Do Nasty Characters Reflect a Nasty Author?

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I realized that in my earlier post I never actually talked about the interesting conversation I had with my friend from my writing group.

She had written a piece which used “strong language” in certain parts. She was concerned that people who would read this story would make a judgement on her as a person for using that language.

What I said is pretty much what I feel. That it’s the character speaking.

She replied that some people might say that although it’s a character in a story, the words reflect who you, the author, are.

There are several interesting discussion points right there. I pointed out that usually writers are told to write about things they know. Most people have loved or hated in their life, gone through heartbreak and pain, then – hopefully – healed and got over it. Others may have dealt with different issues; aging parents, health problems, battling cancer, loss of loved ones. On another level, a lawyer may write a better courtroom drama (John Grisham), an underwater archaeologist may write a more insightful archaeological thriller (David Gibbins).

However, the bookshelves are filled with books about psychotic serial killers, murderers, rapists, racists, and all sorts of bad people. I would like to think that when Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter, he didn’t have any intimate knowledge about eating livers with fava beans and Chianti. Thousands of writers have written murder mysteries, Agatha Christie being one of the first that springs to mind. I doubt that any of those had bumped anyone off, though you never know. I’m sure that George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) is a great guy but if you went by what he’s written in his books, you wouldn’t believe a word he’d say and give him a wide berth when you saw him. And I won’t even mention Stephen “Here’s Johnny” King.

Writers rely on research and insight on human behaviour. Why was the woman so jealous of her brother that she killed him? How did she do it? Was she ever caught? Some authors might focus more on the psychological side, others on the CSI side, the criminals, the police, or the relatives’ point of view. Some authors may have better knowledge of medical examinations or pathology, police procedure or criminal physiology. But at the end of the day it’s all made up. None of them killed anybody.

It’s the characters who do all these things. Bad and good. It does not reflect on the author. She’s not evil for writing about a serial killer neither is she a saint when writing about a feel good book with nuns. Some times you hear the author’s voice in the narrative and sometimes you don’t. But the character should be the driving force. What they say, or don’t say is important. A marine that realizes he’s out of bullets during a battle would swear. He’d say “F***!”.He wouldn’t say “Oh, Sugar.” If he did then that would tell us something very important about the character. It would work only if it was intentional. But if it wasn’t that would destroy the whole scene.

Imagine it the other way round. An elderly respectable padre. If he dropped a candlestick on his toes you would expect him to say “Sugar!!” And if he swore then that says something about the character as well.

My advice to my friend was to write what she wanted in the way she felt it was right. You can right a beautiful story about fairies playing with children in a gingerbread garden and there’ll still be someone who’s offended for some reason or another. So dear fellow writer write what you think is right for the story. And if someone gets offended they get offended. It’s they’re prerogative. As it is yours to write it.

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