When You Don’t Agree With Your Characters

Here’s a truth universally acknowledged, but not always remembered: Views expressed by characters do not necessarily reflect those of the author.

I’ve written characters who have said or thought sexist things, made snap judgements based on class, made unsupportable generalisations, or espoused views with which I vehemently disagree. Sometimes they’re even likeable characters, people I’ve deliberately made sympathetic.

And you know what? Those things my characters say mean they’re in a fantastic place to begin an interesting character arc. Or perhaps they’re not going to change at all — perhaps they’ll serve to provide a cautionary tale, or give another character something to react against. Whatever the case, I’m going to do my best to flesh them out and make them three-dimensional and convincing.

Which doesn’t mean I agree with them. and it doesn’t mean the book is meant to promote their views.

I know this sounds simple, but in practice, it’s not. This is especially the case when a view held or expressed by a character presses our buttons hard.

I’ve seen readers respond to behaviour of female characters in a book by claiming the book itself is slut-shaming, or fat-shaming. That’s a serious allegation. Without going to particular books — so without engaging with whether particular readers are right or wrong — I want to talk about the distinction between a book slut-shaming vs the characters slut-shaming. Is the author endorsing the views of the characters — problematic, obviously — or are the characters providing a realistic (if painful) mirror for society? Is the author setting up their characters to develop, confronting them with realistic challenges?

The chasm between an author who is genuinely slut-shaming (or fat-shaming, or being sexist, ableist, racist, or any number of damaging things a book can do) and the author exploring real issues in our society — that chasm is vast. Books provide places for readers to imagine and understand the other. They are a place to rehearse our fears, and explore — and confront — our own beliefs. Often that means authors take us uncomfortable places.

This post isn’t intended as a defence of every book ever accused of espousing inappropriate views — of course, some of them are doing exactly that. Instead, it’s a challenge. Next time you feel confronted by a book, or even offended, ask yourself whether it’s the story itself, or whether it’s the author setting up for a character arc, or challenging you to examine and define your beliefs — perhaps in opposition to those you’re reading.

5 Responses to When You Don’t Agree With Your Characters

  1. Patrick Stahl Jul 11 2014 at 8:17 am #

    I think a lot of the reason that people think that the character’s views are instantly representative of the author’s views is because of how students are taught in English class. Too much emphasis on theme, which writers are using less and less (at least, using less-intentionally), has caused readers to think that every statement in a novel is trying to push some sort of theme. She said this, so it must mean that is what the book is trying to get across, etc.

    I’ve written characters I don’t agree with. It’s fun. You get to see inside the head of someone who thinks very differently than you. One of my characters is an arsonist. Of course I don’t condone arson, it’s just a story.

  2. stephanie garber Jul 11 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    I really appreciated the perspective in this post! I don’t have much to add, just that I thought it was well done. Thanks!

  3. Ellen Mulholland Jul 12 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    Amie, this was a great piece. It’s funny to think about this as a writer. When reading a Stephen King, I never think, “Wow, King is so evil.” I think, “Wow, this guy’s a creative genius. What an imagination!” I don’t think that I distinguish between author and narrator because I am an author, but I think it does make a difference.

    As an English teacher, I’ve never led my students to conclude that the characters reflect the author’s viewpoint. I do help them connect to themes and understand the purpose of characters in a story.

    Yet we are still left with people who want to ban books and stone writers who publish tales that approach controversial ideals (premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, etc.).

    I think, in the end, the reader must be able to separate himself from the story, the author, the characters and examine the message. Stories are about connections – connecting readers to characters, experiences, thoughts. We humans don’t like to own our dirty laundry, unclean thoughts, base desires. Perhaps it’s not the author we detest but ourselves.

    If a writer causes readers to examine their own shadows, she has accomplished a great feat.

    You’ve got me thinking today, Amie, about my task as a writer. Thanks!

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