Author vs Character

Or, this soapbox is not big enough for the both of us

There are three different people involved in any given story at any given time.

There is the writer, who brings to it all of their own preconceived notions, ideological dogmas, cultural prejudices, and all that goes into the baggage that any average living human being carts around with them all their lives.

There is the character through whose agency the story is being told.

And there is the reader.

Let’s leave the reader out of it for a moment, because the things that the readers bring to the story are not remotely in the writer’s bailiwick.

But the character and his or her creator can sometimes square off in epic battles which the reader will never know anything about at all.

An interviewer once asked Patrick Stewart how he could play a gay man in a movie. The heterosexual actor said, somewhat testily, that he had also played a starship captain but nobody had ever asked him how he had approached THAT role.

Starship illustrationBut you could see what the somewhat awkward questioner was getting at. In one sense, anyone can know what it takes to play a starship captain since every beloved starship that ever existed only lives in our minds, our hearts, our imaginations. Starships are non-threatening because they are, currently anyhow, impossible.

 

But playing a gay character on screen could be seen as challenging to a non-gay actor’s image or threatening his personal world view just because it IS possible.

As a real-life issue, as perceived by that interviewer and many like him, an artist – like actor or writer — must approach the possible somehow differently from the things rooted purely in the imaginary realm. The actor or writer is supposed, even expected, to have a personal opinion about about being gay in a manner that would never have been expected when it came to playing imaginary captains of non-existent starships.

Real-life issues have real-life agendas, and are thus subject to heated polemics.

And as every writer knows, it is entirely possible that a character will have strong opinions about such matters.

A character who may (unlike the writer who created him or her) actually BE gay. Or fat. Or black. Or Muslim. Or a Communist. Or simply a foreigner who comes from a place that someone else, reacting to him, may not understand or fears because it is seen as unfamiliar, odd, or strange. Worship a different god, and you’re suspect. Have a relationship with your body and your sexuality which is at odds with what is considered by society to be “the norm”, and you are suspect. Follow a different ideology than your neighbor, and you are suspect. Is it surprising that characters laboring under these burdens would have strong opinions about them, and about the society that created them?

The strongest, the best, characters will not be mealy-mouthed about these things.
They will, or should, be outspoken.

Someone fighting in the Russian Red Army may believe heart and soul in the Soviet, and is willing to die for those beliefs in a place like Stalingrad of apocalyptic reputation. A Muslim girl from an immigrant family may be reviled for wearing the hijab to a secular school. The Big Girl in the corner, who gets catcalls along the lines of “hey, Thunder Thighs!” every time she walks into her college cafeteria, might have extremely strong opinions about the people who are doing this, and about the body that she is wearing. That attitude towards her body can be an abysmally low self-esteem, a defiant acceptance of her shape, or a complex psychological elixir which contains both of these things mixed together in explosive proportions.

The point is, these characters will have thoughts and feelings about the circumstances in which they find themselves and the way they present themselves to and interact with their worlds.

They will have opinions. These opinions – and pay attention now, this is important – MAY BE COMPLETELY AND DIAMETRICALLY AT ODDS WITH THOSE OF THEIR CREATOR AUTHOR.

Some authors find it impossible to keep their own ideological opinions in check, and will use stories – and characters – as mouthpieces for their own beliefs, be they faith or ideology. The temptation is there to simply assign villain roles to those characters who happen to disagree with the author.

The trouble with this scenario is that it is painfully obvious that the author is the one on the soapbox, NOT the character, and that the character is either a limp ventriloquist’s dummy or is fighting valiantly against the muzzle bound on him by the author.

The soapbox is not big enough for both of them.

And in the best stories, told in the best manner, it is the AUTHOR who steps back, and leaves the characters to live their lives according to what the characters themselves believe.

This is a hard thing to do, because it requires, literally, carrying somebody else inside your head while you are writing the character who is not-you. The onus is on you to make that character live and breathe and not merely serve as a convenient place to hang the blackest villainy of your world. The best villains are not those who are mindlessly evil, but rather those whose thoughts and feelings you, the reader, can see and feel and understand and even empathize with – without EVER being asked or required to sympathize with them.

In my books, “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days”, I had to portray a bastard prince who who nearly destroys his kingdom because of what he perceives to be the slight given to his mother, whom the King had bedded but not married, because she didn’t have certain powers which the legitimately wedded Queen had. And that, in his mind, would have been the only reason, COULD have been the only reason, that the King had spurned the prince’s mother. The son grew up with a chip on his shoulder, and turned on the bearers of the gift possessed by the Queen but not by his own mother. He swore to destroy them all before they blighted any more lives in the manner in which his own had been blighted.

He was a black villain indeed, and did some deeply, desperately, terrible things. And yet, in the end, I aimed not for implacable hatred in the reader… but for pity. Because they would have understood, in the end, what had driven him. And it would have been very much a reaction along the lines, of, “Well, but what would I have done different if I had been in his shoes…? There but for the Grace of God…”

In a different book, “Embers of Heaven”, I portrayed a pair of star-crossed lovers who had violently opposed ideological and moral values. I gave them both EQUAL STAGE TIME. I took no sides. It was up to the reader, eventually, to figure it out. That’s because neither of those characters was purely right or purely wrong – but acted according to their own lights and their own faith, in the best way they knew how. Again, no black villains. Only real people with real pain.

And I let them ALL speak for themselves. Not an opinion amongst them was something that I had climbed up on the soapbox to expound.

The soapbox was not big enough for the both of us, my character and myself, and I was just the amanuensis, the hand that wrote down the words of the story – but the story did not belong to me. It belonged to its protagonist. The opinions therein are the protagonist’s, not the author’s. It is not the author’s place to reveal their own within the auspices of that story.

I, as the author, have had to learn to listen, have had to learn the art of silence. I have had to learn how to raise a character well, like a mother would raise a well-behaved child, and teach that character all that needs to be known in order for the story to happen. But after that… I step back, and get off the soapbox. If I have opinions on something, you will find them elsewhere. The story I am telling does not belong to me; it is the starship captain (whether or not he is in fact gay) who decides in which direction to take the ship, and which stars to aim for.

All I do is provide the ship. As for the rest… it’s over to you, captain. If the story, if the faith, if the beliefs, if the ideas are strong enough to shine through… they will. I have never in my life written a tale which was meant to “educate” the reader in any kind of overt way, or to be obvious propaganda aimed at changing that reader’s own set of ideas and beliefs.

The basic concept is this: what I do when I write a story is that I create a character to carry it, and then allow that character to develop a personality (which consists of ideas, and thoughts, and feelings, and faith) which is the best possible fit to the story in question. What that character then tells the reader who reads that story… is between the character and the reader.

By the time it gets to this point the writer is – or should be – back in the crowd of listeners, listening to the character speak his mind, and if that writer has done the job properly the writer’s voice and opinions and ideas (whether or not they match that character’s) will never intrude on what the character has to say.

This soapbox is not big enough for the both of us.

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And she wasn’t kidding!

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