I recently reread George Orwell’s famous essay, “Why I Write.” In it, he ascribes four primary motives to writers: egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Different writers will feel a stronger pull from one or two than the others, and the precise balance might shift over a lifetime, but those four motives drive much of the prose that exists and will exist throughout the world. I’d be lying if I claimed immunity.
Looking at my superhero novel The Flying Woman, I can see those four motives playing roles of varying sizes.
Ego certainly factors into the equation. I would like to think otherwise, but that would be self-delusion. There’s a line in the musical Hamilton that goes, “God help and forgive me, I want to build something that’s gonna outlive me.” And yes, I’d like that, too. I won’t live forever, and I can’t take any books with me, but I can leave them behind and hope they endure.
Along those lines, I also wanted to write the best superhero novel ever. There are certainly many good and even great superhero prose novels out there, but which has the reputation as being the pinnacle of the genre in this medium? I’m not saying I succeeded—that’s ultimately up to the readers, not the writer. But after a lifetime of reading superhero comics, I wanted to put my own stamp on the genre.
Aesthetic enthusiasm is more a motivation for editing than writing, but I do certainly appreciate aesthetics and value their importance. I’m happy to take the time to ensure the correct word is always in the correct place, and unbroken walls of text often look plain ugly. Dialogue must always “sound” right and flow with a natural rhythm.
So there’s some aesthetic enthusiasm in the mix, but I wouldn’t call it my reason for writing in the first place.
When I was a newspaper reporter, the historical impulse was by far my strongest motive for that particular type of writing. My job was to present people and events as they were, and to provide readers with enough information to help them form their own conclusions. It was never my place to tell them what to think.
With fiction, and especially superhero fantasy fiction, I’m obviously not presenting factual accounts or even slice-of-life drama. But I do strive to present human nature as it is—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And stories of superheroes and supervillains can tell us quite a bit about ourselves. It’s no surprise that superhero origin stories are often great coming-of-age stories, too.
In The Flying Woman, a young woman acquires powers she never expected, and she has to figure out how to become this perfect superhero even though she knows she’s nowhere near perfect. Effectively, she has to figure out how to become the adult she needs to be. The development of a superhero, then, is another way to show how a person matures.
So maybe that’s not quite a “historical” impulse, but it’s adjacent.
And then there’s political purpose. I generally steer clear of this, as I believe partisan politics and fiction don’t mix (though perhaps that is a type of a political opinion).
Writing a female superhero lead might get me involved in current issues of representation in entertainment. Maybe I’m just looking through rose-colored glasses thanks to a youth of reading X-Men and watching Star Trek, but to me, a female superhero already seemed every bit as natural as a male superhero. As I type that, I worry that I sound like I’m pandering, when that’s the last thing I want to do.
In my mind, the way to reduce any disparities in representation is simply by writing (for example) a female lead in a matter-of-fact way, without any overt agenda. I wrote Miranda as a person first and foremost, not a “strong female superhero protagonist.” I focused less on issues that are unique to women today and more on issues that are common to both men and women—fear of failure, accepting responsibility, new responsibilities conflicting with previous ambitions, striving to live up to others’ expectations, and so on—the universal, timeless issues where we can find common ground, not the contemporary identity politics that can divide us … the broader human nature that I mentioned earlier.
So I wrote a non-political female superhero. The statement is that it shouldn’t be a statement. Is that political in a roundabout way? Anti-politics as a type of politics? I’ll let others decide.
That wraps up Orwell’s four motives, but I’ll add one of my own: the joy of creation, of building something new.
Sure, I’ve drawn on elements already present in the culture—established conventions of the superhero genre, themes others have previously tackled, tried-and-true plot structure, and so on. But I assembled those pieces in my own unique way, to create something that only I would have created.
There’s nothing like that thrill, though maybe this is just another form of egoism. Who am I to argue with Orwell?
Originally posted at Silver Dagger Book Tours.