Wednesday, September 19, 2012

When Characters Do Things You Would Never Do

When it comes to authors and characters, people often get confused. Sure most everyone knows that Dumbledore is a character (and therefore fake) and J.K. Rowling is a real person, but somehow the fact that Dumbledore is gay becomes a stance on J.K Rowling's personal feelings on sexual orientation. Now, I'm fairly certain that J.K. Rowling doesn't have any sort of problem with gay people. But I'm also certain she does have a problem with say...murderers. But we're ok with her writing murderers, but not ok with her writing about a gay character. (I use the term "we" very broadly here, to mean people in general, sort of like the French "on" which means "we" but doesn't mean necessarily you and me. If that makes sense. I am completely ok with people of different sexual orientations.) 

Now, you might say, that's a completely different scenario! It's very clear that J.K. doesn't support murder. It's her bad guy who does the murdering after all. So that's a very clear line. An author supports things the good guys does and doesn't support things the bad guy does. 

Except that's not necessarily true. 

I don't think Brandon Sanderson supports thieving, but the main characters of Mistborn are thieves. I think half of the fantasy writers out there would be very upset if they lived in a fuedal system, yet half of their characters are the very princes who rule one--and those princes are rarely handing out rights to the people they are subjugating. Authors build worlds. They create characters to live and explore those worlds. But the characters (most of the time) are not the author. Which means they can do things that the author would never want to do or approve of doing. 

But in this day in age, readers and even critics often forget that. If you write a misogynist character--and that character is your main character--suddenly you're a misogynist.  If you write a weak female character, suddenly you're saying all females are weak. But that's not true. Maybe the story calls for a girl who grew up sheltered and always told she was worse than men, and that she needed a man, and maybe that's why she latches on to the first guy who comes along...and you know what, maybe that guy is a good guy. A legitimately nice guy and this isn't a story about showing how terrible it can be for women with that mindset. Maybe it's a story where the main girl character just happens to be like that. We can hope that over the course of the story she learns otherwise...but so what if she doesn't? Maybe that's not the point of the story. But maybe it's necessary to the plot for some strange reason for her to be that way. I don't know. I'm making stuff up here. Anyway, if you write a character like that, suddenly the author is being slandered and labeled as a crazy anti-feminist. (Not always that extreme, but sometimes it is).

So when I see things like this, as an author, it sort of scares me. Because my characters, my good characters, do stuff I don't believe in. They have premarital (non-described completely off screen) sex. They drink alcohol (which I don't at all). Heck, they might smoke. That doesn't mean I support those things. That doesn't mean I think you should do them. It means in that situation, it makes sense for this character, who is not me, to do these things.

Take my current dilemna. I do not curse. At least, not anything the modern world would gasp at. I say "crap". I occasionally say "hell", and I really struggle with taking the Lord's name in vain as in "Oh my god and "oh god" and the like. But in the story I'm currently working on, The Descent of Chris Chappell, there is a scenario where I need one of my characters to curse. And not like s*** or d***, but the f word. 

Nothing else makes sense with his background and the situation. This is probably the most moral character in the story, the most straight-laced (but not straight actually) who is always encouraging everyone else to do the right thing. He has a very strong sense of right and wrong. But there is one situation, one argument/fight, where he is pushed to an extreme where the only response that can express the level of digust he is feeling with his friend is "F*** you." And sure I could say "Eff you," but that's not what he would say. That's not right. He needs to say it.

And I don't know if I can write it. I don't support that kind of langauge in any context. I  would never say it. I'm actually struggling wtih the idea of typing it and then it having to be there on the page. Staring at me. But that's the only correct response for him, if I'm true to the character.

In this modern world where author and character get confused, what's a girl to do? i don't want anyone to think I condone that kind of language, but my character isn't me.

So where is the line?


  1. Hello!

    Reading this made me think of something I read many years ago. I thought it was something I found on Neil Gaiman's Journal, but after searching for several minutes, I may be mistaking the source for something said by Stephen King, though it doesn't quite seem right. Anyway, here's that particular quote by Mr. King:

    "Make yourself a promise right now that you'll never use "emolument" when you mean "tip" and you'll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a s***. If you believe "take a s***" would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say John stopped long enough to move his bowels (or perhaps John stopped long enough to "push"). I'm not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct." *

    In my searching, however, I did find a response to a question asked on Mr. Gaiman's Tumblr that is very similar to your particular situation. That link is here: **

    As I know you're a fan of Mr. Gaiman, I'm sure you've probably seen both of those things, but I thought I'd share in case you hadn't.

    I tend to agree with Mr. Gaiman (and it seems you as well) that a well written character is better than worrying about offending a few readers that might disagree with you.

    I realize I didn't quite answer your question as to where the line might be, but I don't particularly mind reading words that I would otherwise not say or like to hear from people I know. I prefer real characters over 7 year olds in a grownup's body doing grownup things (like killing people, which happens often in fantasy). Even if you're going for a YA novel, one instance of a profane word does not make it R-rated. I've read plenty of YA that contains one or two profane words used in an appropriate context that made me feel more empathy with that particular character.

    However, all of this is just me.

    *edited for content to be safe for your readership
    **Mr. Gaiman's response has language you avoid using, so it may be NSFW

  2. I've actually heard/read that quote from Stephen King before. And I totally get it. It's just a weird mix of it's a word I'm uncomfortable using, and the bizarre reactions I've seen from critics/readers lately regarding books and movies. I mean suddenly half the blogosphere thinks Steven Moffat is a misogynist! Who would have ever guessed that?

    I guess in the greater world, cursing is actually not that controversial, but you know it is for me.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, Phillip. And your name looks way official like that. At first I was like, "Is this my friend Phillip Greene? Or like some lawyer?" :)

  3. It's a hard line to find, for sure! Rather than view it as "bad" language, I view it as very strong language - and there are few situations in which such strong language is merited. BUT I do think that there are some circumstances in which that kind of strong language is appropriate. Instances that involve or observe a depth of disgust, evil, violence, or any other such vile or strong situation may call for such language. It seems to me that "We didn't make it in time; your daughter's been murdered," should not be followed by "Well, darn."

    Without knowing the context of your character's moment, it's hard to say if it's one of those or not - but in my writing, that's been a helpful guideline. Using strong language all the time robs it of its power; using it once demonstrates the severity of the situation, the hurt, the level of pain and disgust, etc.

    In my experience as a writer, I find that characters will do and say what they want. By and large, it's difficult to control them while maintaining an honest work. Unfortunately, the reality is that critics will say and think whatever they want - it will be your true fans, who know you through your work, that will defend you. If this is what your character would say, then perhaps he should just say it, and let the chips fall as they may.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, C! And I totally know what you mean about characters being hard to control. My character really wants to say it, and I'm the one who is hesitant going, "I don't know if that's ok."

    I think you guys have me convinced to let my character have his way. It's the only time (so far) I've felt the need to use that sort of language at all. But really, I think it's the only thing that will get the level of horror and pain across. Thanks!