Like most lies, its chief danger lies in its subtlety. What am I talking about? I am talking about how popular media propagates the message that emotional dysfunctional people are more interesting (among other things)than well adjusted people. Now, for the purpose of this short post I am defining emotionally dysfunctional people as people who express their emotions in unhealthy/immature ways. An extreme example would be a grown man throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants. But (you say) surely the media isn’t glorifying the man throwing the tantrum; maybe they’re just portraying the way things are. Maybe. I’m not against portraying an honest picture of humanity, if it’s done well. But I want to explain some of the problems I have with what I call “irresponsible storytelling.”
First, as a writer, let me explain the motivation behind writing “emotionally charged” scenes. Warning: it’s not always from a desire to convey truth. I think it’s fair to say that most writers (myself included) are drawn to the intriguing, the challenging, and most of all the dramatic. The public encourages this from us. Dramatic, sensational, shocking, and emotionally impacting stories often receive the loudest response from the public, and whether it’s praise or criticism the controversy drives sales and re-enforces to writers that this is the material they should write. Now, I am not saying that these stories are all bad. Some of them are remarkable, insightful, and worth being told. Others less so. The problem is this: let’s say a gripping movie is made about the dramatic ups and downs of a real-life historic figure, with all the flaws and strengths of this person included. The good writer admires the bold storytelling, the complexity of the character, and the emotional impact on the audience and understandably wants to create a work with similar impact and acclaim. But not all stories are the same, nor should they be told the same way. Here are a few storytelling “pitfalls” that writers are falling into (whether consciously or unconsciously) which are impacting people more than we think.
- Poor decisions with no consequences. I will give an example. Disclaimer: I really like this movie. It gets so many things right. But unfortunately it does have its pitfall. In a family of many children, one little boy feels overlooked and invisible. So what does he do? He decides to run away. This rallies the family and they all go to look for him and he realizes how much he is loved. Now, I certainly don’t think the film-makers were thinking: “Let’s send out the message that running away will get your parents to pay attention to you.” Unfortunately, isn’t that kind of the message that the movie sends? I’m pretty sure at the end the parents have a small talk with him, saying things like, “Don’t ever do that again,” and even, “Talk to us if you have a problem.” But I’m afraid those positive messages are drowned out by the major one: attention seeking gets attention. Are there any real consequences? No. Doesn’t the family live happily ever after? Yes.
- Emotionally inconsistent characters. As a writer it can be fantastic fun to write an outburst scene or an immature character. One character’s dramatic outburst is an opportunity to draw out some interesting color from another character. Here’s the problem: too many writers try to cheat gravity. What do I mean by that? If you step off a diving board, you are going to end up in the pool. That’s how it works. There is such a thing as cause and effect. There are certain symptoms of deep emotional problems in people. I know this firsthand from working with victims of trauma and abuse for over two years. When a grown man throws a tantrum it is rarely a one-time, circumstantial issue. It usually means there is a lot more going on inside of him. And even more than that, his emotional immaturities will probably surface in other ways. The “symptoms” are interesting, and even occasionally amusing. But too many authors like to throw in “symptoms” to make their characters more interesting (or the scene more dramatic), but then they move on as if nothing ever happened. For instance: in another movie, a woman trying to run a business and be kind to people faces relentless opposition from the mayor. Leaving his office after a particularly enraging conversation, she takes out her wrath on a statue outside, shouting at it, kicking it, and hitting it with her shawl. I have to admit that in the moment it is comical. But my sister (who had read the book) turned to me with a frown: “She would never have done that in the book. She was always kind and patient.” I guess the film makers thought this character didn’t get mad enough. Unfortunately, the message this sends is 1. that it is okay to throw a tantrum once in a while because emotionally mature, stable adults do it, and 2. people who throw tantrums are probably emotionally mature and stable and just had a lapse of judgment. You and I see certain behaviors as a red flag, but I will tell you there is a whole generation out there beginning to ignore these “red flags,” partly because they have been normalized in mainstream media. Doesn’t it always work out in the movies?
- An unhealthy fascination with drama. I think this point speaks for itself. Many of the most popular TV shows today are based entirely on interpersonal drama (the more ridiculous the better). These shows are renewed because of high ratings: clearly there is a market for it. I read a lot of writer’s blogs and advice to try and learn as much as I can. Unfortunately, many of them spout the same advice to new writers: amp up the drama, draw on the character’s weaknesses, and string out your reader’s emotions so they will read the next chapter. Now I am all for tension, suspense, and conflict in the proper dose and context. But I think drama can be addicting in its own way, always pulling the viewer/reader in for more without giving anything substantial in return. What does that mean? The very best books have alway sent me back to the real world, inspiring me to live my life better.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to bash any particular genre of movie, make you feel guilty about any one show, or even imply that movies and television are instilling the wrong values in the next generation. I think the issue is more complicated than that. Yes, I have seen teenagers literally act out the way they think they are supposed to “based on the movies.” But usually the deeper issue in their life was a deadly combination of a lack of proper parenting and a skewed perception of reality because of abuse.
However, I do want to spark thought and conversation. Because storytelling has a long tradition of teaching cultural values. And as much as we say, “I know that’s irresponsible, I know that’s not real life, I know that’s ridiculous…” if we are filling our heads with it, doesn’t it actually impact our thinking, too?
I protest the assumption that only emotionally dysfunctional people are worth telling stories about. In fact, I resent that. There is nothing boring about maintaining moral integrity in spite of constant pressure, making the right choice even when it hurts, or being a person true to your word. Those are the people I want to read about, and therefore, those are the people I will alway strive to write about.
There is this strange logic in storytelling today: “Nobody is perfect; therefore there is no such thing as a perfect character; therefore all of our characters should be deeply flawed.” I disagree. Of course nobody is perfect, but that does not mean we can’t write characters worth admiring, respecting, and emulating. Stories have more impact than most people give them credit for. It’s worth thinking: what messages are they sending?
Sometimes you hear people say “this character is such a great role model” (usually for girls). But when they explain I find they almost always base this claim on one factor: she stands up for herself/ is “strong.” Oftentimes it doesn’t matter if she makes poor decisions, is disrespectful, or doesn’t take responsibility for her actions. As long as she portrays a strong personality, she’s a great role model. I find this dissatisfying, and I hope you do too.
The solution for me is easy: to write stories that matter about characters I admire. I challenge all writers to do the same.
And to all of you consumers, I simply ask this: that once in a while you think about the message behind what you’re consuming.