#SaystheEditor Shades of the Middle


I had a dust-up on Facebook with someone I like and respect the other day. She’d reposted one of those memes (fortunately one with proper grammar. I know. A rarity!) and left a comment about it that bothered me.

I replied that it was better to withhold judgement until all the facts in the case were known.

We had a lot of back-and-forth discussion, but she held firm to her position like a fly on flypaper. Or maybe like she was mired in quicksand. That might be a better analogy.

Here’s why: Her position targeted one group of people, and only one group. For her, it’s black and white. If you are THIS, don’t do THAT.

And essentially, I agree. But as I tried five ways from Friday to explain, I also see the problem as being much, much bigger than that.

Here’s where the situation circles around to be relevant to us as writers. And yes, my friend is a writer, which is why I’m surprised she’s so unable to see the shades of grey in a situation that she sees as black and white.

As writers, we know that every single book opens in the middle. Something has happened and as we work toward resolution, we have to learn the backstory, too. We learn the reasons characters act as they do. We learn those shades of grey, we learn why the situation isn’t what we first took it to be. Almost unfailingly, we learn that our initial assumptions were wrong.

Many reviewers who pick up a copy of my Trevor’s Song hate Trevor in the beginning. You’re supposed to. Trevor’s a self-centered whiny jerk. He’s also funny as hell and so brutally honest, he’s often painful to be around. But if you keep reading, you realize it’s a front.

But you have to keep reading. You have to explore beyond the obvious. You have to put your assumptions aside.

You’ll see this most clearly in a mystery, especially a mystery that opens with the discovery of the dead body. We only know half the story. We know someone’s dead. We don’t know the how or why. It’s the hero’s job (and our jobs as the writer) to learn it. What’s the backstory? Why did this person act the way they did? Did the man kill his boss because someone else got the promotion, or did the man kill his boss because the boss was dealing drugs at his desk and one of his customers had started stalking the killer, gotten dirt on him, and blackmailed him into killing the boss?

Makes you look differently at the killer, doesn’t it? He’s gone from being petty and angry over a promotion to being pretty sympathetic. The boss was a dick. The killer wound up the victim of someone else, trapped in a desperate situation.

Circumstances matter. Situations matter. There are shades of grey in this world for a reason, folks, and that reason is to enrich our lives. To keep us from being a carbon copy of everyone else around us. It takes all kinds to make the world. It takes all colors to make fiction so vibrant and alive.

Whether it’s real life or fiction, we need to remember that. Look beneath the surface. Remember that old cliche about pointing one finger and four pointing back at you.

Things aren’t what they seem. As writers, it’s our job to tease those things out. As writers, it’s our job to take the unlikeable and make them likeable. It’s our job to realize that while stereotypes exist for a reason, what makes our writing super rich is the ability to transcend stereotype. To not step into the quicksand and refuse to move out when someone asks you to consider a bigger picture.

Embrace the world, embrace our differences. Explore what sets every person apart from each other. And remember that the facts in every single case are different and taking a stand against everyone, like a blanket, is only going to cause more hurt and pain than what you’re trying to prevent by opening your mouth in the first place.

Until you know someone’s story, don’t judge.

Until you know your fictional character’s story, keep writing.


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