves.

If you are trying to avoid being an apologist and also trying to not show any harm being done, I don't think that is possible.

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    This, and in that vein, your characters can have opinions that you may not have; for various reasons they may dislike the things they see without being morale arbiters – Kirk Feb 15 '18 at 1:52
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    Furthermore, showing rather than telling gives the reader the chance to evaluate the good or bad. Maybe there is bad that comes of this social problem, but there must be some apparent benefit to someone in the society, or else it wouldn't be believable. – zr00 Feb 15 '18 at 17:24
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    @zarose Sometimes the "benefit" is a feeling of power or superiority, gained wealth, or personal gratification: Various forms of non-consensual sex are rampant in society, not to mention even more frequent shirking and work fraud, petty theft, shoplifting, and intentionally fraudulent scams. Racial discrimination, gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination and obesity discrimination are rampant in society, from grade schools to the workplace to politics; what is the "apparent benefit" to those that practice such discrimination, other than the perception of superiority? – Amadeus Feb 15 '18 at 18:04
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    @Amadeus The apparent benefit to the perpetrators is that by discriminating against others, they generate advantages to them, their friends, and people who are like them. Literally all of the examples you mention have clear benefits to the person commiting them. – xLeitix Feb 15 '18 at 21:45
  • @xLeitix I agree with your agreement with what I already said. – Amadeus Feb 15 '18 at 21:53
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You just show the consequences.

For example, people often say that the Bible supports polygamy. While it legally permits it and does not explicitly make moral prohibitions against it, I believe that it does not support it at all.

It makes its case by showing the outworkings: the jealousy and scorn shown between wives, especially in the common case of infertility; the jealousy and distrust between half-siblings resulting in murders, revenge killings, and even rape. Israel's most famous king, David, outlives most of his sons who died while fighting each other. When read as a whole, the laws permitting it are seen as a concession, and the polemic still stands.

Of course many people would dispute any inherent wrongness with polygamy, and would say that the Biblical stories are just showing that bad people are bad. I raise this to say that readers missing your intended interpretation is a risk facing any polemic which is less than completely explicit.

  • "readers missing your intended interpretation is a risk facing any polemic which is less than completely explicit." Bah. I've seen people misinterpret works that were completely explicit. Or worse still, claim to be explicit, but have what is presented not actually be consistent with what was explicitly said. – Nicol Bolas Feb 17 '18 at 3:14
  • You are interpreting the bible as a literary work within its historic context? You godless monster :) – Philipp Feb 17 '18 at 11:33
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    @Philipp Taking the Bible as being completely truthful does not negate the fact it uses literary devices to convey its teachings. ;) On the contrary, you can get into all sorts of trouble trying to understand it if you don't accept that it does. +1 for an excellent answer. – jpmc26 Feb 18 '18 at 9:27
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    @Philipp Speaking as a Fundamentalist Christian, if someone told me that he thought it was blasphemy to suggest that the Bible uses words and grammar just like any ordinary book, I'd say that person was nuts. :-) – Jay Mar 1 '18 at 22:57
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I know it's a very blurred line, but I would answer by saying: have your characters speak their opinions.

If you build a credible world, and believable characters, their actions and thoughts would be theirs only, and you can't be accused of anything.

Of course, some people will always find a way to accuse you, but the stronger is the character, the more solid is the worldview you are showing. I personally love Ayn Rand's novels, but I don't subscribe to her points of view. But when I read Fountainhead, the philosophical view of the main protagonist hits me so strong, that I must recognize it. I know I don't accept it, but I see it as a strong and valid argument worth reading about. The same goes with Dostojevski's novels, or controversial movies such as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.

A great idea would also be to show contrasting views, so a more complex world is shown, and you won't be asked as author to take a stand.

Another trick would be to use a satirical tone, as in the movie Thank you for smoking by Jason Reitman. Irony and humor are powerful tools to detach yourself from the story you are telling.

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    +1 contrasting tone - complexity - this falls along the lines of making villains complex and heroes in their own world. – DPT Feb 15 '18 at 14:37
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    I don’t know that I’d use Ayn Rand as an example of an author who writes about issues without inserting their own opinions, though. ;) – Obie 2.0 Feb 15 '18 at 17:07
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    @Obie2.0 I know it's a bit tongue-in-cheek, but that's not what FraEnrico is saying - just that the character is actually a believable person. They're not a single-dimensional insert for the author's viewpoints. The fact that they do in fact share the author's viewpoints isn't particularly important - they could have been the exact opposite and it would fit just as well. – Luaan Feb 16 '18 at 9:28
5

Other answers have already covered my main thought - keep the narrator neutral and have your characters do the heavy lifting to reinforce the polemic argument.

Without going full-on-Dostoyevsky, there are a lot of more abstract forms of "punishment". You could show regret and fear of consequences from the perspective of the culprit, or other outcomes they would find undesireable - everything from subsequent retribution to a character the reader admires (and that the culprit admired) giving them a bit of a funny look.

If the narrator remains aloof on the issue, the story can show that the culprit did a bad thing without explicitly saying it.

4

Writing has been used to show the harm done to society by various beliefs and activities since the beginning of writing. First and foremost, writing is a transfer of knowledge, but it is also a transfer of wisdom.

Write a good story. As you revise, you'll see if it is sending the kind of messages you want. But if you worry too much about all these details and it prevents you from writing a good story, what's the point? If it has the perfect message and a garbage story, no one will read it. The message is just one of many things you have to balance, and that balance is only going to come through good writing and revision.

2

You don't have to be an apologist for it. You simply have to show it as it is.

The scenario in which the Nazis won WWII, for example, is such a common device as to be an entire subgenre of its own. Some like SS-GB are explicit about the continuation of the Holocaust and SS barbarity. Some like The Man in the High Castle or Fatherland are much more ambivalent about its effect on day-to-day life.

In real life, we have many situations which are morally awkward. Gun ownership in Britain is controlled to an extent which is unthinkable in the US - but we have vanishingly few shootings. Should a National Health Service provide cover for everyone, even if they've been engaged in behaviour (smoking, hang-gliding, scuba-diving) which gives them a higher chance of negative outcomes - and if not, how do you decide who shouldn't be treated? If you don't have a National Health Service, anyone can pay money for any treatment they want - but how do you make sure it isn't actively harming them? and do you just let people die if they can't afford treatment? If you don't want rich people to "buy" your government, how do you stop them influencing the outcome of votes by flooding the airwaves with advertising and refusing to cover (or actively lying about) the view of the other candidate?

Present your world as it is. It's not up to you to say "this is bad" or "this is good" - that's the job of the reader when they interpret your work.

1

You could have other characters pointing out the wrongness.

In "Newton's Wake" the main character is introduced as owning a slave. I was taken aback but it seemed normal for that place and time and soon I too was ignoring the wrongness. Then as she travels she encounters a society with norms closer to our own, where she is actually physically attacked and then told off for owning what seemes to be a human consciousness (Sci-Fi - he doesn't have a body).

I thought it worked nicely to remind not only the main character (who is not convinced of course) but also the reader of the moral implications.

1

As others have said, you can show the harm.

I'd also add that if it's an act that there is a strong societal consensus is wrong, I don't think you need to say anything. If you write, "George demanded the bank teller give him money, and when she did, he shot her and three other people as he made his escape", I don't think you need to say "robbery and murder are bad things". I'd presume 99% of readers would read those words and immediately conclude that those were bad things and that George is not a model citizen and human being that they should hold up for their grandchildren to imitate. I think it would pretty much be assumed.

The only time I see a problem is when a story presents evil actions as good. Like, I've seen plenty of movies where a woman cheats on her husband and has an affair, and it's clear from the way it's presented that the audience is supposed to be rooting for her to leave her husband and run off with this other man because the husband is boring and this new guy is fun and exciting. Or where someone steals and it's clear from the way it's presented that the audience is supposed to be hoping he gets away with it because the victim is a mean person who deserves to be robbed. Etc.

Having characters telling each other, "I think murder is bad and people shouldn't do it" would be hard to make believable. Most people think that's obvious and doesn't need to be said.

Dittoing @curiousdanii in a way, I've occasionally heard people say that some movie is bad because it shows all sorts of evil actions. And in some cases, my reaction is, Yeah, it shows all these evil actions, but it shows them as evil, it shows all the harm that comes from them. I think that's a positive message.

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