I said I was going to write an entry on showing not telling soon, and I will get to it, but not today. Being stuck in all-day meetings that I have to dictate these entries and that leads to some limitations that you just can’t surpass when dictating. In fact, the next week’s entries are probably going to be along the same lines. But I just wanted to say that I’ll get to it when the time is right – I haven’t forgotten.
Today I want to talk about the nature of fictional rebellion versus rebellion in real life. This was a philosophical question that came up recently between a friend and I; we were debating the nature of rebelliousness in and of itself, as it’s been on his mind quite a bit. He is a big proponent of rebellion for its own sake. There was some confusion about whether he meant that in fiction or in reality, but I think we got that hammered out.
In fiction, I think rebellion for its own sake has a fine, meaningful tradition. In some ways it could be argued that the Beats (maybe minus Ginsberg) had something of a rebellion-for-its-own-sake kind of attitude. But the thing is that when you try to live out that credo in real life, there’s a tendency to self-destruct. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what Howl described ended up happening to some of the members of that group. The only one who really seemed to thrive as he got older was Ginsberg, who seemed to be rebelling for some other reason if you examine his actions during the hippy movement.
That’s kind of where we came to a disagreement. I realized that personally, in real life, when it comes to a damaging act, the act itself should be the focus. No matter the intentions. You could mean to do all the best things in the world and end up destroying the world. Doesn’t matter if you were doing it for the right reason. But when it comes to rebellion, I think the intention is very important. That puzzled the hell out of me, and I had to piece through it and figure out why that was. What looks like rebellion for its own sake can be a sort of compulsivity, a need to tear things down and be totally rampant.
Now we come back around to where this connects to fiction. Writers themselves can sometimes be like this, especially when they’re starting out. By nature they may not have a basis in the tradition and understanding what came before, so they may rebel without having an idea of what they’re trying to accomplish. It becomes a chaotic mess, and if you question them, well then You Just Don’t Get It, Man. Now I am definitely not advocating that someone has to follow the classical path, lord knows my own career looks nothing like that. I believe that people learning their craft should follow their muse.
But I think it behooves you, if you’re learning your own style, to understand why things are the way they are in the first place. If you’re going to rebel against the old standard structure of a written story, it’s important to understand why that has stood for so many years. It’s sort of the function of knowing your enemy. I think if someone studies their enemy well enough, they can learn some tricks to incorporate in their own approach.
Take publishing, for instance. The self-publishing movement, specifically. While some of us see self-pub as a logical progression of moving on from the old structure, others see it as an easy path. I mean, I get why trad published authors tell new authors that they should pursue the traditional path first. It’s because the easy path folks would do well to understand why the publishing gate-keeping system existed for so long. While it has tremendous flaws, a lot of that system is about quality control.
If you are going to try to push back against the system and start something new on your own, you need to understand why that system existed in the first place so you can incorporate some of the lessons learned there while taking an overall new approach at the same time. That’s the great thing about rebellion with a reason.
I’m incorporating the concept into the next novel. The character was part of a rigid structure, but came to realize that structure didn’t suit him or the organization and fought for change. Unfortunately, the person running the place disagreed, and a lot of what happens in the story is driven by that person’s insecurity and fear. I may have given too much away, but I think that portraying one person’s questioning of a system and their own motives can make for compelling fiction, and it has a long tradition. It’s something to think about when deciding how to build your plot and/or characters.