My post this week comes as a result of this:
World's Cutest Kid Explains Why He Doesn't Eat Octopus
(For those who might not be in a place to watch a video, basically, it's a young boy declaring he doesn't want to eat animals because he wants them to stay standing. It is pretty adorable.)
When I first saw this, I was struck by the boy's logic and how dismayed he became. I enjoyed this as a clever glimpse into a child's mind and personally, it didn't even occur to me to think, "Oh, sheesh, another touchy-feely plea for vegetarianism." (Yes, I am very much a carnivore, myself.)
Until I read the comments.
Ninety percent of those who commented seemed to ignore what to me is the "story" here to praise or criticize the kid's point of view, point out that he'll change his tune as soon as he has a bacon cheeseburger, etc. I wondered ... why can't people just enjoy this without obsessing over the message?
(Now, I'll admit the end of the video is a bit more blatant - the comment that he's doing something beautiful - but I still don't think that undermines my overall point.)
This is my problem with fiction writing - I feel like some people, both writers and readers, miss the delights of the story because they're fixated on the message. Now, that isn't to say that the message can't enhance the story, or that many stories don't have some kind of organic message even if the writer has no conscious intent ... but there is a matter of focus and priority here.
To me, the first priority is always the integrity of the story. I think this is in good part because a good story feels real to me - as if the writer is a travelogue writer in another realm, not an inventor. When story elements are excessively shaped to portray something specific, it robs me of the verisimilitude. The Cave People of Shri should be superstitious about people flying because that's how they are, not as a metaphor for shortsightedness.
(One of these days, I should cull all my terrible examples in these posts and attempt to write a story from them. It would be epic ... in the worst sense.)
So when writing, at least in novel length, I always start with worldbuilding - and once that's in place, I rarely change it to the convenience of the story. (I can't say never, but I would be extremely reluctant.) To me, the reality of the world is not negotiable for the advancement of plot.
Scylla and Charybdis, which I'm in the process of final editing right now, does a lot with gender dynamics. I decided very early on that I didn't want to make some specific statement about how men and women interact - but rather that I wanted to use the situation to set up some interesting (and rather broken) societies and then explore them, and gender interaction happened to be the experimental variable. If there is a central message in SaC, it's less about gender and more about the hazards of concealing things from others "for their own good" ... but I didn't set out to say that. It's just a statement (one of many) that you could make from the events of the plot.
So when I watch the video above, I'm not thinking too much about the ethical dimensions of vegetarianism. I'm thinking about the boy's choice of words. I'm amused by the mother referring to the "chopped little legs" of the octopus. I'm thinking about octopus gnocchi and where can I get some of that - and where was this filmed that it's an appropriate food for a three year old?
I'm coming up with a horror story where the food comes back to life ... all right, maybe not. However, I did write a story once from the point of view of an animated servitor comprised of foodstuff ...