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.