Phyllis Zimbler Miller – Story Telling Responsibilities

PSAs in Fiction Mar 2020 rev

The Public Service Responsibility of Fiction Writers

Although this is a rather formal title for a blog post, I wanted to start out with a clear thesis:

When we write fiction – novels, screenplays, short stories, poems, limericks – we should encourage responsible societal behaviors whenever possible.

Safer sex portrayal:

Unless there is an absolute necessity in your fiction for an unplanned pregnancy, fictional characters should practice safer sex. And even if you need an unplanned pregnancy, it can be attributed, for example, to a defective condom.

Why is this important? Because for many, many people fictional characters are real people, and their fictional behavior encourages emulation by real-life people.

As a fiction writer you don’t want to be responsible for real-life teen pregnancies because you had two teen characters not use easily available contraception.

Protective helmets:

A bicycle helmet saved my father on a bicycle when a car hit him, and a bicycle helmet (or motorcycle helmet or a certified protective helmet worn when skateboarding, rollerblading, etc.) can save others. If you can work it in when your 10-year-old characters ride their bikes or skateboard together, mention their nifty helmets.

Safety belt safe:

Of course you always want to include safety belt usage for adults and safety car seats for young children when you can. While everyone should protect themselves in this way, as fiction writers we can remind people of this for their own safety.

No sliding down banisters:

This is a very personal one for me. Years ago my first cousin slid down a banister at college and never walked again. Every time I see a kid sliding down a banister in a commercial or film/TV show I cringe. Please do not encourage such irresponsible behavior.

Cruelty to pets:

A member of the Great Books discussion group to which I belong discussed with me the unnecessary depiction of cruelty to animals in films and TV. If your plot doesn’t require this depiction, don’t do it. (And it is actually a lazy way to portray the character of a bad person by having him/her kick a cat.)

Smoking or vaping:

For many years smoking portrayal in non-period pieces has been missing on the screen. Now I’ve started to see an increase in this portrayal. In my opinion this is a lazy way of portraying nervousness or someone pausing before speaking. As fiction writers let’s come up with more creative actions so as not to unnecessarily make smoking or vaping look “cool” to teens.


So many films and TV shows center on drug plots that it is probably a waste of time to bring up this topic. Yet even here there are probably more responsible ways to show drug use.


I’m a huge proponent of depicting PTSD in fiction as a way to encourage people suffering from combat-induced or non-combat induced PTSD to seek help. I’d like to give a shoutout to the new ABC series STUMPTOWN in which the female protagonist is a former Marine who has PTSD. Another female service member in the show encourages the protagonist to seek help at a veterans group. This is a very responsible use of fiction.

Name calling:

While fiction rests on the foundation of conflict and that includes physical violence, I do think that name calling doesn’t need to be demonstrated for impressionable people to emulate. Instead fictional characters can be challenged on their actions.

In conclusion, I hope we fiction writers will always carefully consider before we portray irresponsible behaviors. We need to understand that many people might turn these fictional irresponsible behaviors into disastrous reality.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller is an author and screenwriter in Los Angeles. She can be reached through her website at

Phyllis Zimbler Miller

Screenwriter * Author

Skype: PhyllisZimblerMiller12

Member of Women in Film

Member of Military Writers Society of America


Comments 10

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  3. A thought-provoking post, Phyllis! You certainly gave me something to think about. I don’t believe in having my characters exhibit gratuitous bad behavior, but sometimes, as Tara suggested above, bad behaviors can be necessary.

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  4. definitely don’t want bad behavior used for the shock-value of it,
    but I think showing it and showing how characters overcome it could help. some things can’t be sugar coated and there are bad people in the world who need to be vanquished – some fiction could help inspire victims, just MHO. I appreciate your insight and sharing your story.

    and Joylene – I wanted to say thanks for stopping by my Beast World campaign at Alex’s

  5. I do not even know how I ended up here,
    but I thought this post was great. I do not know who you are
    but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not
    already 😉 Cheers!

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      Glad you stopped by, Joanna. The photography piece Alex wrote on street photography was interesting. Have a great day; hope to see you again.

  6. Very sorry about your cousin.
    Smoking is disgusting anyway. And certainly animal cruelty is horrible. That’s a big turnoff for most people in books and movies.
    I tend to write with my own morals in mind. I guess that’s one reason I could never write anything really dark and twisted.

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