Being a Better Writer: Author Morals and Character Morals

Welcome back, everyone! I’m sure many of you wondered where I was yesterday, since BaBW is primarily a Monday -specific post. Rest assured, all is well. I just had a shift at my other job yesterday that was all day. Didn’t seem worth posting once more that I wasn’t going to be able to post due to that since I’d already given enough warning that such was going to happen, so I figured most would be okay enough if I left things for today.

Right, that said, what are we talking about today? Well, today’s topic is one that once more comes from fan feedback and questions submitted to me by young writers, and one that fortunately I’ve heard discussed by other authors at length, as well as something I had to consider for myself. It’s a topic that will come up with any new writer who is really thinking about what they write and what they’re putting out there.

It’s the question of character morals and beliefs as they relate to the author’s.

Now, to those who aren’t writers, this may seem like a strange topic, or you may perhaps even be wondering what it means, so let’s think of it this way: have you ever picked up a book or seen a movie starring a character who is very dangerous or unbalanced and then wondered to yourself what that says about the author?

If not, you might be right now. Think about the last book that you read or movie that you watched that has a dangerous, unstable, or otherwise alarming character in it. Maybe they were a sleazy scumbag, or maybe a serial killer. A ruthless businessman, or an unscrupulous social worker. Basically, a character that was dangerous, alarming, or perhaps just unstable.

Now think about that character in relation to the author. And here’s where today’s topic comes into play. Do you think that because the author created a character like that, it means that they are, in some way, like that character?

The obvious—and correct—answer is no. I’ll say that again for emphasis, no, it does not. And this is where we run once more back into the question that plagues so many young writers: how can they write characters like that despite being nothing like them?

The trick is that for many this is not a question of being able to write good characters or filling their pages with creative prose. That’s not the consideration at all.

No, what a lot of these young writers are asking is how you deal with writing a character that’s not just different from themselves, but is different in a way that they find morally objectionable.

Note that this doesn’t automatically apply to the worst example you can think of. It can be something as simple, for example, as the example that arose in several of my own writing classes concerning characters that swore. Or it can be something as drastic as a writing a serial killer. Or even something like writing a character who holds very different beliefs about religion. But it all comes back to how an author justifies or work around the subject of writing a character—even a main character—whose emotions, outlooks, attitudes, or beliefs are different from their own?

Yeah, some of you might be chuckling right now or even laughing and shaking your heads, but this is a real barrier that a lot of young writers run into. There’s a real question of where they stand on their own feet while writing characters that may hold different views than the, attitudes, or morals than them.

Crud, this even runs into older, experienced authors as well, though from the reading angle. It may surprise you, but there are plenty of authors who have been verbally slammed by readers who equate “one character said/thought this” with “the author totally, 100% believes or approves of this.” From angry letters to their editor, to angry, in person interactions, to angry blog posts and one-star reviews on the author’s Amazon page, this is a real thing that happens. And, as a young writer, you notice things like that. And then you start to worry that perhaps it will happen to you, that you’re going to write a story with a character who holds a viewpoint others will associate with you, or that maybe they’re right, that writing that character does mean you think and act like them.

So, with that in mind, let me relate to you a story from one of my old writing teachers, Brandon Sanderson. We were in class one day doing a question-and-answer bit, where he was giving the class a chance to just pick his brains on various topics, and one of the students asked about this very topic, after which a number of other students chimed in similar thoughts. And Brandon’s answer was this (paraphrased, obviously, because this was years ago):

You know me. I don’t swear. But my characters swear. They say things like “Damn” and “hell.” Why? Because they’re not me. I don’t have a reason to say those things. My life is pretty good. But my characters? They’re not me, and they’re experiencing horrible things. And you’re telling me that they can’t say “Damn” or “hell?” Some of them are living in it; they have good cause to be saying it.

His answer stuck with me because he’s right, and perhaps his way of saying it is best. Don’t think of it as “I am not my characters,” but rather “My characters are not me.” They’re their own beings, with their own wants, desires, beliefs, reactions and movements. They have things that they want to do. Behaviors and reactions that they make their own, and experiences that they react to in their own way.

These characters are not you. They will swear. They will fight. They will make poor choices and good ones. As the author writing these characters, separate what they believe from what you believe because, unless you’re writing self-inserts (common enough), these characters are going to be as different from you as anyone else you meet in your life, and their emotions, thoughts, and other assorted things are theirs, not yours. That distinction is important. Your morals, ethics, and concepts, the stuff that makes you a person is not the same as theirs.

For instance, I am not a sociopath serial killer who stalks young couples. But one of my characters, Amacitia Varay, is. That doesn’t mean that I agree at all with her mentality, or the things that she says, or at all in any way what she does (all of which you can read about in the pages of Unusual Events). But I wrote the story … and it was her story, from her perspective and about her beliefs.

Now, a note here. Does that mean that there weren’t readers who reacted as though I might share some of them? No, it doesn’t. Even though I understand that Lady Varay is not in any way me, nor me her, and that we have very little in common, I’ve still had one or two worried reactions from readers that couldn’t make that distinction. And you know what?

That’s not my problem. Or yours. If a reader can’t draw the distinction between an author doing something and a character doing something completely different, then that’s their issue to worry about, not yours.

However, that said … you can’t just write about whatever you want.

Look, one story about a serial killer, in my case? Fairly simple. But what if I wrote another, and then another? And stared going into lurid detail about things? Well, even if I wasn’t a serial killer … that much content on the matter would likely start to make my reader’s opinions of me shift. It’d simply become mounting evidence, even if I wasn’t in any way like any of those characters.

What am I getting at? Well, you shouldn’t be afraid to write characters that hold different beliefs or ideals from you, but this is not free rein to go too far (for example, past what’s considered socially acceptable) or to write nothing but stories about characters or ideas that you disagree with. Because while your characters may not be you, what you write does represent you in some small way. If you write nothing but stories about sex, for example, it’s going to be a label that attaches itself to you, even if you try to downplay it. You’d be the one that writes about sex all the time … and no matter what you say, that stigma will be impossible to shake because of the volume of what you’ve written. So there is that one small warning. There are lines you won’t want to cross either way, that will vary from book to book and from subject to subject. Choice of subject matter is, after all, key to what sort of audience your book will appeal to.

But you are you, and your character is your character. And at the end of the day, when it comes down to your own morals and beliefs versus that of your character, that’s something that you’ll need to remember.

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