A former mafia lawyer told the reporter that he had switched to representing inner city crime bosses, but he discovered a problem. His Sicilian clients had always pretended to have a code of honor, but they didn’t really, except for in the movies. On the other hand, when inner city crime bosses imitated the mafia, they actually did follow a movie-like code of honor, which was why they kept getting in more and more trouble. Their lawyer had to reassure them, yes of course you can rat to stay out of prison, just like the real mafia guys do all the time. My mind began spinning plots...
But when it comes time to write that movie, what do I really have? I have an irony. That irony can enrich the theme of the final project, and it could maybe provide a plot twist, and maybe a few scenes, but it doesn’t give me any characters, or a plot, or a structure, or any dialogue…
Most importantly, just because I know this piece of information (me and everyone else who read that issue of “The New Yorker”), doesn’t give me an authentic connection to this world.
I now had something to say about that world, but as a fiction writer, that’s not really your job. You’re not saying something about that world, you’re saying something from within that world.
Here’s another example. At one point I was reading through the plays of Moliere and it suddenly occurred to me that almost every issue he was dealing with in the French royal court is now being paralleled in America’s private schools:
- “The Misanthrope” is almost expelled from the court for criticizing a rich young man’s poetry and hurting his self-esteem.
- “The Imaginary Invalid” takes too many prescription drugs for everyday anxieties.
- “Tartuffe” sells his own mixture of new-sounding moralistic platitudes to a wealthy family that actually just confirms all of their old prejudices. Etc…
In this case, my idea gave me a lot: it gave me plots, characters, scenes, and themes… (It also gave me lots of great dialogue, but that didn’t do me much good because most of Moliere’s dialogue was in rhyme, which I certainly wasn’t willing to emulate!)
But once again, I may have had something to say about the world of modern private schools, based on my own vaguely-understood prejudices against them, but I was incapable of saying anything from within that world unless I was willing to immerse myself in it.
As a fiction writer your setting is not merely one of your topics, it is your material. If you wish to use that material, you have intimately understand and care about the situations, the people, and their authentic dialogue.
If I had wanted to write those “Moliere High” novels, I would have had to get to know a lot of prep school kids, and get to like them. Even if your whole point is to criticize your hero’s world, you still must have genuine affection for that hero (and for his or her antagonists) or you will write obnoxious crap. I wanted to write those “Moliere High” novels to show my disdain for that entire world. That’s a terrilble reason to write.
Remember: whoever you’re writing about, that’s also going to be your audience. Who reads YA novels set in prep school? Teen who are in prep school or wish they were. Teens don’t mind at all if you’re hyper-critical of their world, since they’re hyper-critical themselves, but they’ll be horrified if you write about them with snotty condescension. My adult friends all share my prejudices about private school kids, but none of them would ever read a YA novel set there, so there’s no point in writing to please them. You have to write for the people who would actually purchase your material.
Moliere himself criticized the French court but he didn’t condescend to it. He loved his characters. Yes he wanted to chide them for their foibles and the general hypocricy of their world, but he wanted to do so as a disappointed friend, not an outside judge. He performed his plays for the court, and they loved them. (With notable exceptions, of course. There are always going to be few people who don’t want to hear your friendly criticism!)