Let’s take a moment to pause, step back and think about what it is we are doing. We’re writing stories. Stories that have messages. Whether we intend them or not, stories always have messages. The question is, then, are we writing the kind of messages that we want our readers to see?
As authors, we have the power of language at our disposal. It’s kind of like fire. Used responsibly, fire can make our food safe and delicious, keep us from freezing to death, provide the power so our computers and other now necessary gadgets will function, etc. Used irresponsibly it can wipe out our forests, destroy homes, scar a person for life or even kill. Language, if used responsibly brings us together, makes the world a better place, helps build the new tech through the sharing of ideas. When used irresponsibly it tears us apart, destroys our communities and can kill.
The most powerful form that language takes is story. With stories, we can change the way a person thinks, not just about the subject at hand, but how they think about themselves. A story can alter your perception of the world or your neighbor. That’s some pretty powerful stuff there.
It’s important to be aware of the power you are wielding. The transformative power of story, like that of fire, can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. You, as an author, can choose to make your story a camp fire – warmth and comfort in the cold dark night. But if you are careless, you could set fire to the whole forest. You can write your tale about a young girl off on her adventure and inadvertently reinforce all the stereotypes you are trying so hard to over come. You might empower one character (and all those who identify with her) only to disempower another (and all the readers who identify with her).
How do you avoid such things? Sadly, to a certain extent you can’t avoid them all. You are going to have to have antagonists in your stories and the people who see themselves in them aren’t going to get the same effects as the people who see themselves in your protagonists. The important thing is to be aware. In this book your antagonist is the green haired Mollydop. In your next one, the mentor character is a green haired Mollydop. At some point you’ll probably want to write a green haired Mollydop as a protagonist. So while you can’t empower green haired Mollydops in all your work, you balance it out.
That’s only one way to keep from sending out unintended messages. The other is to watch your tropes.
There are a lot of problematic tropes out there. Teen romance is filled with them. There’s the older boy friend trope, the bad boy trope, the I’m not complete without a boy/girlfriend trope (yup that one cuts both ways), there’s the no-means-yes trope, there’s the parents aren’t paying attention trope. All of them have their place, they wouldn’t be tropes if they didn’t. At the same time, they can perpetuate cultural norms that we are actively trying to eliminate.
Let’s look at the “older boyfriend” for just a minute. On it’s surface it looks innocent enough. Girls tend to mature faster than boys, so to find someone who matches your maturity level, a girl does have to look up. Someone has to be older in the relationship, right? On the other hand, age makes a huge difference in relative power. For the most part, we assume that older means more powerful. Is that really the power dynamic you want to portray? Do you want to tell girls to look for a more powerful man? Because that’s what happens if you aren’t paying attention. You can of course do other things to alter that power dynamic in your story.
As with anything, the details matter. The important thing is to know what your details are telling your readers.