Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Do Your Characters Speak For You?

A commenter mentioned being annoyed that in a post about scenes, I spoke about my characters "male-bashing" (with words, not bludgeons :).  Wasn't that sexist? If it were reversed, and these were male characters trashing women as a group, would I be more sensitive?

That brought up an interesting issue! At what point does our portrayal of characters being offensive become offensive "from us"? If I have a character who insults a group or is otherwise objectionable, does that mean I am espousing those sentiments? What if there are several characters like that? (I don't mean just politically incorrect offensiveness, but maybe also violence or discrimination.) When does it stop being just offensive characters and become an offensive book by an offensive author?

But... it gets so complicated when we're working with fictional characters. Every character we create is within us, they say, so perhaps a reflection of us. Yet if we create only characters that reflect what is best about us, well, there won't be much conflict in our books! Not to mention, you can't always know ahead of time what will offend someone somewhere.
Recently I was teaching character point of view to college students, and this issue came up. Most of their "novels" are really sort of fictionalized memoirs, with (probably idealized) selves as narrators. There was some bafflement when we read "A Cask of Amontillado" where the first-person narrator is truly an evil guy. (One of the worst ever-- walls up a friend for committing "an insult" and leaves him to die). They weren't sure how Poe might write a bad narrator without being bad himself, and who knows? Can we create a character who is not within us? Or should we even try? (And Poe of all writers has probably suffered the most slings and arrows because his first-person narrators are so nasty... many readers and his first biographer succumbed to the belief that they were him.)

I often wonder if mystery writers or thriller writers are associated with the bad behavior of their characters. We think, oh, yes, it's just fiction, but deep within, we might wonder... well, if she created this plausible serial murderer, does she have a serial murderer within??? 

I bet we've all read books where the entire tone and plot seem to push some offensive button-- it's not just one character who hates Italians, it's all of them, and there are three scenes where someone gets food poisoning at an Italian restaurant, and then there are all those metaphors referring to the Mafia, and the only joke in the book has a punchline about the dirtiness of Venice canals, and.... Yeah, it's not just "subtext" that's screaming out there.
In my own writing, sometimes I'll notice I have a character will reflect some silly prejudice of my own, usually something like "only children" or  "people who bring potato chips to a potluck dinner" or "those annoying sorts who are cheerful at 6 am." And I do sense sometimes I just give it a bit too much emphasis to this Thing I Don't Like, you know, sliding into rant-territory.
There's probably a point where this stops being a story with a character or two who is offensive, and becomes an offensive story overall. But I don't know where that point is. What do you all think? Is it safer to avoid characters being offensive, or instead just impart all the potential offense to a villain character so it's clear I Disapprove Of Male-Bashing and Only Bad Guys Hate Spaghetti? Is it worth examining our own subtexts and tone to see if we're conveying some offense we don't want to convey? What do you do? Have you ever changed a story or character because you thought you'd gone too far?

My example:
One of my characters was "authentic" in a lot of ways, bristly and angry and sardonic, but at some point, it just went too far, and readers didn't like her or sympathize with her. Worst of all, they didn't want to spend time with her. I don't think we need to make characters "likeable" to keep readers interested, but there is a point where the character just gets tiresome. I didn't want to make her a wimp or trivialize her justifiable anger about the past. But I found several "offense-ticklers" and phased them out. Like she had a habit of endowing people with slightly mean nicknames. And she was always thinking if not saying defensive responses to other characters' conversations. Once I could isolate the "too much", I was able (I hope) to make her both herself and reader-involving.

I notice I keep saying, "There's a point where...." That indicates, I guess, that this is a matter of degree, that what's acceptable at 48% can become annoying at 55%.


Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I think you hinted around the point with your mention of subtext. If a book has a subtext or even a theme, and that theme is racist or otherwise offensive, then the author is probably the bad person. For instance, President Snow is a reprehensible person, but the theme of THE HUNGER GAMES is that it's not okay to distract the public with shiny bread and circuses, so obviously Snow as a character is not speaking for Collins. On the other hand, you might look at, say, THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH, and the point is something rather racist like miscegenation is bad, and the characters repeat this ad nauseum, yeah we can probably determine that Lovecraft was a racist.

Anonymous said...

I think there are a number of tells for 'author holds these opinions' such as every character agreeing with an opinion, or characters saying offensive things and nobody opposing them, not even in their own mind. But there's also 'world set up to confirm prejudices' such as 'you can't trust [group x] and every member of group x is untrustworthy.

As for nasty people, well, I don't like spending time with them, whether in reality or in fiction. Snarky and defensive is one thing, mean is another, and it's definitely a deal breaker for me if I'm supposed to like that person. Showing them possess some basic human decency (the oft-touted 'save the cat') does nothing for me: if I have the feeling I'm being manipulated into liking a character, I am definitely out of there.

Great to see you back!


Edittorrent said...

Good example! I tend also to give a bit of leeway with books from an earlier time. The characters might be racist, say, in an Agatha Christie pre-war mystery, but the author's general tolerance makes me assume that if she were writing now, there wouldn't be that subtext.

Edittorrent said...

GK, yeah, no one in the book objecting is a sign (whether reliable or not) that the opinion is from the author-- and if it's not of the author, maybe it's a sign to make note and revise a bit.

I'm with you on feeling manipulated with some stuck-in "save the cat" scene. I do remember a funny scene in a Patricia Veryan book where the hero did just that, save a cat from drowning, but because it was a torrential dark downpour, he doesn't realize it's a cat, and thinks it's a baby, and anyway, he's just doing it to impress the lady whose baby he thinks it is, and when the cat responds as cats will (with claws) and the lady finds it all amusing... well, it was a good take on that idea that all you need is "basic human decency." Uh, no. If you're a scoundrel, you're still a scoundrel, and the cat KNOWS IT. (BTW, she pairs it with a scene at the end where he sacrifices everything to save the heroine's family, most importantly doing it in such a way that no one realizes he's done it, so he gets no credit. Excellent use of parallel scenes.)