Note: This post contains references to suicide that may be triggering to some readers.
Earlier this month, I attended the annual conference for the Rabbit Room, an organization that cultivates stories, music, and art to nourish Christ-centered communities. The conference, known among members as Hutchmoot, brings together a diverse lineup of artists, musicians, and authors to celebrate the ability to create and encourage creators in their pursuits. As part of the conference, I got to view a session from Sho Baraka, a hip-hop musician, spoken-word poet, and author. Baraka’s presentation addressed the power of storytelling, not just to entertain and provoke thought, but more importantly, to alter the way we see ourselves and other people.
In his talk, Baraka shared a story about the author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book tells the story of a man’s despondent response to unrequited love, which eventually leads him to kill himself.
The character of Werther so resonated with the ennui and despair of his young male readers that it led to a pop culture phenomenon. In what must be one of the earliest examples of cosplay, Werther’s fanboys went so far as to dress up as the characters and wear a specially manufactured fragrance made in honor of the book.
It was all pretty harmless.
At least until they started committing suicide.
Frequently, the victims were found dressed in their Werther-inspired clothing, having shot themselves with the same type of pistol Werther uses in his own suicide. Copies of the book itself were often discovered at the scene. Goethe would spend the rest of his life regretting the fame he achieved through the book.
“Stories are a form of identity formation,” Baraka said during his presentation. “We must consistently be evaluating our work to make sure we are contributing to the flourishing of society.”
Baraka’s words, as well as the cult of personality surrounding The Sorrows of Young Werther, take on grim significance not just in light of Mental Health Awareness Month, but the current state of the world. COVID-19 has magnified a mental health crisis that was already devastating due to inadequate health care and ongoing stigma.
Our dire mental health situation is also multiplied by recent revelations that Facebook has been aware of how its social media platforms have devastated the self-image of users, in particular young women, putting them at risk for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide.
But this is a writing blog, you might ask. What does all this have to do with me?
Actually, quite a lot. If we take anything away from the stories of Goethe and Facebook, not to mention Baraka’s advice, it should be the knowledge that as writers, we have a choice about how we contribute to the current mental health situation.
During his presentation, Baraka likened the role that writers play to that of Marvel hero Iron Man and his alter ego, high-powered businessman and industrialist Tony Stark. “Iron Man has to save the world because of the problems Tony Stark causes,” Baraka said.
Furthering this analogy, he compelled writers to consider their own work. Are we using our gifts to solve difficulties and make constructive meaning for our readers? Or, are we merely perpetuating institutions, world views, and ideas that are damaging to others?
If stories are a primary source of identity formation, we must consider whether our writing is contributing to the problem or creating a solution.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I attended the conference. What I’ve landed on is this: if we are going to truly use writing as a way to help this mental health crisis, we need to ask ourselves the following questions…
1. Does our writing glorify behaviors that are destructive to mental health?
First of all, don’t misunderstand that question. I’m not saying you can’t write about sex, drugs, crime, and violence. I’m not saying you have to switch from writing horror or mystery to Amish romance or that every ending has to be happy.
What I am saying is that we need to be cognizant of how we are portraying these topics and whether we are presenting them as a glamorous means to an end instead of actions that carry deadly consequences.
The world is a dark place, and we have an obligation to tell the truth about it. Glossing over its dangers and imperfections is just as irresponsible as telling a story that glorifies destructive behavior.
But we still need to be aware of whether our stories have the ability to do harm in those areas. Again, I’m not saying that you have to get paranoid about this. But if writing is really an act of love toward our readers, it’s worth taking the time to consider whether our stories are loving.
Is it loving to tell a story where teen suicide is seen as a path toward revenge and ultimate acceptance by someone’s peers?
Is it loving to communicate that crime and violence are exciting and rebellious rather than dangerous and damaging to others? Is it loving to glorify unrealistic ideas about sexuality and love that could give younger readers false expectations for relationships and even lead to abusive behavior?
I’ll say it one more time: please don’t sanitize your depictions of difficult topics. Please don’t stop writing about serial killers, criminals, abuse, addiction, and even mental illness. Please don’t stop keeping it real. We need your depictions of these issues because fiction is a path toward understanding them.
But please stop and think about your motives, as well as how your story could impact what narratives your readers believe about the world.
2. Do your characters help readers tell a truer story about themselves?
When we read books, we become a part of the story. We interact with the characters and the circumstances they find themselves in. We get transported to places we would never otherwise go to and experience the action along with the players in the narrative.
Then, like Bilbo Baggins coming home from his adventure with dragons, gold, and dwarves, we get to return to our own worlds and find ourselves different people than when we left.
Truly great characters bring out qualities in readers that they didn’t know they possessed.
Who were the characters that brought out the best in you? Did Harry Potter teach you to be brave and loyal to your friends? Did you relate to Lucy from the Narnia books because of her sensitivity and courage? Did Anne Shirley show you that it was okay to be imaginative, romantic, and daring?
I’m not even just talking about characters from when you were a kid. Surely you identify with characters from books you’ve read as adults, too. My all-time favorite is Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, who showed me how to be tenacious and do my own thing as an artist no matter how many people questioned it.
I also love Kay Scarpetta, the central character of Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series. She’s smart, feisty, and an expert at balancing solving homicides with the very real issues in her personal life. There are a lot of reasons why I needed to see a woman excelling in a leadership position when I read those books as a high schooler.
Here's the main point....
Fictional characters or stories can profoundly shape people’s conceptions of themselves in ways that real-life events or people can’t.
Regardless of who that character is for you, you have the chance to help readers feel empowered, understood, and loved.
3. What actions will your writing inspire readers to take?
Stories don’t just shape the internal lives of readers. They mold their external decisions, an effect that is usually unintentional on the author’s part.
After all, Goethe didn’t set out to write a book that was going to inspire dozens of young men to commit suicide.
But by the same token, Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t set out to write a book that would ignite a national anti-slavery movement.
We often don’t understand the ramifications of what we create until people are reading it.
That’s why it’s so important for us to think about what we are saying and what that message might mean to readers. Again—this is not a call to be paranoid. Don’t be afraid to write another word because of what your work might make readers do or not do.
But it is worth stopping to ask yourself whether your story might negatively impact the way your readers themselves and the decisions they might make.
What about you? What do you hope people will experience from your stories and characters? How do you think your writing helps them tell different stories about themselves and the world?
Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section.